How I Became A Novelist and Lived (Learned) to Tell the Tale

By Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman

Can a dog become a cat? Can a non-fiction author write fiction?

Historians are plainspoken creatures. They arrange narratives in the clearest possible order, shining the bright light of reason on events to illuminate their causes. They are the dogs of the story-telling world: happy, guileless, transparent.

Novelists are the cats. Subtle and mysterious, they employ indirection to send readers down blind alleys. They meander and feign indifference to the auditor’s understanding. Smoke and mirrors are the tools of their trade.

E.B. White observed in The Elements of Style that either the writer works or the reader works. Historians labor so that the reader doesn’t have to wonder what’s going on. The novelist, conversely, raises ambiguous questions. While the historian glories in analysis, the novelist forces the reader to analyze events for herself.

I wish I had known all this when I set out to write my first novel after many years of writing history. It would have saved me a lot of time.

The concept was likely enough. In teaching foreign relations at San Diego State Unviersity (SDSU), I had long been entranced by the story of Charles Francis Adams’s duel with Britain during the American Civil War and his efforts to keep the reigning world power at bay. The stakes could not have been higher. Liverpool shipyards launched Rebel cruisers with sickening regularity, and London merchants made substantial fortunes on the smuggled supplies and equipment that kept Confederate armies fighting. Aristocrats laughed up their gold-lace sleeves at the United States putting down—yes—a war of independence.

Charles’s task was to save the nation his grandfather and father (John Adams and John Quincy Adams) had built. What was that like? How did he bear the psychic burden? A lesser man than his progenitors, perhaps, Charles nonetheless had the responsibility for preserving their legacy. As any historian knows, it’s a great story.

And so fools rush in. I promised myself I would write the book and thus I had to.

In the course of eight months, I plowed dutifully through the story of Adams’s ministry to London and his desperate attempts to foil aristocratic Europe’s hopes for the dissolution of the American republic. For company, I gave him and his son Henry a fictional friend from Henry’s days at Harvard College, based upon references in The Education of Henry Adams. To this Southern friend, whose allegiance to Virginia tempts him to rush the Union blockade, I gave the love of a spirited, complicated, too-tall English gentlewoman. Fine.

It was when I began marketing the manuscript that I learned how different the historian’s methodology is from the novelist’s. My writing was too clear and straightforward. And whereas I might normally make a few phone calls to place a non-fiction manuscript, I instead sent letter after letter to the list of agents I found in Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents, working my way down the list from “A” to “Q.” I received encouraging words with almost every rejection—but no cigar—until I got to “R.”

My first literary agent, whose last name began with R, loved the book. She immediately launched an impressive assault on the New York publishing world. But editor after editor told us they were accepting no, or very few, new novels because the industry was in the doldrums. Some said that only women buy fiction these days, and they “wouldn’t accept” a male protagonist. Others indicated that they liked historical settings, but didn’t want actual historical characters. A number said they were just not captivated by my “voice.” Indeed, I heard so often about my “voice” that I began to think about gargling.

Instead, I drew several favorite novels from my bookshelf, determined to find out what I was doing wrong. That’s when I saw the light. My reader’s brain—dashing through prose to follow a story’s quick path—had never noticed the purposeful, willful convolution of so much literary writing. Its modus, I realized, was to hint at meanings, not explicate them.

The lesson was underscored by reading B.R. Myers’ illuminating essay from the Atlantic Monthly, “A Reader’s Manifesto.” Myers lays into the intellectual fashion that scorns “any accessible, fast-moving story written in unaffected prose …[as] ‘genre fiction’—at best an excellent ‘read’ or a ‘page turner,’ but never literature with a capital L.” Too many of today’s writers and reviewers believe it is “more important to sound literary than to make sense,” Myers asserts.

But persistence pays. I went back and re-ordered bits of my story, dangled odd clues in unexpected places and ironed the prose to introduce wrinkles. Unwilling to shuck my commitment to clarity as a historian and friend-of-the-reader, I nonetheless had fun: complicating my usual streamlined style and trying on new hats. On my first agent’s advice, I finally decided to self-publish with iUniverse. It was easier to swallow my pride than my words.

But the story has a happy ending. Following publication, another agent picked up the book and marketed it successfully to Random House, which brought out the manuscript in 2011 in honor of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. Broken Promises became a “real” novel.

The book subsequently turned out to be useful in my classroom, as well, where I first imagined what it might be like to tell the old story in a new way.

Fiction has a pedagogical function. My own interest in history was first piqued by historical novels as a child. Fiction forces the reader to watch history unfold as it does in life—looking forward onto an uncertain future rather than backward onto the dead past. Contingency, chance, and risk deepen the reader’s empathy. Keeping suspense alive is the novelist’s daily writing challenge—and something I finally learned how to do.

This fall my students at SDSU are reading Broken Promises along with their non-fiction books. So far, it’s working out. The genres seem to get along in the classroom. Even better than cats and dogs.