Is including famous historical figures in works of fiction nothing more than celebrity name-dropping? Or can it add dimension and perspective to a novel?
A few of the advance readers for my historical novel All Different Kinds of Free suggested I remove the scenes and references to Charles Dickens from my book. They said it felt like celebrity “name-dropping” (these were all folks in the publishing business in one form or another). Other advance readers loved the Dickens sections and encouraged me to leave them in (these folks were mostly readers and fellow writers).
What to do? To help me decide, I did a quick review of the first historical novel I ever read (and loved), Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow.
I was in high school when I first read it, and at that time I hated “history.” Here’s the back-cover blurb from my now dog-earred paperback copy: “Ragtime is set in America at the beginning of the century. Its characters: three remarkable families whose lives become entwined with people whose names are Henry Ford, Emma Goldman, Harry Houdini, J.P. Morgan, Evelyn Nesbit, Sigmund Freud, Emiliano Zapata.”
Hmm…. It sounded suspiciously like “history” to me, not a juicy novel. Boy, was I wrong. Murder, magic, sex, money, racial tension, intrigue, love, betrayal: this book had it all. I especially loved that it included well-known historical figures along with the stories of average people. It was my first lesson, really, in how “history” is a part of our everyday lives.
This sort of name-dropping isn’t limited to celebrities, either, or to historical fiction. Writers of contemporary fiction often include references to celebrities, name brands, pop culture and current events. Such references, as long as they don’t distract from the story, help put the fictional characters’ lives and stories in context for the reader. They add dimension.
My own historical novel was inspired by the little-known U.S. Supreme Court case Prigg v. Pennsylvania and Margaret Morgan, the alleged run-away slave at the heart of the case. I hadn’t specifically set out to include famous people in my fictional rendering of Margaret’s story. During my research, however, I stumbled upon the fact that Charles Dickens had vacationed in the United States and visited Washington, D.C. the same year the pivotal court case took place, 1842. Then I learned Dickens wrote a book about his trip. I read American Notes as part of my research, and Dickens’ thoughts and impressions on slavery ended up being an important plot point in my novel. It had to stay.
My research also uncovered that Edgar Allan Poe lived in Philadelphia (one of the main settings of my novel) during the same time my main character lived there. In fact, he later said the race riots he had witnessed in Philly during that time inspired some of his future macabre works. Oh boy! Believe me, I worked long and hard to somehow weave in that juicy historical tidbit. In the end, it just didn’t fit. It was intriguing, but it didn’t add to value to Margaret’s story. It was a true example of celebrity name-dropping. It had to go.
What are your thoughts? Do you like it when authors include famous people, current events or pop culture references in their books ? Does it add dimension to the story or does it feel superficial?
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