One question raised about River of January is,”Are my characters brushes with the famous true?” The short answer is yes. Helen dined with Maurice Chevalier, and they performed on the same stage. Chum crossed paths with Amelia Earhart regularly at Roosevelt Field. The celebrity passages are factual. I have their pictures with the famous, references from documents, and proof in aviation logbooks.
Creative non-fiction appears to be a new genre in search of defining itself. Where exactly is the line between creative and non-fiction? Though I need to tell this story, I certainly wasn’t alive at the time. Frankly who knows what the characters precisely uttered to one another at any given time. I tried to rely on personal and business letters, quoting at length when I could, to add tone, cadence and a feel for the era. I am adding a lot of pictures for readers to visually connect to the characters, and the sights they photographed on their travels. Additional color had to come from my imagination, with clues found in the archive of family memorabilia.
My personal preference in reading is non-fiction history. I have lived on a strong steady diet of biographies and general histories. Still I wonder how any scholar concludes their work without feeling uneasily incomplete. The subtleties of human interaction, the nuances of personal connection are more than left out. We simply can’t know all facets of historic lives. Our only alternative is to flesh out the tale with what we understand about the human condition. And of course every writer struggles with their own blinders, biases, and preconceived notions.
For example the age old question of General Washington’s taciturn exterior has intrigued historians for two centuries. Was he grave and somber because his teeth hurt? Possibly. Did he wish to hide his false teeth due to the fact they were unsightly, fashioned out of a number of materials–ivory to human–to wood. Are both theories wrong? Did Washington remain stoic in appearance to evoke nobility and dignity? Maybe. In fact, all of the above could pass scrutiny. Different historians have differing opinions.
I am not too troubled about shaping feelings in ways I think makes sense. I’ve fallen in love, held my own in arguments, and felt more regrets than I care to claim. That is the truth I rely upon to craft the creative element in this historical narrative.
I think all biography and history possess an element of the unknown. Whether the history is filtered through professional scholars such as Robert Remini, Doris Kearns Goodwin, or Miss Nobody Gail in her Idaho cabin, we are analyzing viable evidence to apply shape and logic to past lives.
Did Helen meet Sophie Tucker. Yes. She told us in a letter. What did she say to her? How did she act around her? I ask myself what would I have said as an American to another famous American performing in London? That’s the creative portion of this non-fiction format.
All things considered, creative non-fiction is an exciting new canvas for writing. I feel like a kid in a candy store each time I turn over another photo or letter.