Writing History as Fiction

Writing History as Fiction

Historical accuracy is important to me when I read an historical novel. But it’s historical fiction, correct? So where do I draw the line between an accurate portrayal and allowing a writer (myself and others) the leeway to invent situations, conversations and events to tell a compelling story?

When Water Was Everywhere takes place in Mexican Alta California in the early 1840s, only a few years before California became a state. I based one of the four protagonists on John Temple, or as he was known in the pueblo of Los Angeles, Don Juan Temple. John Temple was an American sea captain from Massachusetts. Following a voyage to the Sandwich Islands, he settled in the pueblo of Los Angeles in the early 1820s, shortly after Mexico won its independence from Spain.

Although few Angelenos today know the name John Temple, his name is immortalized in Temple Street, a major thoroughfare in downtown Los Angeles. His ranch, Rancho Los Cerritos, is still attracting visitors today in what became Long Beach, California, in the year 1888.

In using John Temple as a character, I changed his name to Don Rodrigo Tilman. I left most of Temple’s early life in New England intact but placed the young Tilman in historic Deerfield, Massachusetts for a time. The bucolic town offered too many charms to resist.

How to portray John Temple/Rodrigo Tilman’s character bedeviled me at first. I began by portraying Tilman as I had seen a reenactor portray Temple at the rancho—reasonable, generous, kind, affable—all the best qualities of a Californio. As I kept writing, though, he took on the character of the successful American businesspeople I’ve known through a work life of business consulting and journalism: a person who is primarily concerned with business, focused on a goal, possessing a serious demeanor but willing to show good humor when he wanted to be “one of the boys.”

In changing facts of Temple’s life and speculating about aspects of his character, did I cross an invisible line that blends fact into fiction? Have you noticed the blurring of fact and fiction in other writers of historical fiction?

I’m interested in knowing what you think. To comment, please scroll up to the Leave a Comment link under the title.

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