Adventures in Writing: Based on a True Story - J.D. Peterson
Truth is stranger than fiction. How often we have heard that phrase, and many times it seems to be correct. The growing popularity of books and movies based on a true story has increased in recent years. Stories based on actual events lend a layer of interest and seeming importance as we narrate the human experience.
As a writer, putting pen to paper to recount a tale from history can be an arduous task involving extensive research, not only regarding the events of the story but customs, language and social conduct appropriate for the time period – particularly in regard to women. What was scandalous in the Gilded Age would seem trivial to today’s reader.
The AMERICAN GILT Trilogy is based on the true story of the Belmont-Whiting Scandal and the life of Sara Swan Whiting*, a young debutante who was shunned by New York society through no wrong doing of her own. The tale, which begins in 1880 and ends around 1926, stirred a passion in me to dig for the truth. Perhaps this passion was sparked by women’s rights and their treatment by society, an issue which is still pertinent in 2017. In any event, I felt the story needed to be told and took it upon myself to tell it.
Clearly, when writing a novel based on actual events research is very important and accuracy is essential. As I began my research I felt like a miner unearthing tidbits of truth, buried under years of gossip and the generally accepted propaganda. Like most gossip, bits of fact are mixed with personal opinion, muddying the waters of history. I was a detective hunting for clues, as one piece of information led to another and the story took shape, piecing itself together like a puzzle from the past.
These days when you speak of research the mind goes directly to the internet, but there are records and information not available on the internet. Out-of-print books were hunted down. I mailed letters to cemeteries and organizations, visited libraries as well as historical societies, searching for information. I took a chance and reached out to the current owners of Sara’s family’s home and was rewarded with a personal tour of Swanhurst in Newport, R.I., bringing another facet of realism to the novels.
With these resources aside, here are five more tools I used when writing this story based on actual events:
1. Newspapers are an obvious step in research, but one must keep in mind that propaganda was rampant in 1880. The media was bought and manipulated by anyone with the money to do so, and the printed word was not always the truth. With that said, newspapers are an accurate way of noting important events and creating a timeline, but one must retain an aspect of skepticism regarding the truth of what is printed, just as we must when reading articles on the internet today.
2. Private correspondence is another way of digging into history. While researching AMERICAN GILT I discovered that Sara, my heroine, had several handwritten letters in a cache of family papers preserved by Columbia University Rare Books Library.
Traveling to New York I was able to personally read actual mail written by not only Sara, but relevant family members regarding the scandal. I felt as though I’d found treasure! But, reading these was not as easy as it sounds, as the handwriting of the time was so flourishing, that it took me several years to learn how to decipher the penmanship. Yet, it was very exciting to know that Sara had written the notes I was holding in my hand, and revealed imperceptible aspects of her personality which I intended to transfer to my reader.
3. Personal interviews can also add depth to the story. I was lucky to meet a descendant of Sara’s and hear her description of the scandal with the advantage of hindsight afforded by the years. Often times, it isn’t possible to locate living ancestors – or the living continue to perpetuate the accepted propaganda of a story. Either way, it reminds us that we are writing about actual people and aids to keep that important detail in focus.
4. Timeline for any story is critical, but can get complicated when marking events from over 100 years ago. To that end I got out construction paper and actually drew timelines noting important events, making certain to be accurate in the dates and locations. Once that was done, I created another timeline with rows for important characters to note their whereabouts on any given date. It wouldn’t work to place Mrs. Belmont in a scene in Newport, Rhode Island, when in reality she was cruising the Nile in Egypt. These tools took a bit of time, but were invaluable reference when writing the chapters.
5. Another tool I highly recommend is one used by screenwriters. That is the use of index cards to note a scene. I would transfer information from my timeline to an index card, marking the event/scene, characters, date, location, and other pertinent information. It is much simpler to shuffle the order of scenes on the index cards, than it is to copy and paste scenes to different page locations. There are many digital products for writers that accomplish this goal, but personally, I like to get off the computer screen when possible, enjoying the tangible use of paper. Often times I would arrange the index cards on the floor, placing them in order of scenes, and review the sequence of events. I found this gave me a bit more objectivity to the relevance of the scene and its placement in the manuscript. The cards kept my mind off the actual wording of a scene and focused on the specific events. Using index cards also made the shifting of scenes easier to follow when returning to the computer when adjustments were necessary. I have found this tool to be so helpful that I continue to use it when drafting story ideas.
It is important when writing a fact-based novel to get the details correct, but as with any story, it comes down to the characters. Getting under the skin of what your characters are feeling, seeing, smelling etc. is the core of transporting your reader into another time and place – indeed a different world. No matter what the setting or time period, human emotion and experience remains the same.
In the end, my strongest ally in writing the AMERICAN GILT Trilogy was passion.
I have a strong passion for the story. This passion carried me through 10 years of work on this project. Without a strong passion for the tale, I probably would have given up on the novels several years into writing. It was this passion that bred determination to complete the books and bring them to print. If you are considering writing a tale based on actual history, I suggest it be something you feel passionate about.
Writing AMERICAN GILT was to travel through time, back to the gilded age, and now with the publication of the books, I take my reader with me. They have assured me it is a journey worth taking!
– J.D. Peterson