Now that Traces has, at long last, made its way into the world, it feels like the right time to address a question authors of historical fiction are frequently asked — what’s fact and what’s fiction? The answer is — it’s complicated.
My approach was to research heavily, gather everything I could find in the historical record about the Boone women, including where they were living, and then begin to imagine what they might have been thinking and feeling given what was taking place around them.
With each scene I asked myself if something I envisioned was likely, possible, or improbable. The things that were likely almost always made it onto the page, forming the heart of each scene. The things that were possible, sometimes made it in, while the improbable were, with very few exceptions, discarded, because I was writing historical fiction, not fantasy. The general rule for historical fiction is that an author may sometimes need to bend history a bit, but you should never knowingly break it.
So how does that work in practice? I’ll use the opening chapter of Traces as an example. The first scene shows Rebecca awakening to news that a Cherokee war party is headed their way and the family has to flee. This scene is a composite of several such alarms that occurred along the Yadkin during that time period. It’s believed that the Boones “forted up” at Fort Dobbs on several occasions, and I wanted to convey the fear and uncertainty that surely accompanied such alarms, the sense of unseen eyes watching from the forest as the family hurried to find safety.
During the winter of 1759-60, the settlers felt so threatened that a large number of them, including the Boones, abandoned their homes entirely. This breaking up of the settlement may have been less frantic than I portray it, but I felt free to use my imagination because the exact nature of this exodus wasn't documented in detail within the historic record. In his unfinished Boone biography, Lyman Draper wrote that Daniel conveyed the family to Virginia in a "two-horse wagon," but he doesn't indicate where he acquired that bit of information. All we know for sure is that the Boones left their home in Carolina and ended up in Culpeper County, Virginia.
Despite the lack of historical material surrounding this event, as a novelist, I viewed it as the key to understanding so much of what happened to the family in the years that followed. Becoming refugees, being uprooted from the communal support of a close-knit community was, to use a literary term, the inciting incident that propels the novel forward.
The purpose of the first chapter is to introduce the reader to the cast of characters (all of whom were real) to let readers know that the dangers on the frontier were real (via an actual glimpse of a Cherokee warrior) and to emphasize that the family has been abruptly uprooted, leaving behind everything they’ve worked so hard to build.
In future blogs, I’ll point out further instances of what’s fact and what’s fiction within the novel’s pages, but for now, I’ll leave you with this quote from author Karen Joy Fowler. She wrote a novel about the family of John Wilkes Booth, called simply Booth, and in her afterword, beautifully articulated the challenge of writing biographical fiction:
“It is only natural, when reading a historical novel, to want to know which parts are true. But the question here is a complicated one. There is an enormous amount of material, both primary and secondary, regarding the Booth family. Some of it is confusing; some of it is contradictory; all of it is fascinating. So there are things here that I am confident are true and things that I know I made up. But there are also things I did not make up, yet am uncertain are true.”
Fowler gets it exactly right. The novelist has to be discerning about the “evidence” that remains in the historic record, analyzing conflicting information and striving to determine the reliability of informants. It’s an art, not a science. What authors owe their readers is to be honest about the decisions they've made, and to be able to explain their reasoning when questions arise.