Sunday, November 8, 2009

On Historical Accuracy in Fictional Adventure

For the past few days I have been actively plotting (some would call it "python wrestling") my Sailor Tom Sharkey Quasi-Historical Fantasy Romp. It's been a real challenge for me in that I have made the decision to be as historically accurate as possible and veer off into the Realm of the Weird when I have a blank spot on the map or a period of time unaccounted for.

Being so limited to the facts has been an issue, but not an insurmountable one. After all, if I don't know about this specific period of time for a Golden Age boxer, then chances are you don't either, and will follow me wherever I choose to take him. Were I writing a novel about, say, Abraham Lincoln, and I positioned him on the California coast in 1861, well, that wouldn't work at all because of what most fifth graders know about the Civil War.

Rather, what's been far more difficult for me is taking and utilizing the dates and facts that I do have access to. For example, boxing historians know that Tom Sharkey and Jim Jeffries toured the country with a vaudeville troupe in the 1920s doing re-inactments of their famous fights. What I also found out is that Sharkey appeared in several silent movies from 1925 to 1928. Interestingly, his first movie (as an actor) was a Clara Bow feature. How cool is that?

SIDEBAR: Finding this out was only a moment's worth of joy, in that now I have to go read something about Clara Bow in order to have Sharkey meet her. I've already got so much ancillary stuff in my head, on my computer, in three different notebooks, and now another biography added to the list. Rapture.

So, I've got a very organic life in Tom Sharkey on the California coast in his fifties, trading on his name and former glory, doing movies and going out with traveling shows to make ends meet. This probably happened many times , in between films, and as he ran out of dough or ran up a gambling debt. Were I writing a real biography of the man, this would be fascinating in the extreme, and the back and forth would be an exciting chapter or two as he meets all of these famous celebrities.

However, I'm writing a novel, and not only that, it's an adventure novel wherein I've chosen to follow a specific form (never mind what). I have a powerful urge to just set my adventure down in the midst of these little traffic cones so that it's seamless and perfect. Again, I'm not worried about the details. I'm intimately familiar with the Roaring 1920s, but for some reason, the idea that one day there will be a Tom Sharkey biography out in the world that bulldozes my novel fills me with dread and loathing.

So, I've been hammering at my plot, making modifications and trying to work out the structure of the project (yes, it's a project, and not just one book) so that it makes sense and is a complete thing. If I do this right, it'll leave the door open for more short stories as I see fit, but it will give me an epic architecture from which to hang those stories.

And forget it if I don't write down the skeleton. I can't do big projects any other way. I have to have at least the framework in the form of an outline up before I get started. I may deviate from the frame, or change it in mid-stream, but without those tracks laid down, I don't leave the station.

What about the rest of you?


  1. Mark,

    If you don't write a biography of Tom Sharkey, who would? Is that a wide field of historians? Are there more or less researchers than the experts on the gorilla-suit-wearing-guys?

    I say invent significant events where needed and be up front about it. Entertain first, educate second.


  2. I agree with Bill: it's up to you to write the Tom Sharkey biography. You did a damn fine job with Blood and Thunder--bios from back then are one of your many callings!

    Research bunches (which it sounds like you've already done), and then write the story you want to write. It's called fiction for a reason. If anybody gives you any guff, challenge them to fisticuffs and put them in their place!

    I wouldn't fight ya...especially if you were in a gorilla suit!

  3. Actually, as per a long standing pact between the Finn and I, I would ONLY fight Finn if he were in a gorilla suit. Details need not be discussed.