Last November I wrote about the dilemma of what to include and not to include in the biography of my great -grandfather. I’ still fighting that challenge to some degree, but now there is a new one on the table–or at least a variation.
As I start to put all my individual stories into some rough semblance of order, I’m beginning to see gaps that could be filled with historical content. The question becomes how much background history is necessary and how much could be a distraction. Some examples might make the dilemma a little clearer.
If you read my blog post from last April on private medical schools, you’ll remember that I included the Toledo Medical College as an example of those early attempts at medical education because Dr. Blaine had received a degree there and had also been on the faculty a short while. So far in the biography, I have mentioned the school only in passing. But is that enough? Should I use that school as a vehicle to give the reader a more detailed impression of the state of medical education in the late 1800s? And, if so, how much detail do I include? My files are bulging with facts about financial problems and disagreements about the administration of the school. Dr. Blaine and several other faculty members were even charged with trespassing when they attempted to attend a closed meeting of the board. Maybe all this does merit a separate chapter in the book!
Another example is not so closely tied to Dr. Blaine. It involves the assassination of President James Garfield in 1881. Like many other American citizens, the doctor followed closely the news reports of the shooting in June, the subsequent attempts to save the president’s life, his death in September, and the trial of the assassin Charles Guiteau. The main reason I am thinking of including this historical event is that it serves as a prime vehicle for revealing some of the misconceptions then prevalent in medical practice, misconceptions that actually hastened the president’s death!
In both of these examples, I can see evidence that the historical background does help to establish the setting of the story. And, as James Thom said in his book The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction, “Most regular readers of historical fiction are reading to learn, and they gain historical knowledge from story to story. They take pride in having some knowledge they can keep and believe” (29). Since my book is turning out to be a combination of historical biography and fiction, maybe both of the examples I mentioned do fit!
I’m already committed to writing a chapter on the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair because the doctor and his wife actually visited that remarkable event. So we’ll see what happens. Stay tuned!
And feel free to leave a comment on how much history is too much history in a historical-fiction-biography.
Source: Thom, James Alexander. The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction. Writer’s Digest Books, 2010.