The Healer and the Pirate

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Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Truth is Stranger than Fiction?

Warning; historical sadness!

So imagine a mission control dispatcher who is sick with space flu, the very same space flu that killed one of his children the week before. His boss asks him to fly a passenger shuttle mission, since the spaceship pilots are out of commission. Due to a lack of training, the dispatcher miscalculates and strikes an asteroid, killing almost 100 people on board.

If I read this in a book, I'd honestly be pretty ticked off at the gratuitous tragedy.

Though if PBS's American Experience is to be believed, a similar chain of events occurred in the New York Subway's Malbone Street Wreck in 1918. (Brian J. Cudahy's Malbone Street Wreck is supposed to debunk some persistent myths regarding the tragedy, so I'm not sure if all that is accurate.)

I enjoy drama in fiction, but I don't like what I feel is often gratuitous tragedy. It's true that historically, there were (and still are) major tragedies. And some people like to read fiction to help them deal with that, I guess? Or just to feel the deep emotion? I guess that's why there are so many different types of books out there! (Even if I don't understand it!)

What I don't like so much is when some authors or publishers actually seem to maximize angst by hinting that a fictional account is non-fiction. I remember how fascinated I was to pick up one of the "Dear America" books (a line I was not familiar with) in an airport. It was touted as a diary, and I was moved by the poignant narration. Too moved, actually, I suspected...I didn't purchase the book. I later discovered the obvious, that the book was entirely fiction. I love when people bring history to life, but I looked in the book itself and couldn't find any reference to it being a fictional account...certainly nothing obvious. I just don't feel like it's fair to pretend something is "real" when it's fiction.

A grown-up example is These Is My Words: The Diary of Sarah Agnes Prine, 1881-1901 Arizona Territories by Nancy E. Turner. It's exciting and has a great style, and is actually a very good book (though also incredibly draining, due in part to the diary style, that condenses what would be 30 pages in a regular novel into 2 pages of a diary). And it does tell tragedies that surely happened to people back then (though I think it would be a very unusual person who experienced ALL those tragedies). And it DOES technically say "A Novel" on the front.

But between the marketing and Turner's style, a lot of readers thought it was at least based on a real diary. This interview seems to indicate that the title character was almost entirely fabricated. Which is fine, but I wish the publisher didn't feel the need to dub it a "diary." (And at the Tucson Festival of Books 2010, I believe it was, Turner explained that for the sequel, her publisher pushed her to start the story out with more angst and drama!)

If I ever write a true historical, I don't know how to make it obvious that I'm writing historical fiction. Well, I won't label it a diary. Hopefully I won't have glaring historical errors...and if it's like any of my other works, it will end up having characters that exhibit superhuman powers, and/or time travel...


  1. I have to comment on Nancy's books, because, well, you know, I really adore her Sarah, even if she is fictional--
    While I do wish Nancy would have been a bit more forthcoming about the made-up nature of the whole story, and I don't (at least consciously)love the diary style, the books are still extremely satisfying. I choose a few days every summer and drag all three books around with me (no Kindle) and read them straight through, only stopping to eat or sleep a little. There's something to be said for a story that can capture attention like that.
    Oh, and time travel can be pretty mesmerizing, too, even for those of us who are attached to "accurate" historical fiction. :)

  2. The diary style actually works very well; I don't think the books would be nearly as compelling if she hadn't used it. I think it might be the publisher and/or marketing department that put such an effort toward making it seem like it was based on history. (Though Nancy Turner's amazing style does not hurt!)