History that downplays individual experience — that focuses exclusively on movements, economic forces, social developments, and the like — can be worthwhile and enlightening, but it’s never going to make very compelling reading for non-specialists. People are interested in people, so they like to see how the larger forces of history shape — and are shaped by — recognizable, specific persons with stories all their own. As a narrative historian, I therefore face a lot of the same challenges that a novelist does. I’ve got to find characters whose life histories will allow me to express what needs expressing, and who are in and of themselves fascinating to read about.
As a former fiction writer (or, as Walter Isaacson teasingly called me in the New York Times a few years ago, a “lapsed novelist”), I’ve seen the task from both perspectives, and I can tell you that the narrative historian has, in some ways, the harder job. Yes, we don’t face the yawning terror of the totally blank page every morning (that daily existential crisis), but we also don’t have the luxury of creating elements from whole cloth to add dimension to a dullish character or enliven a lagging plot. We can only draw on the raw material offered up by the historical record. Of course, many popular historians of the past had no qualms about inventing freely — details, dialogue, scenes — whenever the historical record was lacking, but the new school of narrative history insists on higher standards of scholarship. In other words, we can’t just make it up.
So when deciding on what characters to focus on in my books, I look for people who (A), were at the center of the important issues of the day, (B), were complex and interesting in their own right, and (C), were also well documented in the historical record. That last criterion is important. Memoirs, letters, newspaper interviews, diaries — any kind of account in which a participant in the drama tells what happened in human, on-the-ground terms — are critical for me, since they give me the concrete details I need to bring people and events to life. (Incidentally, since a lot of my main characters are colorful types who frequently wound up in court, transcripts of trial testimony have been particularly useful.)
Naturally, all of these documents can be as unreliable as any other sources in the record. Accounts are only as trustworthy as the people who give them, after all, so I find myself constantly having to judge how much to believe in any given source. Often I’ll talk about this decision-making process in the end-notes to my books, which I see as a kind of running commentary on how I used the historical record to create the book, for those who are interested in seeing how the sausage is made.
The three criteria I mentioned were important considerations when I chose the main characters around whom to base The Mirage Factory. William Mulholland, D.W. Griffith, and Aimee Semple McPherson were all central to the story I wanted to tell, representing the three forces — which you might shorthand as Water, Celluloid, and Spirituality — that allowed Los Angeles to grow up in a place where no big city has any right to be. They’re also intriguing, multidimensional people with character flaws as big as their talents. And they were all extremely well documented in the historical record. All three wrote autobiographies of a sort (although Mulholland’s was very short). Each left behind a fairly comprehensive archive. And as highly visible public figures, they were covered extensively (in McPherson’s case, one might say “obsessively”) by the local press in their lifetimes.
So narrative historians have definite limits on what they can do, particularly when telling stories that involve people for whom the historical record is skimpy or incomplete. That’s why I sometimes have to take a pass on a book idea that might seem irresistible at first glance. If the material isn’t there to give the characters and events the kind of texture and dimension required, the idea won’t work, no matter how interesting the story may be in outline. Fortunately, though — thanks to the hard work of archivists who keep developing more sophisticated ways of cataloguing and searching their collections — the amount of raw material available just keeps growing. It’s up to the narrative historian to choose wisely.
I love it when readers say to me, “After I finished your novel, I went straight to Google to figure out what was true and what was made up!” That’s exactly why historical fiction is my favorite genre: In a good story, I become immersed in a different time period with people I’d never meet otherwise, who are living through situations that are unimaginable today. After I’ve turned the last page, I’m eager to discover the nuggets of truth buried within the work of fiction.
My fictional characters are built around the framework of historical fact. Once I have an idea for a setting for my book — The Doll- house is set in the Barbizon Hotel for Women and The Address takes place in the Dakota apartment house — I do a deep dive into the research of the time period (1950s for The Dollhouse and 1880s for The Address, although they both feature contemporary plotlines as well). I read everything I can from that era, including newspapers, magazines, fiction, and nonfiction. I also interview experts, like architectural historians who specialize in the Gilded Age, or women who lived in the Barbizon Hotel for Women in the ’50s and ’60s.
That’s when the ideas start to pop. While researching The Dollhouse, I learned that when the Barbizon Hotel for Women was turned into luxury condos, a dozen or so long- time residents were moved into rent-controlled apartments on the same floor. Great set-up for a book, I thought.
I read a harrowing newspaper article from the 1950s about the rising heroin epidemic, which was often blamed on bebop jazz musicians. What a great contrast to the rarified world of the hotel, with its guests in pearls and white gloves, right? So in my plot, I sent one of my characters downtown, where she got mixed up with some seedy characters.
I used the same approach while working on The Address. I discovered that in the 1930s, a “lady managerette” ran the Dakota. That gave me the idea for one of my characters: a housekeeper named Sara Smythe who gets an unexpected promotion early in the novel.
In general, the characters in my stories are all fictional. That gives me room to play around with them, get them into and out of trouble, and not feel constrained by a true historical figure. Exceptions do occur, though. Nelly Bly, a fabulous reporter from the 1880s, makes a quick appearance in The Address. As a former journalist, I couldn’t resist. And both buildings were touched by famous, tragic figures. Sylvia Plath stayed at the Barbizon Hotel in 1953 and wrote about it in The Bell Jar, and John Lennon was murdered outside the Dakota in 1980.
In both those cases, I felt it was important to mention the association, but not linger there. For example, I set the modern-day timeline of The Address in 1985, when Strawberry Fields first opened, as a way to respectfully touch upon the tragedy without making it a major part of the story.
A couple of times I’ve had to slightly fudge dates of real events in order to make the story work. When that happens, I mention it in the author’s note at the end, where I also list many of the resources I relied upon. My hope is that readers will continue on in their journey to learn more about the past, and enjoy it as much as I did.
The novelist William Dean Howells once famously remarked that his friend Mark Twain was not a writer who performed so much as a performer who wrote. Perhaps surprisingly, this astute observation also holds true in Twain’s nonfiction, a form that would seem to put less of a premium on both invention and performance. To read the passages from The Innocents Abroad, Roughing It, A Tramp Abroad, and Life on the Mississippi collected in this volume is to understand that Twain didn’t lose much sleep over the idiosyncratic demands of fiction versus nonfiction. Both offered numerous and varied opportunities to an inspired, indeed unparalleled, bullshitter. To be sure, many of the set pieces that are included in the Everyman’s Library volume of The Complete Short Stories — “Buck Fanshaw’s Funeral,” “The Story of the Old Ram”—turn up in this volume as well. Classifying Twain’s work into fiction or nonfiction is something we do for our own convenience; his convenience was to ignore ours.
So, are the events chronicled in Roughing It — which details Twain’s journey by stagecoach to the Nevada territory, his stint there as a silver miner, and his apprenticeship to the newspaper trade — true? Once asked that same question about one of his own stories, David Sedaris replied, “They’re true enough,” and it’s easy to imagine Twain saying the same thing about his youthful adventures in the American West. We know he traveled to Europe and the Holy Land as a correspondent, so it’s not unreasonable to suppose that at least some of what he reports in The Innocents Abroad actually happened. I suspect, however, that the literally true parts are those he wasn’t able to improve on through embellishment or outright invention. For Twain, “truth” was not just elastic but indeed designed to be stretched. He learned this lesson early on, writing for western newspapers. He explains the job to great comic effect in Roughing It, where, as a cub reporter, he wrote a story about a wagon full of immigrants attacked by Indians. At first, fearing that other reporters might recount the same story, he sticks pretty close to the facts, despite his conviction that the story could be improved upon by straying from them. Later, though, when he learns that the owner of the wagon meant to continue his journey the following morning (leaving no one to contradict Twain’s account), all bets are off . His next draft describes an Indian fight that “to this day has no parallel in history.” This is Twain we’re talking about, so it’s likely that he also exaggerated the extent of his exaggerations, but still. Buoyed by praise from the paper’s editor, he expresses a willingness to murder every immigrant on the plains with his pen if “the interests of the paper demanded it.” Thus the low bar of truth is established: true enough. For him. For his editor. For the paper’s readership.
ONCE ASKED THAT SAME QUESTION ABOUT ONE OF HIS OWN STORIES, DAVID SEDARIS REPLIED, “THEY’RE TRUE ENOUGH.”
His approach to fiction was basically the same. At the beginning of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck says that readers may have heard of him if they’ve read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which “was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There were things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth.” That first assertion, it’s worth remembering, was both the truth and a lie. The book was actually “made” by Samuel Clemens, and the parts Mr. Clemens “stretched” were the parts that needed stretching, beginning with his own identity as Mark Twain. Again, Twain is not so much a writer, at least as the term is used today, as a storyteller whose primary duties are to the narrative and its audience. No story is likely to be instructive if it isn’t entertaining, and the best way to gauge whether it’s working or not is to watch it land with an actual audience, a lesson Twain learned long before he gave his first public lecture.
In A Tramp Abroad he recounts his first ride on a Mississippi steamboat as a ten-year-old boy. Falling asleep, he has a terrifying dream that the boat is ablaze, and he rushes into the ladies’ salon, still under the nightmare’s influence, screaming “Fire!” The ladies there knew better, of course, and they advised him to return to his cabin and dress, lest he catch cold. It’s a revealing memory. The humiliation of his story playing so badly, his audience rejecting both the tale and the teller, is still fresh in Twain’s mind twenty-five years later as he’s writing Tramp. Just as telling is the reason he recalls the episode in the first place. He’s in Germany watching a production of King Lear, where the actor playing the title role “raged and wept and howled” across the stage. Twain admires the performance but feels sorry for the actor, who has to wait until the end of the act for his applause.
Writers, by contrast, are used to silence. Their applause, if they’re lucky enough to get any, comes long after their “performance” has concluded, in the form of reviews. True, authors who publish serially may to some degree interact with their audience. When readers loved Sam Weller in an early installment of The Pickwick Papers, Dickens was happy to expand his role as the novel progressed, but that’s hardly akin to telling the same stories on stage night after night, as Twain did on his public speaking tours. Each audience provided him with valuable insight into what worked and why, allowing him to revise the material accordingly. His first public lecture triumph near the end of Roughing It is described almost completely in terms of the crowd’s appreciation. The audience is with him from the start, he tells us, even the jokes he’d judged to be inferior faring “royally.” Near the end, though, the material grows more somber and serious, and Twain tells us that the “absorbed hush” that fell over the audience “gratified me more than any applause.” Indeed, he’s so pleased by the reaction that he can’t help but smile, which the crowd took as a cue to laugh, thus ruining the moment.
Later in life, Twain’s relationship with his audience would grow more complex. In Life on the Mississippi, he admits that being a river pilot was the best job he ever had, because the steamboat pilot has no master, whereas writers were “manacled servants of the public.” That said, no writer ever courted his audience more assiduously nor drew more confidence and pleasure from public adulation (Twain courted honorary degrees, too, and shamelessly.) Indeed, one suspects that it was from his audience, as much as the work itself, that Twain derived his sense of accomplishment and well-being.
WRITERS, BY CONTRAST, ARE USED TO SILENCE. THEIR APPLAUSE, IF THEY’RE LUCKY ENOUGH TO GET ANY, COMES LONG AFTER THEIR “PERFORMANCE” HAS CONCLUDED, IN THE FORM OF REVIEWS.
It’s worth pointing out that the world has changed since Twain left it, and our attitudes towards “truth” and “fiction” have become more rigorous and stern. Mislabel your novel as a memoir (or allow your publisher to do so) and you’ll likely find yourself in a world of hurt. Twain was no great fan of fraud and deception, but like Melville he understood that the world was steeped in both, and moreover he harbored more than a little admiration and affection for its charlatans. Reading Huckleberry Finn I often wonder if I judge the King and the Duke more harshly than their creator intended. At the very least Twain would’ve understood that people who get conned are often complicit in their own deception. Just as important, he would have recognized the paradox inherent in labeling some stories “made up” ( fiction) and others “true” (nonfiction). Interestingly, audience often plays a role here, too. When you claim that a story is invented — especially one as elaborate as Twain’s were — people will naturally suspect you of telling the truth (Come on! You couldn’t have made that up!). Conversely, when you claim to be telling the truth, those same folks shift gears and suspect you of lying (Surely you embellished this!). Storytelling thrives in this fundamental para- dox and often resists any attempts at clarification.
“Mark Twain’s Nonfiction” first appeared as the introduction to Mark Twain’s Collected Nonfiction: Volume 2 (Everyman’s Library, 2016)
Explore Richard Russo’s latest books:
I’m an author. And an editor. But never at the same time.
I’ve traveled a lot — all over North America and to Europe as well — to talk to writers about the craft of writing. I’ve given talks about plot, about character, about voice, about emotion, and have had wonderful conversations about stories with tons of booklovers. But inevitably, at some point in the conversation, someone asks me how my editorial brain coexists with my writer brain — whether I’m always editing what I write. And the answer, of course, is yes, I do edit what I write, but I don’t edit it — I couldn’t possibly edit it — in the same way I edit someone else’s work. And I never edit it until I’ve finished a complete first draft.
In the first book I wrote, The Nina, The Pinta, and the Vanishing Treasure, which is a mystery for elementary schoolers, I edited and edited the first chapter until I felt like it was as close to perfect as I could make it before I moved on. And then I did the same with the second chapter. And the third. The book — which is only about 20,000 words — took me nearly a year to draft, and then when I got to the end, I realized that I’d constructed the plot all wrong, and all of that painstaking editing was, while perhaps not a waste of time, extraordinarily inefficient, because now I had to rewrite half of those chapters and revise the rest so that they made sense with the new plot structure. So over the next couple of years, I devised a plan, a way to turn off my internal editor and write more efficiently. These are my writing commandments.
1. THOU SHALT OUTLINE:
Before I start writing, I go through the entire story, chapter by chapter, and decide what important plot and emotional events will happen in each one. That way, I always know where the story’s going and will feel compelled to move forward instead of working on the same chapter for months.
2. THOU SHALT NOT RE-READ EARLIER SECTIONS
With my first book, I would start every writing session by rereading everything I’d already written, revising all of that, and only then start on new material. That meant that the longer the book got, the more time I needed to set aside each day to write. I realized afterward that this made no sense, so now I don’t read over what I’ve written until I have a whole draft done.
3. THOU SHALT HAVE GOALS
I break down my writing goals into manageable tasks that I must complete. When I’m drafting, my goals are all quantity based: 1,000 words today, 1,500 words this weekend, etc. And then once I have a draft done, I give myself chapter goals: Revise four chapters this weekend, one chapter after dinner. When I have that target in my mind, I push through to get things done.
4. THOU SHALT NOT SHARE YOUR WORK UNTIL IT’S COMPLETE
I have an amazingly generous, perceptive writing group, but I try not to share pages with them while I’m mid-draft. I want their thoughts on the whole book at once, otherwise it’s quite likely I’d begin inputting their edits into early pages and work so hard on those that it would take me forever to get through a complete draft.
5. THOU SHALT ACCEPT THAT SOME THINGS CAN BE FILLED IN LATER
Sometimes I’ll be going along and a thought will strike me about a section I’ve already written. Instead of going back and revising that scene right then, I scroll back to that scene and make myself a note that says something like [REMEMBER TO ADD IN THE THING ABOUT THE PASTA POT]. And then when I’m up to the revising stage, I add that part in.
6. THOU SHALT REMEMBER THAT THIS MANUSCRIPT IS NOT WRITTEN IN STONE
I think the true key to turning off any internal editing is to remember that every book goes through multiple revisions in its lifetime. The words and phrases and sentences don’t have to be perfect right away — I spent four years writing and revising The Light We Lost. Some lines are the same as they were in the first draft, but many are not. In the end, understanding that I’d eventually be letting go of so much that I’d written is what made it easiest for me to turn off that internal editor and enjoy the act of creation inherent in writing.
We know readers tend to be writers too, so we feature writing tips from our authors. Who better to offer advice, insight, and inspiration than the authors you admire? They’ll answer several questions about their work, share their go-to techniques and more. Now, get writing!
Is there something you do to get into a writing mood? Somewhere you go or something you do to get thinking?
In the early morning, I consume coffee, turn on my computer, plant my butt in my desk chair in my home office, and let my cats get settled into their usual spots. I quickly check email and look at the headlines on a news site to see if the world has blown up outside my bubble. If I don’t need to duck for cover, I start working. I stay off social media until noon (that’s my plan, anyway). Each of my books has its own digital journal: it’s for stream of consciousness stuff, whatever’s on my mind. I open the journal for my current book and type like mad for a few minutes. It helps me discharge anything that’s weighing on me so I can move on. Then I open my manuscript and revise the last few pages I wrote the prior day, which leads into the new day’s work. For those days when the work just isn’t happening, I make deals with myself. Write for 45 minutes and get up and do something else for 15. Write until lunchtime and then do something else. Oddly, times of personal crisis are excellent writing periods for me because what better escape is there than to immerse yourself in a good book?
How would you recommend creating and getting to know your characters?
I start by naming them. By going through that process, I think through their history, circumstances, and personalities. When was she born? What’s her ethnicity? What’s her birth order in the family? Was she raised in a traditional two-parent family or something else? Would her parents have selected a popular name of the era or something unique? Does she come from a modest background or is she well heeled? Does she later change her name or go by a nickname? Is her name evocative of who she is? The protagonist of my current series of suspense novels is Nan Vining. She’s rooted in tradition and family, so I named after her grandmother, Nanette. But she’s tough, so her nickname, “Nan,” is clipped and direct. I liked the surname Vining because it’s uncommon and has a lot of consonants, which for me makes a tougher sounding name than one with many vowels. Also, it evokes a vine, which is appropriate for Nan who’s tenacious and steady. Her name is a great fit for her, but I’ve changed names when a character has evolved and the name no longer works. Thank goodness for “Find and Replace.”
Did you always want to write? How did you start your career as an author?
I fell in love with writing and reading before I really learned how to do either one. When I was about four years old, I could write my name, with the Ns backward, and three words: yes, no, zoo. My mom was a reader and I was fascinated with her books. I’d look through the pages and pick out the few words I could read. When I got to the white area after a chapter break, I thought that space was there for me to finish the story. I’d take a crayon and have at it, writing, “yes, no, zoo,” and signing my name with backward Ns. It didn’t make my mom too happy to find me scribbling in her books. After I truly learned how to read and write, I wrote compulsively—letters, diaries, stories—but didn’t attempt to publish anything. I didn’t feel I was good enough. Many years later, I took a creative writing class at UCLA, where I started my first novel. After three years, while working fulltime at a day job, I finished that book and got it published. I’ve been writing and publishing fiction ever since.
What’s the best piece of advice you have received?
Finish that first draft, even if it’s a big, flawed mess. And then the next best piece of advice I’ve received comes into play: Writing is about rewriting.
What are the perks and challenges of writing a come-back character?
Five years passed between my last Detective Nan Vining thriller and my latest one, Killing Secrets. During that time, I wrote a standalone, The Night Visitor, and several short stories. The challenge in returning to the Nan Vining series came from reconnecting with the four earlier books and wondering whether I could still channel the writer who had created that vibrant world. I was afraid I’d somehow lost my feel for Nan, her daughter Emily, her work partner and lover Jim Kissick, and the other characters as well as the dark thread that runs through the series. My doubts disappeared when I started Killing Secrets and it felt entirely natural, as if I’d come home. It felt great to return to this familiar tableau, but also to break new ground. I’ve just signed a contract with Alibi to write the sixth and seventh in the Nan Vining series and I’m excited to see where the journey takes the characters and me.
Read More about Killing Secrets here.