An Experiment with Form

Posted by on Feb 2, 2014

“How difficult a thing it is, to set Truth in a clear light in this case to the satisfaction of an unbelieving world.”

—Zabdiel Boylston

“I am going to write a history so uncommon that in how plain a manner so ever I relate it, it will have the air of a romance.”

—Lady Mary Wortley Montagu


History and Historical Fiction

In telling this tale, I have tried to remain faithful to its two heroes, not only as historical figures but as storytellers.

—from the Introduction to The Speckled Monster

As I began writing The Speckled Monster, my editor challenged me to write history, but make it read as much like a novel as possible.

To do so, I decided to tell the historical events as a story in the main body of the book. Rather than presenting different interpretations of the evidence at every turn, or running right up to a crucial moment and then retreating into a cautious series of “probablies” or “perhapses,” I would deduce as best I could what happened and why, and then run with those decisions.

The scholar in my soul was not happy to leave things at that, however. After all, the book was to be classified as history. So I experimented with gathering more careful considerations of evidence and alternate possibilities into notes at the back of the book, in the form of an essay for each chapter.

That I could even attempt to tell history as story in this way is due to a convergence of two fairly unusual historical factors:

  • First, the historical events unfolded with the stark outlines, life-and-death stakes, and relentless acceleration of Greek or Shakespearean tragedy.
  • Second, the two heroes and many of the people around them papered their paths through this dramatic history with mountains of evidence, including detailed letters, notes, diaries, polemics, newspaper articles, scientific papers and books, written gossip, and (in Lady Mary’s case) semi-autobiographical stories and poems.

It helped, too, that the settings in which these events took place have been so richly studied:

  • Both London and Boston have long, proud traditions of preserving their history.
  • While Lady Mary and Zabdiel Boylston may not be household names, they were surrounded by famous people whose lives and times have been thoroughly documented: from the fiery preacher Cotton Mather and the young Ben Franklin in Boston, to Alexander Pope, Sir Hans Sloane, King George I, and Caroline, Princess of Wales, in London.

While my publisher and most readers label the book as history, many other readers have called it a historical novel. I like to think that this crossover suggests that my experiment has met with some success.

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