As a writer of historical fiction, I’ve come to understand that the most important balancing act is the need to tell a great story versus the allegiance to the historical truth.
Now, mind you, I’ve come to understand this after the fact; prior to writing ALICE I HAVE BEEN, I wasn’t aware of any great debate going on between writers of historical fiction. After I wrote it, however, I timidly ventured out into that world and discovered that authors love to spend a lot of time discussing this very subject.
I’m glad I wasn’t aware of this when I was writing; I might have chickened out. For I have learned that authors and readers both can be very passionate concerning the subject of historical accuracy in fiction.
They can be very passionate about the methods of research, as well. I’m often asked what kind of research I did for my novel about the life of Alice Liddell, the inspiration for ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND. Did I go to Oxford? Read any of Alice’s letters or diaries?
The answer to those questions would be no, and no.
Now, I did come to this with a fairly good knowledge of Victorian England; it’s an era I’ve always loved and I’ve read a lot of history, a lot of biography about it. So I felt I had a good sense of the backdrop against which Alice’s story took place.
But there did come a time, in the writing, when I started to worry because I’ve never been to Oxford, where most of Alice’s story takes place. I can recall the exact moment in the manuscript; it’s a passage where Alice, as a young girl, goes into her garden, accompanied by Charles Dodgson, to a remote tree in the back where he has already taken his photography equipment. I fretted and fretted; did they turn to the right, or did they turn to the left? It seemed vitally important to me to know; I had a desperate need to hop on a plane to England and drive myself to Oxford to find out.
However, one thing prevented me, and that was the little fact that I had two children in college and had not yet sold the book. I couldn’t justify the financial expenditure on a book that, for all I knew, might never see the light of day.
But then I had one of those amazing flashes of inspiration that tired, broke authors often get. I realized that if a reader was concerned about that kind of detail, I was doing something wrong. The reader should be caught up in the story, the characters; not worrying about whether Alice turned left when she really should have turned right.
Finally I allowed myself to relax, to stop obsessing about the details. Details are important but they’re not what the reader should remember in the end. It’s the story and the characters that matter the most, even in historical fiction.
Another thing I did not do was read any of Alice Liddell’s own writing—her diaries or letters. For starters, again—I was a neophyte. I simply didn’t know how to go about finding them.
But I think that instinctively, I knew that reading her writing would stifle mine. The reason I wrote this book in the first place was because she spoke to me so clearly after I saw the famous photograph of her at age 7, as a beggar girl. It was that photograph that inspired me initially; I was so mesmerized by the wise, worldly expression on her face.
That expression was given voice by the Alice in the Lewis Carroll books, which I then reread. That voice, that picture—they gave me my Alice, my heroine; the girl, then woman, whose story I wanted to tell. And I’ve come to realize that diaries and letters are not always a true representation of a person. Often diaries are just laundry lists of day-to-day activities. Obviously Alice Liddell was a captivating person, yet the one slim biography of her even admitted that this muse of classic literature was not a gifted writer herself.
I did not want the Alice I saw, the Alice I believe others saw, to be stifled; I did not want my own imagination and creativity to be influenced by her own perhaps uninspiring words.
And so, through a combination of innocence and limited resources, I feel that I instinctively hit upon the combination that works for me as a historical novelist. I look at the life of a person, focusing on some—not all—known facts that become the bones of my story.
Then I allow my imagination and inspiration to take over, and I hang the fiction on those factual bones. Somehow, then, I end up with a novel. Somehow, I find the balance between fact and fiction against a historical backdrop.
I’d still love to go to Oxford, of course.
But I don’t think I’ll lose any sleep if I find out Alice Liddell did, indeed, turn right instead of left. And somehow, I don’t think she’d mind, either, if I got it wrong.
Melanie Benjamin is the author of ALICE I HAVE BEEN, the story of Alice Liddell, the inspiration for ALICE'S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND. Available in hardcover now, it will be released in paperback in December. Her second historical novel will be published by Random House in August 2011. Melanie also blogs at the Huffington Post; you can visit her at her website at www.melaniebenjamin.com.