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

Book Review: A Brave Black Regiment

A Brave Black RegimentA Brave Black Regiment by Luis F. Emilio

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Written by Louis F. Emilio after the war of his experiences as a captain in the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Volunteers, A Brave Black Regiment is a true to life account of these two regiments exploits in the civil war. Watch Glory, but read this book and Blue Eyed Child of Fortune (from the letters of Robert Gould Shaw of his war experiences). A Brave Black Regiment shows that fact is far more riveting than fiction and you get to see the real privations that the 54th went through before and after Fort Wagner, South Carolina. Emilio and other white officers of the 54th (the 55th was formed out of the excess of volunteers of free blacks from Massachusetts) were granted commissions from the Governor of Mass. as other officers were in the volunteer service. This differed from the selection process used by the army to fill officer quotas in the USCT formations of a written exam and board interview. Emilio was a non commissioned officer in the 23rd Mass. at the time Gov. Andrew began petitioning the War Dept. for the raising of a black regiment. Contrary to the movie, Andrew was not the first to raise a black regiment, but the 54th and 55th were the first northern units raised from free blacks. Emilio took his chance and requested an appointment for commission and was granted it after an interview with those whom Andrew commissioned to recruit officers.

What is also notable is the service the regiment gave after Fort Wagner and the fight at Olustee, Florida where it and the 55th and several USCT regiments fought alongside white brigades and further proved their mettle in a fight.

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