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Turning Seacoast Fact into Historical Fiction


Making up the past

We have entered the dangerous world of "historical fiction" where real and make believe bond like molecules, sometimes enhancing our view of the past, sometimes distorting it beyond reason. As a kid I loved Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage, but despised Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes. When I parodied the latter as "Toilet Tremain" in an eighth-grade column in the local newspaper the wheels almost came off my career as a journalist. Do we learn good history from history-based novels like The Three Muskateers, War and Peace or those weighty paperbacks by James Michener?

Historic novels run the gamut from Alex Haley’s descent into slavery in Roots to the bodice ripper romances on the grocery store shelves. Does E.L. Doctorow have the right to put words in the mouths of real life characters in books like Ragtime? Was it okay for novelist Anita Shreve to turn the surviving victim into the murderer in the very real 1873 homicides on Smuttynose Island at the Isles of Shoals? The jury is still out.

"I thought her [Shreve’s] Weight of Water was beautifully written," Philbrick says. "She has a very persuasive way of transiting between the past and the present, and manages to make it look easy. It isn't."

patriots_reward_coverSometimes an historical novel can change our image of history itself. In Patriot’s Reward, writer Stephen Clarkson wanted readers to know that slavery existed in both the North and South. A lawyer by trade, Clarkson was surprised to learn that his own New Hampshire ancestors had enslaved an African man from Senegal in 1755. Clarkson threw himself into research based largely on Valerie Cunningham’s work on the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail. In his novel, Clarkson’s African protagonist fights for the America’s freedom in the Revolution. In fact, 180 black men from New Hampshire joined the patriot cause. One-third of the soldiers at Bunker Hill, according to Clarkson’s web site ( were black, and despite their sacrifice, emancipation did not arrive for another century.

Philbrick’s award-winning novel, however, has no historical agenda. Although there have been Philbricks in this area since the 17th century (Herb Philbrick of Rye, author of I Lived Three Lives, is a third cousin) Rod comes at this genre as a fiction writer first and foremost.

"The teaching of a moral lesson, or any lesson, is never part of the deal for me, because it tends to get in the way of telling a good tale," he says. "The notion of writing a story set in the time of the Civil War just seemed very interesting to me, and I hope it might be of interest to anyone who has ever noticed that every small town in New England has a fairly large monument to the Civil War dead. Who were these young men? Why did they come from every farm and village? How did they feel about going off to war?"

Spinning seacoast stories

Rebecca_Wentworths_DistractionFor historians like me foraging for facts the Portsmouth’s 400 year timeline provides consistent and nutritious meals. But for hungry novelists with an appetite for history, this region is a smorgasbord of stories just waiting to be fleshed out as fiction. I’ve never seen a comprehensive list of novels set in this region, but it would have to be a lengthy one including the 19th century works of Thomas Bailey Aldrich, Sarah Orne Jewett, and other literary lions.

Writer Robert Begiebing told me he loves the discovery process of researching a new historical novel. His latest, Rebecca Wentworth's Distraction, is set in 18th century Portsmouth when the evolving city was a seaport on par with Boston. He likes to mix imaginary characters with real people, but prefers to stay away from famous figures who , he says, may come off wooden. He finds his characters lives and voices hidden in diaries and journals deep in the archives of history collections like the Portsmouth Athenaeum, UNH Special Collections and the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester. Begiebing is also professor of writing, both fiction and nonfiction, and director of the MFA program at Southern New Hampshire University.

"I recall walking out of the museum library [at Strawbery Banke]," he says, "and into the sunlight after a full summer's day deep in its collections and feeling as if I had struck gold and deserved a lobster roll and chips as a picnic in Prescott Park in the light of sky and water before heading home.  I felt like a kid."

While some research first, then write, Begiebing prefers to research while he’s writing the narrative "right up to the bitter end". That process can take three or four years from start to finish.

Geoffrey_Frost_Privateer_Cover"The good stuff …can't be planned or ambushed," he says. "At a certain point the story begins to take off on its own, and you more or less know when that is happening, but even so, more historical detail and voices can keep sending the narrative in directions you hadn't planned on. The surprises give you a kick and you hope surprise and kick the reader as well."

Sometimes a character can climb right out of the past and move full time into a writer’s living room. Such is the case of Geoffrey Frost who has so far inhabited five novels by E.F.Fender. This series is fashioned after the wildly popular maritime novels by Patrick O'Brian best known from the Hollywood film Master and Commander. Fender also admires the Horatio Hornblower series by E. M. Forster. Fender, who lives in Madbury, has a sixth novel in progress and an endless supply of adventures drawn, he claims with tongue-in-cheek, from an old trunk full of documents he discovered at a local antique store. His protagonist is named for Fender’s close friend, the late Kittery historian Joe Frost, an irascible collector of rare local artifacts and documents.

"There’s never been a nautical series set in the American Revolution," Fender says. "I’m taking my characters and inserting them into actual historic events."

The Geoffrey Frost series, initially published by University Press of New England, begins in March of 1776 and hovers around the Port of Portsmouth. The fifth volume entitle The Lucifer Cypher, centers on the city’s "Christian Shore" and includes a secret Revolutionary War-era two-man submarine being tested in Great Bay. Besides digging into early documents, Fender buys old books, lots of them, and scribbles notes in the margins, and highlights exciting bits with yellow markers. It’s treasonous, he knows, but each writer must find his own method for marrying fact and fiction.

When not writing history novels, Fender is head legal counsel for the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. In 2008 he served eight months as attorney to Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq, whom he counts as a fan of the Geoffrey Frost series. The first four historical novels set in Portsmouth are now being adapted as e-books for the Amazon Kindle. Even Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, Fender says with authority, likes to read a digital novel on his Kindle between breaks in the action in Afghanistan.


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