Tell me something true

in Potpourri by

by Alex Myers, author of Revolutionary

Having written a historical novel, I’ve found that the first question people usually ask is: which parts are true?

I want to tell people that they probably shouldn’t trust me with the truth; after all, I’m a fiction writer. And, to be frank, I’ve been writing and working and imagining this story for so long that the truth that I perceive has gotten tangled up with what the rest of the world regards as facts.

But I know what they want: they want the tangible, the provable. Readers – heck, all people – want to get to the bedrock and know what is reliable. Why? Because fiction can’t be made of clouds if it expects to support any weight. If a story or novel wants to carry some load – some portion of the (capital T) Truth – it has to be grounded.

To get at the truth in my novel is not quite like performing surgery on an inoperable tumor, but it’s close. Take, for instance, a small detail near the start of the novel. The main character, Deborah, has attempted to enlist in the army under the name of Timothy Thayer, but she has been noticed by someone because of the strange way she holds the quill: her left forefinger is marked by a scar that won’t let her finger bend.

All of the above is fact, as told by Deborah and as told by townspeople who remembered the incident. But in the novel, I supply a different source for the scar. In truth, she received the injury from some piece of weaving machinery. That seemed rather boring, so I changed it to be that she received the scar from working with an ax and chopping wood – and, when injured, her then-master told her the cut served her right for trying to do a man’s job.

In this instance, and many others, I made the facts serve the larger purpose of my fiction. Yes, I had to displace facts in order to create my fiction. I had to lie. But the truth is still there, at least some of it.

And does it really matter?

You see, here’s the question I wish readers would ask: what do I consider to be the truest part of the novel?

The answer to this question has little to do with historical fact and little to do with fiction craft – it has much more to do with humanity. How did I imagine this woman at the end of the 18th century, in a small New England town? How did I account for the remarkable feat she performed, of disguising herself as a man and fighting for a year and a half in the Revolutionary War? What could I possibly say about her that would be true?

I can say this: that I read as much as I could about her. About her impoverished early childhood, about her being given to a widow as a sort of foster child, about her indentured servitude. About how, once freed, she worked incessantly: as a weaver, as a schoolteacher, raising fowl, taking work wherever it was available. About, how, after the war, she was again subject to grinding poverty and went on the road as America’s first female lecturer, putting on her old uniform and performing the manual exercise of arms with a musket. How, denied her veteran’s pension, she rallied all of her old officers and public figures as august as Paul Revere to support her case.

All of these are facts. Smooth round pebbles of this woman’s history. But what happens when you drop these stones into the pond of truth? What sort of ripples do they send out? This is the story they told me: determination, self-discipline, an intense and driving desire to succeed. The thirst – the need, even – to be independent, to show the world that she could anything on her own terms.

This is the greatest truth, the bedrock that underlies the novel more so than any fact from history. This is the desire that propels the character to act, that sets the story in motion. And it is this motion that makes it fiction, not history. This, I’d argue, is the motion that makes it True.

AlexMyersauthorphotoALEX MYERS was born and raised in western Maine. Since high school, Alex has campaigned for transgender rights. As a female-to-male transgender person, Alex began his transition at Phillips Exeter Academy (returning his senior year as a man after attending for three years as a woman) and was the first transgender student in that academy’s history. Alex was also the first openly transgender student at Harvard, and worked to change the university’s nondiscrimination clause to include gender identity. After earning a master’s in religion from Brown University, Alex began a career as a high school English teacher. Along the way, he earned an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. He currently lives in DC with his wife and two cats.

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