Most of the time I think I’ll write my next book, Encounters in Yellowstone 1877, as narrative history, but when I hit a dead end in my research, I’m tempted to switch to historical fiction. That happened yesterday when I was trying to find out what the weather was like in Yellowstone Park on August 25, 1877.

One of the main characters in my book, George Cowan, woke up that morning after lying unconscious under a tree in his blood-soaked clothing. George was suffering from three gunshot wounds so severe that he could barely crawl, let alone walk. He hoped to drag himself on his elbows for five miles that day to a campsite where he might find food.

I’d like to write something like this: “An ominous gray sky greeted George . . ..” Or maybe: “The bright morning sun cast deep shadows that must have looked like canyons to George . . ..”

I don’t want to just say: “George awoke the next morning . . ..” But I may have to if I can’t find out what the weather was like. It might be easier to give up narrative history and convert to historical fiction. Then I wouldn’t have to ground every detail in the facts; I could just make stuff up.

That may sound like a no-brainer: don’t bother with the hard research; go with historical fiction, but it’s not that easy. When you tell your readers you’re writing fiction, you promise to provide compelling stories, fully formed characters, and gripping details that will bring your story to life. That can be as hard—maybe even harder—than sticking to the facts.

I’ve got myself persuaded. I’m sticking with narrative history—at least for now. I know it’s possible to write true stories that have all the compelling virtues of fiction. Laura Hillenbrand did it with Seabiscuit; Erik Larson with Devil in the White City; Timothy Egan, The Big Burn; David Laskin, The Children’s Blizzard—and there are many more examples.

If they can do it, maybe I can do it.

What do you think?


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