Hanging the Swags:The Art of Historical Fiction
by Ruth Hull Chatlien
One of my favorite analogies for writing historical fiction is “hanging the swags.” My first two novels are both based on the lives of real woman. The first, The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte, is about Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, the American beauty who married Napoleon’s youngest brother and became embroiled in conflict with the emperor because of it. Her life is extremely well documented. The Maryland Historical Society has something like eighteen boxes of letters, account books, and newspaper clippings related to her life.
My second novel, Blood Moon: A Captive’s Tale, is based on the captivity narrative written by Sarah Wakefield, recounting her time as a prisoner during the bloody Dakota War of 1862, which took place in southern Minnesota. In her case, I had her own words on which to base my narrative.
For both women, however, there are plenty of things that historians just don’t know. No one’s life is perfectly recorded for posterity. This is where my analogy of hanging the swags comes into play. I think of the known events of my characters’ lives as metal brackets extending at irregular intervals along a wall. They are solid and dependable, but they often look rather sparse. As a novelist, my job is to fill in the gaps between those brackets with luxurious fabric, draped from known event to known event, filling in the blank spots of the story with imagined episodes and dialogues to flesh out the people I’m writing about.
As a historical novelist, I can’t just weave these episodes out of thin air. Rather, I must pull together threads of research and use them for the warp and weft of my storyteller’s fabric. Let me give you a couple of illustrations of this.
About a year after Jerome and Betsy Bonaparte’s marriage, they took a trip to Niagara Falls. Niagara was not the tourist attraction it is today. It was located in what was still wilderness. No settlements existed near the falls, so to traveling there, people had to be willing to rough it. The Bonapartes learned from Aaron Burr that his daughter Theodosia and her husband took a honeymoon journey to Niagara, the first couple known to do so. Jerome decided he had to see the falls for himself. From what I’ve been read, for the rest of her life Betsy viewed that trip as a wonderful adventure, but she left no written descriptions of it—at least none that survived. To tell that part of her story, I had to read the account of an explorer who traveled to the falls a few years before the Bonapartes. From his narrative, I was able to glean the kind of vivid details I needed to make Betsy’s journey come to life. For instance, I learned to my surprise that in the early 1800s, rattlesnakes could be found in upstate New York, so I made certain to put that detail in the story.
Sarah Wakefield’s written account of her captivity among the Sioux is a very short book that summarizes much of Sarah’s experience rather than elaborating on it. She states that she adopted Indian dress and customs to survive the war, but she doesn’t give many specific examples of what that means. One thing I did know about Sarah was that she was a seamstress who loved sewing and fashion. I decided to use this personality trait to develop her character. One reason Sarah and her children survived the war was that a Dakota acquaintance named Chaska took her into his mother’s tepee to make sure that she would be safe until the conflict was over. About halfway through her captivity, I portray Sarah as making Chaska a pair of beaded moccasins in gratitude for his protection. I don’t know that Sarah did any such thing, but because it was an action that combined her love of sewing with her survival tactic of assimilating, I thought it was an appropriate fictional episode to include.
Next time you read historical fiction, ask yourself where the author might have embellished the known facts with fictional flourishes. I’m certain that you’ll discover I’m not the only writer who practices hanging the swags.
Ruth Hull Chatlien has been a writer and editor of educational materials for nearly thirty years, specializing in U.S. and world history. She is the author of MODERN AMERICAN INDIAN LEADERS for middle-grade readers. Her award-winning first novel, THE AMBITIOUS MADAME BONAPARTE, portrays the tumultuous life of Elizabeth “Betsy” Patterson Bonaparte, and BLOOD MOON: A CAPTIVE’S TALE is based on the captivity narrative of Sarah Wakefield. Ruth lives in northeastern Illinois with her husband, Michael. When she’s not writing, she can usually be found gardening, knitting, drawing, painting, or studying Swedish.
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