I have the first local book signing for my new novel Wreck of the Huron tonight and I’m giving a short presentation on the book. I’ve been thinking about what to say and it finally occurred to me that what I like best about Wreck of the Huron is the story behind the story.
I’ve always been a history buff. I think I’ve always been blessed with the ability to “see” history in my mind. Not the history of textbooks, mind you. I’m terrible at memorizing dates. But I’ve always been able to imagine how things looked or think of historical events in terms of the people involved. I remember reading a book about the Civil War when I was about 12 or so and actually getting mad at General George McClellan. The book described all the ways in which he failed to do his job and it made me angry.
The thing I’ve learned about telling stories is that when you try talk about something huge like the Civil War, it doesn’t make sense to people. That’s where textbooks fall short. Most readers can’t relate to those events in human terms. When you’re telling a huge story, and probably especially then, you have to do it with just a few characters and make them real. Done well, historical fiction can be just as informative and educational as traditional history lessons.
The very idea of “historical fiction” makes some people groan. I know that. They think back to high school history class and how bored they were. Historical fiction doesn’t have to be boring. My last two novels (Guardian’s Keep and Wreck of the Huron) both have historical settings and backgrounds but the main part of the story takes place in present day. I like to bring readers along through the past so they can learn what happened and why as the present day characters do.
When I first heard the story of the USS Huron and her sinking in 1877, I was intrigued and knew I wanted to use it in a story, but I was stuck for a long time on how to do it. I began writing the book, but then hit a wall and had to put it away for a while. I didn’t know how I was going to tell the story of the men on board and do it justice. And then I stumbled across the transcript of the official inquest into the Huron’s sinking. I quickly realized I could tell the story of the ship by letting the men who survived do it themselves. Now that Wreck of the Huron is complete, that section is my favorite part of the book. It tells the story in human terms.
My first exposure to the story of the Huron and the circumstances of her sinking happened because of a historical highway marker beside the road and some signs explaining what had happened on a quiet stretch of beach 135 years ago. When you consider how many historical highway markers there are out there, it tells me there is no end to good stories to tell.
You just have to find the right way to tell it..