Saturday, February 4, 2012

Truth v Fabrication

When my son was small, his way of asking if something was true was, “Is this for reals or fishtishous?” I recently wrote a “for reals” book profiling the Welsh immigrants who made a difference in Southern Arizona in the territory’s journey to statehoodthe Centennial of which is on February 14, 2012. 

It’s different writing nonfictionbut not as much as I would have thought. Both have their challenges and restrictions. I write historical fiction, so I center my stories around true events. Actions have to be realistic, but often what really happened is less believable than anything I could invent, so having the documentation to prove that truth is weirder than fiction is a must.

I probably do more research than is necessary, but the smell of parchment and old books is an elixir I can’t resist.  I had four years of research involved before I started writing Dragon & Hawk, with bits of daily life from newspaper ads and articles. By the time I wrote Book Three in the series, I had bookshelves and file cabinets full of maps, interviews, and eyewitness accounts of different Welsh immigrants who made their mark on Arizona. I decided to put at least part of that information together in one place. Cactus Cymry: Influential Welsh in the Southern Arizona Territory was published this past November by Open Press Books, a mainly educational press in Bloomington, Indiana.

Nonfiction doesn’t have to be “just the facts, Ma’am.”  Those sorts of blah, blah, blah tomes bore the hell out of people and turn them off of reading about those who came before. So I added a little background information about what nudged people to leave Wales, along with a few wrysome might say sarcasticobservations.

I miss footnotes. Who the hell thought it was easier to put reference notes at the back of the book so the reader has to flip back and forth to see where that information was found? I liked glancing down at the bottom of the page to see the source right there. But the current style is putting all references at the end of the book, without footnote numbers, listed solely by a phrase used in the text. That’s what the publisher wanted, so that’s how it is. Sigh. 

Don't forget photos. If you can find pictures that support your research, great. Remember to honor all copyrights, especially for historical photographs. Be warned: it'll cost ya. Some of the immigrants I discovered as mayors or respected citizens were ghosts in the stacks--names and stories but no photographs, or there was but one in the archives. The publication fees for photos from the Arizona Historical Society just for North American print use were not cheap, and my publisher would not pay for them. I did. But I can't afford the "digital publication fees" of $150 per photo to make Cactus Cymry available on Kindle and the like.  Regretfully, this book cannot be published as an ebook. So, like many reference books with rare photos, it's print only. 

Writing nonfiction is like a treasure hunt: you dig for documents and proof of the truth. Finding little-known facts about a famous event is like striking gold. As long as you can show the sources of what you’ve found are reputable, reporting the facts can be pretty darn exhilarating. Tell the story just the way you would tell a friend about what you found, with all the enthusiasm and excitement you felt when you first researched the information to bring it to life. The structure is the same: you have to have a beginning, middle, and end. You want your readers to be anxious to learn what happened next. The big difference is only that you have to list those documented sources.

How fun it is to have real people interact with characters I've dreamed onto paper! And to combine my fictional series with the culmination of years of research is simply another way to establish credibility and market my work. Those who don't like to read fiction can peruse the real stories and those (like me) who love to learn about history through historical fiction can look forward to a trilogy of exciting novels. 

Still, I’ll continue in my fictional waysuntil I amass another research pile of dirty little secrets or unsung heroism.

Either way, I’m having a great time avoiding housework. 


Jude Johnson
Cactus Cymry; (nonfiction) Open Books Press
Dragon & Hawk; (fiction) Champagne Books

Cactus Cymry: Influential Welsh in the Southern Arizona Territory  is now in print, available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.


Anonymous said...

Thanks, Jude have helped me understand this nonfiction fiction I am creating with my husband, Roy, as a source: an eighty-one year old who suffered a traumatic brain injury at the age of three.

Julie Eberhart Painter said...

I relate to avoiding housework!

What you're doing, documenting the remote, lesser known pasts is very important, especially since Americans are seeking their roots, and, in my opinion, diminishing the country that gave us so much opportunity.

I, too, am of Welsh descent. Happy St. David's Day, March 1.

Jude Johnson said...

There are so many interesting stories that disappear because people don't think they "are worthy". Every story has value or impact on someone. And the little details of life--from how they washed Victorian dress layers to what it was like to drive a stream-powered auto--are things we can no longer fathom.

Good Luck, Anonymous. That sounds like it might be a fabulous and inspirational tale.

Happy Dydd Dewi Sant to you, too Julie!


Ashley Barnard said...

Great post, Jude. I love your son's quote at the beginning!