I’ll never forget the first time I read that the Ku Klux Klan once boasted having 40,000 members in Saskatchewan. Having been born and raised there, it was like a punch in the gut. Ultimately, it lead to the writing of my second novel, “A Gift Of Scars”. Subsequent research confirmed that while the numbers may have been somewhat exaggerated, there were indeed many thousands of KKK members in Saskatchewan and elsewhere in Canada. The phenomenon was relatively short-lived, occurring mostly in the late 1920’s, but it was significant enough to have influenced the outcome of at least one provincial election.
Writing historical fiction necessarily involves a great deal of research, and therein lies quicksand for the novelist. Repetition of too many facts, excessive adherence to the details of events, or refusing to “What if” beyond the boundaries of empirical data may result in a dry story. A writer of fiction must always remember that plot and characters are proprietary and can therefore be treated with a writer’s liberties. That is why an Author’s Note attached to a work of historical fiction will often explain that certain historical data has been altered to suit the narrative. A historical novel should not be intended to re-write history but rather to bring it to life in an exciting and entertaining way. Stated as an appropriate cliché,
“Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story”.
It is when the writer goes beyond the inescapable facts and events of history that the story in the novel is born. It is by asking, “What if….”, that plot and characters are created. It is cynical to say that there are no new stories to tell. Historical fiction is not simply an attempt at a Hollywood remake. It is as much about the fiction as it is about the history.
History often exerts a tremendous power of suggestion, which is why we can always learn something from it.