Mostly the Truth and Embellished with Fiction
November 20, 2015
My latest book, “JAKE & CLARA: Scandal, Hollywood, Politics, and Murder,” is now available in early release—e-book only (at significant discount off the permanent release price). The book will be fully released in print and e-book formats and available via 39,000 retail outlets and libraries December 1st.
“Jake & Clara” is based on a true story. All the characters are real. But because I have invented dialogue, a book like this often falls into the category of historical fiction. But I think it is a better fit for narrative nonfiction or true crime.
When Warren Harding won the White House in 1920, his campaign received millions from Jake Hamon—“The Oil King of Oklahoma.” Harding planned to make Jake the most powerful businessman in America. But Mrs. Harding (some called her “The Duchess”) had one condition—the married man had to end his affair with his long-time mistress, a girl named Clara. Jake and Clara had been together for ten years, since she was seventeen and he was thirty-seven. But Jake coveted the powerful Washington job, and he dumped Clara a couple of weeks after Harding was elected.
A few days later, Clara shot Jake.
By the time Jake died, Clara was in the wind. A headline-grabbing national search was conducted for the beautiful fugitive. Clara “sightings” were reported far and wide. A pair of colorful lawmen found Clara in an unlikely hiding place and brought her back to Ardmore, Oklahoma to face the charge of first-degree murder. What followed was one of the most sensational murder trials of the era. A “dream team” of powerful lawyers surrounded Clara in the courtroom. Soon Hollywood came calling, wanting to put Clara’s story on the big screen—starring Clara as herself.
And all of this actually happened.
Historical fiction has been defined as “a hybrid form, half-way between fiction and nonfiction. It is pioneer country, without fixed laws.” I would say that “Jake & Clara” is much closer to narrative nonfiction. And after all, even those who craft nonfiction stories must rely on their sources—sources that themselves are often anecdotal and flawed. I think a writer needs to get the facts right. But the hook is in the color.
Why write historical fiction? Why not just stick with history itself and write a nonfiction account of something? I mean, David McCullough’s books aren’t so bad, and some say they read like novels. But here’s the thing—what about great stories, real ones, from history, where there is not enough material in the records to fill in all the blanks?
This is, I think, the greatest service the historical fiction writer can provide for readers. Sometimes the only “story” we have exists in fragments. The DNA of a broader narrative is there, but it’s not easily seen, and it must be carefully reconstructed with informed imagination.
Enter the practitioner of the craft of historical fiction. The writer builds a superstructure from a few fragile fragments, but always with an eye on all other relevant facts and materials extant. It’s sort of like how they build dinosaur skeletons from a small assortment of scattered bones.
The late Irving Stone was a genius at this. Writing in the preface to one of his great books, “The President’s Lady: A Novel About Rachel and Andrew Jackson,” he talked about this kind of research and writing. He said it was, “as authentic and documented as several years of intensive research, the generous assistance of the historians and librarians in the field, and literally thousands of books, magazines, pamphlets, newspapers, diaries, public records, correspondence and collections of unpublished memoirs and doctoral theses can make it.”
Then Stone dropped the other shoe: “The interpretations of character are of course my own; this is not only the novelist’s prerogative, but his obligation. Much of the dialogue had to be recreated, but every effort has been made to create it on the basis of individual character, personality, temperament, education, idiosyncrasy, as well as recorded conversations and dialogue, memoirs, diaries, letters, and published accounts by relatives, friends, associates, even of detractors, and enemies.”
To my mind Stone struck the right balance, setting a standard for all who dare to re-imagine the past.
DAVID R. STOKES is a bestselling author, ordained minister, commentator, broadcaster, and columnist. He and his wife Karen have seven wonderful grandchildren and live in the Washington, DC area. His personal website is: www.davidrstokes.com.