Balancing History and Story

April brings the fourth anniversary of the start of my seminal series A Perfect Hatred, which began with the publication of book one End Times on April 19, 2018. That happened to be the 25th anniversary of the end of the siege at the Branch Davidian complex outside Waco, Texas. I’m not going to go into the details of that here—you can read my book—but it’s sufficient to say if Waco hadn’t happened, two years later there would have been no act of domestic terrorism in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

Taking on an horrific event like the Oklahoma City bombing is a balancing act for a writer. You want to be faithful to the history—at least I do because I’m an historian, but you have to be sensitive to the emotions surrounding the event.

Even when I fictionalized the siege at Waco in End Times, I was aware that many people in this country believed the Branch Davidians deserved what happened to them because they had allegedly defied the law. I’ve always believed in the rule of law. I was a regulator for most of my government career, after all. Without it, we’re barbarians or Vladimir Putin. I would have preferred to see the Branch Davidians go on trial for any laws they’d broken than die at the hands of the FBI. And, yes, I’m aware that the official line is that they started the fire themselves.

David Koresh’s religious beliefs and practices were so far from my own, I doubt he and I would have had a thing to talk about, but my belief in religious freedom means to me he had the right to believe how he wanted to and preach what he believed. Now, if he broke the law, he should have been arrested, tried, and incarcerated if found guilty—and that includes the allegations of sexual abuse of women and children.

The Balancing Act

I had to portray this accurately while balancing the fact that I might offend some Seventh Day Adventists, of which the Branch Davidians were a sect. The same was true of my character based on the real Oklahoma City bomber.

I opted to show his dark side and the average American boy, model soldier side. One or two readers didn’t like that I’d made him human instead of a monster. It would have been easy to do that, to make him a one-dimensional evil monster. But again, I wanted to stay faithful to the reality of it.

One reader took me to task for making the execution scene too “soft” on the character representing the bomber. Well, that reflected my opinion on the death penalty. If as a writer you’re not authentic to your own personal beliefs, the reader will pick up on that inauthenticity, and your book won’t sit well with the reader. Even though this reader didn’t like how I presented the bomber on the day of his execution, he did like the series overall. Because I was authentic in my philosophy.

And Then There’s 9/11

Here in the U.S., taking on a fiction project about 9/11 has all the same pitfalls as the Oklahoma City bombing, except multiply that by thousands. And I was peripherally involved in that day, seeing that I worked for the Federal Aviation Administration at the time. I’ve left, oh, 99% of that out of my story about 9/11 because it ain’t about me.

On one level.

What I’ve tried to do in my upcoming series Meeting the Enemy is show that event from the intelligence community’s point of view, as well as the missteps made by the Bush Administration in Afghanistan and the lead-up to the Iraq war. I’ve also expressed my dismay as a citizen of the U.S. on the aftermath of the horrible attack on us on 9/11.

I had never experienced anything like it, but my parents had. Even though in Culpeper, Virginia, the teenagers they were then were far away from Pearl Harbor. But in less than 3 years my dad would be in the army, and my mother would leave school to work in a uniform factory to help out not only her country but my recently divorced grandmother’s finances. They had to deal with rationing and shortages. Now, certainly nothing, absolutely nothing like what Europe and the Soviet Union experienced but disruptive all the same.

I think that’s why 9/11 was such a visceral punch to the gut for most Americans. We had literally never had such an attack by foreign terrorists on our soil. It was a shock and a wake-up call. I didn’t always agree with the actions of my government in the aftermath, but I was profoundly affected by the events of that day. When I finally got to leave D.C., in the wee hours of 9/12, I crossed the previously closed 14th Street Bridge and looked at the D.C. skyline behind me. I was frightened I might never see it again.

An overreaction, you say? You didn’t have my day. One thing I did agree with the Bush Administration on was opening the government the next day. I happily returned to work.

But 9/11 hit my psyche hard. For weeks I had what I called “end of the world” dreams, and watching the progress of the recovery in New York, the Pentagon, and Pennsylvania didn’t help. I’ve often used writing to help me deal with adversity, so I sat down and wrote a story about someone in the rubble of the World Trade Center getting out alive. I felt I had to, and it helped. Months later, I read in the New York Times about a small group of people who did get out on 9/11, the last people to be found alive, and that story became a novel. The novel became a series, Meeting the Enemy.

History NOT Propaganda

Meeting the Enemy will likely piss some people off. Some of the actual history involved may shock some people, but I’ve stayed faithful to the history, and, damn, it was fun to make certain people slavering villains.

I’ve got news for you, though; history is supposed to piss you off. If it doesn’t, it’s been white-washed; it’s propaganda. The same holds true for historical fiction. You can weave a fictional plot or characters into an historical event, but if you change the history because it disturbs you, you’re writing sci-fi.

There were times when I told myself I shouldn’t write about this history, but as with the past five years in this country, “stuff” happened 2001 – 2004 that added to the story, and I wrote more to settle my mind about that “stuff.” Regardless of what you may think of my politics, I, as a former public servant, want only to make my country better, to show it can rise above the parts of our history that are disturbing.

If you don’t agree with my POV in Meeting the Enemy, that’s okay. I have to stay authentic to the history, and some of the history of that period 20 years ago is disturbing.

Especially now, we can’t ignore history or repress its reality. Too much is at stake–like democracy.