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

Research Methodologies

Researching methodologies: primary sources

I am in love with the ability to recall an out of print book free of charge! More than anything else, this has revolutionized research by and large for those of us who write in the civil war time frame.


Two good examples of this are Google Books and Project Gutenberg, even more so for Google since they improved their iPad app. I can now download my bookshelf to my device (it used to only read from an internet connection) and be able to treat the pdf files as a virtual book a la iBook with page turns, etc. Project Gutenberg offers a variety of book formats for any device. What the epub files offer me over Google Books is the ability to highlight and make notes via iBooks.

Though there are some limitations still with Google Books, i.e. inability to make notes or copy text, I’m greatly satisfied with where this technology has taken us. There’s a wealth of primary source material out there that has sat in special collections for decades (one or perhaps a handful of collections depending on the source) requiring travel, working with a curator to navigate the unique file systems, and limited time for study.

I would give a word of caution regarding primary source materials, especially like the ones that I’ve been using for my own particular brand of fiction. One needs to filter out the primary motives of the author. Some of my materials (see my research page) are regimental histories written decades after the war and primarily for the survivors and their families to recount their common experiences. These contain a certain lack of objectivity (not their primary purpose) and may at times contain objective opinions or one-sided information regarding a battle or a prominent figure. These should be used for gaining a flavor of the common experience of the regiment, how they saw what was happening around them, how the author saw it (regimental histories are written by single individuals), and data on where the regiment was at any given time in the narrative. Sometimes this information can be had from other sources, but the regimental history can be relied upon for accuracy for dates and actions engaged in.

War of the Rebellion Official Records of the Union and Confederate ArmiesWar of the Rebellion Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies
One favorite of mine is the Official Records of the Rebellion, a copious collection of orders of battle, field reports, correspondence, and battle reports. Not everything can be found, but one can usually find individual regiments mentioned in brigade and division reports to clarify what a unit was doing on any given date. The same can be said for normal daily operations. What I like about tracking down where a regiment was is you usually get some little snippet of anecdotal data that can only add to the narrative of your story. I like fleshing these out, placing my characters in the regiment and then building a framework of the historical record, adding scenery, characters, emotion, and conversation to build a story around the story. This is one of the best resources for this data I’ve found. These are as close as you can come to real narrative data to the events as they are often real time records.


Link to book

Personal Recollections of a Cavalryman With Custer's Michigan Cavalry Brigade in the Civil WarPersonal Recollections of a Cavalryman With Custer’s Michigan Cavalry Brigade in the Civil War
The second, as I’ve already alluded to above, is the regimental history. Written from a designated point of view using collected reports from its time in the war, the regimental historian builds a dialogue, sometimes first person, recounting what he and the regiment experienced. The hard marches, the battles, the politics of army life, and the synopsis of the experience that comes with time, these are the real trademark of the historian. These histories also help fill a void in building the narrative based on recorded fact. They add that flavor of tension at times, recalling events that loomed large with the regiment and giving the story arch needed to place action with fact. It does not do to have a regiment in a battle but in the wrong place (Chamberlain’s 20th Maine behind the stone wall on the third day in the Movie Gettysburg, anyone?) doing things that it never had opportunity to do because it was somewhere else. These experiences built the character of the regiment and I like using that in my novels to not only be factually accurate but to pay tribute to those men now long gone. Having this sense of commitment is important, in my opinion, to the historical fiction novelist as fact is often more entertaining than fiction.


Link to book