Writing historical characters

Please welcome the very fabulous Greer Macallister to our Miss Demeanors blog.  Greer is a poet, short story writer, playwright and novelist who earned her MFA in Creative Writing from American University. Her debut novel THE MAGICIAN’S LIE was a USA Today bestseller, an Indie Next pick, and a Target Book Club selection. It has been optioned for film by Jessica Chastain’s Freckle Films. Her new novel GIRL IN DISGUISE, about real-life 19th-century detective/bad-ass Kate Warne, was an Indie Next pick for April 2017 and received a starred review from Publishers Weekly, which called it “a well-told, superb story.”   Today, Greer’s discussing how she went about transforming a real-life detective into a fictional one.    When I first learned the name of the first woman detective on record – Kate Warne – I was excited. She began work as a Pinkerton operative in Chicago in 1856, solving cases and fighting crime more than 50 years before police departments started hiring women as detectives. I couldn’t fathom why I’d never heard of her. As soon as I started researching Kate, I figured out one key reason: there isn’t all that much to say. The known facts about Kate Warne’s life and career barely fill a page. The same sparse details show up over and over again – walked into Allan Pinkerton’s office in August 1856, 23-year-old widow, eventually promoted to head up a Bureau of Female Detectives within the Pinkerton Agency and, by the way, helped save Abraham Lincoln’s life en route to his inauguration. The information on the internet is evocative, yes, but unsatisfying. I wanted more. The Pinkerton Agency’s archives are at the Library of Congress, only a few miles from my house. I figured I’d be able to delve deep and read up on all Kate’s cases, the things no one had written about yet, and spin that straw into gold. Instead, I was able to read every single document in the archives that mentioned Kate Warne and still make it home for dinner. If I were a biographer, this would have shut me down immediately. Luckily, I write fiction. The holes in Kate’s story that frustrate nonfiction writers created the perfect opportunity for a historical novelist. If Kate’s diaries or letters had survived to the present day, my task would have been to mimic her voice; but because there are none, her voice was something I got to create. I was able to give her the personality I know she must have had to do the things she did. She was bold enough to answer a newspaper ad hiring detectives at a time where women rarely worked outside the home. In my version of the story, she takes this step out of desperation – a penniless widow who has already tried all the “appropriate” ways to keep a roof over her head and food on her table has little choice but to resort to something inappropriate. The questions flew thick and fast. How did the men of the Pinkerton Agency react to a woman in their midst? How did it feel to infiltrate criminal circles in pre-Civil War Chicago, within arm’s reach of counterfeiters, thieves and murderers? How was Kate able to mimic a Southern accent well enough to fool real Southerners when she was supposedly born in New York? Every gap was an invitation. Though I’ve been an avid reader of detective fiction since college, this was my first time shaping a novel around a detective, and the temptation to write about case after case was overwhelming. But I strongly believe the novelist’s first loyalty is to the reader. I needed to do everything I could to make the book compelling but not breathless, detailed but not flabby, satisfying but not pat. In the end, my goal was to combine what was available in the historical record with fictional narrative to make a detective’s life come alive on the page. For Kate’s sake, I hope I succeeded.    

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