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

Happy birthday to me

May 12, 1967.

A day in the life of someone. A day in the life of the imaginary someone. The someone we think we want to be sometimes. A dreamer dreams and an actor acts. We sometimes fear to act on the dream or fear the dream will turn into our nightmare. I used to refuse to act because the dream unfolding was never the dream dreamt. It was often the clinging to the utopia of the dream that made the reality the most impossible to accept.

I suppose I never really dreamt of being a professional IT person, it was just something I decided I wanted to do and then worked and trained my way through it. I started after marriage. Graduating in 1992 with a BA in history meant that I either stayed in school for the next ten years or I needed to find something to do to work. After two years of temp employment I landed one of several horrible jobs that in retrospect pushed me into the computer and IT world where I’ve been ever since. My first job was as a computer salesman at a small company and a month before the owner sold it I had diversified into the computer support department and learned enough to get my next job and that went on from job to job until I was hired to be the sole PC and server administrator for a large company’s local office. Twelve years later and two IT department reorganizations and a company split I find myself a: working from home, b: working in something I’d trained for, and c: doing an architect’s job and working for people I respect.

Writing, on the other hand, has been quite different. I suppose more emotional. There were emotional times during the various re-organizations and times when I ended up exactly where I didn’t want to be, but nothing like the disappointment of pursuing publishing. It was the impossibility of it all, of writing what I wanted to write but knowing that the paths to visibility were resolutely against finding a publisher.

I’m not going to rail against the traditional way. It’s a business and it’s their money to invest in whom they choose and they choose what is going to fit into several quantifiable measures. They can choose the cream of the crop (though even they fail to discover the cream). If I had 10,000 to 20,000 thousand dollars to invest you can bet I’m going to bet on what is going to make me 80,000 to 100,000 thousand dollars in return. That is all good and well, but as a writer of historical fiction, the formula did not fit my novel. No romance. No edgy or politically correct storyline. No female protagonists. It was a tale of war and of soldiers and written in a way that was unique. Uniquely bad or good is debatable. That it was written over a twenty year time period, rewritten at least five times and professionally edited means nothing. It was not a story that was bankable. It was something I wanted to write but if I’d wanted to write what was publishable along the traditional route I wouldn’t have written it. But, this is not to say that I might have even been considered had I been writing what I thought was going to fit the historical fiction mold. I’ll never know the answer to that question as I’ve published it myself.

As of this writing, I’ve had over 1000 in paid Kindle sales since middle of February (a key milestone for me) and been in the top 100 in Civil War nonfiction Amazon category for the last 12 weeks (many fiction works end up in this category as the historical fiction categories are not fine grained enough). 15,000 people have downloaded They Met at Shiloh during two free Amazon promotional periods. Many do better, many do worse but I’m happy with the progress to date. The key milestone was that They Met at Shiloh has now paid for the next book in the series for editing and cover design costs. We are now no longer saving for this goal and each additional dollar made goes for advertising and production of book #3. In another month we will have earned out our initial advance to ourselves, $3,500.00 for two editors, paperback and kindle formatting, promotional materials, and cover design.