There are a number of different ways to write a novel based on historical characters. You can go for a modernisation of the characters and follow the general story but change bits of the plot – Susan Kay’s Elizabethan Legacy, which is a total romp and hugely enjoyable despite it’s lack of accuracy.
You can interweave an imaginary character into a historical narrative; Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon introduces Lawrence Waterhouse into the development of the code breaker during WWII to such an extent that I have no longer any idea what really went on because my memory of the history is so tarnished by reading it. Loved that book: I have a cat named after Enoch Root, one of the minor characters.
You can go for authenticity, as Jean Plaidy did; my favourite book of hers is The Queen’s Favourites, which so closely follows the interaction between Queen Anne, Sarah Churchill and Abigail Hill; it’s pretty much true to history, albeit a bit dry at times. I like authentic. It has to be real. I am more interested in what happened than what someone says happened when it comes to real people – I’m more likely to enjoy a biography than a historical novel for this reason. A detailing of the documented history is, to me, far more enjoyable than the imagined and invented filling in of historical holes: I do not much care for false putty spread into the gaps of old timber. I’d rather see the timber raw and guess for myself what might have been there.
On a related note, I feel that the only good autobiography is something akin to Errol Flynn’s; a pack of cheesy lies about crocodile wrestling and other stuff to make him look awesome to the ladies. Marilyn Manson also did a great one (I’m guessing it’s largely fiction though the meat-girl scene was worryingly authentically described). Rick Mayal’s was 100% incomprehensible. However I digress, as I am wont to do. Back to historical fiction tropes…
Some authors decide to frogmarch history out to a national park, and shoot it in the back of the head; yes I’m talking about the The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory. A total rewrite of most of the events; what really happened is way more interesting. This story has been covered again and again and maybe she was trying to come up with something new. If you’re going to write a whole new novel with an original story, do that. I’d read a novel about a rivalry between two Tudor-period sisters to win the hand of the powerful lord, I’d totally enjoy it – but not when its supposed to be about people I know well from history.
Us Conductors by Sean Michaels is a novel that takes the first road – a first personal narrative that covers the story of one person who lived through some remarkable events. I suspect the plot closely followed the recorded history – I’ve done what everyone does now when hunting up a fact, checked on Wikipedia, and it seems very well aligned. Us Conductors tells the story of the inventor of the Theremin, Lev Sergeevich Termen; it does it in very modern way which grew on me as I read it and got into the flow. It would be hard to be anything but a bit of a sad story I guess; this was not a man who had a good, happy, fulfilled life. His inventions, what he did and the time in which he lived are interesting, but his private life was obscure and the things that happened to the man were often tragic.
I have since looked up a bunch of stuff about the Theremin I didn’t know before I read this book. It’s been intriguing. I’d seen Bill Bailey do some pretty cool things with one, and I do like myself a bit of tacky mid-century Science Fiction type movies where the Theremin often gets a work out, but I knew nothing more. Quite an interesting history of a very difficult modern instrument. Micheals pulls the history off enough to have been quite a good read.
The history/exposition in the book is well laid out as part of the narrative and it will give an appreciation for the instrument. There are YouTube clips available of Clara Rockmore playing it (she’s in the book); I had no idea it could sound so good. She’s a bit of a wiz. As for the story, Lev’s journey was at times very sad; and also he reminded me of someone I know who once said “it’s not MY fault I’m selfish!” and seemed to think that was a very reasonable excuse for some pretty crappy behavior. Lev thinks that being a scientist and being selfish is reason enough for being an unlikeable dude who does some utterly awful (criminal) things. I liked him not; I don’t think I was supposed to like him, however…
For much of the book, the character is writing in retrospect and thus the outcome is already known as he’s speaking from the future. I’m not sure if a straight timeline would have worked as well. Lev’s story is very much a 20th century tragedy, interspersed with moments of invention and some odd decision making. He was the master of denial of reality and that got him into a lot of trouble. He was embroiled in the politics of communism; as a Russian living in the US during the mid part of the 20th century, he could not avoid it.
This is a noble effort for a first novel. I was able to enjoy the history if perhaps not the character (let’s be honest here, the character as presented in the book is best described as an ass), and it’s given me a bit more knowledge I am pleased to add to my list of ‘stuff I know’.