Archive for the ‘Personal Histories’ Category

The “frontier” between fiction and nonfiction

One of my favorite new blogs, A Writer of History, recently posted an amazing interview about the writing of historical fiction—or is it “creative history” or historical nonfiction?  Personally, while some argue that the terms are synonymous for the same genre, I’ve always felt that the genre designation depended on the author, the research, the message, and the presentation, if you know what I mean!  And I’m glad that author Charlotte Gray not only agrees but has definitely earned the right to place her relevant works (Gray also writes pure nonfiction) into the genre of historical nonfiction.

During the interview, which was posted to the blog on February 25, Mary Tod asked two seemingly unrelated questions of Gray: “What ingredients make for successful historical nonfiction?” and “Can you tell us what you mean when you say that the frontier between fiction and nonfiction is under constant negotiation?”

Gray’s insightful responses are actually central to the fiction-nonfiction debate:

Trustworthiness. I have worked hard to establish a reputation as a nonfiction writer who does not invent characters, events, conversations. If I say what somebody is thinking, I know about their internal monologue from private letters etc. So readers can know they are increasing their knowledge and understanding of Canadian history without constantly asking themselves, “Did this really happen?” . . .  A novelist is not under such constraints to stick to the known facts . . . he or she can let their imaginations run! (But if they have somebody driving a car in the 1880s, that’s a problem!)

Jump over to A Writer of History and glean the knowledge that awaits in the many other information-packed answers. While reading, remember that much of the commentary and advice can pertain to other fiction genres and categories as well as it does to any type of nonfiction.

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Thoughts on writing, from author Ruth Rendell

I am totally envious of the information that Alison Flood gathered from octogenarian author Ruth Rendell in her recent interview. But, I certainly couldn’t have done a better job! 

For those not familiar with her work, Rendell also writes under the pseudonym Barbara Vine, the pen name she uses in her latest book, The Child’s Child.  For the record, I just finished reading The Child’s Child  and willingly recommend it—even the book that’s within the book, which I particularly liked, unlike many of the reviewers at Goodreads!  The book within the book is a reflective peek into one family’s history and the actions that a few members of that family felt they had to take to live within societal dictates of the time. In my opinion, the interior book provided an unusually comfortable look at everyday life during the period and how that life viewed homosexuality and out-of-wedlock motherhood.

Back to Flood’s interview “Ruth Rendell: a life in writing” . . . The piece was posted to the Manchester Guardian website on March 1, 2013, and guides Rendell into thoughts about using a pseudonym to change perspective; tackling social issues like domestic violence, pedophilia, and racism; and writing crime-based fiction.

Reflecting on the latter, she believes the force of her books featuring Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford lies in knowing his personality, not in knowing the ugly, dark sides of people or life.

I just wait until I’ve got a character and I think why would anybody do that, what is it in their background, what is it in their lives makes them do it. Usually these things are just accident or impulse, or because people are drunk or on something. . . . It’s that people do these things almost by accident, or because of anger, their rage, their madness—and then probably regret it.

On the subject of her own writing, she admits that “I don’t find writing easy . . . I do take great care, I rewrite a lot . . . If anything is sort of clumsy and not possible to read aloud to oneself, which I think one should do . . . it doesn’t work.”

When talking about the writing of others, Rendell tells Flood, “The things they write, it’s as if writing dialogue is just a matter of he said, she said, thank you, yes, how are you and so on, all this superfluous stuff nobody needs. It’s as if they don’t look at it and say, ‘Do people talk like that?'”

Please, follow the link and enjoy the interview for yourself.

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Categories: Personal Histories

The “fiction” in historical fiction; and the why

Those of you who have followed me for a time know that some of my favorite editorial projects are works of historical fiction; the truth is, historical fiction has been one of my favorite genres since I was in grade school.  (Anyone remember the We Were There series?)  Perhaps that’s why, during those projects, I’ve noted one challenge that continually plagues many of their writers—especially newer ones:  “Exactly how much fiction is acceptable in historical fiction?”  Even more seasoned writers have issues, but their challenges are more generally along the lines of,  “When is fiction acceptable in historical fiction?”  Either is a common problem.

Part of a recent  interview with best-selling, award-winning author Hilary Mantel  on NPR’s  Fresh Air  briefly addresses these two questions.  (If you listen to the interview, which focuses on the two finished books in Mantel’s trilogy about Tudor England,  Wolf Hall  and  Bring Up the Bodies,  her comments on writing historical fiction run from about 16:18 to roughly 19:38.)  Her answer is simple, yet complex.

I make up as little as possible.  I spend a great deal of time on research, on finding all the available accounts of a scene or incident, finding out all the background details and the biographies of the people involved . . .  it’s really in the gaps, the erasures, that I think the novelist can best go to work . . .

She then steps into the topic that, in my mind, states the very purpose for writing historical fiction in the first place: to tell “the rest of the story” as Paul Harvey used to say—the part of the story that history books cannot easily convey; the part that relates  why  what happened, happened:

. . . inevitably in history, in any period, we know a lot about what happened, but we may be far hazier on why it happened. And there’s always the question: Why did it happen the way it did? Where was the turning point?

In other words, facts are facts, whether they involve a person or group of people, an act or event, or a time or place; but, the why and the how . . . now, that’s where the “story” in history comes in!  At least, that’s my opinion.

So, now that you know the challenge of historical fiction (and how to meet it), get back to that draft!

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Your memories to memoirs, or a personal history

Of all the projects I work on, I have to say that some of the most rewarding ones are those during which I have the chance to help clients start, develop, and complete the stories of their lives. Working with “average Joes” and “everyday Josephines” is an interest that developed early in my career—when I helped out in the local history room of the Dayton and Montgomery County (Ohio) Public Library back in the 1970s and early ’80s.

I didn’t do much in the beginning except help the reference librarians to research questions by digging up information from “the cage” (where the older and historical properties of the library were stored behind chain-link fencing) and then verify their responses by photocopying documents, pages from history books, and newspaper clippings. The work was extremely interesting, rather like detective work, and certainly deepened my interest in local history. But it was just a stepping stone in a journey I didn’t even know I’d begun.

Eventually, I jumped from that local history room to the county historical society a few blocks away. There, I not only started performing my own research but I also got to transform my discoveries into stories for the society’s newsletter. Still, like the questions I worked with in the library, those adventures into local history primarily involved companies, buildings, street names, and communities; only occasionally did a good question about a local family come in. And, then, the questions were nearly always about prominent families. Finally, when I later moved to Raleigh, North Carolina, and took a position as historical publications editor—well, that was when I finally got to work primarily with people, and primarily with “rag’lar” people.

You see, the North Carolina Museum of History had just started an initiative to gather “his stories” and “her stories” (get it? his stories, as in histories . . .) from the working classes of the state’s residents. The wealthier and ruling classes were, of course, well documented; but in the 1990s, the stories of older residents and their everyday lives were rapidly vanishing, along with the ways of life they reflected, and the museum had wisely taken note. My role was to edit transcribed oral histories and videos and to proofread transcriptions from written letters, notes, and diary entries. Once in a while, I did get to meet the “dignitaries” but generally, that honor was reserved for the staff members and volunteers who did the interviews.

The act of gathering histories from the state’s working classes was somewhat novel in the early 1990s. In fact, many people refused the museum’s advances at first because they believed “no one will care about my life” or “I’m not important; why do you want to know about me?” A few years passed, but eventually, we overcame those beliefs. And, what helped change minds were interviews like this one (a low-resolution pdf), which was used in the museum’s Tar Heel Junior Historian magazine.

Ms Boyette’s story exemplifies a regular, old, everyday existence. But, in reading it, no one can argue with the significance of her memories or the importance of her story. With luck, it’s even helped convince you to consider telling yours and leaving it as a legacy for your family, friends, and community.

Something to think about, anyways . . .

Stephen Evans,

A new service for clients of the-freelance-editor

As of this morning, the-freelance-editor was approved for live consultations through the Live Person “world of experts.” As of this afternoon, links have been added from each of the contact pages on the network sites that have been updated:

A link from the contact page of our primary site,, is also available. And, one will be added to the sidebar of this blog eventually. Here are samples of the links:

A separate button is also used in some cases:

This new service will add another way for clients, old and new, to reach the-freelance-editor at almost any time. If I’m online at my desk, I’ll be on call—and, since I work an average of fourteen hours a day, you should be able to catch me! I’ll be available to answer questions and address concerns about

  • grammar and wording,
  • organization and structural issues,
  • writer’s block,
  • fact-checking and research,
  • blogging,
  • Web site arrangement and Web page development,
  • business and professional publications,
  • ghostwriting projects,
  • personal histories, family histories, and memoirs, and
  • museum-related issues.

I would invite you to try out the service, but a small charge is involved. Still, if you have the need, you now know where to find me.

See you there,

Stephen Evans,

Another specialty site is completed . . .

finally! Yes, several months later than planned, the-freelance-editor Network has unveiled a new Web site for the personal history side of our business: This Web site will introduce clients to some of the legacy writing opportunities we can offer:

  • personal histories, which are also known as
    legacy statements, life stories, and memoirs,
  • family histories, or family chronicles,
  • company profiles, which can be histories of an entire
    business or biographies of business personnel, and
  • online scrapbooks.

We gladly help clients all the way through the process of writing, editing, fact-checking, and preparing for publication—whether they are making ten photocopies for immediate family members or a bound book for general distribution.

Visit the Web site for additional information.

Stephen Evans,