Toeing that History/Fiction Line

Right now, NightWind is with my first beta reader. As I sit and wait for feedback, I find myself in the middle of a period of reading, recharging and exploring. Inevitably, that means I’m thinking about what I will be writing next.

My next project will be a short novel titled Into the Sweetbitter Sea. This story is about Sappho, an ancient Greek lyric poet about whom we know almost nothing. There are speculations (or educated guesses at best), of course, about what her life was like. But, she lived in the range of 640-600 B.C. and she was a woman, so history took little interest in recording her life. Not to mention, she was the subject of severe critique and most of her poetry was destroyed long ago by disapproving members of the church. What remains are several fragments, a few complete poems and some circumstantial evidence that experts have used to speculate about what happened in her life.

So how do I write a story about someone we know practically nothing about  for certain and, beyond this, the little we do know or speculate about is subject to serious debate?

Honestly, I’m not really sure. This is one reason why I ended up abandoning the project last time I attempted it. On the one hand, I have the freedom to take the story in whatever direction I please. But, people have very strong opinions about Sappho and her life despite the fact we have very little evidence to back much of anything up. So, in theory, if people read this story, they may have very strong opinions about the direction I chose to take the story. Additionally, this is a story that I have been wanting to write for more than a decade and I want to do it respectfully and beautifully, but also in a way that I find motivating and inspiring.

All I want to do is tell a good story and write some beautiful sentences and utilize the storytelling mechanism I’ve come up with to tell the story because I believe it to be unique and quite different from anything else I’ve ever read in any genre.

I’ve done my due diligence. With a minor in classical literature, I’ve read my fair share of ancient Greek and Roman literature, mythology and plays. I also perused 32 books about various facets of Ancient Greek life to feel better equipped to tell a story in that time period the first time I was preparing to write this story. I also own several copies of translations of Sappho’s work and I have studied the writing of the translators, noting their research and what they believe to be the course of Sappho’s life and why.

Clearly writing a story about Sappho isn’t impossible. I know that someone wrote and published a novel about her several years ago, though I’ve never read it myself. This is simply for the sake of being able to say that all my ideas were my own and that there is no room for anyone to question anything about what I write. But I also wish I could pick that author’s brain because I can’t imagine she didn’t also face these same issues.

Historical fiction isn’t a new genre for me. I’ve read in this genre significantly and also wrote a historical fiction novel a couple of years ago. But that novel was about characters who sprang up from my imagination, not real people who walked the earth at one point in time.

I suppose what I need to do is to find someone to talk through my plot with. This person will have to be familiar with Sappho on some level and also understand the liberties that a writer sometimes needs to take when writing fiction. I think this would give me the confidence to continue forward with this project and complete a full draft.

As I come to the end of this post, I think I’m left with more questions and have few answers to offer you this week (but I will certainly keep you posted as I continue to explore this issue). My questions are (and please feel free to share your opinions or advice in the comments if you have any! I’d love to hear from you!):

  1. How do you navigate writing a fictional story about a real person?
  2. How much liberty is it okay to take when telling a story about a real person (especially given my current circumstance given Sappho’s pretty blank history)?
  3. What is that balance between creative writing and using your imagination and staying true to a period of history?

How Historical is Your Fiction?