In the months before she died, my dear friend Doris Betts read my first novel, A Short Time to Stay Here, and had kind things to say about it in print and elsewhere. But privately, she challenged me on why it was set in the past, even asking—with a grin and a wink—why anyone would set a novel in the past when the myriad resources of the present were before us.
Her question echoes a passing comment made by Harold Bloom in “An Elegy for the Canon” (the Introduction to his 1994 The Western Canon). Bloom wrote that even as literary fads come and go, “The historical novel seems to have been permanently devalued…. History writing and narrative fiction have come apart, and our sensibilities seem no longer able to accommodate them one to the other” (21).
If Bloom is right, then Doris’ question takes on added weight. If you want to be taken at all seriously as a writer, why would you set your action in the past? It’s a hard question to answer … unless you believe, as I do, that the present (2016 in Asheville, North Carolina, or New York, New York) is entirely too frantic and familiar to make an effective setting. Unless you believe, as I do, that all novels worth reading are novels of ideas. Do ideas—such as duty, faith, hope, life, and death—often get lost in the hurly-burly of the present moment? I think so. Plus we are often astonishingly ignorant about the present, not having had time enough to think it through.
My answer to Doris’ question now would be that time is a part of a story’s setting, just as place is. I search for the most compelling setting for the ideas I want to explore, wherever that setting might have existed in place or in time. Certainly, it could be the present moment or a time not long ago, but so far, my best moments have been securely lodged in the past: a German internment camp during World War I for A Short Time to Stay Here; and the summer after the end of the Civil War for That Bright Land. Those times are incredibly rich as settings for the larger questions that I felt compelled to explore, and I had to go there in my imagination if I was to find a stage that lived up to the ideas I wanted to explore.
The setting for my new novel, That Bright Land, is Madison County, North Carolina, in the summer of 1866 (exactly 150 years ago). Madison County was an especially dangerous place before, during, and after the Civil War because its citizens were divided in their loyalties to the point where violence of all kinds was commonplace. The Shelton Laurel killings that took place in the winter of 1862-63 are perhaps the most famous example, but that is only the most garish stain in a torn quilt of theft, rape, and murder.
But my story is more about healing than killing. It has to do with the fact that as adults, we are almost all of us wounded in some way—physically, emotionally, spiritually. And so I wanted to explore how deep and genuine healing can occur, whether in an individual, a family, or a community. I was therefore drawn to a place—and time—where everyone was wounded and healing was at a desperate premium and found my setting in the summer months of 1866, after the war was supposedly over.
When I write, it feels to me as if there is a constant dialogue between historical fact and imaginative fancy. When my imagination runs dry, I often turn back to the historical record (images as well as words), and almost invariably, a rich detail falls in my lap. When the historical record has nothing much to say about an event, I’m free to make it up. And in making it up, my imagination often leads me deeper into the history.
I first became interested in the historical events that serve as a backdrop to That Bright Land while reading the pension and disability records of my great-great-grandfather, Benjamin Franklin Freeman. Ben Freeman’s story is full of violence and humor, ready-made comedy folded into tragedy; it is also richly indicative of the ambiguity and hardship of the war years. So historical fact stirred up my imagination, and I began to wonder what the pension examiner who came down from Washington City must have thought of Freeman. And so it was that man, not Ben Freeman himself, who eventually became the narrator of That Bright Land. Fact. Equally brutal and hilarious, it was that man who fed my fancy.
Fancy, in turn, led back to fact. That fictional pension examiner, named Jacob Ballard, blew up into a wounded veteran and former Pinkerton agent who himself suffered from what was then known as the “soldier’s heart” (what we now call PTSD). It developed that he came South in the summer of 1866 to track down and execute a mysterious figure who was systematically killing Union veterans in Madison County. And so I had to go back to the records on Confederate and Union troops from Western North Carolina; I had to dig deep into the history of regional conflict during the war; and all along the way, I sifted acres of Civil War history to find that one telling detail to drop into the narrative.
My point is that in writing historical fiction, fact and fancy should have a symbiotic relationship. You can know too much about your past setting as well as too little. In particular, you can know too much too soon so that the history inhibits your imagination rather than primes it. For that reason, my practice has almost always been to alternate writing with research all the way through the process, so that history and story have a mutually beneficial rhythm.
If you’re drawn to a particular time in the past, explore the historical record to the point where it inspires your imagination, but don’t become so bloated with factual detail that it takes your protagonist twenty pages to walk from the porch to the barn. Use that one compelling, historical word or image, but don’t try to shoehorn in everything you’ve found.
And when your imagination comes up dry one day, go soak it in the research some more, until it again breeds story.
Congratulations to Terry Roberts for winning the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Memorial Literary Award and the Sir Walter Raleigh Award for Fiction for 2016 for his novel That Bright Land!