Monday, July 17, 2017

More About Making Up History

Annamaria on Monday

Michael Cooper’s guest blog last week got me to thinking about that tenuous relationship between fact and fiction.   Mike pointed out how historical novelists play with and fill in the “little pools” of missing or ambiguous information in the historical record.  Then, a couple a days ago, Jeff reported that, once again, his fiction had predicted future facts.

From time to time, I have experienced something strangely between these two sensations.  I have invented an aspect of my story’s historical setting and only later found out that what I had fabricated was actually the truth.

Here is an example:

The Internet was not even a figment of Cerf and Kahn’s imaginations when I began researching City of Silver, some time around 1992 (the historical record is sketchy about this).  At that point in time, I had no choice but to learn my setting, Potosi’s history the old fashioned way, by digging around for dusty volumes.  Mostly, that meant starting my search in the card catalogue of the New York Public Library.  Selections from it blessedly often led me to the bibliographies of historian authors, which led me to other source materials.

While I filled my notebooks with what I was learning, I began thinking over a vague notion of a plot.  The inspiration for the murder mystery was a question my husband had asked me when we were visiting a cloistered convent for Spanish noblewomen in Potosi: “Why would a noblewoman want to lock herself away in a place like this?”  I, his convent-school-educated wife came up with five reasons.  Over the next few days, my imagination turned those reasons into five women.  When I needed a plot for my novel, those women showed up again, and they had a problem with a locked-room murder.

David's photograph of the convent's cloister

A gratuitous photo of one of Potosi'd beautiful churches,
included to show you why I fell in love with the place.

But the research was frustrating.  Most of what I wanted to read was available only in Spanish.  Well may you wonder why a person who cannot read Spanish wanted to write a historical novel about a Spanish-speaking city.  You’d be right if you suspected that she might be a bit daft.

What I needed to read was the Historia de la Villa Imperial de Potosi by Bartolomé Arzáns de Orsúa y Vela.  There was a copy of that rare and splendid chronicle just uptown at the Columbia University library.  But I didn’t know how to read it.   The Library of Congress offered pay-dirt in the form of a book with translations of many of Arzans’ juiciest tidbits: Tales of Potosi, edited, with an introduction by R. C Padden.  I went to Washington to read it.

Once there was an Internet, I was able to find and buy my own copy.

Meanwhile, my sub-plot—which now revolved around a true counterfeiting scandal—was stalled because I had no sources in English to explain it to me.  There was nothing else for it.  I found a Spanish-speaking doctoral candidate at Columbia and engaged her to translate eight chapters of Arzans.  While she was at that task, I went ahead writing the mystery plot, which now involved the most powerful man in the city, based the real guy—Alcalde Francisco Gomez de la Rocha.  I knew very little about the historical Potosino mayor at that point, but I decided my fictional character would be a villain and that he would use poison to get rid of his enemy.  The imaginary man really began to take shape in my mind after I made that choice.


Eventually, about a month later, my translator delivered fifty-four pages of Arzans in English.  And there on page 29 was this sentence.  “In September 1651, Rocha decided to kill the President with venomous powders.”

The model for my villain actually was a poisoner.   

Just a coincidence for sure.   But still, it gave me gooseflesh.


  1. Goose flesh, indeed. Thanks for sharing the story, AmA. Just think if you'd had Google Translate available to you... :-)

    1. EvKa, all I have to do--to send my Italian-English bilingual friends into peals of laughter--is take text in Italian and have Google Translate put it into English. I read the result aloud. Hilarity ensues. The websites of restaurants work especially well. :-))

  2. We had a similar type of experience with our first book. It had a blood diamond back story. In order for the diamonds to be smuggled, we needed a way of sanitizing them to get them through the Kimberley Process which is designed to catch such smuggling. We used a mine which turned out much higher grade diamonds than it actually had. After the book came out, a group was arrested for pulling exactly that scam and making a lot of money out of it!

    1. Michael, how long after publication did this occur? Did they get the idea from you???

    2. Ah, now if I were the head of law enforcement in Botswana, I would read your books and start investigations based on the plots you invent. I have always thought crime writers understood the criminal minds better than the cops do.

  3. I think this prescient MIE crew should think along the lines of pooling our instincts into something like picking Kentucky Derby winners.

    1. The difficulty I have with this scenario, Bro, is that our minds are most fecund when it comes to criminal activity. See my comment to Michael above. If we do invent a crime of the century, I'll drive the getaway car, if you and Zoe will tote the guns.

    2. Hang on, what am I being stitched up with now?!? What? Me? No, your Honour. I was over the other side of town when we robbed the place ...

      I've had lots of spooky coincidences, the worst of which was in SECOND SHOT, which I set partly in the small New Hampshire town of North Conway. Part of the plot takes place in a military surplus store, which i set halfway between N Conway and the next town along, as there was already such a store in N Conway itself. In the book, there's a fight at the store, during which time the owner and two other people are killed.

      After the book came out, I went to White Birch Books in N Conway to do a signing, and was told there had recently been an attempted robbery at the surplus store in town. Three people were killed ...

    3. I agree with the lady, your Honor. I never was in N. Conway. I can't even spell Kancamagus.

  4. I thought many unmarried women of a certain class entered convents because they had no means of financial support once their fathers died.

    I learned from reading a mystery by Barbara Wilson (Case of the Orphaned Bassoonist) that unmarried women would often give girl babies to convents in Italy. There, they would be trained in several instruments and would play in orchestras which the public would come to hear.

    I have wondered where those young girls ended up: Did they stay in the convents or venture out and have other lives?