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

Watching History Made at the School Board Level

Don’t mess with Texas–even if Texas messes with history.

That’s the gist of a sobering new article by Russell Shorto in The New York Times Magazine (Feb. 11) about the campaigns being waged by religious fundamentalists to pressure Texas school administrators and textbook publishers to portray the founding fathers as devout proponents of a Christian nation.

I always shake my head with a mixture of bemusement and chagrin whenever I see a reviewer of historical fiction take an author to task for deviating from “history.” More often than one might think, the charge is lodged by an embittered grad student who cannot abide a novelist stepping onto his small patch of supposed expertise and gaining a hundredfold more readers than will suffer through his dry dissertation on the subject.

If you had any doubts about the unreliability of accepted history, you must read Shorto’s chilling account of how so-called facts and interpretations only a few decades old are skewed and twisted by the demands of ideology, religion, and propaganda.

I dare say you’ll not soon forget Shorto’s description of a cowed Texas State Board of Education. With a swift show of hands, its fifteen members pass proposed conservative amendments  offered by Christian activists to school curriculum like the Committee on Public Safety sending off aristocrats to the guillotine during the French Revolution.

The process became so cavalier and unsavory that one board member, a Republican, exclaimed in embarrassment, “Guys, you’re rewriting history now!”

Shorto quotes one long-time observer of the process: “It is the most crazy-making thing to sit there and watch a dentist and an insurance salesman rewrite curriculum standards in science and history.”

None of this is surprising to historical novelists, whose job it is to dig into the source material and underweavings of history. If such blatant revisionism can take place under the scrutiny of modern communications technology, just imagine how many of the so-called “facts” of history during medieval times and earlier were shaped and sifted by the royal courts and the Church.

Can Hollywood Depict the Civil Rights Struggle as it Really Happened?

This Friday will witness the launch of an experiment in film-making: Tinseltown’s attempt to tell the story of the African-American freedom movement in North Carolina with a nuanced narrative and without featuring a white actor  in a starring role to draw box office.

If early reviews are any indication, the creative team for Blood Done Sign My Name has succeeded.

The movie is based on the award-winning autobiographical account of the period by historian Timothy B. Tyson, a former professor of African-American studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and now a Senior Scholar at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. In his 2004 book, Tyson described how the death of Henry Marrow in 1970 ignited a resistance movement in Oxford, North Carolina, where Tyson’s father was a minister of a large church.

In the movie, actor Nate Parker plays high school teacher Ben Chavis, a former civil rights organizer who led a march on the capitol in Raleigh, a turning point that eventually spurred a boycott of white businesses in Oxford and resulted in full integration of the city.

The film is a personal triumph for my friend and former Columbia Journalism School classmate, David S. Martin, who is a co-producer on the movie.

Martin and a college buddy obtained the film rights to the book and persisted in their belief that Tyson’s account needed to reach the silver screen. Their instincts proved prescient when financier Robert K. Steel came on board and brought in director Jeb Stuart to shoot the film in the North Carolina cities of Shelby, Monroe, and Gastonia.

One can only hope that this is the first of many Hollywood projects for Martin, who has developed his keen eye for story material as a senior producer for CNN. I predict that the smartest of the development executives at production companies and studios in Los Angeles will soon be beating down his door.

Well done, David!

Viral Marketing and Historical Fiction

Robin Maxwell has seen the future–and now she doesn’t even have to change from her writing pajamas.

No more grinding book tours, begging publishers to pay for expensive front-shelf space, or competing for dwindling review space in newspapers and trades.

In a Feb. 2 blog article for the Huffington Post, the author of eight historical novels (including The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn and Signora da Vinci) describes her journey from traditionalist to digital publicist par excellence.

Maxwell recounts how she was taken under the wings of two younger historical novelists, Michelle Moran and C.W. Gortner. Fellow scribes in the genre will of course know those two accomplished authors from their tireless and generous participation in forums such as Historical Fiction Online. According to Maxwell, they opened her eyes to the near-miraculous marketing possibilities available from the use of blogs, websites, interactive communities, and online reviewers.

Two truths among many can be drawn from Maxwell’s fascinating journey. First, it indeed seems essential for an author to find a publicist who is on the cutting edge of the digital revolution. Second, the author must now shoulder most of the marketing roles once performed by the publisher.

In academia, the old saw was “publish or perish.” In commercial fiction, the new law apparently is “become interactive, or perish.”

Pity the poor writer who merely wishes to write. One wonders how the late J.D. Salinger would have fared entering anew this modern publishing world.