Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Perils of Writing a Real-Life Protagonist

Editor’s note: I was sorry to read today, in Mystery Fanfare, that San Francisco-area author (Ava) Dianne Day--the creator of “plucky” turn-of-the-last-century heroine Caroline Fremont Jones (introduced in 1996’s The Strange Files of Fremont Jones)--died on July 11 in Eureka, California. I never had the chance to meet Day (pictured at left), but like many of you, I read and enjoyed several of her Fremont Jones novels.

In addition, about a decade ago, I solicited an article from Day for January Magazine. At the time, I was planning a package of stories and essays about the use of real-life characters in crime fiction, and asked Day to write something about how she’d concocted her latest novel, Cut to the Heart (2002), which featured pioneering American nurse and educator Clarissa Harlowe “Clara” Barton (1821-1912). For reasons I don’t now recall, I eventually abandoned that January project (though I did revisit the subject of celebrity sleuths in two columns--here and here--for Kirkus Reviews). However, I held on to Dianne Day’s submission, hoping I could use it someday in another way. It’s only too bad that its posting had to wait until after her passing. You’ll find her essay below.

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In my current historical suspense novel, Cut to the Heart, the protagonist is Clara Barton, whose long and very real life encompassed most of the 19th century. The name Clara Barton is both familiar and synonymous with the word “nurse,” for most people. Yet the historical reality is that Clara Barton was never, officially, a nurse--that’s what I call a “myth-understanding.” It’s also one of the problems I was up against when I chose to write about her. Clara’s life was so remarkable, it’s one of those cases where the truth really is stranger than fiction--“strange” in the sense of unexpected--and some people don’t like the unexpected messing with their myths. As soon as an author takes on the task of creating fiction about a real person, fiction and reality begin a struggle for dominance, and the balance that makes the whole thing work isn’t easy to achieve.

Clara-as-sleuth was an idea tossed out at a Bantam-Doubleday-Dell staff meeting a few years ago (back when there still was a BDD), and relayed to me by my Bantam editor, who asked if I was up for creating a series. I was tapped for this job, most likely, because I was already writing the Fremont Jones mysteries for Bantam and Doubleday, so my editors knew I was interested in history and enjoy research. There had been an article in The New York Times circulated at that staff meeting, which was faxed to me, and piqued my interest; this article told of documents and letters from the late 1860s that had been discovered in an attic of an apartment building in Washington, D.C., where the post-Civil War Missing Soldiers Office had once been located. I had never heard of the Missing Soldiers Office before, and I was intrigued to learn that Clara Barton was head of this government bureau, and was the first woman ever to have occupied such a position.

That was how it began, with reading that article and telling my editors that I’d learn more about Barton before saying yes or no to the series sleuth idea. I started my research the same way I do for any historical project, by reading a book that gives an overview. (For a further example of a book that grew directly from its overview research, read 1997’s Fire and Fog, the second Fremont Jones mystery, which focuses on the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.) On the basis of that overview, I told the editors that I would be interested in writing one book about Clara Barton--a standalone, and possibly one more as a sequel--but not a series. Why not? Because I saw that the real Clara Barton was too intense a person for me to write more than one or two books about her. They wanted the standalone, and that’s how Cut to the Heart was born.

I have a couple of strong beliefs about writing historical fiction. The first is that the history should be absolutely, completely accurate. I won’t bend the truth, not even a little, to make it fit my fictional purpose. To me that would be cheating, creating a false impression of the historical record. So I must thoroughly know the record of the time, place, and people before I can write a book about them.

I knew I could write about Clara when, from my research, I discovered there was a hiatus in what had been generally known about her life; that this hiatus happened to have occurred in a part of the country I was already familiar with, the South Carolina Sea Islands; and that during the hiatus Clara, who never married, had a love affair with a married Union officer, Lieutenant Colonel John J. Elwell. The historical reality of that love affair humanized her for me--as did the abundant evidence of her stubbornness, which happens to be one of my qualities too, so I knew I could identify. It was Clara’s stubborn refusal to allow wounded soldiers to die unnoticed and unnamed that led her to keep the notes, which after the war allowed her to convince Congress to set up the Missing Soldiers Office. Clara was able to identify almost 3.000 missing soldiers from those notes of hers, and more from research she did with the assistance of her small paid staff. In an epilogue to my book I mention Clara’s raising of the Stars and Stripes over Andersonville Cemetery--another historical event that inspired me the moment I learned of it.

So there was a lot to go on with, but the most important thing was that hiatus in the historical record--because I knew there I could build my fictional story without disturbing any of the historical facts. I would be, so to speak, filling in the blank.

The second thing I believe strongly about writing historical fiction is that, when the research is done and the writing has begun, the history must stay firmly and forever in the background. The fiction--the story--always comes first. In order to write that way, keeping the fiction first, I have to be so steeped in my chosen historical time and place that in my head I’m living there myself. The whole time I’m writing a historical book it’s like being in a time-warp. I have to be able to see it, hear it, feel it, smell it all around me. It takes time to achieve this state of mind--and for Cut to the Heart to reach that state took me a solid year of research. Along with books of history and local color, I read Clara’s own unpublished diaries from the months of 1863 that I wrote about, and unpublished letters that she wrote before, during, and after those months. And I read John Elwell’s unpublished diary, which included some of the tender little notes he wrote to her during their affair. In the back of Cut to the Heart there's a complete list of references.

Elwell was easy for me to re-create, but Clara was hard. In part, Elwell was easier because he had less page-time in the book, but primarily it was a matter of language. Elwell’s notes to Clara, in which he called her “My Little Bird,” were self-revealing. But life had taught Clara Barton to be careful, and the primary sources with which I was dealing reflected that. The jottings of her diary are brief, workmanlike; she kept a separate “journal” in which she filtered her thoughts and refined her handwriting. Likewise, in her letters and speeches she achieved distance by using the formal language of the time. In searching for her “voice,” I became unconsciously steeped instead in her formality--I lost my contemporary ears, and so I made a false start. I had unwittingly adapted Clara Barton’s self-protectiveness and wasn’t letting the reader in. My agent, Peter Lampack, had the insight I needed to help me recognize and break through that problem. I had to start over.

(Left) Clara Barton

I’ve often been asked if the Clara Barton on the pages of Cut to the Heart is an accurate portrayal. I believe she is--but to create her, I had to back to her diary and letters and read the way a mother listens to her children, read between the lines. Clara was a woman who concealed her feelings, always; her lover, John Elwell, wasn’t nearly so good at hiding things. Their real-life affair occurred more openly than I’ve portrayed it--there were a number of things I felt I had to leave out for the sake of not provoking disbelief in the readers. One example: During South Carolina’s Battle of Battery Wagner, at one point Elwell ran out onto the field even though, as quartermaster for the Union Army’s whole Department of the South, he wasn’t supposed to be part of the assault. Elwell fell in the line of fire, and Clara--who, as usual, was closer to the fighting than she should have been--ran out onto the field and pulled him back, thus saving his life a second time (he had been recovering from a compound fracture of the thigh when she first arrived on Hilton Head Island, and he credited her nursing for his survival). More than one historian writes of her dash onto the battlefield, but I felt it wouldn’t be believable in my novel. Nor did I write as much as I could have about their affair, for the same reason.

Most of Cut to the Heart is a highly involving and totally invented story about a very bad guy who is using the Civil War as his opportunity to perform some medical experiments--experiments in keeping with the gruesome state of medical science at that time. Also, I developed a fictional subplot about the newly freed Gullah slaves, which was enjoyable because of my long-standing love of and interest in the Gullah culture of South Carolina. At the conclusion of the book I have a list detailing which characters are real and which are fictional. I put it at the end so that people who’d rather read it all as fiction won’t be distracted--but letters from readers have since made me think that, if I were ever to do this kind of thing again, I’d put the list at the beginning of the book.

Which leads me to some relevant questions I’m often asked: Will I write another book about Clara Barton? Or write one about some other real-life historical character? Or will I stick with my fictional historical creation, Fremont Jones?

I’ve learned, as long as the decision is entirely up to me, never to rule out anything. I have a pattern of thinking something is too much, that I can’t do it, only to find that as soon as I’ve given it up, the way through whatever had seemed insurmountable becomes suddenly clear to me. So I won’t say no, no more historicals. I will say instead, “Not at any time soon.” I need time away from all the research. I need to be able to live in the present inside my own head for a while.

Does that apply also to Fremont Jones? Sadly, the decision regarding Fremont is not mine to make. I have an exclusivity clause in my contract with Doubleday, and they’re not publishing series mysteries anymore, including Fremont Jones.

Creating a fictional framework for Clara Barton was a privilege as well as a challenge. Whether or not I have met the challenge is for the readers to decide.

AND FURTHERMORE …: Jiro Kimura of The Gumshoe Site included a few extra details of Day’s career and death in this obituary:
Dianne Day died on July 11 in Eureka, California, after a long illness. The ex-psychologist wrote first romantic suspense novels such as Obsidian (Pocket Book, 1987), Under
Venice (Harlequin, 1991; as by Madelyn Sanders), and Eyes of the Night (Berkley, 1992; as by Diana Bane). Her first “real” mystery novel is The Strange Files of Fremont Jones (Doubleday, 1995), featuring Fremont Jones, owner of a typewriter service in the 1900s in San Francisco. She wrote six Jones novels, finishing with Beacon Street Mourning (Doubleday, 2000). She also wrote a standalone, Cut to the Heart (Doubleday, 2002), under the Ava Dianne Day name. She was active in several mystery mailing lists, and reviewed mystery novels for Mystery Scene. She was 75.
READ MORE:San Francisco: The True Home of Fremont Jones,” by Dianne Day (Mystery Fanfare).

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