Defending Your ‘Based’: The Role of Invention in Fact-Based Historical Fiction

By Michael Kula

 

On June 22, 1917, the headline in the Waukesha, Wisconsin Freeman newspaper read: “Mary Roberts Found Murdered.” Mary Roberts was the beautiful socialite wife of Dr. David Roberts, a wealthy and internationally renowned veterinarian during the early part of the 20th century, and the article that followed the headline detailed how she’d been found dead from a gunshot wound in her home’s living room. Now fast-forward eleven months to May 30, 1918, and the headline in the same newspaper read: “Teacher Convicted in Mary Roberts’ Slaying, Love Triangle to Blame.” This time the article that followed contained the rather salacious details of the court case that had convicted Grace Lusk (the “teacher”) of the murder. As the trial revealed, Dr. Roberts and Grace had been involved in a multi-year love affair that began while she was helping him write a book about the history of cattle. In the weeks leading up to the murder, Grace—as so often seems the plot in such stories—had been pleading with the esteemed doctor to divorce his wife and run off with her. The story had all the intrigue of an article in the National Enquirer: reports of heated public confrontations between Mary Roberts and Grace; excerpts from love letters exchanged between Dr. Roberts and the girl; and descriptions of Grace’s desperate threats of suicide made in the days before the murder. Of course, there were also graphic details of the murder itself—the tragic central facts of the case undisputed even by Grace’s defense attorney—about how Grace had accosted Mary in her home, eventually shooting her in cold blood with a revolver.

These are the historical facts of Mary Roberts’s murder, and, captured as they were in detail in the court transcripts, they are as iron-clad of facts as a writer or an historian could hope to find. They are also the kind of facts that most people hear and immediately respond to by saying, “That should be a movie,” or “That would make a great novel.” Well, now they have been—been made into a novel, at least—because they are the facts upon which my forthcoming novel The Good Doctor is based. And note here that I say my novel is based on these facts, even though I take great liberties with the historical record in my novel (very great liberties, as you’ll later see). Now as I admit this, it logically raises the question about what responsibilities historical fiction writers have in negotiating the line between historical fact and creative invention? Just how far can a writer go creatively and still claim that his or her work is based on a true story?

It is an obvious understanding that an historical fiction writer’s responsibility, unlike that of a more pure historian, is less to the facts than it is to something else: to the meaning of the story, perhaps; or to the pure entertainment value of the narrative action, perhaps, if the story is more genre-oriented. For example, any number of writers could have been inspired by the same facts about Mary Roberts’s murder and then written completely different novels than mine. I can easily imagine the story being molded into a true-crime novel, for example. Or a suspense novel. Or a murder-mystery. Even a romance, I suppose. And in writing these hypothetical novels, each of the authors would manipulate the facts of the story in the ways needed to best serve the expectations of their genre and/or their own aesthetic values or conceptual interests. To consider this issue within the tradition of the historical novel, we could look at an author like Sir Walter Scott, godfather of the genre, whose central responsibility in his Waverly novels, for example, could be characterized as being to his interest in issues of religio-political upheaval and their related social consequences. In service to this authorial interest, the facts for Scott could be seen as secondary, mutable, or even dismissible, as I’ll argue later; because historical fiction, after all, is not merely about the history.

In a similar way for me, a writer with a literary orientation, my primary interest in my work is to use fiction to explore potential modes of being, the what-makes-someone-tick sort of depth and meaning we have come to expect in literary fiction, and so my primary responsibility in writing The Good Doctor was to exploring depth of character. So while the facts of Mary Roberts’s murder are important, they are secondary, because if anyone wanted to know just the facts of her death, then the details are just a quick Google search away. And about those fact, at the risk of sounding callous, so what? On their own, the facts of the murder make an interesting historical footnote, but in terms of their impact or their contemporary relevance to the broad audience beyond perhaps Dr. Roberts’s extended family living today, there is little inherent meaning. No, that is where fiction comes in, where my novel comes in. I, like other literary writers, am interested in finding and creating meaning, and in order to discover that meaning in a narrative (or the potential meaning in a narrative) we must explore character.

In my case, as history recorded it, there was the character of Dr. Roberts, a tragic hero in the most literal Aristotelian interpretation of that concept. There was the character of Grace Lusk, the quintessential trope of “the other woman” as she was represented in the trial. And there was the character of Mary Roberts, the ultimate victim: wronged by her husband, killed by his mistress. That is how history has framed the lives of those characters, and certainly the events of that love affair and the subsequent murder deservedly earned Dr. Roberts, Grace, and Mary those labels. Was Dr. Roberts the womanizing cad Grace’s defense attorney painted him to be? Yes, at least in part. Was Grace the lovesick, volatile woman the prosecution portrayed her to be? Yes, again. And was Mary the fragile and innocent victim? Definitely. But as we know, life is never as simple as history sometimes wants to make it. In addition to being a womanizer, Dr. Roberts was, by all accounts, also an incredibly generous man, eager to help farmers in need. Grace was also a caring and dedicated teacher, a farmers-daughter type, somewhat innocently swept up in the allure of the wealth and opulence of Dr. Roberts’s social circle. Therefore in my novel, as I sought to uncover meaning from those historical events, I was obligated to explore the totality of my characters, to examine the gray areas of human nature that exist between the somewhat simplified black-and-white distinctions the legal system and history often favor.

I should pause here to confess that early on I was not entirely aware of all this. Initially I was awed by the nearly perfect plot that history had handed me, and in my early drafts I had more of the sensibility of a genre writer, playing up the elements of suspense and sensationalism in the love scandal and murder, all the while being as faithful as I could to the facts. In my early drafts I was obsessively careful not to veer far from the historical record, only tweaking it enough to give the story a better narrative arc, because I was afraid that if I strayed too far from the facts then some idealized reader would object to my novel as being—gasp—“untrue.” In honesty, I had yet to consider where the line between strict adherence to the facts and wide creative liberty for invention was for a writer. I just knew that if I stuck to the facts, I was safe.

This of course is not where things ended up. With each draft and narrative refinement I came to realize that even in the most simple translation of fact into fiction, all writers, all story tellers for that matter, take liberties with the facts; for if not, then I argue that what is being written is not fiction, but rather an attempt at some more “pure” sense of history. The changes we see at this level in fiction are first order changes, changes that everyone makes in crafting a good narrative and, conversely, everyone is willing to accept as an audience member without calling into question the veracity of the story. Let us call them craft driven changes. They are changes, as I would describe them, to the spine of a story; changes that we make, for example, with the time sequence and/or the magnitude of certain events and actions, and we, as story-telling people, make them everyday, often without even knowing it. Everyday, we omit unnecessary information when recounting an occurrence from our day when talking at the dinner table. We vary the sequence in which certain actions took place to build suspense when telling a story at a cocktail party. And we amplify the emotions and dramatic tension when, to use a cliché example, we talk about the fish that got away. These changes are common, they are innately accepted by the audience, and they are indeed a necessary part of good narrative craft, whether employed in a fact-based historical novel or in banter over a glass of wine. Manipulation of the facts in service to effective storytelling in this way generally has no bearing on an audience member’s concerns about historical accuracy or even that more lofty sense of truth.
But this is not the end of the matter, and when I look back at the many liberties I took with the historical record in my novel, I recognize that there are other changes I made—bigger changes beyond those to the spine of the story—that might begin to push readers’ comfort level with accepting that my novel is based on a true story. These are second order changes or, as I call them, opportunity driven changes, where writers manipulate or even veer completely from the facts in order to serve their greater motivations as artists. These are not changes to the spine of the story, to the basics of the narrative arc, but rather to the flesh of a story. They are essential for deepening the story, providing material to enrich it, essentially fleshing the narrative out in ways that the facts alone might not necessarily allow. For example, for a politically-oriented writer like Scott, these might be changes to or even whole-cloth invention of material of socio-political importance, like his creation of personal hardships his characters faced living during a specific era, even if there might be no historical documentation to ground the creative inventions in fact (or perhaps there might even be evidence to the contrary).

For me, in my novel, examples of these second order changes would be the liberties I took with Grace’s teaching. According to ample historical evidence, Grace was an elementary school teacher at a rural and relatively poor public school near Waukesha. In my novel, however, she teaches at a high school, an exclusive prep school for the city’s elite—the Fox River Academy—where, in my invention, she teaches Latin and ancient history. On the surface this might not seem that significant of a change; however, what if I were to admit that there neither is now nor was there ever such a school in the city? No Fox River Academy, no private prep school for the elite at all? All of it is made up. Invented. Here, as some of my early readers voiced with concern, we are beginning to butt up to the threshold an audience might have for tolerating fabrication, for pushing that fine line of “truthfulness.” But as I argued earlier in a different context, so what? Grace in real life was a teacher—that is a fact—and I remained faithful to the fact of the character upon which she is based. No matter if she is teaching high school or elementary school, Latin or simple spelling and penmanship, her profession is the same, the power relationship with the students is the same, and the social status of the profession is still roughly equivalent.
So if all of that is true, then why bother even making that change, you might ask? Why lie as someone might call it? Why not just stick to the facts? Well, for one reason, by making Grace an instructor of Latin and ancient history, I was able to add a layer of literary complexity to the story by having the ability to draw material from prominent literature from history (the poems of Catullus play a large role in my novel). For an even more important reason, since two of the themes I am interested in exploring in my novel are wealth and elitism, by having Grace teach at a prestigious academy while having come from humble beginnings herself, I had a richer context for examining issues of classism that could have contributed to her draw to Dr. Roberts. These opportunity driven changes remained faithful at their core to the general historical record, but the creative inventions provided more flesh to the fiction from which I could draw in my efforts to create meaning.

Now here I have to admit, I’ve been sitting on a secret. A big secret. So far these changes I’ve used to illustrate my argument are but a trifle in the scheme of the some of the liberties I’ve taken with the historical facts in my novel, and the most egregious, as some might call it, concerns the ending of the story when Grace kills Mary. On this fact, the real life murder, the historical record is clear and unambiguous. Grace accosted Mary in her home, shooting and killing her in living room. It is, in all ways of considering it, a fact, as solid as any that can be; so surely such a detail is untouchable, unchangeable. Right? Or else it would be impossible for me to claim that my novel is indeed based on a true story at all, right? Maybe not.

Clearly, since I do admit to making some significant changes to the ending and yet still claim the novel is based on these events, I obviously don’t agree. I indeed argue that facts even as iron clad as those about Mary Roberts’s murder are mutable, while still earning the right for a piece of fact-based historical fiction to claim it is based on a true story. To explain this though, I’ll need to give a bit of a spoiler. In my novel, Mary Roberts does indeed die toward the end; however when she does, there is no gun and no body left in a pool of blood on the living room floor, the way the court transcripts describe. Instead, her death occurs out in the countryside, in a barn on Dr. Roberts’s property where he keeps his livestock, and rather than depicting Mary’s death as a murder, the novel ends more ambiguously, with her death occurring as the result of a loud argument between herself and Grace that startles one David’s horses, causes him to break through the stable door, and trample Mary. Quite a change. Yes. Quite deceptive, as some might argue. And so “untrue”, right?

No. Even with such a significant revision of history, I still argue the novel is based on a true story, and here is why: above all, artistically, I believe that literary fiction writers—historical novelists or otherwise—are ultimately the servants of our characters. As we seek to create meaning from the potential modes of being that our characters present to us, we must fully submit ourselves to the truths they reveal through the fictional lives they live on our pages. That is our primary responsibility, and what this means is that amid all that grayness of character I set out to explore in my novel, the character of Grace revealed herself to be someone who was not capable of the cold-blooded killing reported in those newspapers. Thus, even as I sought to remain faithful to the historical record, I also had to allow her—the fictional character of Grace—to be as she would be, surrendering even those most central facts about Mary Roberts’s murder to possible revision. This is a third order change, a change to the heart of the story, or a character driven change as I call it, where the truths of the fictional characters we are creating trump even the provable facts upon which our stories are based. But here, I recognize, even for me, such a significant creative invention could be difficult to accept, and so I will end with a brief excerpt from my novel’s epilogue, where I gently attempt to nudge my fiction back toward the facts, at least metaphorically. In the following passage, set thirty years after the death of his wife, David, now an old man incapacitated by a stroke, is lying in his bed, reflecting on the tragic events of his life:

“And what of that woman? That teacher, David thought? Grace. What about her? Did he blame her? Did he hate her, as some of his friends asked in the years since that tragedy? No. As difficult as it was for his friends to believe it, David felt neither of those things—not anymore at least—because blaming her, as David had come to understand it, would be like blaming a soldier for killing during a war; and if there was anyone to blame for that, anyone to hate, it was he, himself, for it had been David’s own transgressions that started the war in which Grace found herself. And what about that horse, one of those same friends had once asked him? Gloucester. Did David blame him? Did he hate that animal for what he’d done, accidental or not? No. For if Grace was a soldier thrust into war, then he, that horse, David thought, was nothing but a gun discharging in her unstable hand.”

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Michael Kula is a graduate of Vanderbilt University and the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Emerson College. His work has appeared in literary magazines across the country including: Porcupine, Reconstruction, Mars Hill Review, MidAmerica, Vehicle, and The Drum. He is the past recipient of grants and awards from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature, the National Park Service, and the Northwest Writers Association. He is currently assistant professor of Writing Studies at the University of Washington, Tacoma. He has recently completed his first novel, The Good Doctor, which is based on the life of Dr. David Roberts, one of the wealthiest and most respected veterinarians in the country during the early half of the 20th century.

Thanks for sharing!
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