April Third Thursday Wrap-Up: “Bringing the Past to Life: Writing Historical Fiction and Nonfiction”

by Amanda Churchill

Historical novels are amazingly difficult to write. (There, I said it!) One must do all the usual
stuff– characterization, plot creation, pacing, etc.– but then attempt to pull this off during a time period when one might not have even been alive…maybe even in a place they’ve never visited or, even more challenging, no longer exists as it did in history.

Our April Third Thursday guests, Sarah Bird and David Wright Faladé, not only make all this
look easy, they were kind enough to let WLT viewers in on how they make the historical fiction magic happen.

Both writers agreed that their desire to write historical fiction was a matter of obligation and the need to tell a story that deserves to be in the world. Faladé added that he has always sensed the impulse to to write stories related to race, class and culture, but feels more comfortable approaching these topics from a historical perspective.

When faced with the question of how to begin– with story or with research (a definite chicken or the egg problem)– our writers were united. Faladé conveyed that his most recent novel, Black Cloud Rising, arose from a question that obsessed him from a previous non-fiction novel, Fire on the Beach: Recovering the Lost Story of Richard Etheridge and the Pea Island Lifesavers. Answering this question led him into writing a Civil War novel that, in turn, required some research. Bird had a similar experience in that she recalled stories her mother told her about the Great Depression dance marathons… but her mother’s stories contrasted deeply with other tales of the dance marathons of the 1930s. It was this deviation of accounts that gripped Bird’s imagination and eventually turned into Last Dance on the Starlight Pier. Both writers agreed that once they started to answer the central question of their novels, the research that followed created new aspects to plot points.

Also on the topic of research, Faladé stated that he holds librarians and archivists as heroes, as they are so enthusiastic and incredibly willing to find information, often primary sources that the writer can read and experience. Faladé and Bird agreed that old newspapers and advertisements gave them a world of understanding regarding the time period and day-to-day life.

Another fascinating question tackled by our visitors was how writers could make historical facts and characters relevant to readers in the now. Faladé said that while this was definitely his intent in Black Cloud Rising, he didn’t want to do it with a heavy hand. His most recent work deals with Americanness, which is as relevant today as it was during the Civil War. One way he achieved this was to write an epilogue where the novel’s protagonist is able to reflect on the 30 years following the conclusion of the war that changed his life, giving added nuance to the theme of the novel. Bird spoke of the difficulty in creating characters that act and think as a person of the time, without inserting our own modern ideas into the story and the importance of being true to what a character could be capable of given certain circumstances.

I could have listened to these writers talk for another two hours on this subject. Their dedication to creating stories that mirror our current realities using the past is admirable and their talent in doing so, enviable. I look forward to reading what they have in store for us in the future and, hopefully, learning more from them at a future WLT event.

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