Today’s post a guest post from Cynthia Swanson, author of The Bookseller: A Novel.
When I started writing The Bookseller, it was set in the present day. The novel tells the story of Kitty Miller – a late 30s, single woman who owns a bookstore in Denver with her best friend Frieda. Kitty begins to have nightly dreams of an alternative reality in which she’s a wife and mother. She goes by her given name, Katharyn, and is married to an architect named Lars. The bookstore is long gone from her life. Having no idea what the dreams mean, Kitty begins to investigate, and finds that but for a minor coincidence, the dream life would have been her life.
The idea had potential right from the start. But I realized shortly into my first draft that this wasn’t a modern-day story. Because the premise hinges on a coincidence, evidence had to unfold slowly. Kitty’s sleuthing into her dream world had to happen in bits and pieces – not all in a rush, the way information so often emerges in our 21st century lives. An early 1960s setting – pre-Vietnam, pre-JFK’s assassination, and when the Civil Rights Movement was gaining ground – provided the perfect historical setting.
This brought up the question of historical accuracy. I come from a technical writing background, where precision is essential. I remember the days when some software tester, reading a manual I’d written, would inform me that steps 4 and 5 were in the wrong order, and if people followed the directions the way I’d written them, they’d never achieve their desired result.
The same is true in fiction…sort of. If the details aren’t right, someone – maybe not everyone, but someone – is going to know. And that person’s experience won’t be what I hope for my readers: a page-turning, engaging novel with a satisfying ending. Such readers might accept most of the story, but that nagging inaccuracy will continue to haunt them.
And yet…it’s fiction. By definition, some details can be invented. But this comes with a caveat: there must be justification for anything the author makes up.
For example, in The Bookseller, some of the restaurants mentioned are real; others are fictional. One in particular I had to create, because while a similar spot is a thriving Denver business today – and it looks as if it stepped right out of the 1960s – it actually didn’t exist in 1962. I knew that if I named it, someone would know I had it wrong. In this case, a made-up restaurant (based on a real one) was the way to go.
The same goes for street names. In Kitty’s world, the bookstore is on Pearl, and Kitty’s apartment is on Washington – both actual Denver streets. But in Katharyn’s world, I used a made-up name for the street where she and Lars lived. Why? Because Lars and Katharyn’s house number is explicitly mentioned. Even if that number was fictional, a made-up house number on a real street is too close for comfort. I wouldn’t want to be the person whose house was being checked out on Google Earth, just in idyll curiosity – so I wouldn’t impose that on anyone else, either. Again, in this case a fictional detail made more sense.
These days, I’m writing a new novel – also set in the 1960s, but in another locale, with very different characters and storyline. As I research and add details, I’m finding the practice of “be as accurate as possible, but fictionalize when necessary” continues to work.
Most readers, I’ve found, are willing to go along for the ride, as long as a story satisfies. The best historical novels are those in which the details – whether real or made up – are convincing.