When Your Past Becomes History

By Brian Kaufman

I’m pretty old.

Time is relative. Suppose you bought a car in 1995. You can register it as a classic. Yet a 25-year-old person would hardly be considered an antique. The modern age of baseball started in 1900. The modern age of philosophy began with René Descartes in the seventeenth century.

So, it’s all up for debate, except for me. I’m old.

Old enough, in fact, that a story drawing on my teen years could be considered historical fiction.

My novel, Sins in Blue, is a historical novel with two timelines. The story follows a blues guitarist playing in Mississippi and Chicago during the Depression Era, and later, working in a laundry in 1969 Fort Collins. I approached research for those two timelines in entirely different ways. 

For my Great Depression scenes, I used standard research techniques. I devoured primary sources, along with some targeted secondary sources. I collected old photos and listened to a thousand records. I immersed myself in the world of jukes and nightclubs. When I wrote about my bluesman, Willie Johnson, I knew much more about him and his surroundings than I needed for my short novel. I could picture everything.

As for older (and not necessarily wiser) Willie, I relied almost entirely (at first) on memories.

My family moved from Cleveland, Ohio, to Fort Collins, Colorado, in 1969. I experienced some of the events in the book. The places where Willie eats were places where I ate. I saw Fort Collins when it was a “dry town.” I went to CSU during the Cambodia invasion during the Viet Nam War. I helped haul hoses when “Old Main” burned down.

But as I note in the novel’s afterword, “memory is a foggy liar.” My fact-checking confounded my remembered version again and again. A favorite restaurant wasn’t located where I remembered. One of the buildings on the CSU campus had yet to be built. 

My very different research processes ended up with the same elements, but the syntax was reversed. For my 1960s scenes, I started with a picture in my head. For the Mississippi scenes in the 1930s, I did painstaking research until I’d built an image.

Do the passages read differently? I don’t think so.

I’m told that some sculptors chip away until the statue is revealed. Others build up from nothing with clay (for example), adding until the sculpture is fleshed out. Either way, I suspect the real work comes in finishing (editing) the work.

The takeaway for writers is that the exact process isn’t as crucial as the polishing (and perhaps that end goal of a clear mental picture). By visiting and revisiting the pages, my novel’s overall voice became magically consistent. It’s that editing thing.

The editor on your shoulder has a purpose—to help you give continuity to a story that may span decades and took you a year (or years) to write.

Writing Historical Fiction

Eight Rules Historical Fiction

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