A Sad Culling: surgery for the historical fiction writer

Breakthrough! The crushing decision to ditch John.

I confess, I loved John. But John was an entirely fictional character on entirely fictional escapades and he was steadily usurping the narrative core of my novel: the real life story of his famous brother, Thomas, the protagonist of this tale.

Don’t get me wrong, Thomas did have a brother John, but not much is known about him. He was there on the fateful day that changed Thomas’ life, he testified on his brother’s behalf and then he died a few months after the trial.

I built him into someone, this John. I made him a hero setting out on a brave mission for justice and redemption. Oh yes, I sensed trouble early on, a feeling of discomfort as if I was being lead astray, but it was the sheer vigour and thrill of his story that first plunged me down into that rocky gully of distraction. And as he led me clambering and stumbling over the rocks, the days and the weeks grew longer, dragging on and on until I found — 6,000 words later — I was in a narrow chasm, cliffs to either side miles from Thomas and the rest of his family and getting further and further away from the truth that we know.

But overwhelmingly the feeling right now is sorrow. I’m going to miss John and his courageous quest, his beautiful energy, classified now as nothing more than a fanciful diversion, a stone that must be excised from the healthy organ. I feel like I’m betraying him, that it’s me that killed him at the tender age of twenty all those years ago in 1832.

May we meet again brother John. In another project, another world somewhere, may you breathe once more.

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