Sep 24, 2014

Guest Post By John V!

Hi, Serenity. Thanks for giving me this opportunity to address your readers. It’s an honor. I thought I might first comment a bit on the overall structure of Island Fog before discussing one aspect of that structure. While the stories are set entirely on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, the collection is a uniquely mixed bag of approaches. The first thing readers will notice is that the five stories in the first half of the book are all historical in nature, the earliest taking place in 1795 and the latest in 1920. The stories in second half of the book take place in the late 1990s and early 2000s. So those stories read like contemporary fictions, although given some of the changes in American society since that time, certain aspects of the stories could cause readers to regard them as historical artifacts too. (For instance, Facebook doesn’t exist in any of the contemporary stories; nor Twitter nor Tumbler nor Instagram nor Pintrest. Nor do any of the characters text, even though they have cell phones.)

Why this structure? It was sort of an accident. With my wife and her family, I visited the island a few times in the mid-to-late 90s. Then during one visit in the early 00s, I became so fascinated by the place—its topography; its quiet, oceanside beauty; even more its history and unique mix of populations—that I felt driven to start writing fiction about it. I was compelled in a way I could not resist. During that visit, we only had a week there, and I wanted to germinate as many different fictional possibilities as I could. So each morning I would start a new story, write as far into as I could, and then put it aside. The next morning I would start a new story, and so on. I had at least five going by the time I left, with the kernel of another turning over in my head. I eventually finished all those stories, which are the contemporary ones in Island Fog, and published as many of them as I could. At that time, I thought I was done with Nantucket as a subject.

Then, after a break of several years, we returned to the island in the summer of 2011. In the interim I had been working on a big historical novel about Vincent Van Gogh (it’s called Days on Fire) and had even started a blog about the subject. So I had historical fiction on the brain. It occurred to me on that trip that Nantucket, with its immense debt to history, was a natural setting for historical fiction. Once again, I started several stories in the mornings and left with ideas for another one or two more in my mind. It was only after I’d spent many weeks developing these stories that I had the idea to bring back the earlier Nantucket stories, combine them with the historical ones, and thus make a complete Nantucket book, an overview of Nantucket history from the 18th century almost to the present day.

After I had decided on the final content of the book, I found myself repeatedly editing it, but the historical stories needed far more editing. In part because they were newer and rawer, but also because, given that they were historical, there were all sorts of questions I had to confront about how to handle this or that situation. Historical fiction, after all, comes with its own set of challenges. And different readers and writers bring their own expectations to the form. I am teaching a class on writing historical fiction this semester to a group of students at the University of Central Arkansas. I started off the term with an overview of some of the questions that confront a writer who takes on this form. The questions are many! And answers to those questions very tremendously from person to person. Two of the biggest of these questions are: Can I change the historical record for the sake of my story? and Should my characters talk exactly the way people during the period would have talked?

Most historical fiction is a mixture of people and situations drawn from history with made up characters and situations. So as the writer you are constantly confronted with how you want to or need to bend history for the sake of your story. Several very good writers, among them Ron Hansen and Hilary Mantel, would argue that the real life facts are more than abundant and more than sufficiently interesting. So your job as the storyteller is to exploit them, not change them. Use the facts to generate credible scenes involving historical people, which is in itself a powerful act of the imagination. Hansen puts this all very succinctly in his credo that a writer of historical fiction should “never knowingly depart from the facts.” That “knowingly” is important and allows a bit of wiggle room, but essentially Hansen is arguing for a fidelity to the historical record.

As you might expect, a lot of writers find such absolutism suffocating. Basically, I count myself in this second camp. Not too many of my historical stories in Island Fog are drawn from real life situations, but one certainly is. That’s the first story: “Guilty Look.” It’s based on the case of a notorious bank robbery, the first the island ever suffered. The president of the Nantucket bank, Randolph Lovelace, accused one of his board members, a man named William Pease, of being involved in the robbery. It was a patently ridiculous claim, and later commentators suspect that Lovelace, a zealous Quaker, couldn’t abide the fact of Pease’s Congregationalism. That was the starting point for my story, the spark. But I found that in order to fit the drama into the confines of short story—even a longer short story—I had to do some serious curtailing. In real life, Pease tried to find the robbers himself, a process that took several years and never quite ended successfully; he did not go to jail despite not completely proving that Lovelace’s accusation was wrong. To lead the reader through all the ups and downs of Lovelace’s investigation would have taken a novel—and perhaps it would have been a good one—but in order to write my story I foreshortened the action to mere weeks, and the story ends more unhappily for Pease than it did in real life. Because it was an artistic choice, made for what I felt were artistically valid reasons, I took the ax to the historical record.

When I wrote my Van Gogh novel I did some of that too—eliminating one late life romantic obsession (because I’d shown so many already) and having him take a job, even just for one day, that I know he never would have considered taking. Again, the story I was telling seemed to suggest these possibilities, and so I felt that not following through on my instinct would amount to more of a violation than sticking to Hansen’s strict credo. Finally, in my opinion, it’s a matter of what works. If sticking strictly to history leads to a great book or story, you’ve made the right choice. If violating history leads to a great book, that’s also a right choice. This isn’t religion, after all, but storytelling.

As for the question of how one’s characters should talk, this gets awfully dicey very quickly. For instance, in my Van Gogh novel if I wanted to show the reader how Vincent and his milieu really talked, I would need to write that dialogue in Dutch and French. But I was writing in English for a modern English language audience. So then the question becomes what form of English approximates the tone of the historical conversations while not making caricatures of the people? I faced similar questions with the historical stories of Island Fog, even though the characters themselves were English speakers. For instance, in one story, “Taste,” the protagonist is a retired whale ship captain who came of age late in the eighteenth century and early in the nineteenth. Plus he was raised a Quaker. It’s possible that such a person would still speak with “ye” rather than “you,” and maybe even a “thee” once in a while. In an early draft of the story, I had him speak that way, partly to distinguish his speech patterns from that of his son. I thought this would subtly suggest the evolving nature of the culture. But early readers of the story thought that having the captain speak in “ye”s and “thee”s made him sound like something out of Sponge Bob Squarepants. A laughable steretype. And since he’s supposed to be a sympathetic, even tragic, case, I finally dropped the “ye”s and “thee”s for more neutral language.

This is not to say that I think you can play fast and loose with characters’ speech. If you have a 16th century girl talk with 21st century slang your readers are going to immediately lose faith in your vision and your book. You should, I think, try to be as accurate as possible, unless there’s an abiding reason not to, as with the case of my captain character. For instance, you should try not to use slang or technical terminology that did not exist in the historical period. This seems like a fairly commonsensical adage, one that most writers would agree with. But it can get trickier than that. It’s possible that a word might have existed in the period but not have been used as we would today. A British friend of mine, the fiction writer Garry Craig Powell, found a few instances of this, which sent me scrambling through dictionaries to find definitive etymological backgrounds. One word was “mad,” which the character was using in the modern sense of “angry.” Garry insisted that in the time period of the story—late eighteenth century—“mad” would only have been used to mean “insane.” Another instance was the word “random.” Our contemporary sense of the word is, of course, “without pattern or aim” and “pure happenstance.” But Garry was certain that in the first half of the nineteenth century that usage would not have existed. Instead the word would have meant something closer to “out of place” and “ill-fitted.” For him my misuse of these two words really threw him out of the stories, made the time periods less than believable.

These were honest concern that I really appreciated hearing. Apparently I had made mistakes unintentionally. That is, not for artistic reasons but from ignorance; so I hastened to investigate the words in question. I discovered that Garry was right about “mad,” but maybe not quite so much about “random.” I found evidence of “random” being used for the first time in the modern sense the year after the year when my story takes place. Written evidence, that is. I decided, rightly or wrongly, that before a word is used in writing a certain way chances are it was used that way in speech even earlier. It seems a safe assumption, even if it may not be accurate in all instances. In any case, I felt confident and comfortable sticking with “random,” which is good—because I really wanted to use that word! But I would have changed it if I had not discovered evidence to contradict what Garry said. And, in fact, I did change “mad” to “angry.”

These are just some of the many tricky waters one wades into when one decides to take up historical fiction. But for me it’s all part of the fun, part of the experience, part of the challenge. It’s what makes writing historical fiction such a singular satisfaction.