Guest blog by Pippa Brush Chappell
One of the first questions my non-fiction-reading partner always asks about a movie or a book is, ‘is it a true story?’ It used to really wind me up, but now that I’m trying to write a ‘true story,’ I find myself having to engage with what that actually means.
There’s a difference between a story being ‘real’ and a story being ‘true.’ ‘Real,’ for me, is about the historical record, about researching and finding information, about things that actually happened. ‘True,’ on the other hand, is about honesty and realism – both literal and emotional.
I first met Hester Biddle when I was an undergraduate English student, then again during the first year of my PhD. She was an early Quaker (1629-1696) who left behind a handful of angry, passionate tracts protesting the wickedness of the world and asserting the power of her own faith. She was the Quaker woman who was most often imprisoned at the time. She was a wife and mother to six boys, of whom only one lived to adulthood. My novel-in-progress is based on her extraordinary life, powerful voice, and deep conviction.
Hester spoke with what she believed to be the voice of divine revelation, refusing to acknowledge civil authority, or limit herself to conventional expectations. The question of what it was like to be in the same room with someone of such clarity and conviction fascinates me as much as the question of what it was to be that person.
I want to create a historical setting that feels like a place you recognize, even as it is unfamiliar in its details, using historical fiction as a lens through which to view contemporary issues. I want to engage with the questions she raised then, including human relationships and interactions in a world even more restrictive than our own in terms of gender and class.
But why do it at all? Why not simply make up a character who I can take wherever I like, put wherever I choose, create from scratch? What is it about writing the story (or a story) of a ‘real’ person, a historical figure?
Hester was ‘real,’ but I hope the process of creating a fictional narrative based around the few known facts of her life will result in a ‘true’ story about a woman with convictions, who holds on to a faith that sets her in opposition to prevailing orthodoxies, maintains a marriage in the face of unimaginable pressures, rebuilds a life destroyed, and finds a voice and uses it.
Voices from the past – particularly those belonging to ordinary women – can tell us ‘truths’ about ourselves. The ‘real’ Hester believed herself a prophet, revealing what was ‘true’ to a corrupt and sinful world. I believe my Hester to be the source of a very different kind of revelation. She gives us an insight into the rich, messy, glorious complexity of women’s experiences. And she takes us beyond the easy generalizations based on familiar tropes and celebrities that are most often the subject of historical fiction.
Is it a ‘real’ story? Sort of. Will it be a ‘true’ story? I hope so.
Pippa Brush Chappell used to study and teach English literature – until she thought better of it. Now, she juggles for a living: writing when she can, reading not nearly enough, tutoring students one-to-one, editing and proofreading, and raising two feisty children. Her short fiction is published in Vintage Script, Darker Times, and elsewhere. Hester’s story, still a work-in-progress, is her first long-format project.