Sunday, October 25, 2015

Tell It Like It Was

Today my guest blogger is award-winning author Suzanne Adair, whose historical mysteries take place during the American Revolution.


My latest mystery, Deadly Occupation, is set during a true historical event: the bloodless British occupation of Wilmington, North Carolina in January 1781.

Bloodless—wait, do I mean that civilians surrendered peacefully to redcoats?

Yes. That’s exactly what I mean.

Briefly, here’s the historical background. Patriots had controlled North Carolina since 1776 and grown complacent because the fighting was in other colonies. When militia and government leaders first heard that the 82nd Regiment had sailed from Charleston for Wilmington, they disregarded the report. As a result, the British were one day’s march away from Wilmington when patriots realized the invasion was real. High-profile leaders like William Hooper, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, fled—some with just the shirts on their backs. The militia garrisoned in Wilmington, low on supplies, abandoned the city. On the afternoon that the British arrived, about two hundred civilian merchants, artisans, and dockworkers marched out, met the regiment, and laid their firearms at the feet of the redcoats.

Several years ago, the editor of a medium-sized, traditional publishing house rejected Deadly Occupation because, in the editor’s opinion, a bloodless occupation wasn’t believable. The editor was certain the civilians would have taken up arms against the redcoats a la “Red Dawn.” Likely most of them would have died, but every last able-bodied man would have fought for glorious freedom. Surely they wouldn’t have surrendered? And surely none of them would have cooperated with the enemy? After all, these were patriots. And that was the story the editor wanted.

However it wasn’t the story I’d written. The problem with the editor’s opinion, aside from it being historically inaccurate, is that history is complex because human beings are complex. In a situation like an occupation, you cannot tell which affected civilians will wind up in the Good Guys Camp or the Bad Guys Camp. Furthermore, many of Wilmington’s civilians were neutral. They didn’t care who was in charge as long as their lives weren’t interrupted. We never hear about neutrals, however they tend to comprise between a third to a half of a civilian population during a war.

Here are two reasons why I resist tampering with true historical events for the sake of a mystery plot.

Reason #1: I’ve found that the actual history provides far richer ground for digging up reasons for murder than any fictional backstory. In occupied Wilmington, the civilians who remained in town and surrendered were paroled to not take up arms against King George—but how many of them resented that or were shamed by it? How many lost business because some of their clientele had been patriots, or because a competitor outbid them for a contract job with the British? How many found the normal flow of their business restricted by rules and regulations imposed by the regiment? Or were involved in activities on the sly that they might not want the redcoats to know about? Or got swindled by the British? Or were secretly patriot sympathizers? You see what I mean? Allowing the real history to dictate a fictional character’s motivation for criminal activity confers period authenticity upon your mystery by making the crime an organic result of actual events.

Reason #2: A few months ago, the South Dakota legislature announced that the state’s high school history teachers are no longer required to teach about American history. Many other states have adopted a “squeeze it in where you can” approach to history (and science). Increasingly Americans aren’t learning about history in high school, but through reading works of historical fiction. In fact, readers have informed me that they’ve learned about history from my books. Some have gotten so excited by the history there that they research it themselves. So I make my books as historically accurate as possible.

Mystery, like history, is all about understanding the wants and needs of people today. Real history provides plenty of motivations for murder. Fake history takes the punch out of your historical mystery. So when you’re writing historical mystery, tell it like it was. Or better, show it like it was.

~~~~~

Bio:
Award-winning novelist Suzanne Adair lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. Her mysteries transport readers to the Southern theater of the American Revolution, where she brings historic towns, battles, and people to life. She fuels her creativity with Revolutionary War reenacting and visits to historic sites. When she’s not writing, she enjoys cooking, dancing, hiking, and spending time with her family.

Buy links for Deadly Occupation:
Apple: https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/id1048353039
Kindle US: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B016FJNWA4
Kindle UK: http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B016FJNWA4
Nook: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/deadly-occupation-suzanne-adair/1122780410
Kobo: https://store.kobobooks.com/en-us/ebook/deadly-occupation
Paperback: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0988912937

Social media links:
Web site and blog: http://www.SuzanneAdair.com
Quarterly electronic newsletter: http://tinyletter.com/Suzanne-Adair-News
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/Suzanne.Adair.Author
Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/Suzanne_Adair

13 comments:

Morgan Mandel said...

Welcome to Make Mine Mystery, Suzanne! I admire any writer who enjoys research, and wish I fit into that category. Kudos to you! By the way, I love your colorful book cover. It's very unique for an historical mystery

Suzanne said...

Hi Morgan, thanks for the welcome. Please read my email to you.

Suzanne said...

Thank you for rescheduling my post!

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

This was a great post! And what is wrong with our schools--not teaching American history is sinful. Oh well, the whole school system is weird right now.

S.K. Rizzolo said...

Great post! This sentence, in particular, resonated
with me: "The problem with the editor’s opinion,
aside from it being historically inaccurate, is
that history is complex because human beings are
complex." The idea that anyone would want to
"juice up" history with more blood or action
disturbs me.

Anne Louise Bannon said...

Real history is almost always more interesting than the myth. And that some places are downgrading it as not needed is appalling. But I can't wonder how much of that is influenced by the way history has been taught, all about the facts and dates, not much about the people who lived it. Good history teachers (and I have had the privilege of being taught by a couple) remember the "story" part of history. To this day, my almost complete lack of interest in the Civil War has as much to do with boring film strips demonstrating why the South couldn't possibly have won as it does my lack of interest in war, in general.

Suzanne said...

Thanks for your comment, Marilyn. In America's public school system, science is in the same boat as history. It takes a dedicated, inspired teacher to bring both subjects alive for students these days.

Suzanne said...

The idea that anyone would want to "juice up" history with more blood or action disturbs me.

Right-o, S.K. Rizzolo. You see it done in movies all the time to divert audience attention off the fact that characters are one-dimensional.

Suzanne said...

Anne Louise Bannon, one of the reasons why I started the "Relevant History" feature on my blog almost five years ago is to show the interesting parts of history that were cut from high school history class. In these guest posts, people from the past become three-dimensional. Suddenly history is more than facts and dates.

Debra Brown said...

I absolutely admire the real history you strive for--especially in view of the lack of history they are teaching now. Part of what interested me in history was a classroom-library book about Dolly Madison--and you can be sure I hope it was real history! Come to think of it, I don't remember anything else about that class....

Suzanne said...

I absolutely admire the real history you strive for--especially in view of the lack of history they are teaching now.

Thank you, Debra. I suspect that all historical novels have mistakes. I don't see how authors can avoid including errors because they're from the 21st century, not from some past era. But if we're going to write fiction about a historical time, at least strive for accuracy.

Part of what interested me in history was a classroom-library book about Dolly Madison--and you can be sure I hope it was real history! Come to think of it, I don't remember anything else about that class...

Sometimes that's all it takes to stimulate a child's imagination forever about history.

Linda Lappin said...

very interesting to read this, and I agree whole heartedly that in writing historical fiction, sticking to the real is essential, but it can also be complex to unravel the threads as to what really happened and how... It is also true that editors and readers may object with factual depictions. I once wrote a historical novel about the life of Katherine Mansfield and her complex relationship with her companion Ida and her husband Murry. Most of the situations and dialogues in my book were based on primary textual sources. One publisher turned it down because he wanted it to end differently (she dies young of TB) and one reader gave it a terrible review claiming that people in real life would never act and think the way I described as doing...

Linda Lappin said...

very interesting and informative post. I agree whole heartedly that in writing historical fiction, sticking to the real is essential, but it can also be complex to unravel the threads as to what really happened and how... It is also true that editors and readers may object to actual depictions. I once wrote a historical novel about the life of Katherine Mansfield and her complex relationship with her companion Ida and her husband Murry. Most of the situations and dialogues in my book were based on primary textual sources. One publisher turned it down because he wanted it to end differently (she dies young of TB) and one reader gave it a terrible review claiming that people in real life would never act and think the way I described as doing...but I had only used material actually drawn from life...