Facts And, Yes, Alternative Facts
Volume XII, Issue One | March 2017
Several years ago, I asked an historian to read the manuscript of True Sisters for errors. It’s my book about the 1856 Mormon Handcart tragedy. She reported back that a certain medical procedure I had written about had not been performed on any of the immigrants in the company. I was upset. While the operation was not critical to the plot, it was a nice side story with an interesting twist, and I wanted to keep it. Eliminating it meant a great deal of rewriting, too. So I called my editor and explained the dilemma. She thought a moment and said, “Nonfiction is about what happened. Fiction is about what could have happened.” I thought about accuracy recently when I reviewed a couple of books for my monthly Denver Postcolumn on books of regional interest. The column was about three “women’s westerns,” as I dubbed them. In one of the books, the heroine does a dozen impossible things. It’s a stretch, but I suppose she could have accomplished all that. I gave her a pass because it’s fiction. In another book, based on a real story, the author changes how the couple met and includes a story long discredited by historians. That goes too far.
So when can you deviate from what really happened?
You can’t change the truth. Some years ago, I read a book involving a labor confrontation in a western mining camp. The author noted that the contretemps had actually taken place a year or two after the book was set, but for plot purposes, he had moved it up. That’s a no-no. That’s like changing the starting date of World War II to 1944. So that constitutes an error.
Accuracy matters in fiction. Readers love to find little facts you get wrong. A reader emailed me once that in Tallgrass, I have a cop putting handcuffs on a man with his arms behind his back. Cops didn’t do that in the 1940s, she wrote. A man would have been cuffed with his hands in front of him. I realized she was right when I saw the old Kirk Douglas movie “The Detective Story.” In A Lost Lady, Willa Cather has a character stay in Denver’s Brown Palace Hotel five years before it was built. Those are errors, not very important ones, granted, but they are inaccuracies nonetheless.
Of course, there are times when an inaccuracy is at the crux of the story. Take The Trial of George Armstrong Custer. The book’s thesis is that Custer survived the Little Bighorn and was put on trial. But you know at the beginning that the author is rewriting history.
Sometimes authors fudge accuracy. Remember “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman,” the TV series? Dr. Quinn was a brilliant doctor who fought sexual and racial stereotypes, stood up to men, helped minorities, and so on. She was a great role model. Was she accurate? Hardly. She was a 20th century woman in long skirts. But that’s poetic license. The series wouldn’t have lasted a season if the good doctor had been true to her Victorian era.
There is such a thing as being too accurate. You have to keep your readers in mind. When I wrote The Diary of Mattie Spenser, I used 19th century spellings—Spanyard instead of Spaniard, for instance. My agent told me that got old awfully fast. And in Buster Midnight’s Café, my narrator originally used poor grammar. She probably would have, but readers don’t like that. There are times your readers demand inaccuracy. In the 1930s, when New Mercies is set, people in the South used racial terms to refer to African Americans. Those words are so offensive today that there was no way I would use them in a book, even though they would have been accurate.
There is a place for such words, however, although you don’t use them lightly. In Alice’s Tulips, a bad character refers to an escaped slave by the N word. I think the word was appropriate because it underscored the evilness of the speaker and how he chose to degrade the black man with a objectionable term. Still, a reader told me that because I’d used that word, she’d never read my books again.
Right now, I’m working on something set in the mid-19th century. People didn’t use contractions then. I’m not sure the dialogue will sound right to modern ears if my characters keep saying “I will” instead of “I’ll” and “do not” instead of “don’t.” It takes a new mindset to write that way, too. I’ll wait until I’m finished and see if the language is too stilted when I reread the manuscript .
Incidentally, I kept the medical procedure in True Sisters. Nobody’s complained.—SD
Hardscrabble To Be Published Next Year
Sandra’s third mid-grade novel, Hardscrabble, will be published by Sleeping Bear Press. Publication date is March, 2018. Hardscrabble is the story of a family who homesteads in northeastern Colorado in the early 1900s. The book brings back one of Sandra’s most enduring characters—Mattie Spenser. The Diary of Mattie Spenser was Sandra’s third book.
In January, my entire family participated in the Women’s March. Bob, Povy, Lloyd, Forrest, and I marched in Denver, Dana in New Orleans. We marched for women’s equality, we marched for women’s rights, and we marched for a slate of things we believe in, from equal pay for equal work to concern for immigrants and the environment. It was one of the most exhilarating things I’ve ever done. To be part of a joyous, upbeat, positive crowd of men, women and children was exhilarating. We sang and chanted, and we all laughed when the route led us under a Victoria’s Secret ad on a walkway connecting two buildings We did not see one single act of disdain or violence. Men along the route held up signs proclaiming “Real Men Believe in Equality.” People leaned out of windows waving pink scarves and giving the thumbs-up sign. A cop high-fived us.
I know not everybody supported the march, and I wondered what readers would make of my posting on Facebook. One wrote she’d never read my books again because I participated. (Thanks to another who said she’d buy two books to make up for it.) But I had to march. I’m a feminist, and while I don’t preach it, my writings have a feminist bent. I write about the lack of options for women in times past, about how women deal with discrimination and overcome the obstacles put in our path. I’ve faced that discrimination myself, and I’ve written about it. My generation made a difference. Because of us, women have equal opportunities (or at least are supposed to) in education and employment. You can’t be turned down for a job or for credit “because you’re a woman.” Because of us, men’s attitudes have changed. I am especially proud that my husband, son, and grandson were part of the march. Of course, not everything has changed. My favorite sign, carried by a woman my age, read “I can’t believe I’m still protesting this s—.”
And protest we will, because as the slogan goes, “Women’s rights are human rights.”
Dust Bowl Girls
By Lydia Reeder. Algonquin Books.
You have to read this book!
Dust Bowl Girls is the immensely satisfying story of a team of female basketball players at a tiny church college in Oklahoma who go all the way to the national basketball finals—twice—and against incredible odds. The star player on the rival team is Babe Didrikson, later an Olympic star.
The team is made up of farm and small-time girls, most of whom never dreamed of going to college until they were approached by the college’s one-legged coach, Sam Babb. He offers them an education but in turn demands hard work and dedication and insists they put aside their high-school star status to form a team of equals.
The story is set during the Great Depression when not only money is hard to get but so is respect. A national group of women under the direction of President Herbert Hoover’s wife, opposed strenuous sports for women, especially basketball, claiming the sport would rob women of their feminine wiles and—horrors—cause men to ogle them. Little matter that the farm chores the girls are used to are far more strenuous than basketball. —SD