Kathleen Shoop has stopped by the blog today to share her thoughts on balancing fact and story in historical fiction. Her latest novel, The Magician, part of her Donora story collection, illustrates the difficult choices brought about by following your dreams. Over to you, Kathleen.
Writers, scholars, and even readers argue about Historical Fiction’s obligation to story versus the expectation of historical fact. Somewhere in between is the fine line that splits these worlds. Historical stories seek to express some truth about a particular place, time or people and use elements of fact and narrative to accomplish it.
For the years that I’ve been writing The Magician—Book Three in the Donora Story Collection—I’ve revisited these concerns repeatedly. Because the novel is inspired by the childhood of baseball Hall of Famer, Stan Musial, the work was thrilling yet worrisome. I wanted to portray Stan Musial’s magical rise to baseball royalty accurately, sensitively, and truthfully. I’m still not sure what exactly that means or whether I’ve accidentally on purpose achieved it, but I definitely committed to the work that it takes to get an author there. Still, at times I panicked that what I was writing wasn’t true enough.
For example, in Musial’s autobiography he tells a family story related to him sneaking sips of sweetened milk as a child and that his sisters were tasked with keeping him from doing that. They didn’t always succeed. I thought this one Musial sentiment was so illustrative of the life and times of a blue collar family living in Donora, Pennsylvania in the 1920’s and 30’s that I worked out a scene depicting this event.
It gave me a chance to invite the reader into the female dominated kitchens of early 20th century America. This, a time when friends and grandmas who lived a few doors down stopped for morning coffee. They did this in between dropping off care baskets for families whose fathers got injured in the mill and getting supper ready for when their own husbands rolled through the door after a scorching shift in the zinc mill. Musial’s notation of his milk swiping habit overflowed with the trappings of the story behind the story—the very stuff that props up every historical fiction piece ever written.
Moments like this casually mentioned in autobiographies, articles and a half a dozen biographies were the things I latched on to in order to give Stan Musial’s childhood a heartbeat. Because the purpose of most of those other writings was to show some aspect of Musial’s adult baseball life, I reveled in teasing out these gems that called to mind a time long gone. These little story stones evoked events specific to Musial’s rise to baseball greatness but were also universal in meaning to anyone who’s lived in a small factory, mill, or mining town in post WW1 and Pre WW2 America.
Not only was the tale of the milk theft a cool detail about Stan’s life, a possible “economic calamity” (phrasing I borrowed), there was a world behind the idea that canned milk was precious enough to ration it for the adults. This allowed me to develop Musial’s character, the family dynamic, the male head of household concept, and so much more that marked American life in the 20s and 30s in delicious, unique ways. That one mention was a gold mine in my eyes.
But was creating a scene around this milk pilfering factual? In moments of panic, I’d be drawn away from drafting to figure out yet again what I was doing, what my goals were. I would remind myself that if I was worried about fictionalizing scenes I could simply write another biography. But of course biographies have been done beautifully and many times before. And besides, that wasn’t what I was attempting to do. In writing about a revered and renowned man I was using narrative to get at the essence of what built him into a person who embodied greatness in a variety of ways. A list of facts wouldn’t suffice.
I wanted readers who love a good story, but maybe had no idea who Stan Musial was, who didn’t even like baseball, to love The Magician despite all that. I wanted to provide an opening for readers to slip into another time and place and get an idea of how a spectacular athlete and person was shaped by a town, his family and the times. And the only way to do that was to walk the center rope, pulling factual threads from the left as I went, weaving them into the narrative on the right, finishing with a tightly woven fabric depicting a world long gone, a person laid to rest.
What I found was that the mythology of Stan Musial needed the facts of his life as much as the opposite was true. Now, as The Magician is soon to be released, I hope that the combination of fact and story reveal something very close to what was the heart of a boy and his dream to make a living playing baseball. And so much more than that.
Many thanks, Kathleen. You’ve shown us the delicate balance required of fictional biography. Sending best wishes for the launch of The Magician.
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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available for pre-order on Amazon US, Amazon Canada, Kobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.