In the fall of 1999, one of the questions on the application to the Honors College at the University of South Carolina was, "What is your favorite word? Explain." I don't remember my explanation, but I remember the word I chose: memory.
I have no idea why I chose that word, but it proved prophetic.
After much hemming and hawing, I wound up as a history major because English departments tend to attract very kind, empathetic people and also the bullies who prey on those people and also I already knew all the poems were about sex. (I would be afraid of offending English departments, but I know they are a little proud of all this. I have an M.A. in English and I taught in an English department for years post-grad school, so I know whereof I speak. It's like Survivor up in there. You just have to find your tribe and hope you don't get voted off the island to be eaten by sharks.)
Plus, in history, the stories are true-ish.
That's where memory comes in.
In the spring of my sophomore year, I took an honors seminar called American Civil War in Art and Literature. Why did I, at the tender age of nineteen already heartily sick of the Civil War, take this course? Recall that I grew up in South Carolina, where we forget nothing that we have made up.
Again, I do not remember my explanation. Probably the reading list sounded cool. This is why I chose most of my courses.
Though I was blissfully ignorant of it at the time, the decision to enroll in this course set me on a path, not into history, but into the murkier waters of memory and specifically into the ways societies remember their own pasts. Winter break of my sophomore year was the last time I finished a semester cleanly, with no ongoing projects to tarnish my break. Literally the last time in my life. Oh, the end of innocence.
The following spring I took a course with the same professor called American Memory, where I continued working on the project I began in American Civil War in Art and Literature.
Okay, shoutout break: I can't just call him "the same professor." Dr. Thomas J. Brown of the Department of History at the University of South Carolina has been one of the great influencers of my life and career. Ninety percent of what I know about practicing history, I learned from him. I shudder to think what kind of clumsy historical fiction I might be writing if he hadn't been my teacher. In terms of people who made me what I am, Dr. Brown is in my top ten.
Anyway, memory. Not what happened but what we believe happened. It's human nature to organize events into narratives in order to make sense of things that often don't. The stories we tell ourselves about who we are, where we came from, what we did, and why it matters. We do it as individuals and we do it as churches, as businesses, as families, as nations. We speak of institutional memory, of personal memory, of national memory. And often, in collective delusion, we call those memories history.
It's not that we're intentionally lying to ourselves. It's that memory is faulty.
So how does understanding historical memory play into writing historical fiction?
It's often the first thing I think of. What does my audience think happened, if indeed they think anything? One of the challenges of writing and selling The Last Sister is that most people have exactly zero historical memory of anything that happened between the Salem Witch Trials and the American Revolution, so I have to start from scratch. It's useful if people have heard of your time period before.
What do I think happened? Is my memory wrong?
Often, research reveals historical memory to be faulty or just plain wrong. But my readers haven't done the research, and there's no point in my writing something that at best simply reinforces what they already think and at worst is patently false.
Am I limited, then, to writing only stories where history and memory match up? I hope not, because those are few and far between.
The great challenge is to convince readers to come along with me, to make them believe that my version, my interpretation of events, is the true one.
For example, let's accept that it's true that George Washington did not chop down a cherry tree. Then let's write a book in which he does not chop down a cherry tree, for readers who believe that he did, in fact, chop down a cherry tree. I have to convince readers that it is true that George Washington did not chop down a cherry tree, lest they send me angry messages about "Where is the part with the cherry tree?" or worse, tell everyone they know that my book is full of inaccuracies.
If I have any integrity at all, I'm giving them what I believe to be an accurate interpretation. That's what all of us who work in the past do, ultimately. We try to convince readers we're telling the truth, even as we're manipulating their memories to match ours.
It's kind of a cool job.