by Glynn Young
I learned a very hard lesson while writing a historical novel. I learned how hard it can be, and it’s hard for both the research you do and for the research you have to ignore.
I’m writing a novel that takes place in two historical periods – the Civil War and its immediate aftermath, and 50 years later, during the run-up to World War I. The story was loosely based on a story handed down in the family about what had happened to my great-grandfather. The emphasis is on the word “loosely,” because the more I researched, the more I discovered that what was passed down as a family story had very little basis in fact.
Because I discovered this about 40,000 words into the manuscript, it stopped me cold. For weeks. I kept hoping I was wrong, but I learned my extended family had two oral traditions about my great-grandfather. And the version passed down to me was the wrong one, or perhaps I should say “more embellished.” It made a great story, but it was flat-out wrong.
The key point where the story had gone awry was how my grandfather and father, who both told the story, understood the term “messenger boy.” They assumed it was a position within the military – that my great-grandfather had been too young to enlist as a regular soldier and served as a messenger boy between armies and army divisions.
What I learned was that “messenger boy” meant “deliverer of telegrams and letters informing families their sons were dead or missing.” It was a civilian position, an extension of the post office. That’s what my great-grandfather had done for the first three years of the war.
Here I had this what I thought was a fascinating story, and I didn’t really have anything at all. My great-grandfather did eventually enlist toward the end of the war, but it was too late for him to be part of any significant battle, and he’d never been stationed anywhere my relatives thought he’d been.
I faced a stark choice in what was supposed to have been a novel based on the life of my great-grandfather. Toss the manuscript, find something else to write about, or start over and ignore the fact it wasn’t about my ancestor after all.
I thought about all those books (50+ and counting) and articles (too numerous to count) I’d read. I thought about all those census and pension records with their faded ink I’d looked at. And I considered all that time spent online, checking sites, studying battle maps, and looking at street maps and rail routes from the 1860s.
The choice became clear when I realized that it was still a story. It wasn’t my personal story or my ancestor’s story. It was no longer a quiet way to recognize and honor an ancestor I never personally knew (he died in 1920), but what I’d written, and what I planned to write, was still a story. And it was still an interesting story, grounded in historical fact but not strangled by history.
And then the main character, even if he wasn’t based on my ancestor, sat in the room with me one night, smoking his pipe and rocking back and forth in his chair, and told me what I needed to do.
“Press on,” he said.
(Note that I just added to the false narrative.)
Simple advice, and I took it, but it meant major changes. The manuscript-in-progress had to be restructured. A lot needed to be jettisoned, and the story pared done to something that has turned out to be more manageable.
And I’m glad I learned this now rather than much later. As painful as it’s pain, it’s better than finding out when you’re in the middle of a book promotion, say, or giving a talk about the crazy thing your ancestor did in the Civil War.
Glynn Young is a national award-winning speechwriter, communications practitioner, and novelist. He’s the author of five published novels, Dancing Priest, A Light Shining, Dancing King, Dancing Prophet; and Dancing Prince; and the non-fiction book Poetry at Work. Visit Glynn on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, his blog, the Dancing Priest book page, and his business web site.