I See Dead People: A Guest Post by Author Gail Ward Olmsted

As an Author of Historical Fiction... I See Dead People!

by Gail Ward Olmsted


Do you recall that kid from the 1999 psychological thriller The Sixth Sense? You know the one- he looks at the character played by Bruce Willis and says quite convincingly ‘I see dead people’.  It is an iconic scene and a shocking admission from an unlikely source. But you know what? I see dead people too!


Writing historical fiction is a balancing act of creating a good story while doing justice to real people, places, or events or in some cases. all three. Fictionalizing real people can be tricky, resulting in anything from a bland version of a well-known character from the annals of history to a vampire-hunting Abe Lincoln. It all starts with a thorough understanding of your characters.


With my purely fictional main characters in my contemporary novels, I start out with an in-depth analysis. Physical characteristics, personality traits, social behaviors, attitudes, likes and dislikes. I alone can decide that ‘she would never say that’ or ‘he would never go there’ and no one can argue with me. They’re my characters, my invention and I have the final say. Regardless of whether they are based on real people or more likely, a combination of a number of people, it’s my story and I’m sticking to it.


But what if a character is closely based on or inspired by a real person? Just how much fiction is allowed to be included and still have the novel be considered historical and/or biographical? Striking the right balance between fact and fiction can be challenging, but it’s what elevates a memorable story into a novel that begs to be read. Readers of historical fiction are seeking entertainment, an escape and according to one of my readers, “it gives you somewhere to go when you have to stay where you are.” In order to reveal the character’s true self, you need to truly ‘see’ them and discover their attitudes, beliefs and expectations; their essence, if you will.


The two historical novels that I have published highlight the lives of real people. The first is a male, well known for his professional achievements but little has been written about his personal and family life. To complicate matters further, he shares the same surname and family lineage as my husband. In my author notes, I explain in detail what is factually true and what parts were liberties I thought necessary to develop the story I wanted to write. I felt honor-bound to respect his legacy and hope that I did him proud.


In my second novel, I chose a remarkable woman who most of us have never heard of. I learned of her while doing research for my first historical fiction title. She has a difficult last name, was not in the least bit photogenic and accounts of her personality ranged from lively and fetching all the way to ‘dull as dishwater’. Which description is the more accurate? I don’t know for sure but at some point, instinct takes over. With only a very sketchy outline to follow, I needed to decide who this person really was, to really get to know her. I based what I wrote on what I was able to glean from actual letters she wrote and received as well as her professional accomplishments and lifestyle. Once again, I hope I did justice to her legacy.


So yes, I see dead people and I hear them too. My books include a good deal of dialogue and when the characters come from another time and place, it is easy to weigh the writing down with cumbersome language, words and phrases that may be unfamiliar to modern readers. Balancing the different styles and manners of speaking in order to be authentic as well as enjoyable is the key.


The next time you read a historical novel, look closely at the characters the author has chosen to bring to life. I predict you’ll see dead people too!


Gail Ward Olmsted is the award-winning author of eight published novels. Her two works of historical fiction are the best-selling Landscape of a Marriage, the mostly true story of park builder Frederick Law Olmsted and Mary, his wife of 44 years, and Katharine’s Remarkable Road Trip, a newly released fictional journey of a remarkable real woman: Katharine Prescott Wormeley.




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