Writing the Historical Novel, Part 3: When the “Real” History Presents a Problem

Fiction is fiction, which means it doesn’t require absolute historical accuracy. But serious fiction writers often want to convey a “sense” of a culture or people, even when only imagining it. This is especially true if you’re not writing fantasy but attempting to create a “real” place, as, for example, author Jean Auel did in Clan of the Cave Bear. To do this, according to Auel, she first researched and then imagined herself into a time and place to describe what could not be found in written history.

 

A novel manuscript I’ve been working on for more than a few years, tentatively titled Sun, tells the story of Hassi, a Charleston slave girl of mixed race who is part white, part black, part Seminole Indian. And although the period I’m writing about, America in the 1830’s, is well documented, Seminole history is not. What we know about Seminole culture of that time, as well as most 19th century American Indian history, comes not from the Indians but from the writings in the early years by European trappers (before Seminoles were even known by that name) and in later years from American soldiers and traders. Though these are interesting and helpful sources of native history, they are not without their biases when it comes to who is “civilized” and who is not.

 

However, when I was beginning the novel Sun, my attempts to interview present-day Seminoles about their history proved difficult enough that I eventually gave up. The Florida Seminoles are the only American Indian group that has never signed a peace treaty with the United States. And while today they are thriving as productive Florida ranchers, I learned very quickly that they have little interest in sharing their culture with non-Indian outsiders.

 

After doing as much research as I could on Creek Indian/Seminole cultures of the American Southeast, while communicating with those who knew the culture, I decided I could then turn the creative writer in me “loose” to craft what I hoped would be a credible work of historical fiction. That the manuscript was a top-three finalist in the Carolina Wren Lee Smith competition in 2016 was an affirmation that I may actually have succeeded.