Keeping Historical Figures Real by Mary Sheeran

When people learn that I’m an author, they often ask about my writing process, the characters I create, and how I come up with ideas for stories. Today, author Mary Sheeran talks about creating characters for her novels. Interesting stuff! When she isn’t writing, Mary is singing or performing in some way and has played leads in Brigadoon, Stop the World, and Cabaret.


Keeping Historical Figures Real – by Mary Sheeran

Novels deal with real people. Just because the people are creations of our imagination does not make them unreal. If you’re like me, you live with your characters, and they live with you. And I try to remember: every character in my novel is mine, made from my imagination and my knowledge.

In historical novels, however, some of those people may have walked the earth. Readers may even know their names and have opinions about them. These “historical figures” add credibility to the novel, but they can also create special problems.

We spend a long time reading and researching the periods in which our novels are set. If you’re like me, you take notes and file them the way that makes sense to you, whether in notebooks, binders, computer files, or index cards. (I confess that I also mark up books. Don’t kill me.) The more instrumental historical figures are in the story, the more research is needed – we can’t just read one book and be done with it.  Walt Disney is a minor but significant character in my novel Banished From Memory, and I read through three biographies (one completely unflattering) and a book of interviews plus memoirs of people who worked with him. All the while I’m reading, my brain is spinning with the story and how that character will fit.

It’s so easy to lose perspective with all that reading and researching. The important thing is not to add historical figures just to show that you know what you’re doing but to drive the story. A writer’s instincts can enhance the person readers think they know, and good historical fiction blends the “real” characters (the ones real to the writer) with the historical ones we make real. In the process, writer and readers can make a unique discovery.

It’s fun! It’s tricky! And after writing a couple of historical novels, I have adopted a few guiding rules about juggling “real” and “historical” characters.

Create a new character based on a historical person. Otherwise known as “copping out!” While working on my novel Who Have the Power, set during the Comstock Lode era, I discovered the dramatic life of San Francisco banker William Ralston. He was president of the Bank of California but when things got a little rough, he died of a heart attack. I created a new character (and another bank) and fiddled with Ralston’s character to make a new person who fit my story. (I made a new life, but I still killed him.)

Create a character who is a historical person.That’s right! You’re still creating someone! For Who Have the Power, I decided not to make up anyone to sub for the miner and eventual mogul, John Mackay, who found what was called “the big bonanza.” That event was important to the story, and I couldn’t mask Irving Berlin’s grandfather-in-law as someone else. I put him in a rollicking setting and let him do what he wanted, but the essential facts belonged to the real Mackay.

Dig as much as you can and then make stuff up. Who Have the Power deals with small Native tribes in Nevada and California who had been almost wiped out and who had very little written about them. What was written about them came from the pens of well-meaning, white, Christian observers from the nineteenth century. And what they wrote was mostly about men. I wrote about Native women, so I had to search hard, but mostly, I had to wait for reliable information to be published. Even when information about Native American women of the far western states began to appear, none of it—except for a slim volume—had to do with “my” tribes, and correspondence brought very little. I had to make stuff up, but it was based on what information I did have, and from that, sense what was real. I wanted to bring out these women’s spirit and their lives. Fortunately, they helped by becoming real for me.

We can’t just report; all characters need to drive the story and have something of the writer in them. Taking a historical character and placing them in a long scene with “fictional” characters is challenging – but fun. We can’t just rattle off what we read about them. We need to balance the accuracy of their lives with the imagination that goes to our fingers.

Several historical people shared long scenes with the characters I created in Banished From Memory (due out May 14), but I’ll mention two here: Richard Nixon and Katharine Hepburn.

Nixon’s reputation is almost a caricature now. Everyone knows what became of him (if not, google away). I used that understanding to play against, for Nixon is a tragic figure as much as a symbol of how power corrupts. To add some dimension to his character, I referred to a younger Nixon and, at the same time, focused attention on the Nixon of 1960, all through the eyes of the major characters and in a way that furthered the plot.

As for Katharine Hepburn, I’ve loved her since junior high. I met her once, briefly, when walking through her Turtle Bay neighborhood, and I said, “Thank you” as I passed by her in her yard and kept walking. She called out for me to wait, looked me in the eyes, shook my hand, and said with a wicked grin, “You are quite welcome.” I remember those glistening eyes! Of course, I read several biographies of her (biographies are somehow also works of fiction to some degree). She seemed isolated in her later life, but in her younger years, she was one free spirit. Although she has only a few scenes in Banished, she plays a major role. I introduce her with her trademark breeziness but find her in quieter moments, too. My favorite line in the novel is hers, and she didn’t say it, but I can well imagine her saying it: “Passion – living life at fever pitch – loving through it – if you don’t have much of that, I don’t think life’s worth living.”

Be careful even when you’re being quickBanished From Memory is set in the Hollywood of 1960 and concerns a fictional family of movie stars. (Wait, they are real!) In one chapter, I took this family to an Oscar nominations dinner, which meant lots of stars and famous people were present.

Even cameos have to seem real; one can’t just plop them in. I had to watch the famous through the eyes of Dianna Fletcher, my protagonist. I could only sketch the stars briefly as well as plant a couple of conversational threads that Dianna would see as confirming her opinions and also contributing to the story.

The challenge of casting historical people with characters we create, then, is two-fold: Every character has to somehow drive the story, and all the characters belong to the writer and to the story – even the ones we think we made up.

Many thanks, Mary. I also think of my characters as real people. They get so inside my head, I even have conversations with them. Best wishes for your new novel!

Banished From Memory by Mary Sheeran ~~ It’s 1960. Sixteen-year-old Dianna Fletcher has been accustomed to the bright lights of Hollywood all her life-but now they are casting shadows on her family’s past and on her own future.

Dianna fears she is losing her talent and failing to live up to her family’s legacy. When she does land a part, she finds an unexpected enemy in brilliant actor and womanizer, Bill Royce, who not only attacks her confidence but holds a deep grudge against her family. Dianna comes to believe Bill’s resentment is related to her suspicion that her parents harbor a secret linked to the blacklist. But even as their friendship grows despite their misgivings about each other, Bill will not confess what he knows.

As Dianna struggles with her career in a rapidly changing industry, she urges Bill to share his dark past with her, only to discover secrets that could destroy her family’s prestige and power.

Banished From Memory highlights the conflicted relationship between two legacies of the blacklist, the sunset of classic Hollywood, the challenges and gifts of acting, and a determination on the part of one generation to exhume the truth of another’s. But at what cost?

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Meet M.K.Tod

The historical fiction author behind A Writer of History...

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16 Responses

  1. This was an excellent post – very helpful as my WIP is full of “real people” – some of whom are well known historically. It’s tricky! Thanks, Claudia

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Claudia. I hope you had a chance to browse around as there are many articles that are helpful to other writers. I’d be happy to give you a virtual tour!!

  2. I am so glad I follow you MK! There’s always something to learn from your author interviews, and I discover new books I’ve not heard about. Thanks!

  3. The new character based on a historical person can be such a lifesaver when you realize that something just doesn’t match up! So looking forward to Mary’s book!

  4. Mary Sheehan,
    You make many valid points highlighting the art of writing/creating “believable” historical figures—remaining historically correct, yet, weaving the character(s) together in such a way that he/she will add to the tension and progression of the story—that it’s never only about the facts.
    Thanks for having her, Mary T!

  5. Thank you all for your comments! One thing I forgot to say – how difficult it is to say goodbye to characters, all so real. (Catherine! “Banished From Memory” is due to release 5/14!) – Mary

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