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History Into Fiction: The Writer's Art of Recreating the Past

A Citation Dream Tool

How many times have you found yourself burrowing into research files, desperate for a vital clipping or article, only to discover to your horror that you failed to write down the full citation required to retrieve it?

Zotero feels your pain.

This nifty little add-on tool for the Mozilla Firefox web browser is a writer’s godsend. The program, easily accessed on Firefox with a single click of the mouse, helps you gather, organize, and analyze sources–citations, full texts, web pages, images, and other objects–and lets you share the results of your research in a variety of ways. The extension includes the ability to store author, title, and publication fields and to export that information as formatted references. Writers also have the option to interact, tag, and search in advanced ways. Zotero uses mysterious algorithmic magic to sense when the computer user is viewing a book, article, or other object on the web. On many major research and library sites, the program finds and automatically saves the full reference information for the item in the correct fields. Because it lives within the web browser, it can effortlessly transmit information to, and receive information from, other web services and applications. Moreover, because it resides on your hard drive, it can communicate with software running in tandem (such as Microsoft Word). The program can also be used off-line (e.g., on a plane or in an archive without WiFi).

Zotero is produced by the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University and was funded by the United States Institute of Museum and Library Services, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Best of all—it’s free. You can download it at www.zotero.org

A Eulogy to George MacDonald Fraser

It’s worth a trip to the newspaper stacks if you missed Robert Messenger’s stirring remembrance of British writer George MacDonald Fraser in the January 17th edition of The Wall Street Journal.

Fraser, best known for his “Flashman” novels that brought to life Britain’s nineteenth-century imperial adventures, died earlier this year at the age of 82.

Fraser was one of those rare writers of historical fiction who successfully straddled the publishing and movie worlds, having compiled numerous novels and more than thirty screenplays to his credits. Messenger, a senior editor at the Weekly Standard, describes with admiration how Fraser’s protagonists were often the antithesis of the traditional hero: politically incorrect, toadying, lying, cheating, elitist, and racist. Remarkably, these flawed characters were quite popular with the reading public.

Among the many fascinating observations in Messenger’s essay is his reminder that Fraser took an unusually tolerant view about the need for movies and historical novels to abide by the “facts” of history. Discussing Kipling’s influence on the popular view of the British Raj, Fraser once wrote that the test should be not how precisely a work of fiction followed the written records, but whether it successfully reflected the countries and people portrayed.

A Rose By Any Other Name: When Modernity Intrudes

Here’s a thorny problem that every historical novelist eventually confronts: What to do when a person, place, or event has been tagged with a well-known name or description not used during the time of your story.

I struggled with this conundrum in The Fire and the Light, my novel about the medieval Cathars of southern France. The most recognized designation applied to these alleged heretics (“Cathar” was derived from the Greek katharos, meaning “pure” or “clean”) wasn’t uniformly adopted until a few years after my characters lived. In fact, there was never just one, commonly-accepted term for the Cathars during the early part of the 13th century. Some called them cloggers (after the shoes they wore) or Bon Hommes (the Good Men, but that appellation wrongly excluded women). Many if not most of their contemporaries simply referred to them as heretics and, with the exception of the ecclesiastics, did not distinguish them from the Waldensians, Paulists, and the other condemned sects.

To avoid confusion, I decided to judiciously use the term “Cathar” along with the other descriptions and beg the understanding of those more expert in the era than the average reader.

Another option is to insert a footnote into the story. Here’s an example from Michael Shaara’s Killer Angels:

“The General says to tell you that the Yankees are moving troops upon on the high Rocky Hill,* the one to the right. And there’s a signal team up there.”
. . . . .
* The Confederates did not know that the local name for that hill was “Little Round Top.” During the battle their most common name for it was simply “The Rocky Hill.”

The footnote works fine in a novel about the Civil War. The period is still relatively fresh to American readers, many of whom will have heard of Little Round Top. The fragile illusion of time turned back is not destroyed. But in my novel, set as it is in the Middle Ages and presented in a book designed to imitate an ancient tome, a footnote would have been jolting.

Another solution is to explain such variances in an author’s note at the beginning or end of the novel. This is often the preferable choice if more than a couple of language nuances and differences arise. But in Shaara’s case, to have mentioned this lone name change in his author’s note would have been using a hammer to swat at a flea that had long since flitted away.