Sterling Bridge: Writing Historical Fiction (Part One)

“Sterling Bridge” is a work of historical fiction. The people, places, and events are based in truth as indicated by the front cover, where it states that it is “based on a true story.” When we read a disclaimer in books, or in films, we see little variation, but no matter how true the story is, the emphasis invariably remains on the author’s responsibility for expressing views that are not intended to be taken as reality.

How would you write a disclaimer for historical fiction?

It was brought to my attention recently that my publisher’s inclusion seems to be a standard fictional disclaimer that detaches its entity entirely, and even the work itself, from including anything based in reality. Admittedly, that conception disturbs me a little as my creation is obviously a tribute to “Sterling’s Men” of Tooele, Utah leading up to and during the Great Depression. There is no defamation intended, real or perceived, in my attempt to honor the characters who in the history annals overcame much and are credited for the triumph that led to my creation of “Sterling Bridge.”

However, I am also keenly aware that my depiction should not be used as a historical reference. I provide my references to actualities, but in truth I did not live the tale, nor do I profess to believe that my description is much more than a perpetuation of folklore in writing. I arrived at my conclusions after weeding through a conglomeration of varying sources and differing conceptions. And then I take it a step further and completely fictionalize the structure, order, and flow of a story; it is definitely not to be mistaken word for word or point by point as being anything other than my own making.

How does a good film depict historical fiction?

While watching Disney’s “Secretariat,” I couldn’t help but analyze the film’s depiction of real events. Obviously, I personally was not alive during the 1970’s, nor was anyone that I know of close enough to the events to even give me a secondhand or passed down account (though my dad recalls news broadcasts and races aired on TV). Like everyone else though, I do have access to the history books. Let’s just say I sought out the historical fiction films story over perusing the library or Wikipedia for too long. I’m too lazy to discount someone else’s wonderful research as translated into film.

The movie is great! It tells some minor events slant, such as mentioning win after win to the point that you would think one loss even outside of the Triple Crown could ruin everything, but for the most part I would say it seems to stay true to the historical timeline of main events, despite the nature of needing to condense a legendary tale–dubbed as “the impossible true story”–into the sped-up drama of a film format of just 123 minutes.

How does “Secretariat” portray the personal side of history?

Some would argue that the movie starts out rather slow, but I think it does so to provide us the necessary background that I would describe as giving us a “homey” feel only true stories can do so well. Next, enter some true-to-life drama. I think the writer picked out some gripping points. Still centered around home, the film portrays the difficulties of pursuing a dream and the support needed by one’s family of understanding and oftentimes time without the dreamer around. Did I think we saw the most trying lowest of lows with the relationship strains put on this woman’s family? Or could we really understand and ultimately feel the highest of highs experienced by them? Probably not. A film takes a snapshot of instances that depict an ongoing challenge and/or a portion of how grand the triumph really is. I remember thinking that there were many conversations and events that were only partially defined in the film version of a life’s daily toil. But that is what historical fiction is. It gives us an idea of how things could have happened, albeit in a sped up time frame that purposely gets to the point a little quicker. None of us actually experience the full depth of anyone’s story unless we are walking in their shoes or at least hand in hand walking beside them. Nonetheless, the film picks out the important highlights in the case of “Secretariat,” near as I could tell. I felt like I experienced the main events and some of the more personalized thoughts and feelings surrounding those central to this awesome point in history.

How do we portray our own lives? 

When I was a child I remember a week when my aging grandparents had to watch after us. There are six boys in the Parker family. While my memory of youth is already quite fuzzy I can remember some poignant details rather well. Ancillary details, not so much. Certainly the story being told from my perspective will be viewed from all the reference points that make up my experiences in life. At this point I might tell a story very differently from how I told it when I was younger. Different moral threads, for example, might stand out. But the main points will still be in place for an audience to interpret as they will from their current vantage point. We learn from living a story directly or even by experiencing it indirectly. Anyway, back to my personal story.

(To Be Continued: See Part Two)

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