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Walking in their skins: on writing historical fiction

The burning of Anne Askew. Sixteenth century woodcut.
The burning of Anne Askew. 16th century woodcut

I came to writing historical fiction not because I was so taken with history but because I wanted to understand the contemporary world I lived in. That world—Brooklyn, 1989, a world of landline phones and dot matrix printers and Betamax VCRs—is history now. But its human story endures.


1989 was the year of the Central Park Five and the killing of a 16-year-old Black youth, Yusef Hawkins, surrounded by a gang of white boys in Bensonhurst; it was the year Spike Lee's film Do the Right Thing debuted. It was also the year I learned about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, the most massive assault by white Americans on Black Americans in the nation's history that had taken place not fifty miles from where I grew up. This event, this truth, this enormity had been covered up for generations.


I wanted to write that story, not as a history but within the resonances of fiction, and I wanted to do it as truthfully and accurately as possible. In those days, the facts of the massacre were hard to come by. Newspaper archives had been expunged. White Tulsans wouldn't talk about it, or didn't know. This is how I learned to do historical research: to dive below the surface, look underneath the common stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. 


And I learned, of course, that the Tulsa Race massacre didn't explode from nothing; it came of what went before, and before, and before. To understand 1921, I had to unearth so much that happened in the years, decades, centuries before. As Hilary Mantel reminds us: "Beneath every history, another history."


To write about early twentieth century Oklahoma, I had to go back to Indian Territory in the late nineteenth. I had to learn the story of how my people migrated to the Territory—and what they brought with them. I asked questions of living elders, read histories, traced through hearsay and conversation and handed-down narratives the outlines of how my family, white settlers, came by covered wagon into I.T. from Kentucky in 1887. That imagining became my first novel, The Mercy Seat. Studying my way into the earliest days of Oklahoma's story, trying to know what happened, and why, and above all how, I learned what has been for me the hardest lesson: that you can never know all you want to know. All you yearn to know.


In that book, a young girl finds a tin box holding her dead mother's belongings; she tries to decipher her mother's life through reading the items: a lock of hair, a cheap snuffbox, a charred torn-out page of Scripture, a child's pair of eyeglasses. But she comes to see that "…she could not know her mother's life, not lived nor told nor unfolding in the strength of imagination nor in dream or vision. Her mother's life was locked away from her, eternal, as she was locked away from all others, as we each are locked away from one another in the pores of finite mind and skin…"


This is the metaphor, for me, for writing historical fiction. We'll never know the truths of their lives, those precious or mediocre or loathsome ones who came before us; they're locked away from us as the dead are locked away from the living, but we keep poring through the tin box anyway, reading artifacts, piecing mismatched parts together, creating the narrative from imperfect words.


When we begin, we learn everything we can learn, and then we learn, by writing, how much more we need to know. Then comes another hard lesson: we have to leave out some of the facts we've learned because they impede the narrative, make the story read like hey-look-at-all-my-fabulous-research. So we cut them, or replace them with other details. We become meticulous, devoted, openminded, openhearted, humble enough to hide our hand, we hope.


My forthcoming novel about the English Reformation martyr Anne Askew, Prize for the Fire, has called on these resources more than any of my previous works. I've tried to imagine my way into the distant past--not 100 years ago but 500--and into a religious mindset, a passion, worldview, and country not my own. I've sought to write a fictional truth grounded in facts I've discovered through targeted research and travel over the course of twenty years. I'll never uncover all I need to know. But I keep trying.


In her wonderful essay "Why I Became a Historical Novelist," Hilary Mantel says that she'll make up a man's inner torments but not, for instance, the color of his drawing room wallpaper. "…someone, somewhere, might know the pattern and color," she says, "and if I kept on pursuing it, I might find out."


I share Mantel's essay with students in my historical fiction writing class. I tell them: we're writing to the one who knows the wallpaper.


Or anyway, I am.


It takes courage in all cases to be a writer, and a particular kind of courage to write outside one's own lived experience, to try to create for readers the lived experiences of others in an era in which we have never lived, in a place where we've never lived—because, even if we have lived in our story's location, inside our own period's overlay, even if we travel to our story's landscapes and cities, or study with intricate attention the paintings and photographs of the age, we can never experience the precise quality of light on the southern plains in 1837, or the ambient sounds on a Kansas City street in 1902, or the stench of burning flesh in 1546 in London, or on the streets of Tulsa in 1921.


For that, we must imagine.


So then we're doing what all novelists of all genres and in all ages do: imagining our way into the lives of others, burrowing into their psyches, walking in their skins, finding our way, through imagery and language and sensory detail, into their world, and inviting readers inside with us. That's the art of it, this great imagining, this welding of histories and artifacts and qualities of light to the human heart in all its joy and grief and suffering.


We historical novelists aren't writing to the past but to our own time. Each age has its obsessions, surely, but the fundamentals of the human story don't change. We're looking to create who we are now by imagining who we were before—who, indeed, we always have been.




(A version of this essay was first published as "Imagine" in Nimrod International Journal blog in February 2020.)

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