Facts and Fiction
by Shelley Blanton-Stroud
She’s striking, with high cheekbones and a full lower lip, but also haggard, sun-damaged. The fingertips of her right hand graze her cheek as she squints into the distance, inscrutable. Two young children lean into her, heads turned from the camera. A baby in dirty clothing sleeps in her arms. The woman is both the high point and center of their circle. The filthy lean-to tent behind them has the mottled quality of a photographer’s curtain backdrop. The composition is nearly perfect. Nearly. You can’t take your eyes off her face. Her name is Florence Thompson.
The photographer, Dorothea Lange, took five shots in this 1936 series, none of the others like this one, “Migrant Mother, Nipomo.” All the others include more people, more details of the Hooverville campsite. Lange later even had the photo retouched to remove Thompson’s thumb from the bottom of the image, as a compositional flaw drawing the eye away from Thompson’s face. (Such modification was against the rules of the Farm Security Administration, for whom Lange worked.) When the photograph appeared in the San Francisco News, the government sent 20,000 pounds of food to Thompson’s migrant camp. The picture made a difference. It fed hungry people. Though it omitted key details, including Thompson’s name, it appeared to tell a truth about the experience of hungry people living along the roads and fields of Depression-era California.
In her darkroom, Lange hung a quote by Sir Francis Bacon: “The contemplation of things as they are, without error or confusion, without substitution or imposture, is in itself a nobler thing than a whole harvest of invention.” This was her photographic creed—to photograph things as they are, though Florence Thompson later said the story this picture told about her was a lie. And though Lange clearly approached her documentary work with an artistic editorial eye.
This photo is in part what inspired my historical mystery, Copy Boy, and its central question—what is the difference between fact and truth? It was also a central problem for me as I was writing. How to treat historical fact in historical fiction. Here are five ways of seeing that helped me figure it out.
- Look for cracks in the facts. When you’ve found a period and people you want to immerse yourself in, look for a gap in the history, an unexpected tunnel leading to a grotto where you can invent. When I researched iconic, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Herb Caen, I found all kinds of information from his adolescence through his sports-writing gig as a 19-year old at the Sacramento Union, and then much more—of course—when he’d become a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle in 1936. But there was a one-year period when almost nothing was written of him. How did he go from being a teenaged sportswriter for a small-town paper to columnist at a big city paper in one year’s time? What could happen in such a year to evoke such a change? That was my grotto.
- Look through a scrim of history, to the present. For me, this idea came from my working playlist. Writing about dust bowl Okies, I listened constantly to alt.country music, mostly Gillian Welch and Lucinda Williams, because their music suggested something authentic about the 1930s Depression-era but at the same time something very current. As a reader, I think it’s good to aim for that. Historical fiction that manages to be authentically of the past but at the same time current, can avoid the cute preciousness of tidy recreation.
- Look with a worker’s eyes. When you show somebody at work in a particular time and place, it establishes historic authenticity precisely, without your having to cover everything happening in that time. In Sheri Holman’s The Dress Lodger, when you follow a grave-robbing doctor who needs bodies for dissection, you also see core aspects of the Industrial Revolution. In Caleb Carr’s The Alienist, when you follow a psychological profiler investigating an immigrant boy’s murder, you also learn about Gilded Age New York City. Showing the workplace and the job narrows your scope but provides a view outside.
- Look for the wrong person to put in the right place. If you’re aiming for realism in your historical fiction, you can still make it fresh by putting an unlikely person in an authentically accurate historical role. This is where you choose from an alphabet soup of protagonist pathologies—an obsessive-compulsive crime-scene clean-up guy; a delusional investigative reporter; a pathological liar as court reporter.
- Look for story over history. Don’t be so beholden to what actually happened in history that you miss the chance to tell a good story. One way to do this with impunity is through alternate history, as in Stephen L. Carter’s The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln. This can allow you to explore things that did happen with fresh eyes. The person many people see as our greatest president also took actions to win the Civil War that bear consideration. With his alternate history, Carter crafts a courtroom drama to do so.
Maybe looking this way through your story options will help you find the right balance between accuracy and authenticity, fact and truth.
SHELLEY BLANTON-STROUD grew up in California’s Central Valley, the daughter of Dust Bowl immigrants who made good on their ambition to get out of the field. She teaches college writing in Northern California and consults with writers in the energy industry. She co-directs Stories on Stage Sacramento, where actors perform the stories of established and emerging authors, and serves on the advisory board of 916 Ink, an arts-based creative writing nonprofit for children. She has also served on the Writers’ Advisory Board for the Belize Writers’ Conference. Copy Boy is her first novel, and she’s currently working on her second. She also writes and publishes flash fiction and non-fiction, which you can find at such journals as Brevity and Cleaver. She and her husband live in Sacramento with an aging beagle and many photos of their out-of-state sons. To get to know Shelley Blanton-Stroud and her writing better, visit her at https://shelleyblantonstroud.com.