Guest post: Sharyn McCrumb on writing historical fiction

It’s publication week for the new paperback edition of Ghost Riders, by New York Times bestseller and Southern favorite Sharyn McCrumb. This new edition has a foreword by North Carolina Civil War historian Michael Hardy.

Ghost Riders is “a compelling Civil War tale with a chilling twist” (Library Journal), primarily narrated by historical figures Zebulon Vance (colonel of the 26th North Carolina and later Confederate governor of North Carolina) and Malinda Blalock (who disguised herself as a boy and went with her husband when he was forced to enlist in the Confederate army). With few people left to trust, the Blalocks head for high ground to avoid the county militia and soon become hard-riding, deadly outlaws. Rattler, an old mountain root doctor who has the sight, speaks for the present; he fears that the zeal of a local Wake County, Tennessee, Civil War reenactors’ group will awaken the restless spirits of the real soldiers still wandering the mountains. Ghost Riders captures the horrors of a war that tore families apart, turned neighbors into enemies, and left the survivors bitter long after the fighting was officially over.

To celebrate publication week of this stunning novel, we’re lucky enough to share a guest blog post from the author herself. As a serious writer of historical fiction, Sharyn McCrumb goes above and beyond to get the facts right in her novels. Here she is on her philosophy for writing historical fiction. Enjoy!


Tell the Truth, But Tell It Slant:  On the Writing of Historical Fiction

By Sharyn McCrumb

I believe that historical novels (if the authors are good writers, if they research well, and if they understand their subject matter) can be as valid and sometimes more important than the work of an accredited historian. The difference between “truth” and “fiction” is often spurious. The Iliad is listed in fiction, but in the 1890’s Heinrich Schliemann bought a shovel, went to the coast of Turkey, and found Troy. On the other hand, Mein Kampf is shelved under nonfiction. The Blalocks, my main characters in Ghost Riders, were real people, and I researched them for years, but one so-called nonfiction book about them was completely inaccurate, including faked sources and invented footnote citations. Nonfiction does not mean true.

I think my job as a historical novelist is to make people care — to feel the events, rather than just to know the facts in a clinical sense. I do exactly the same research that any historian would do, but then I have to go one step further and bring all that research to life, giving it emotional weight and sensory illumination.

Historians draw a picture of a battle. Historical novelists put you in it.          

Historical fiction begins when something cannot be verified, but I take my best guess based on thorough research.  When a conversation took place, in the pre-tape recorder-era, and we have only the gist of it, I have to produce that conversation in dialogue, so I take my best guess — often after reading speeches made by the person in question, so that I can approximate their speech patterns. Once for Ghost Riders, I took a fragment of something North Carolina Governor Zebulon Vance really said, and I elaborated on it to make it into a longer scene for my novel. I sent the finished scene to a Zebulon Vance scholar, who was unable to tell where the real Vance left off and my embellishment began. I had got his voice right.

In Ghost Riders, there is a scene in which I have Zebulon Vance reacting with rage to the report of the Sodom Laurel Massacre in his home county. I know he did react with rage to that news. Memoirs of that era and the governor’s papers in the N.C. archives all say so. But since I don’t know word-for-word exactly what he said when he heard the news, I was “inventing” words to show — dramatize — his response. A nonfiction historian would not do that. I did not change the facts, though; I simply dramatized them.

While historians strive to be objective, I can take sides. Thus I have to know as much as I can to choose a side, and in creating a character I have to know how that person would think and feel and what other things in his era would influence his feelings — even to the point of knowing what songs might be in his head. Because I don’t have to be objective, I can make the reader experience an event through the eyes of one partisan character, and by doing so I can make the reader care deeply about the event.

I also try to experience what I can to find out what the physical sensations were. I have dressed in a Civil War uniform and fired a muzzle loader. I have sat in Tennessee’s electric chair. I have done laps in a race car at Lowe’s Motor Speedway. I visit every major place I write about.

I think there’s more to history than reading papers in the archives.


Sharyn McCrumb is an award-winning Southern writer, best known for her Appalachian “Ballad” novels, including the New York Times bestsellers The Ballad of Frankie Silver and She Walks These Hills, and for St. Dale, winner of a Library of Virginia Award and featured at the National Festival of the Book.  The Ballad of Tom Dooley, (Thomas Dunne, 2011), a New York Times bestseller, tells the true story behind the celebrated folk song.  The Library of Virginia has named Sharyn McCrumb a Virginia Woman of History for Achievement in Literature. A new paperback edition of her Audie Award-winning Civil War novel Ghost Riders has been published by John F. Blair, Publisher.

Check the blog tomorrow — we’ll post an exclusive readers’ group guide for this novel! In the meantime, be sure to look for Sharyn’s events in your area.



2 thoughts on “Guest post: Sharyn McCrumb on writing historical fiction

  1. Informative & excellent article by Sharyn McCrumb on her perspective on writing documented historical novels that really are difficult to determine if they are non fiction or fiction. Ghost Riders might have been titled Ghost Writers for you can not tell if this novel is written by the characters or by McCrumb in the present century.

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