Narrative History · On Writing · Uncategorized

Narrative History or Historical Fiction? — Redux


In September, I posted a rumination on this question: Should I approach my next book, Encounters in Yellowstone 1877, as narrative history or as historical fiction? Then I was researching the morning of August 25, 1877, when George Cowan regained consciousness in Yellowstone Park after Indians had shot him in the head and left him for dead. I thought I could write a more vivid account of George’s ordeal if I knew what the weather was like on that day. It occurred to me that if I were writing fiction, I could just invent the weather.

Recently, the issue arose again when I was writing about the time George and his companions spent at Henry’s Lake on their way to the park. After several days of hard travel, they stopped to rest at the sportsmen’s paradise.

One day, while everybody else went out on the lake in boats, George and his wife, Emma, decided to ride horses into the nearby mountains. They said they were going to hunt. Elk and deer were supposed to be abundant the area, but after a long day, George and Emma returned empty handed.

I’d like to write that they went for some “just the two of us” time. After all, they were newlyweds who had been traveling for a week and sharing a tent with Emma’s 13-year-old sister, Ida. It’s not far-fetched to think the Cowans wanted to be alone.

I’m not just wanting to write a raunchy sex scene to liven things up. (Not that I don’t like a raunchy sex scene as much as anybody.) If I could show George and Emma as lovers, that would strengthen an important narrative theme that pervades their story and gives it coherence.

In a later scene, when George regains consciousness after the Indians shot him, his first concern is not that he is alone in the wilderness with bleeding gunshot wounds. Instead, he anguishes over Emma’s fate at the hands of the Indians.

The theme of the Cowan’s devotion returns still later after Emma  gives George up for dead and returns home to mourn. When she finally learns that George has survived, she makes a heroic horse-and-wagon trip to be by his side—175 miles in 31 hours.

If I were writing fiction, it would be easy to foreshadow the drama of such experiences. To make a  love story for George and Emma. I could write something like this:

George winked at Emma when he heard Ida say that she wanted to join the boating expedition on the lake. “Emma and I are going to see if we can bag us an elk,” he announced.

The newly weds rode their horses away from the lake. After an hour, they crested a hill and headed down toward a stream that flowed out of the mountains.

“There’s a nice spot,” Emma said, pointing to a grove of aspens that was bordered by a meadow.

George dismounted and helped Emma off her horse. “I’ll picket the horses,” he said.

George tied the horses in a grassy spot on long ropes and loosened the cinches on their saddles so they could graze. When he looked back, he saw that Emma had spread a blanket in deep shade under the aspen canopy.

“There is no chance that the bright sun would burn our bare skin there,” George thought.

There isn’t a shred of evidence that anything like that happened, and I don’t expect to find any. In the Victorian Era, genteel people like the Cowans didn’t talk about their feelings, and certainly not about their sex lives. If I stay with narrative history, I can’t make things up. It doesn’t matter that fictional scenes are completely plausible and re-enforce the narrative. I can only write things I can document.

But there might be a way to stay with narrative history and still hint at a love life for George and Emma.  Would it be okay to speculate about their activities and motives—as long as I’m careful to let readers know that I’m moving beyond the facts? Could I write something like this:

George and Emma mounted their horses and rode off to the mountains, ‘To hunt elk and deer,’ they said. But maybe the newly-weds just wanted to be alone after sharing their tent with Ida for a week.

What do you think?  Should I switch to fiction, or stick to verifiable facts, or add overt speculation?

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10 thoughts on “Narrative History or Historical Fiction? — Redux

  1. Book will have a longer shelf life and importance for future generations if you stick to a factual account. But educated speculation based on surviving documentation is fine, I think, so long as you signal readers.

    1. Thanks, Dorothy — I think I’ll write a better book for considering the options, but in the end, I’ll probably stick to the facts. Fiction has its frustrations too.

  2. Speculate if you must, but keep it true as can be. You might want to look at “Shadow Divers” – as well as a hella great recounting of true adventure, it does a good job of melding the known with the unknown or speculative past.

  3. Wow, Mark, thanks much for such an interesting peek into the mentality of a historical writer yearning to be free when facts are limited but reasonable extrapolation seems warranted! Ultimately, what do you want to do, what do you want to be remembered for, and how frustrating might it be in the process of negotiating that path?? xx L

    1. Thanks, Lynne — I think my frustration means that I’m finding a compelling story through my research and I have to be careful to write it in a way that readers can find it too. Just stacking the facts one after another won’t accomplish that so I’ll have to add some guideposts. It’s a fun challenge.

  4. I think you are on the right track with narrative history. In cases like this where you have multiple sources and a compelling story, there is no real need to fictionalize. Your second version, with the speculation of what they might have wanted, allows the reader to speculate without calling the rest of your hard work into question.

    In a way, historical fiction is trickier because there is a fine line between moving the story along the way you want it to go and respecting the real people represented. Sticking to the facts means you can avoid this potential moral dilemma while still creating a narrative people will enjoy reading and learning from.

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