In the latest issue of Creative Nonfiction, Sharon DeBartolo Carmack discusses the joys and hazards of writing family narrative. That’s the currently popular way of publishing one’s family history. Think, Alex Haley’s Roots. Think facts placed in an historical context that includes setting, character and plot. Often families hire writers like Carmack to create these histories for them.
As a fan of family stories, I have long had trouble with charts that reduce lives to birth, marriage and death dates. That said, there are problems trying to keep the history interesting and accurate. John Philip Colletta, a pioneer in melding genealogical facts with creative writing once wrote:
Attorney, litigants and witnesses exit the courtroom, descend the long iron staircase and step out onto the portico. Lighting a cigar or pipe, or tucking a plug of tobacco inside the lower lip, the men watch the starlings poking in the rain-saturated lawn.
Sounds perfectly plausible, until Colletta got an e-mail from an ornithologist who informed him that starlings weren’t introduced into the area until 1890, decades after the event took place.
M. Mark Miller, who writes a history blog on Yellowstone Park that’s strong on story not to mention his book Adventures in Yellowstone, encountered a different problem. While writing an article on Fred Bottler for The Pioneer Museum Quarterly he discovered–a truth too true. One of the stories, told by Bottler’s son, Floyd, concerns a pair of needle guns, which were an early type of repeating rifle.
It’s a fun story, I’ll let him tell it:
Floyd said his father won the guns in a card game with soldiers at Fort Ellis, an army post near Bozeman. Although Bottler knew the guns technically were government property, he thought they would be handy if Indians attacked his isolated ranch. He decided to keep them.
An officer at Fort Ellis, Lieutenant Gustavus Doane, heard that Bottler had the guns and decided to retrieve them. Floyd said that when Doane arrived at Bottler’s house, the rancher invited him in and seated him where he could see the guns hanging on a wall.
Floyd said Doane would look at the guns, then look at Fred, and then back at the guns. Finally, Doane told Bottler that a man living on the edge of Indian country needed such guns and he could keep them—but only if he kept them out of sight when he visited the fort.
Then, Floyd said, “Their eyes met again and held for a long moment. Then both men rose and the hands met in a strong clasp”
I couldn’t resist quoting that directly in my article. But when I asked Ann Butterfield, the Pioneer Museum Associate Director, to read a draft of my article, she objected. She said she liked what I had written, except for that “gazed into each other’s eyes” stuff. “Men just don’t act that way,” she added with a scoff.
I immediately checked my source and confirmed that I had quoted Floyd accurately. I assured Ann of that, but she wasn’t really mollified. That made me think.
It’s my job to present old stories for today’s readers. I want people to read straight through my stuff and say: “That’s interesting.” I don’t want them stop and say: “This just doesn’t sound right”—even if it is right.
I also like to quote exactly what people wrote because their word choices make personalities and emotions shine through. It’s always a balancing act to decide when modern sensibilities might collide with old fashioned ways of saying things.
When I turned in final draft of my article, it didn’t contain the “gazed into each others eyes” quote. Writing narrative history is not just about getting the facts right; it’s also about getting the reader’s experience right. If it distracts, it’s got to go.