Not that it needs reiterated, but I love the American Civil War. The Hubs and I have an entire bookcase dedicated to Civil War (nonfiction) books. I’m writing a novel about the Civil War, I blog about the Civil War, I’ve been known to reenact the Civil War; I have taken more pictures of the battlefield at Gettysburg than is probably necessary.
But I don’t read historical fiction about the Civil War.
I’ve never so much as flipped through a copy of “Gone with the Wind.”
Puzzling, to be sure. And I’m sure many will say this is the kiss of death if I want to write historical fiction. I can count on one hand the Civil War fiction I have read in the last few years. One finger, in fact: It was “A Killing at Ball’s Bluff” by Michael Kilian and it was fantastic. Evidentally it was book two of a series and I never got around to reading the rest. I mean, hey, I have two kids under age three. I’m lucky if I get to use the bathroom on my own these days. Anyway, not only did “A Killing at Ball’s Bluff” have a great plot and was very well written, it was also very accurate.
I’m a stickler for accuracy. This is why I’m a slow writer: because I spend quite a bit of time researching and taking notes (bad habits I picked up in college, no doubt). I’m pretty sure this is why I don’t read much in the way of Civil War fiction. Nothing gets me more riled up than inaccuracies. Case in point: here’s an excerpt from a book review blog I wrote back in the day:
I’m not going to mention the title of it, but it was awful. I only forced myself to finish reading it because I had paid $16 for it at the bookstore. The main reason I’m bringing this up is because of something I learned at the writer’s conference last year. My problem with this book is that the main character was, in the end, a horrible person. And we’re not talking a horrible person that you enjoy because of their horribleness (like Hannibal Lector or someone along those lines), but just horrible enough that I didn’t care about her. I honestly did not care about her or what happened to her in the book.
At the writer’s conference workshop, one thing we learned was that a writer should create sympathy for the main character. There should be something that makes the reader sympathize with what the character is going through; to make the reader cares what happens. I honestly didn’t care what happened to any of the characters in this particular book, not even the one who I think the author intended have sympathized and identified with. Everyone’s motivations were purely selfish and just driven out of ego–which would be fine if there had been some other character to balance that out. But in this instance, there wasn’t. The characters all seemed to have the exact same motivation and means; even when there were obstacles, the characters just kind of shrugged it off and did what they wanted anyway.
As if the above wasn’t enough, the glaring inaccuricies were like a slap in the face. I had to force myself to finish reading the darn thing, and then I sold it to a used book store.
Writing a novel is kind of like being a parent. When you’re a parent, there’s an endless internal commentary cycling through your brain, “Is he too hot? Is he too cold? Is his food cut into small enough chunks? Is the baby gate up? Are the childproof plug protectors all in place? Is that him crying? Does he have anything to drink?” I have internal commentary with writing historical fiction, too: “What kind of fabric was used? Was that road there then? How long does it take to ride a horse twenty miles at a decent cantor? How would this food have been prepared? What are the procedures for martial law during wartime? Was habeus corpus suspended and, if so, when?”
I think it’s well worth it, though. I like realism. I like being able to paint a picture of what happened during the war; to attempt to push past the pretty, white washed history we learn in school and boil it down to the nitty gritty.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Antietam this week and my prior post about the Sunken Road, aka Bloody Lane. It’s so easy to look at the pretty, pristine battlefields we have preserved today and gloss over the actual debris of battle. After the Battle of Antietam, Bloody Lane–which I casually strolled down last weekend–looked like this:
Today, you can visit this:
Gives it perspective.
Those are the echoes we stop hearing all too quickly.