Monday, March 16, 2009

We know very little

I'm nearly finished with the 2nd draft rewrites on my novel as well as writing the ending. I'd been blocked concerning how I was going to write the end of it. It has a sad ending and I'm going to have to redeem it somehow, to keep it from ending on a tragic note.

It dawned on me, last night, as my block dissolved and I was able to see how I would end it, that although I have followed documented dates, places, people, and events with precise detail, that I really know very little about these people and their lives. I've been following a biography on Nancy Storace's life as an historical outline--a skeleton of events--and then fleshing it out with my interpretation of what went on "between the lines", and I came upon a passage where the author of said biography stated that a certain event that took place in her life "must be considered simply as...". I thought to myself, "Why 'must' it? How do you know that it 'must'?" Then I realized, that for all the facts we have on these people, we really don't know. We don't know what they felt. We don't know what they saw. We don't know their most private thoughts or emotions. And even though their life events leave us some big clues, we still don't know for a fact. We really don't know much.

From now on, whenever I read a biography, if the author tells me how I "must" think or feel about a certain event in the subject's life, I will put that biography down and go look for a different one. For I've learned through the writing of historical fiction, that we really don't know much about these people at all, and to claim that we have the corner of understanding and insight into their lives, is nothing but sheer arrogance.


  1. I wish you a lot of luck with your novel! I have one historical novel in the works (like 2 other novels) and no time to finish it. But like you, I realized I had to fill in between the lines the kinds of thoughts and feelings that I imagined a person would have in that situation (given the contextual clues). The beauty of fiction is that we do have poetic license to do that.

    Peace - D

  2. my 2 cents, for what it is worth; no, you do not have insight into the specifics of their individual lives, but you do know intimately what they felt, sensed, experienced, because it is the same as you experience every day. the circumstances may be different, but the experience of living, of being human, has not changed. joy, heartache, hurt pain ecstasy, love . . .imbue your novel with that insight and it will be full of meaning. get that right and whether you get the dates or cosumes right won't matter all that much.

  3. If, when we're gone, all that's left is a bunch of letters and a few eye-witness accounts, that doesn't even begin to address the private thoughts or tday-to-day moods and ideas. Letters are tricky; few people reveal their deepest feelings in them and they're often full of half-truths and lies that the writer used in order to cover their ass, or to propagate their agenda.

    All we really have then is humanity and that which we have in common. Even then, we know next to nothing.

  4. I feel the same way when some religious leaders tell people what God thinks, or means, or feels. How would they know what God thinks, means, or feels?