Inserting Historical Figures into Imagined Scenarios

For those who missed it, check out the August, 2007 edition of The Writer. Novelist John Smolens, a professor of English at Northern Michigan, wrote an essay titled “Build a Bridge to the Past to Bring Your Historical Novel Alive.”

Smolens put his prescriptions to work in his sixth novel, The Anarchist, which was published by Three Rivers Press in December. It tells the story of Leon Czolgosz, the anarchist who assassinated President William McKinley, September 1901.

Among the many tips that Smolens offers to the historical novelist, one of the most intriguing is inserting “what-if” elements into a story that involves real characters. The novelist, he assures us, is not required to tell history as it actually happened, but how it might have happened.

In the Anarchist, Smolens used as an example a bit of research he discovered involving a film that simulated his main character’s execution. Although there is no record of President Teddy Roosevelt having watched this film, Smolens set this possibility into motion and turned it into his final scene to gain the necessary emotional confrontation between the two men.

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