Forest for the Trees
When writing fiction, especially fiction with a historical bent, I often run into situations where I can’t see the forest for the trees. I’ll get so hung up on being authentic with one minor detail that I’ll just stop writing altogether until I can be sure that I’ve been truthful and accurate. I hope this makes sense. As an example, I’ll relate my most recent quandary.
While working on a piece of my novel that’s set in late 1861, I described a character weeping at the sight of his Union army uniform hanging across the room from him. That’s the last sentence I wrote. I’ve thought about what comes next often since I finished that sentence, but I can’t move beyond it because I’ve become obsessed with discovering whether or not his uniform could actually have been there.
This character is at home, you see. He’s going off to war the next day. I had imagined that he would get up, put on his uniform, and that his mother, a notoriously stingy woman, would have put up the cash to have him photographed before he left. He’d look sad in the photograph. This was going to provide me with the opportunity to move the story along via the photograph, which the narrator of this story is basing most of his storytelling off of, it being the only real piece of physical evidence the narrator has of this ancestor’s existence.
When I wrote the sentence, I was on a roll and I wasn’t concerned about being factual. I wasn’t thinking ahead. Now, as I look back on it, I’m pretty sure this event I’ve described couldn’t happen. I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have received his uniform prior to enlisting and that, once he’d enlisted, he would’ve stayed with his regiment until it was time to depart for the south. But I can’t find any proof of this, one way or the other. And so, I’ve stopped writing. It seems to me, right now, as if the success of the chapter, and perhaps the success of the entire novel, rests on this one detail.
I suppose the advice I’d give myself, if I were my own mentor, would be to write through it and come back to it later. “You’ll find some way to make it work when you revise,” I’d tell me. But I don’t like to listen to myself, I guess.
Anyway, if anyone has any clue about when American civil war enlistees received their uniforms, and whether the scenario I’m trying to paint could have happened, I would much appreciate any feedback you might have.