When Story Trumps Reality – Guest Post by Linda Bennett Pennell, Author of Al Capone at the Blanche Hotel

Al Capone at the Blanche Hotel, a romantic suspense by Linda Bennett PennellWrite what you know! How often have we heard these words at writer’s conferences or read them in articles and blog posts? It is one of those hoary platitudes trotted out when some industry individual wants to sound . . . what? Particularly wise, experienced, worldly, can’t think of anything better to say? I’m really not sure because I can’t imagine being limited to writing what I know. My life hasn’t been terribly exciting. It has been personally and professionally rewarding, but it is not the stuff of a thrilling read. I have written about murder, incest, espionage, and other crimes. In all cases, I have been neither perpetrator nor victim. It is through research that I have gained insights into things about which I know little through my own life experience.

It is hoped that all writers, especially those of historical fiction, pay as much attention to researching their subjects as they do to crafting their stories. Nothing irritates readers of historical fiction more than finding blatant errors in the facts and details. With the advent of the Internet, there is really little excuse not to maintain accuracy whenever possible.

But what if the facts or reality of a situation do nothing to advance the story, worse yet, they detract from it or get in the way of character development? When should we sacrifice accuracy and how much? Since we are talking about fiction, not academic treatises, I believe the answer lies with another question. How much heat from readers am I, the author, prepared to take for altering the facts and am I prepared to justify my choices, if the need arises? If it makes for a better, more exciting story, I’m very willing to bend and alter reality.

For example, I made definite choices with altering some historical facts in my debut novel, Al Capone at the Blanche Hotel. The novel tells the story of lives unfolding in different centuries, but linked and altered by a series of murders in 1930 northern Florida. The story is revealed and the mystery solved through alternating chapters set in 1930 and in the present day. Although the Blanche Hotel is a real location where I stayed overnight some years ago, I altered the hotel’s interiors and the businesses surrounding the hotel because those changes worked to enhance my plot and move it forward. I created a presidential suite for Capone and his henchmen because that fit the characters I was building. Even in its heyday, the Blanche didn’t have such an exalted accommodation. I altered the lobby, dining room, and elevator so that certain events could take place in a more fluid manner. I created businesses that didn’t/don’t exist and relocated the county sheriff’s office, all for the sake of story. Anyone who once lived in or is presently living in Lake City, Florida, the novel’s setting, can readily identify these departures from reality.

The greatest of these departures, however, is the premise of the story itself. It is historical fact that Al Capone stayed at the Blanche at least once in transit from Chicago to his Miami property. The stay occurred in or around the year 1930. All other events in the historical chapters are pure fiction, but they are also evocative of that period in Florida history. If challenged on my playing loose with the facts of Capone’s stay at the Blanche, my answer will be that the story would not exist if I had stuck to pure historical accuracy. By departing from the factual and letting my imagination take over, I produced a book that readers have praised as highly readable and riveting.

Another example to illustrate my point lies in the chapters set in the current day. My secondary main character is a University of Florida professor specializing in the history of American crime. Initially, I thought that I had made up this specialty, so you can imagine my surprise when I looked on the University of Florida history faculty website and the first professor listed teaches history of American crime. I felt very validated and clever, but I still needed for my girl to have as hard a time as possible adjusting to her new job and new life in Florida. I’ve never attended a single class at the University of Florida much less been inside the history department’s administrative suite, so I made it up, as I did my character’s awful office, extreme teaching load, and lack of a teaching assistant. Moreover, I broke a rule or two when I created her research path and techniques. Interestingly, I was challenged on these points by a real history professor of American crime associated with a mid-western university. In review, she stated that I had gone somewhat over-the-top in creating my character’s work environment and she quibbled with my character’s research procedures. None-the-less, she rated the book four stars and admitted that my character would go on to great professional success, if she were real. The reviewer also said that she would love to see another story featuring this character.

Rather than being upset that the reviewer marked me down one star due to my taking liberties, I was thrilled that she took the time to read and review Al Capone at the Blanche Hotel. I’ll take four stars and a request for another story any day, any time!

Do you think it is legitimate for story to trump reality? Are you a reader, a writer, both?

Al Capone at the Blanche Hotel
From Soul Mate Publishing

Blurb:

Al Capone at the Blanche Hotel tells a story of lives unfolding in different centuries, but linked and irrevocably altered by a series of murders in 1930.

Lake City, Florida, June, 1930: Al Capone checks in for an unusually long stay at the Blanche Hotel, a nice enough joint for an insignificant little whistle stop. The following night, young Jack Blevins witnesses a body being dumped heralding the summer of violence to come. One-by-one, people controlling county vice activities swing from KKK ropes. No moonshine distributor, gaming operator, or brothel madam, black or white, is safe from the Klan’s self-righteous vigilantism. Jack’s older sister Meg, a waitress at the Blanche, and her fiancé, a sheriff’s deputy, discover reasons to believe the lynchings are cover for a much larger ambition than simply ridding the county of vice. Someone, possibly backed by Capone, has secret plans for filling the voids created by the killings. But as the body count grows and crosses burn, they come to realize this knowledge may get all of them killed.

Gainesville, Florida, August, 2011: Liz Reams, an up and coming young academic specializing in the history of American crime, impulsively moves across the continent to follow a man who convinces her of his devotion yet refuses to say the three simple words I love you. Despite entreaties of friends and family, she is attracted to edginess and a certain type of glamour in her men, both living and historical. Her personal life is an emotional roller coaster, but her career options suddenly blossom beyond all expectation, creating a very different type of stress. To deal with it all, Liz loses herself in her professional passion, original research into the life and times of her favorite bad boy, Al Capone. What she discovers about 1930’s summer of violence, and herself in the process, leaves her reeling at first and then changed forever.

Excerpt:

CHAPTER ONE

Saturday
June 14, 1930
O’Leno, Florida

Jack jammed a finger into each ear and swallowed hard. Any other time, he wouldn’t even notice the stupid sound. The river always sorta slurped just before it pulled stuff underground.

His stomach heaved again. Maybe he shouldn’t look either, but he couldn’t tear his eyes away from the circling current. When the head slipped under the water, the toe end lifted up. Slowly the tarpaulin wrapped body, at least that’s what it sure looked like, went completely vertical. It bobbed around a few times and finally gurgled its way down the sinkhole. Then everything went quiet . . . peaceful . . . crazily normal. Crickets sawed away again. An ole granddaddy bullfrog croaked his lonesomeness into the sultry midnight air.

Crouched in the shelter of a large palmetto clump, Jack’s muscles quivered and sweat rolled into his eyes, but he remained stock-still. His heart hammered like he had just finished the fifty yard dash, but that was nothing to what Zeke was probably feeling. He was still just a little kid in lots of ways.

When creeping damp warmed the soles of Jack’s bare feet, he grimaced and glanced sideways. Zeke looked back with eyes the size of saucers and mouthed the words I’m sorry. Jack shook his head then wrinkled his nose as the odor of ammonia and damp earth drifted up. He’d always heard that fear produced its own peculiar odor, but nobody ever said how close you had to be to actually smell it. He prayed you had to be real close; otherwise, he and Zeke were in big trouble.

The stranger standing on the riverbank stared out over the water for so long Jack wondered if the man thought the body might suddenly come flying up out of the sinkhole and float back upriver against the current. Funny, the things that popped into your head when you were scared witless.

The man removed a rag from his pocket and mopped his face. He paused, looked upstream, then turned and stared into the surrounding forest. As his gaze swept over their hiding place, Jack held his breath and prayed, but he could feel Zeke’s chest rising and falling in ragged jerks so he slipped his hand onto Zeke’s arm. Under the gentle pressure of Jack’s fingers, Zeke’s muscles trembled and jumped beneath his soft ebony skin. When Zeke licked his lips and parted them like he was about to yell out, Jack clapped a hand over the open mouth and wrapped his other arm around Zeke’s upper body, pulling him close and holding him tight. Zeke’s heart pounded against the bib of his overalls like it might jump clean out of his chest.

With one final look ‘round at the river and forest, the stranger strode to the hand crank of a Model T. The engine caught momentarily, then spluttered and died. A stream of profanity split the quiet night. The crank handle jerked from its shaft and slammed back into place. More grinding and more swearing followed until the thing finally coughed to life for good and a car door slammed. Only then did Jack relax his hold on Zeke.

“I want outta here. I wanna go home,” Zeke whispered hoarsely.

Lucky Zeke. Before Meg left home to move into town, Jack would have felt the same way. Now he didn’t care if he ever went home.

Jack cocked an ear in the Ford’s direction. “Hush so I can listen. I think he’s gone, but we’re gonna belly crawl in the opposite direction just to be sure we ain’t seen.”

“Through that briar patch?  I ain’t got on no shoes or shirt.”

“Me neither. Come on. Don’t be such a baby.”

“I ain’t no baby,” Zeke hissed as he scrambled after Jack.

When the pine forest thinned out, Jack raised up on his knees for a look around. Without a word, Zeke jumped to his feet and started toward the road. Jack grabbed a strap on Zeke’s overalls and snatched him back onto his bottom.

“You taken complete leave of your senses?” Wiping sweat out of his eyes, Jack pushed his shaggy blonde hair to one side. “Check it out before you go bustin’ into the open.”

“Why you so bossy all the time? I ain’t stupid, ya know. Just cause you turned twelve don’t make you all growed up.”

Zeke’s lower lip stuck out, trembling a little. Whether it was from fear or anger, Jack wasn’t sure. Probably both. Peering into the night, he strained for the flash of headlights. Nothing but bright moonlight illuminated the road’s deep white sand. Finally confident that no vehicles were abroad, he grabbed Zeke’s hand and pulled him to his feet. With one final glance left, then right, they leapt onto the single lane track and ran like the devil was on their tails.

You can find Al Capone at the Blanche Hotel at: Amazon.com

Linda Bennett Pennell, author of Al Capone at the Blanche Hotel, a romantic suspenseBio: I have been in love with the past for as long as I can remember. Anything with a history, whether shabby or majestic, recent or ancient, instantly draws me in. I suppose it comes from being part of a large extended family that spanned several generations. Long summer afternoons on my grandmother’s porch or winter evenings gathered around her fireplace were filled with stories both entertaining and poignant. Of course being set in the South, those stories were also peopled by some very interesting characters, some of whom have found their way into my work.

As for my venture in writing, it has allowed me to reinvent myself. We humans are truly multifaceted creatures, but unfortunately we tend to sort and categorize each other into neat, easily understood packages that rarely reveal the whole person. Perhaps you, too, want to step out of the box in which you find yourself. I encourage you to look at the possibilities and imagine. Be filled with childlike wonder in your mental wanderings. Envision what might be, not simply what is. Let us never forget, all good fiction begins when someone says to herself or himself, “Let’s pretend.”

I reside in the Houston area with one sweet husband, one German Shorthaired Pointer who thinks she’s a little girl, and one striped yellow cat who knows she’s queen of the house.

Favorite quote regarding my professional passion: “History is filled with the sound of silken slippers going downstairs and wooden shoes coming up.” Voltaire

You can find Linda at:

Website: http://www.lindapennell.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/AuthorLindaBennettPennell

Twitter: http://twitter.com/LindaPennell

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7 thoughts on “When Story Trumps Reality – Guest Post by Linda Bennett Pennell, Author of Al Capone at the Blanche Hotel

  1. Thank you, Babette, for hosting me today! I really appreciate the opportunity to talk about an issue that has been simmering for me since I began this writing journey. We writers of historical fiction struggle with this issue more than most, I think. I would love to hear what readers think about story vs reality. What do you think?

  2. Interesting question. I made a choice as a historical writer to take an event in history and just give it a little twist to work for me. Much the same as Ken Follett in “Pillars of the Earth”. He used the sinking of the White Ship and added a tweak to suit his plot. This is fiction and not an academic paper.

    • Good point, Sara, and I totally agree. We write fiction, not pure history. Glad we see it the same. Here’s another question for you. What if the twists change actual historical events in a big way? Should authors let that be known in the blurb or in some other way, perhaps as some type of disclaimer?

  3. Great post, Linda! One of my favorite novels of all time is Leon Uris’ Trinity. Is that story a 100% accurate reflection of Ireland in the late 1800’s through early 1900’s? Probably not. But if I want 100% accuracy, I’ll read a history text. As a writer of contemporary romance, I’ll admit I’ve gotten “creative” to fit the surroundings to my story. I’m a story teller, not a historian. I do appreciate authors who add disclaimers, though. John Green had one at the end of The Fault in Our Stars about Hazel’s diagnosis and it didn’t detract from the story to me al all.

    • Nice to hear from you, Jim! Having read Trinity, I would agree that Uris probably did what most writers of historical fiction and many writers of memoir do. They combine lesser known figures from real life and certainly blend fact with fiction. It has been pointed out that Obama’s NYC girlfriend in his memoir was actually a composite of several different girls. If writers of memoir can create composite characters and blend facts, then we writers of fiction have a pretty free hand, in my opinion. What I do appreciate, however, is that the author mention having taken liberties with historical facts somewhere, perhaps in the acknowledgements or one the flyleaf before the first chapter. Sounds like John Green did just that.

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