There's a door to a room in the back of my mind where I store thoughts and bits of information - historical, current events, song lyrics, words and their definitions, newspaper clippings, magazine articles, movie scenes, lines from a book, pieces of conversation, etc. - determined to use them in a book one day. I have a huge respect for the historical fiction genre and for authors who are inspired by pieces of history and creative enough to put them into fictional context. Years ago I came across articles on a steamboat accident that happened at the end of the Civil War and killed almost as many people as the Titanic tragedy did many years later, but it was clouded over in the news by the assassination of Lincoln. I'm still determined to work it into a novel some day. For now, it sits in that far away room.
With historical fiction comes a great responsibility by the author to choose facts carefully to include in their stories. Do they just choose characters from yesterday and give them an entirely fictional plot, or do they build upon the story lines we know from our history books? Or do they send fictional characters back in time to sit in on actual events as they happened? Here are James McCormack's thoughts from the forward of his book, Culloden Tales, and what inspired him...
Culloden Tales documents the saga of the Campbell family during the Jacobite uprising of 1745. The Uprising reached its climax during the Battle of Culloden on April 16, 1746. I wished to portray a typical family's struggle during that time.
Culloden Tales is a short book, only 61 pages. It is a collection of 6 different stories from different points of view of the Campbell family but mainly concentrating around the three young brothers. In the first story, "Culloden Lovers," Rowan asks his aging grandmother to tell him how she met his grandfather. The story that plays out is a heartfelt and teary memory of young love and war, escalating to a brilliantly written scene at the grandfather's gravestone.
I'd like to point out that McCormack definitely has a knack for trimming away a story to its bare and concise essentials. These stories are short but not a word is wasted! They move at a nice pace and not once did I grow as bored as I did back in history class. The author also has a true talent for dialogue. Take the following conversation as an example. It's from the second story in the book called "Campfires."
Ian asked his brother next to him, "Are ye scared, Rowan?"
"No, but judging by the smell, someone nearby needs a new pair of trousers," Rowan replied, smiling wryly.
"Well, don't look at me," said Andrew. "In the event that I'm shot by these dragoons, I would like to apologize for making an arse of myself at the campfire."
"Don't worry about it," said Iain reassuringly.
"Besides, if you didn't make an arse of yourself, we wouldn't laugh as much," joked Rowan.
"I'll just try to aim for the English, and not you," replied Andrew. "Though I don't promise anything."
The three brothers burst out laughing, but their officer told them to shut up. The dragoons formed for battle!
For me, the dialogue was very real, Scottish accents and all, and definitely helped set the tone of the book throughout. McCormack's book was such a fresh and interesting read for me that I decided to do a bit of research on my own about Culloden. The last battle on British soil, Culloden marked the end of clan culture and ensured the inevitability of the American Revolution. It also increased the outpouring of Scots across the globe. It is the only battle that British Army regiments are not permitted to include on their battle honors and the only battle that Bonnie Prince Charlie ever lost. Bonnie Charlie, of course, makes an appearance in the third self-titled short story.
Overall, this quick read possesses all the right aspects that I believe a good historical fiction piece should have. The characters are all well developed, deeply moving, and certainly believable. The author does a great job of building a definite time and place and remaining true to his setting. And there is an even balance of conflict and tragedy throughout to keep the stories interesting. The last story even fast forwards 300 years later to show the effect the events have on ancestors who are still thinking of the battlegrounds at Culloden.
My one complaint, and I do mean the only one, is that the stories are indeed too short and don't allow much time for the reader to connect with the characters. Mr. McCormack "wraps things" up nicely by telling you the outcome of events in places rather than showing you. That being said, the author has a nice foundation here with complex characters upon which he could build a magnificent full length historical novel. Well done!