Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Can Novelist see the past better than historians?

I recently read Stephen Hunter’s, The Third Bullet, which is a novel about the John F. Kennedy assassination. Through the years, I have read a half dozen nonfiction books on the assassination. Although I didn’t completely accept the conspiracy motivation presented by Hunter, I think he made a better case for a second shooter than any of the other books on the subject. Hunter clearly sees the incongruities in the official portrayal of events, imagines alternative scenarios, and then figures out what most likely happened given the existing record. He does an exceptional job while presenting a standard Bob Lee Swagger suspense thriller.

The Third Bullet made me think: Do novelists see the past better than historians?

I’m prejudice, but I believe so. Historians search for facts, facts that can be verified with attributable sources. They need those tiny footnotes for credibility. Novelists naturally go to the character of people, especially if those people are orchestrating events. Novelists search for motivation. The novelist looks for the thread of a story, which will always be about people and what drives them. They focus on why, not what. Historians at times engage in conjecture, but good historians put plenty of qualifiers around anything that cannot be proven with hard evidence.

Everything that happens in the world is not documented. Worse, much of what is recorded is inaccurate. Politicians, businessmen, and luminaries dissemble, obfuscate, and sometimes outright lie. But if someone of importance spoke it or wrote it and it becomes old enough, it takes on the stature of a documented fact. This is where a good novelist has an advantage over the historian: what historians see as documentation, the novelist looks at with a skeptical eye. The novelist imagines the circumstances that might have caused that particular piece of evidence to be created. And the novelist does not always come to the same conclusion as the historian.

My book, Tempest at Dawn is a dramatization of the 1787 Constitutional Convention. Although George Washington was president of the convention, he only spoke one time at the very end. Since there is no record of Washington being engaged in the proceedings, most historians dismiss him as a figurehead. I looked at Washington’s character and knew he would never sit on the sidelines, especially when it looked like the entire nation was about to collapse. Once I came to that conclusion, I found ample evidence of him working behind the scenes. Why would he work secretly? My guess is that he didn’t want to appear to be architecting the new government he would undoubtedly lead. I could be wrong … but I don’t think so.

I believe a good novelist can digest facts, get to know the character of the players, and draw respectable conclusions about what probably happened. The novelist can make leaps of logic that would tarnish the reputation of an academic scholar. It’s true that many novelists throw facts to the wayside and tell the story the way they wanted it to happen. Stephen Hunter is not one of those types of authors. His books are fictional, but grounded in solid research.

Here’s the bottom line, authors can’t write novels about historical events without historians, but historians can get along quite fine without novelists. So, thank you to all the historians who have helped me write better books.

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