History or Story; when does one interfere with the other?

Memorial to colored troops in the civil war, Spirit of Freedom
“Spirit of Freedom” memorial for the USCT and Navy service of free blacks in the civil war, Ft. Myers Fl.

I had opportunity to read the first chapter of an independently written work about a black man at the end of the civil war. If you haven’t ever seen this site before, I’d recommend you check it out: historical chapters.blogspot.com. The owner is an author herself and takes chapter submissions, posts them, and then invites comments and suggestions from readers. If you write historical fiction and want a short beta read of your best chapter, I’d recommend submitting something.

I was intrigued and started skimming, reading lightly so I could see the author’s command of military knowledge and in general civil war aptitude. Sometimes a little knowledge can be a bad thing. I found that there were some things that I knew were not exactly right from my own research into the USCT, officer selection, USCT regiment numbering, where they saw action, when recruiting started, etc.

I won’t comment further on the work in particular but it got me to pondering the role of historical record and forming a story around it. Clearly, if it is fiction it didn’t happen with these characters, with these thoughts, with these experiences etc. So, there is a level of license that is to be expected in any work of historical fiction. For me, I was derailed by the blaring inaccuracies (blaring because of what I know) and unfortunately  could not finish reading all of it nor comment (it’s probably not a good practice for authors to comment unsolicited on other works lest the negatives be taken to heart and a tit for tat ensue where no one wins).

Personally, it is the little details that make the world work for me. It is fairly easy for me to read something written by someone with only a cursory knowledge of the civil war military to see some holes and then be thrown out of the world they are creating. So, I endeavor to be a detail oriented as I can (I will still find I’ve made mistakes by relying on memory for something that I could have easily looked up). This is not the authors fault, that I have a deep understanding and knowledge of how USCT regiments were formed and organized. For me, this just adds other levels to anything that I write in building a scene or making an interaction between two individuals. There are probably no details that are not usable in a narrative of fiction and there’s always another level of understanding to be had when researching.

I suppose I write this way for me or for someone like me and I lived in fear when I published They Met at Shiloh for this very version of me as a reader to pop up and find some detail that I missed or was incorrect about. I’ve not encountered that person yet (save for in the mirror). I have blogged before about this struggle Drama or History, who wins?. I’ve not resolved that yet, but this latest thing has only brought me closer to how I regard history and minutia of fact in story building. It has also for me highlighted the need to really know what I am writing about lest I become too cavalier with building that story and leave holes for someone to shoot through. Writing and publishing is hard work and we have our reasons for what we write and why.

If I want to be excellent at what I do I need to find that balance between story telling (and the freedom to tell the story) and historical fact and with some mind of me as a reader. I do not write nonfiction history. There are others who are far better at it than I. I want to teach through story telling and I think this is what sometimes drives my fanaticism in getting the details correct. For me, these details and teaching moments drive my story telling.

I’m not sure I’ve answered the question posed by this post satisfactorily for myself, but this has become the thing that has consumed me for these past few days.

Short story for Kindle.

Two Struck Images

Two Struck Images

I wrote this short story sometime in the early part of last decade after staring at a copy of a daguerrotype of myself and my brother that we’d paid for at the 135th Chickamauga reenactment in 2003. I wrote it after the experience my brother had at his first reenactment and the adventure of what the real 15th Wisconsin went through 135 years earlier. It is about two brothers (fictionalized) and the harrowing experience of this regiment as it was blindly marched into a thick wood only to run into a confederate brigade that had just smashed another Union brigade. Heg’s brigade (Hans Christian Heg) of Davies’ Division would die not far from where the regiments first entered the wood and stood for a short time before being forced to retreat. Their experience was indicative of both sides as the fighting see-sawed back and forth over the Vinniard Farm.

I always have a lot of history sprinkled through my stories, I guess it is the teacher in me. For today only, Two Struck Images is FREE for Kindle owners (if you’ve not a kindle to your name, the Kindle Cloud Reader is also free and the short story can be read on your PC/Mac).

I ran an earlier poll on the title as there was some initial confusion on the part of my cover designer as to how the title should be formatted. I went back and forth with myself over it. Some people were confused, some intrigued, some thought it enough to want to read the blurb. After some time of chewing on all of the advice and offered title suggestions I decided to stick with the original given that it plays such an important role in the story itself. But, that is the danger of all of my inside knowledge. I think the title is what it should be, but there is a world of opinion when it comes to each consumer and what will be liked or be explanatory enough to draw further interest.
Two Struck Images

Drama or History? Who wins?

“At the Double Quick”, bronze relief at the Corinth Interpretive Center, Corinth Ms.

Book #2 in my civil war series is finished as far as the first draft is concerned and now I’m knee deep in the rewrite. I had a character jump back into the WIP, a character I’d excised as the storyline just wasn’t feeling right. So, mid way through this year it made sense to reintroduce him and he plays a part in the climax of the novel after all. Actually, he has become one of the main characters again (I say again, he was a main character in TMAS). So, I’ve made one pass through my hard copy making notes and cutting sections out that didn’t fit or needed to be reworked and decided that this characters actions after Shiloh needed to be highlighted.

The campaign to take Corinth, Mississippi had been General Halleck’s goal since establishing a presence at Pittsburg Landing and ordering the Army of the Ohio to link up with Grant’s Army of the Tennessee. Pope’s Army of the Mississippi was also to cooperate, leading three armies to converge on Corinth, where Confederate General A.S. Johnston and P.G.T. Beauregard were concentrated. Shiloh disrupted all of that and nearly wrecked Halleck’s overall plans. Unfortunately for the Confederates Johnston is killed and they fail to destroy the Army of the Tennessee. Now, however, after a month of refitting Halleck is ready to try again at the beginning of May.

Book #2 (tentative title Certain Death) picks up after the battle of Shiloh where a new character has been captured and some old characters are preparing to march south from Pittsburg Landing to a fate unknown. In reading the report of Nelson’s division (where Ammen’s brigade is, a clue to anyone who remembers what characters were in Ammen’s brigade) I’d read that there was a delay in movement forward from Mount Olivet Church where the division camped for a few days before moving on due to two days of heavy rain fall that destroyed the bridges and corduroy roads they’d spent the first few days of May constructing (this area between Corinth and Pittsburg Landing is cut by numerous creeks and marshy lowlands that were impassable for heavy, wheeled artillery and supply trains as well as cavalry, barely so for infantry).

So, knowing all of this I decided to add this little happenstance as part of the story, the destruction of the bridges due to too much water flow, the problem of getting supplies to the forward divisions, the danger of trying to repair the pontoon bridges and keep them secure in the middle of the creeks overflowing, the possibility that someone will be swept downstream in an accident. So, I got to chugging along in a dramatic scene that was to chronicle the attempts to secure the pontoon bridge in heavy rain and a swift current and what that might look like. Soon my creek became a river of some unknown breadth from bank to bank and the pontoon bridge of perhaps thirty feet or more long and the water possibly above a man’s head.

Yesterday as I sat to finish the scene the disaster was complete and my MC was swept downstream. I stopped to go back to my source as it occurred to me that I should know where this little creek was to lead to, was it leading towards the confederate lines? How wide was it really if my MC is to let go of what he is clinging to and swim for the nearest bank? It was then that I realized I’d not gotten down to my regimental reports of the 30 day period and learned that my MC’s regiment wasn’t at Mount Olivet Church but still on the north side of one of these creeks and further was prevented from crossing due to damage done by this rain storm. I’d had them on the south side and going back to do the repairs.

These are niggling little details. What side of a creek a unit was on in this little narrative of a minor event probably does not deserve all of the angst and reworking of the details but it would have bugged me all the same. If I make a mistake in error and ignorance that is my bad, but to make it when I know better is something that I cannot abide. In this sense, the drama becomes emptied of its truth if I knowingly record some errors that are easily discovered if someone means to do so.

In the end, I altered some of the details of the event to fit the truth and kept the dramatic scene of the disaster in place, fixing some historic details to suit my own conscience. There’s detail in the reports of General Nelson (Division commander) that initially set me to building the scene but I’d neglected to dig down into the regimental reports where finer details existed and called my initial assumptions into question. But, in the end, history won out where it was important to me to get right and the scene of the disaster was honed to be more realistic for a creek based on the other details gleaned from the brigade reports of each regiment.

They Met At Shiloh