What Does a Writer Owe to History?

by Don Webb


I. Time

As a rule, writers are free to compress and expand time within their works to suit the story. However, internal time and external time may come into conflict. And external time is determined not by the writer but by history.

At Bewildering Stories, we tend to be sticklers for historical accuracy.

Ezra T. Gray’s “The Grove” has some very strong points, particularly dialogue, and the characterization of people living in a rural western setting. The supernatural effects of the haunted well are indeed spooky, but whether or not they support the rest of the story is a question for another time.

The story is quite coherent within itself, but it is set against the backdrop of real historical events, and those events determine an external chronology:

  1. The first-person narrator — also known as “kid” and “Montana” — enlists in the army in December 1941.
  2. The next scene flashes forward to D-Day: June 6, 1944. Time lapse: 2 and a half years.
  3. The narrator is wounded. Time lapse: less than 1 day.
  4. He is eventually shipped home. Time lapse: about 11 or 14 months.
  5. He returns to the grove and destroys it. Time lapse: 2 weeks.
  6. The narrator’s mother announces that the war is over (May or September 1945). Time lapse: less than 1 day.

As you can see, the author compresses and expands time within the story as it suits his purpose. That is perfectly normal; all writers do it.

Is it important that almost 30 months elapse between the narrator’s enlistment and the time we see him in action? No, it isn’t. Fictional narrations sometimes skip over years or even decades without comment. Why should the author need to account for the interval of two and a half years between enlistment and battle? “The Grove” is a work of fiction, not history.

However, we run into a problem after the narrator is wounded: does he spend almost an entire year or even longer recuperating in a hospital before he returns home in either late April or August 1945? That seems unlikely.

Is such a long convalescence a fatal flaw in the story? No. It’s a bit of a stretch, but not so much of one that the reader can’t ignore it. Which is more important to the story: what takes place within it or what takes place outside of it? If the reader demands a history of World War II, then he should go read one. But don’t ask it to tell a story or a story to provide an account of history.

In the end, the Ezra Gray does not take liberties with history so much as with medical probabilities, and those liberties are not very great. Thus, “The Grove” succeeds as a story set amid real historical events.

Characterization

At what point does alternate history become alternate history fantasy?

We recently received a story in the subgenre of alternate history. It featured four main characters, all historical. In three — and possibly even all — of the characters, an important element had been changed.

For example, two of the characters were, historically, brutal tyrants. In the story, one of them suddenly acquires a conscience and becomes a philosopher. Another displays some funny quirks but reveals himself to be a clever politician.

Now, it’s one thing to borrow names from history; it’s quite another to risk misleading the readers by misrepresenting historical personages. At what point do we draw the line?

As a rule of thumb, our policy is that a writer of alternate history may not change any real personalities. However, a writer may change one — or at the very most two — decisions.

For example, what if Nero had decided that burning Rome for slum clearance was not such a good idea after all? What if Charles Martel had lost the battle of Poitiers to the Moors?

The principle is: change one thing and nothing else. Then see what happens. Ian Donnell Arbuckle’s “Fall Silent” changes one historical event and thereby sets in motion a troubling and yet enlightening story. Is it alternate history or alternate history fantasy? The story is so interior that it probably falls into a gray area between both. But Ian Arbuckle’s respect for history qualifies his story as formal alternate history.


Copyright © 2007 by Don Webb Don Webb

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