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Tell Your Own Story

Using Pastiche to Create Convincing Historical Fiction by Matthew de Lacey Davidson

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Article by Matthew de Lacey Davidson ©.
Posted in the Magazine (Tell Your Own Story: , ).
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Almost any time I put metaphorical pen to paper, a great deal of research has preceded the action. Perhaps this is due to my academic background; or maybe just because I have a general interest in history. Or maybe “just because.” My first novel, entitled, Precept, is no exception.

I try to avoid the dreaded word, “inspiration,” largely because what I produce is always the result of, for the most part, hard work. That being said, the impetus behind its inception was seeing a DVD of the film, Lincoln, directed by Stephen Spielberg.

About half way through, I started to ask myself, “Where are all the black people?” I mean, I saw a couple of nameless soldiers, and a butler, and a maid, but nobody else. Then I started to ask, “Where is Frederick Douglass?” Now, you cannot discuss either American history, Civil War history, the history of slavery, or history in general without acknowledging Frederick Douglass. He was probably the most eloquent Orator of all time, and of paramount importance in the fight to abolish of slavery.

Nonetheless, what I saw in Lincoln made me feel so upset, that I started to read up on Frederick Douglass myself, and found an interesting little historical tidbit, to wit, that he spent four months in Ireland when escaping possible recapture as a “fugitive” slave. Also, that the country had almost as much of a profound impact upon him, as he did upon it. I thought, “What a marvelous idea for an historical novel.” Then I thought, “How could I accomplish such a thing successfully?” So, I chose the narrator to be a young Irish boy who witnesses and observes Mr. Douglass. And much of what he sees goes unexplained, as children don’t understand everything that goes on around them.

After the initial idea, came the hard work. Thus, I spent the better part of a year researching the topic. Then I started to think about the structure. The overall design of my novel is based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. And even if you look at the opening sentences of my work, and then at Fitzgerald’s, you will notice that both openings are in the voice of the protagonist who is not the main subject of the story; they both try to observe rather than judge; and they both draw together events and attitudes which have transpired in the past, the present, and that which will happen in the future. The difference is in attitude: Fitzgerald’s voice speaks of not passing judgement; mine speaks of desire.

In addition, I used two techniques which playwright Tom Stoppard experimented with in two of his plays (Travesties, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead). Namely, the mixture of the real and the fictional; and the melding of established material with completely new material.

For instance, the interaction of the character of Frederick Douglass with the young boy, and with his father, is almost completely fantasized (with the exception of an undisclosed disagreement Douglass had with his Irish publisher). However, there are speeches and phrases by both Douglass and Dan O’Connell which are quoted, at times, ad verbatim from real life. To me, at least, this makes it feel like these historic figures are a little more humanized, and a little less “mythological” (for want of a better word). As readers, we sometimes forget the fact that great historical figures had their flaws; in many respects, they were just like you and me. Except for the fact that they completely changed history!

One of the things which attracted me to the subject matter was that it enabled me to do a lot of foreshadowing – but of events which are not covered by my novel (e.g., the American Civil War, and the Irish War of Independence). In addition, two of the greatest humanitarian crises of the 19th century serve as the dramatic backdrop to the novel: the Institution of legalised American Slavery, and the Great Famine in Ireland. Now, it would be all-too-easy to engage in insensitive depictions, or even trivialisation, of these horrors. So, what I chose to do, was to base my descriptions as closely as possible upon historic fact.

Most of all, what I enjoyed when writing this work was that it was not just all “dry history” as some readers are wont to complain about history books. In fact, much of what is discussed in the book is still profoundly relevant in 2018: food insecurity remains prevalent in many countries; white supremacists are still a serious political threat in the United States; and too many people place all of their fidelity in a fallible human being (usually a politician), rather than develop their own sound guiding principals, and employing good critical thinking skills.

One of the things which delights me as a reader is surprise endings. For that reason, I attempted to create a last chapter with events which (hopefully) no one can see coming.

Some may see my use of “pastiche” as antithetical to “originality.” However, I see no conflict in terms of authentic creativity. Not to directly place myself in such exalted company, but if it was alright for J.S. Bach to spend half his life setting the melodies of others, or Shakespeare to use stories not of his own devising, then why would it be so wrong for a mere first-time novelist to piece together techniques, stories, and the words of others to weave a quilt-work of history and fiction?

Perhaps the best answer rests with T.S. Eliot, who once expatiated, if memory serves, that the most significant contributions to culture do not lie with purported “original” statements; but, rather, are expressed by the way in which older material is employed and reinterpreted.

(c) Matthew de Lacey Davidson

About Precept:

Dublin, Ireland – Autumn, 1845. A young Irish boy, Nathan Whyte, whose life has been uneventful up to this point, is present at the arrival of a celebrity who has stepped off a boat that has just rolled into the harbour from the United States of America. This famous guest has recently achieved much renown (or notoriety, depending on the viewpoint) as an exemplary writer, and one of the greatest orators of his age – in an age of great oratory. At first confused, Nathan’s curiosity is piqued as he slowly realises that this man – Frederick Douglass – the greatest voice of abolition of his day – whose talent for shattering ignorance is unique – entrances his audiences with his eloquence, dignity, sharp wit, and unparalleled public speaking skills.

(c) Matthew de Lacey Davidson

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Matthew de Lacey Davidson is the author of two poetry collections, a play in verse, a short story collection, and a novel. In addition, he is a composer and pianist and has released 12 compact discs. His poetry and short stories have been published by "Grammateion," and the online literary journal, "Danse Macabre"; music analyses by SCI; cartoons and reviews by TOM Magazine; and cartoons by Canadian Science News. He has written the music, libretto, and lyrics for a chamber opera, "The Singing Lesson," based on three short stories by New Zealand author, Katherine Mansfield. He lives in Nova Scotia, Canada, with his wife, Shayna, and a plethora of Siamese and Tonkinese cats. Jill Murphy, writing in “thebookbag.co.uk,” when reviewing “Roses in December: Haunting and Macabre Tales,” gave the following estimation: “The style is elegant with carefully crafted sentences and precision in vocabulary…a pleasure to read…the authorial voice comes with empathy and compassion, always…And I think it speaks to the humanity in all of us. We would do well to listen.”
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