To write historical fiction, you must be the type who enjoys minding other peoples’ business. You must be irresistibly drawn to the lost inner thoughts of those who lived and breathed on this earth long before you were born. You must understand that historical fiction is basically writing dialogue for the dead.
I was recently asked by someone on Goodreads if I could provide some insight into the research I did for Song of Batoche, my historical novel about the Métis North-West Resistance of 1885. It’s a question I’ve been asked many times, a question that I think also asks, in subtext: “What is true in this historical novel and what isn’t?”
To write Song of Batoche, I immersed myself in seven years of research. It never seemed to end. Why the obsession over detail when I was writing “a story?”
Early on in my research, I had decided to feature the perspectives of the Métis women of Batoche. Yet I couldn’t write a novel about the Métis North-West Resistance without including Louis Riel’s point of view. Riel is central to the Métis narrative and one of the most controversial figures in Canadian history. This put a whole lot of pressure on me to get him “right” but ultimately, Louis Riel was the most rewarding part of researching and writing Song of Batoche.
In historical texts, Riel is either demonized or sanctified. Exactly the kind of stereotypes that writers wish to avoid when fictionalizing a historical figure. The Riel whose dialogue I would write was surely not the one-dimensional traitor formed in the minds of Canadians from high school history classes taught by settlers. And not the one-dimensional hero revered as a saint by the Métis.
I read the many books about him and poured over his prodigious writings. Who was this complex man, variously described as insane, a religious zealot, a visionary, and a politically brilliant leader? It was only in curious lines in Riel’s diary or poems (such as this one that he wrote in 1866), that gave me a glimpse of his secret inner life:
I hear funeral dirges inside me.
This photo of Riel was taken a few days after his surrender in May 1885, by an amateur photographer with General Middleton’s army. A historical novelist is the kind of person who studies an old photograph like this one and adds imaginary thought bubbles. What was Riel thinking as the photographer stepped up to capture an image of the famous Métis rebel?
“I track the historical record so I can report the outer world faithfully – but my chief concern is with the interior drama of my characters’ lives. From history, I know what they do, but I can’t with any certainty know what they think or feel.”
The historical novelist takes notes from all of these dry historical records and, as Mantel writes, “breaks through the false wall” to connect to the hidden story.
To write dialogue for Riel’s part in Song of Batoche, I read books that recounted his political moves and tantalizing excerpts in his diaries and poems that left me yearning for access to his moments of darkest grief and exaltation. These evocative passages represented grey areas, tidbits that piqued my curiosity.
Hilary Mantel captures this process, saying “I was prepared to look at all the material I could find, even though I knew it would take years, but what I wasn’t prepared for were the gaps, the erasures, the silences where there should have been evidence.”
It was from these “gaps” in Riel’s writings that I wrote dialogue to reflect the brilliant political leader who believed that God had sent him to redeem the honour of his people, the Métis:
All you have to do is take your lands. The foreigner cannot resist you.
To reflect the doubting, vulnerable man:
Do not be too sure of yourself.
To breathe life into the Métis leader who waited for General Middleton’s army to approach Batoche:
The Spirit of God has made me sense that my righteous actions were mixed with certain feelings, certain views, which tarnished the whiteness and innocence of my soul.
And finally, to capture the mood from Riel’s prison cell diary entry on October 15th, 1885, only a month before his execution:
Redemption is a mystery.
Hilary Mantel says, “We reach into the past for foundation myths of our tribe, our nation, and found them on glory, or found them on grievance, but we seldom found them on cold facts.”
It’s my hope that readers approach Song of Batoche, not for another historical version of the facts—what Louis Riel did and what he fought for—but what he might have been thinking when he did.
In my author acknowledgements, I wrote that my bibliography was too long to list at the end of Song of Batoche and that those interested could find it on my website. So here it is!
Batoche, Diane Payment
The Free People, Diane Payment
Half Breed, Maria Campbell
Medicines to Help Us, Traditional Métis Plant Use, Christi Belcourt
A People on the Move, The Métis of the Western Plains, Irene Ternier Gordon
Hold High Your Heads, Auguste Henri de Tremaudan
Songs of Old Manitoba, Margaret Arnett MacLeod
Vanishing Spaces, Guillaume Charette
Capturing Women: The Manipulation of Cultural Imagery in Canada’s Prairie West, Sarah A. Carter
Decolonizing the Master Narrative: Treaties and Other American Myths, Donna L. Akers
1885 and After: Native Society in Transition, F. Laurie Barron and James B. Waldram
One of the Family: Métis Culture in Nineteenth-Century Northwestern Saskatchewan, Brenda Macdougall
The Genealogy of the First Métis Nation, Compiled by D.N. Sprague and R.P. Frye
Veterans and Families of the 1885 Northwest Resistance, Lawrence J. Barkwell
The Collected Writings of Louis Riel, Edited by George F.G. Stanley, Raymond Huel, Gilles Martel, Thomas Flanagan, Glen Campbell
Extraordinary Canadians: Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont, Joseph Boyden
Louis Riel, Dan Asfar, Tim Chodan
Selected Poetry of Louis Riel, Translated by Paul Savoi
Louis Riel, George F. G. Stanley
Louis Riel, A Comic Strip Biography, Chester Brown
Louis Riel, The Rebel and the Hero, Hartwell Bowsfield
The Diaries of Louis Riel, Edited by Thomas Flanagan
Gabriel Dumont, George Woodcock
Gabriel Dumont Speaks, Translated by Michael Barnholden
Gabriel Dumont, War Leader of the Métis, Tim Chodan and Dan Asfar
Big Bear, The End of Freedom, Hugh A. Dempsey
Loyal Till Death, Blair Stonechild, Bill Waiser
Voices of the Plains Cree, Edward Ahenakew
The Plains Cree, David G. Mandelbaum
The Sacred Pipe, Black Elk
Imagining Head-Smashed-In, Aboriginal Buffalo Hunting on the Northern Plains, Jack W. Brink
Excerpt from Lakota Sioux prayer, translated in 1887 by Chief Yellow Lark
Tales of a Pioneer Surveyor, Charles Aenas Shaw
Adventures in the West, Henry Ross Halpin
Buffalo Days and Nights, Peter Erasmus
Blood Red the Sun, William Bleasdell Cameron
Fifty Years on the Saskatchewan, “Various contributors”
Honore Jaxon, Prairie Visionary, Donald B. Smith
Circumstances Alter Photographs, Michael Barnholden
Ethics, Benedict de Spinoza
Sexual Assault in Marriage: Prevalence, Consequences and Treatment of Wife Rape, Patricia Mahoney and Linda M. Williams
Eve and the Identity of Women, Christopher L.C.E. Witcombe
Teaching Modern and Contemporary Philosophy in Seminary, Prudence Allen, Terrence C. Wright
Lawrence Clarke: Architect of Revolt, Martin Shulman and Don McLean (article)
Trials in Connection with the North-West Rebellion, 1885, Canada Department of the Secretary of State
The History of the North-West Rebellion of 1885, Charles Pelham Mulvaney
The Last War Drum, Desmond Morton
The Battle of Batoche: British Small Warfare and the Entrenched Métis, Walter Hildebrandt
Military Law, the Canadian Militia, and the North-West Rebellion of 1885, Chris Madsen (article)
Report upon the Suppression of the Rebellion in the North-West Territories, General Middleton
Soldiering in Canada, George T. Denison
The Soldier’s Pocket-Book for Field Service, Colonel Sir Garnet J. Wolseley
With the Midland Battalion during the North-West Rebellion of 1885, Will E. Young
Diaries of Alexander Laidlaw, 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles
Reminiscences of the North-West Rebellions, Charles Arkoll Boulton
Sir John A., An Anecdotal Life of John A. Macdonald, Edited by Cynthia M. Smith and Jack McLeod
The Davin Report, Nicholas Flood Davin
Buffalo Bill in Bologna, The Americanization of the World, 1869-1922, Robert W. Rydell, Rob Kroes
Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, Celebrity, Memory, and Popular History, Joy s. Kasson
Canadian Biography Online Contributors
E. Brian Titley