I'm wrestling with my second work of historical fiction/mystery, the book with the working title "The Hungry Place" -- a title that's going to change this month, as a new set of opening chapters unfolds. It's taking me back and forth, like a weaver's shuttle, among the details of the 1850s in Vermont. Today I'm studying Daniel Webster and his speeches. I grew up with a mild case of hero worship for Webster, thanks to my mother's happy gathering of family genealogy. She didn't always dig into what people had done and said, but she was just happy that they had a place in history books.
To many northern New Englanders, Webster's 1850 speech urging compromise on the issue of slavery, in order to hold together the Union of states, smacked of moral depravity and betrayal of a God-given imperative: that all people be honored as created by the same Creator, for lives of dignity. Dartmouth College provides a link to the text of this speech.
Webster's last speech, in 1852, is called "The Dignity and Importance of History." Ironic that he would let go of insisting on the dignity of humans, but mark instead the dignity of history! But there's a portion of the speech that does appeal to me, because it seems to apply so well to what I'm struggling to do:
Well written history must always be the result of genius and taste, as well as of research and study. It stands next to epic poetry, among the productions of the human mind. If it requires less of invention than that, it is not behind it in dignity and importance. The province of the epic is the poetical narrative of real or supposed events, and the representation of real, or at least natural, characters; and history, in its noblest examples, is an account of occurrences in which great events are commemorated, and distinguished men appear as agents and actors. Epic poetry and the drama are but narratives, the former partly and the latter wholly, in the form of a dialogue, but their characters and personages are usually, in part at least, the creations of the imagination.
Severe history sometimes assumes the dialogue, or dramatic form, and, without departing from truth, is embellished by supposed colloquies or speeches, as in the productions of that great master, Titus Livius, or that greater master still, Thucydides.
The drawing of characters, consistent with general truth and fidelity, is no violation of historical accuracy; it is only an illustration or an ornament.