One peculiarity about writing historical fiction is that while your characters live in your imagination and on your page they are, in fact, dead. And when you write historical fiction that incorporates actual people as characters of your book, their lives go on beyond the pages of your book in a way that other characters do not.
In the first book of the Jackson Speed Memoirs, both Texas Ranger Ben McCulloch and A. S. Johnston appear as minor characters (Johnston much more minor than McCulloch).
Both men went on to serve as generals for the Confederacy in the American Civil War.
Part of the research I am doing for the Jackson Speed memoirs is reading about that Civil War. I am slowly picking my way through the first volume of Shelby Foote’s “The Civil War: A Narrative.”
(To give you an idea of what I mean by slowly: Since I started reading Foote’s “The Civil War” I have written a book and a half and read three other books. For someone interested in the Civil War, it is a great and fascinating and massive retrospective of the war.)
In just a matter of pages – from the Battle of Pea Ridge to Shiloh – I read about the deaths of first McCulloch and then Johnston.
Though I’ve studied the Civil War for decades now, I could not have predicted either of their deaths at these places, so they came as a surprise to me. I’ve never read much about Shiloh, and though I knew Johnston was killed early in the war I did not know where, and prior to my research for “Jackson Speed: The Hero of El Teneria,” I’d never read anything about McCulloch.
Because these men appeared as characters in my novel, I felt like I knew them a little bit. I’d studied enough about both of them that I felt confident in writing about them. And so I was a little sad when I read of their passing (150 years ago) in the same way that you’d be a little sad when reading an obituary of an acquaintance you’d known a little and liked pretty well.
But I was also a little gratified when I read of their deaths, because I believe they died in exactly the same sort of way that the characters from my book would have died. Both of them were leading their men into battle: McCulloch feverishly at the front of a charge and Johnston (atop his horse) calmly and kindly, and also at the front.
When Jackson Speed meets these men from history, I try very hard to be as true to their memories as I can be. They are all seen through the filter of my character, who has his own notions about courage and leadership which may not correspond with what McCulloch or Johnston thought of courage or leadership, but I want my readers to be able to walk away from the book with the impression that they saw the real man.
Having read of the deaths of McCulloch and Johnston, I’ve decided from now on when I write about people who actually lived and incorporate them as characters in my novels, I will be sure – before I write about them, instead of after – to research their deaths.
As in the case of McCulloch and Johnston, I believe in some cases when you read of a person’s death you get a further glimpse into their true character. In both cases, I got it right by being lucky.
But also, I don’t want to get caught again reading a book and find out 150 years later that an acquaintance has died.