Telling True Stories: (The Good, the Bad, and the NOT.)

Only once in my life have a I shut a book in total disgust.

And it wasn’t because of graphic violence or gratuitous sex. Nope. I don’t pick up that kind of book in the first place. This was simply a family-friendly biographical novel, kind of like Where Daffodils Bloom.

At first, the book seemed innocent enough. It was a hybrid between biography and biographical novel, alternating chapters full of facts and dates with chapters that presented a dramatized version of Anne Bradstreet’s life. But things went downhill fast.

You see, even back then, long before I started working on my own biographical novel,  I had a clear grasp of the basic building blocks authors need to craft that kind of book.

#1. A passion for STORIES.

#2. A passion for TRUTH.

It was on truth that the author failed.

Of course, it’s normal in biographical fiction for authors to add in some, well…fiction. There are  details we simply don’t know, and so we have to fill in from our imagination. But if we are going to be authentic with the story, that fiction MUST be based on the truth we do know. (I.e. We need to use information we have about the character’s personality, viewpoint, historical context, etc, to make our fiction as close to truth as possible.)

And it is definitely NOT OK to ignore and misrepresent the facts in order to create a  character after our own image, putting our own personal opinions, views, and vendettas into a historical figure’s head.

Sadly, that’s exactly what the author of this so-called biography did.

It quickly became clear that she must have had a strong personal bias against men. (Or at least against the men in Bradstreet’s time.) She presented them as overbearing, controlling, and strict (just about accused Bradstreet’s father of child abuse), and painted Bradstreet as a suffering woman in a male-dominated world who put up with poor treatment from both her father and her husband.

But that is NOT what Bradstreet’s own writing said about her.

True, she did plead for more appreciation of women’s writing talents in the general society. But she gave NO hint of being unappreciated or abused by her own father or husband. In fact, her love poems to her husband are some of the sweetest and most beautiful I have ever read.

I was willing to give the author the benefit of the doubt that she might have information about Bradstreet’s father that I did not have. UNTIL she also attacked Bradstreet’s husband, and flagrantly used quotes from Bradstreet’s own poems to support both these biases, despite the fact that that the quotes were taken out of context and completely misinterpreted in order to back up viewpoints that Bradstreet never espoused.

Sadly, this isn’t really that unusual.

Far too often, authors can’t seem to separate their own agendas and viewpoints from the viewpoints of the people they are supposed to be writing about.

As a result, we have a plethora of books that claim to tell real stories about real people, when in reality they are just fantasies about made-up characters with modern views and sensibilities who have been sloppily dressed up in old-fashioned clothing, plopped into another century, and labeled “Anne Bradstreet.”

And most readers will never know the difference.

This sad state of affairs is why, when I sat down to write the story of Lily and Fred Overall, I was absolutely determined to do it right.

I have read a few reviews that question how accurate Where Daffodils Bloom actually is. (I.e. how much in the story is fact and how much is fiction). Well, I am here to assure all my readers that I spent 3.5 years working to make it as accurate as I possibly could in every way. I even double-checked tiny, insignificant details like the fact that Fred loved okra and Lily hated it. (It’s true.)

But what about the sections that ARE fiction? Didn’t I make a lot of stuff up to fill in plot holes?

Yes. There are a lot of details we simply don’t know about the story, and I had to invent them. But it was EXTREMELY important to me that the fiction I added was as authentic as possible. So I immersed myself in Fred and Lily’s historical context, and studied their personalities and views as if I had to impersonate them in public. (Which, you know…I kind of did.) And as much as possible I tried to at least pull together “partial” facts, to create realistic fiction about their lives.

For instance, it was true that the first house they moved into had a missing roof. It was also true that Lily went back to England for a time shortly after that. But did Fred finish the roof in her absence as a surprise? We don’t know. We DO know that when she went on another trip many years later, he surprised her by adding a bay window to the kitchen while she was gone (something she had always wanted). So it was completely “in character” for him to do what I wrote in the book, though we don’t know if it is true in every detail.

That’s the way I tried to do it when I wrote fiction into the story. If I couldn’t make something “true to life” (i.e. I didn’t know the exact facts) I tried to at least make it “true to character” so that it would feel authentic even to those who knew Lily and Fred best. The acid test came when I let their children and friends read the book and tell me what they thought. The verdict?

They LOVED it.

The feedback was unanimous. They say Where Daffodils Bloom PERFECTLY captures the couple they remember. In fact, some say it was almost uncannily accurate, considering I never met either of them.

“That’s all fine and well.” You say. “But it’s easy for you. You’re a christian author writing about christian characters in the recent past. You’re not going to run into the kind of worldview conflicts that a lot of authors do.”

Well…it’s not as clear cut as you think. There are still differences I have to be careful with.

For instance, Lily’s main mentor was her mother, Alice Brown. So Mrs. Brown’s words and opinions are taken very seriously in the story. However, I personally disagree with her view on marriage and divorce. I do NOT think a christian woman is obligated to remain in a marriage that is abusive. But Mrs. Brown took her wedding vow that seriously, and voiced that conviction to Lily. It was tempting to leave that out, or somehow contradict it later in the story, because of my personal view.

But this is NOT a book about me and my opinions. It’s a book about Lily and Fred. And that particular conviction of Mrs. Brown’s was important enough to Lily that she immortalized it in family stories. So I put it in as authentically and non-judgmentally as I could. And simply left it up to my readers to decide whether they agreed or not.

Lily Brown and her mother, Alice. Circa 1945

So you see, every author who sets out to write a biographical novel ultimately has the same choice. They can either tell the story as it happened, and present the characters as they really were, or they can let their own opinions and viewpoint get into the way, and try to squeeze somebody else’s story into their own mold.

When I slapped shut that book about Anne Bradstreet, I was so disgusted that for awhile I considered writing my OWN book on Bradstreet to correct the errors. But I didn’t. (There are multiple other books about her that I’m sure are good. I’d probably pick this one if I was going to order one.)

As it turns out, I was destined to write a different biographical novel. Based on the life of a woman who is perhaps less famous, but just a beloved. And although the flaws in the book on Bradstreet upset me, they also taught me what NOT to do as I started working on Lily’s story.

So when I crafted Where Daffodils Bloom, I did it the same way I would have written a book on Bradstreet. By studying real people, memorizing true stories, and weaving them together into a novel that, more than anything else, rings of truth.

P.S. Have you ordered your copy of Where Daffodils Bloom yet? Find it on Amazon in kindle, paperback, and hardcover!

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