Historical Fiction is Tougher Than Fact
By DARRYL MANZER.
Published in The Signal, 3-12-2006.
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If you're a regular reader, you might wonder how my book is progressing. If so, thank you.
I never realized that writing a book isn't just making up characters and scenes. If there is anything remotely historical, the writer must be accurate in that history.
Since the story I'm telling takes place in the Santa Clarita Valley at least most of it does I've had to learn more about your valley than I ever thought existed. Growing up in the SCV didn't really prepare me for the story as I thought it would have. There is much I didn't know.
I didn't know about the American Indians, the Tataviam, who once inhabited the valley. Once I learned a little about them, I at first assumed that as people, they were extinct. Come to find out, the tribe still exists and is attempting to get recognition from the federal government.
It appears that the biggest stumbling block to such recognition is that they have lost most, if not all, of the language they spoke. We do know it was a part of the Uto-Aztecan language group. That knowledge now has me researching the people of Mexico prior to Columbus.
After 36 years of working in and for the U.S. Navy Submarine Service, I didn't know that the first United States submarine was the USS Alligator of the Civil War. It wasn't taught to me in submarine school at all. That sent me on a week or three of research about that nifty little vessel.
I've used at least a ream of paper and endless ink cartridges printing out topographical maps of the SCV and the area around Pasadena. Old maps and the newest available are now in my files and ready for reference when I need them.
Want to know about the Rose Parade? My story took me there, too. I also had to look-up American Belgian draught horses, quarter horses, carriages, freight wagons, the Buffalo Soldiers, the Rough Riders and various Confederate cavalry regiments. All that is on file, too.
For every hour I've spent writing the story, at least another 40 hours have been spent on research. What started as a simple work of fiction now spans the globe in my search for accuracy. Spain, Syria, Mexico, Baja California, Virginia and Manhattan Island of New York City are all there.
Names are another problem. Where I couldn't get permission to use a name or didn't want to use a "real" name of something, I could get creative. The Signal has become "The Sentinel," and Mulligan's is now called O'Malley's.
Some places and institutions are just plain fiction, such as California State University, Santa Clarita. (Not a bad idea to make real some day.) I don't want to use the names of folks still alive or family names in SCV history for characters, but I did use historical names where and when necessary. That, too, required accuracy to the historical facts.
I've found that a weekly column is a much easier job than a work of fiction. I gather the facts from my sources and let my opinions run amok. Recent events about gangs, racial tensions, your Sheriff Baca and whatever else I can glean from the various publications in the SCV make it easy. Not simple. I had planned to do a "high school brawl" column this week. It seems to be spreading.
Great Bridge High School in Chesapeake, Va., just had a large brawl. It looked about the same as the one at Golden Valley High a couple of weeks ago. Is it a "rite of Spring" among high school students these days?
But thanks to a few e-mails asking about my book, you've got this column. I've learned much about the SCV and many other subjects that I'm connecting to the story. I don't think I could yet pass a history exam administered by John Boston concerning your valley, but I think I could get a pretty decent grade for effort.
There is so much right outside your door to learn. Way back when, I didn't bother looking or learning. I am now.
And learning never stops. One e-mail this week was from a gentleman over 90 years old. He complemented me on my columns about Pico Canyon and Mentryville. He told me it brought back memories of his visits there from 1928 to 1932 when he was 12 or 13 years old.
He is still learning, too. No matter your age, you can always learn more.
Darryl Manzer lived in the Santa Clarita Valley oil town of Mentryville in the 1960s as a teenager. He now lives in Virginia.