Blending History And Fiction In Historical Novels, by DE Johnson
In my first book, The Detroit Electric Scheme, one of the major subplots is the rise and fall of the early electric car. I chose it very deliberately. Not only was I interested in electrics, it was a current hot button story, and to make it even more enticing, most people are unaware that electrics had a history past the 1990s.
I try to be accurate to the extent I can in my novels. I dislike reading historical novels only to learn that the author has made up what reads like genuine history to fit the story. One of the pleasures I get from writing historical novels is solving a puzzle – creating fictional puzzle pieces that fit with the historical ones.
Electric cars were popular from before the twentieth century until World War One. In fact, in early 1911 there were forty-six different companies building electrics in the United States alone. The most successful of those, Detroit Electric, was the one I chose to write into my story. Detroit Electric was the most successful of the early electric car manufacturers, reaching number one in sales in the US in 1910 and holding onto that crown while the era of the electrics wound down.
I used the founder and company president, William C Anderson, as the father for my fictional protagonist, Will Anderson. (Mr Anderson had two daughters. I figured that a man of that time would have liked a son to take over the company business one day, though now that I think of it, I’m certain he would have liked a son other than Will to do that.) I also used a number of the other actual Detroit Electric employees in minor roles, though I decided to change one name – the man in charge of Detroit Electric’s battery manufacturing was named Elwood T. Stretch, a name I thought might slow down a reader. I changed it to Elwood Crane, which I thought created a similar mental image.
Automotive pioneer Edsel Ford (son of Henry) figured prominently in the book, as did John and Horace Dodge, Charles Kettering, and Henry Leland, who also played important roles. I featured Vito Adamo, Detroit’s first crime boss, who continued on in Motor City Shakedown, book two in the series, which took Will into Detroit’s first mob war. In my opinion, a historical novelist is responsible to history to write the essence of the real historical characters in his books to the best of his ability, presenting them plausibly while making up conversations and events. I carefully researched these people so I could feel confident that I could give readers a feel for who they really were.
It’s particularly challenging to write historical characters who are well-known and well-documented. An author can’t very well kill off a real person who lived beyond that time, nor, at least in my opinion, should they write those characters doing things they would not have done in real life. I blend the person’s actual history with my imagining of what the person would have done when thrown into a certain situation in the books.
In telling the story of the early electric, I had to write the time period during which the paradigm changed, when the advantage of the electric disappeared. The Detroit Electric Scheme spans from late 1910 to early 1911. As late as January 1911, the electric looked pretty invincible as the automobile for women, city doctors and urban delivery companies. When Charles Kettering introduced his electric self-starter for gasoline automobiles, that advantage went up in smoke, though it took a couple of years for the shift to be made apparent.
Even in a three month time span, I could show how the electric car had built into a viable product while also including the event that marked its downfall.
I think a historical novel must be true to the people and events which have been documented. Beyond that, I can do just about anything I like. That’s enough freedom for me.
DE Johnson’s author website: www.dejohnsonauthor.com
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