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Turning Seacoast Fact into Historical Fiction
Homer_Figg_closeupHISTORY MATTERS

Writing history requires total accuracy, but for fiction writiers, the truth is just a springboard. The people and plot comes from the author’s creative mind. This article dips one toe into the ocean of historical fiction written about our Seacoast region and by Portsmouth-area novelists. Is historical fiction a good way to learn history? Or is the past just a backdrop to imaginary adventure? (Click to read)

 

Historical fiction flourishes in Seacoast NH

Sometimes the truth needs a little shove to get our attention. My friend Rodman Philbrick did not quite win the Newbery Medal for children’s literature as the Portsmouth Herald reported last week. He and three other authors received the Newbery Honor as runners up to the 2010 medal for excellence. But in the publishing business, as in horseshoes, close counts. This is a huge national honor for a Portsmouth-born novelist, and for this city, and if one headline writer accidentally bent the facts a bit -- so much the better.

Funnier still is the fact that Philbrick’s novel is about a boy who has problems with the truth. The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg is about a 12-year old Mainer who gets caught in the crossfire of the bloody Civil War while searching for his older brother. Homer is prone to exaggeration in the colorful tradition of humorist Mark Twain who once said, "Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn't."

Philbrick does what historians only dream about – he makes things up. That’s standard fare in science fiction, fantasy, horror and mystery novels – all genres where Philbrick has published in his prolific career. With Homer Figg, however, Philbrick drops his imaginary characters smack into the Battle of Gettysburg and other historic events and sites. The result is both good fiction and good history as we see the Civil War through the eyes of a poor and largely undeducated boy from Pine Swamp, Maine. It is the fresh perspective that makes history come to life. Philbrick spent two years, between other novels, studying up on the Civil War before the narrative "voice" of Homer Figg coalesced into the spunky character that narrates the book.

"I found a wealth of information -- whole archives -- on the American Civil War, from letters of the time period to everything you'd ever want to know about weapons, uniforms, and particular battles," he says.

Philbrick also ran his manuscript by Richard Adams, a local Civil War buff, and former president of the Portsmouth Athenaeum, where Philbrick is also a member. Adams and other experts, questioned Philbrick’s use of the word "bullets" in Homer Figg. Standard Civil War ammunition, they pointed out, was a lead slug then called a "mini-ball" or "Minie-ball" after its inventor Claude Minie. But knowing how hilarious "mini-balls" might sound to a nine-year-old boy discussing the story in class, Philbrick stuck with the word "bullets".

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