Friday, October 31, 2008

Fiction Understanding History

Recently I participated in an online writing exercise that was ambitious and unusual. I don't know what happens elsewhere because I tend to stick to a few places on the internet and really dig in deep, but even for my community site www.panhistoria.com I felt that the endeavor of last weekend was quite remarkable. We re-enacted the Gunfight at the OK Corral with our key writers over one day: October 26th, 2008 - the 127th Anniversary of the historical event.

To give you a little history our group has been 'role-playing' the characters and color of the town of Tombstone, Arizona since 1998 when I first quite randomly picked up the character of Wyatt Earp, and my kid, then quite young wanted to be Doc Holliday. I thought it would be an educational thing we could do together - I could sneak some history down with the role play and he might actually learn something. School sure wasn't sticking. At the time I was into Ancient Egyptian and Roman history and knew nothing about the American West. I was not a huge fan of Roy Rogers, the Wyatt Earp TV Show (never heard of it even), and even John Wayne (though The Shootist was on my list of great movies). I neither counted nor discounted the western movie from my repertoire of viewing or reading but what brought me to westerns was a movie - it was Tombstone starring Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer and a momentary passing interest my son had in Doc Holliday because of that movie.

Slipping into the skin of an American icon, one both revered and hated depending on whose doing the looking, was and remains a terrifically challenging task. Not to be half-assed I started looking into the historical record of a man that lived by the gun but was never shot himself and kept finding nifty and interesting tidbits as well as controversy. It was a story sure to suck me in. Who was this guy and how did he become famous, stay famous, and then end up the central figure of a love him or hate him conflagration that maintains its passion to this day across numerous history forums?

One thing I decided early on was that I was pro-Earp. First I was playing the character and I preferred the hero to the villain (villains are great fun to write by not the kind of dull brutish villain Earp detractors favor for our Wyatt). Second there were several facts that seemed indisputable and pointed to Wyatt being an ok guy even if he had some less than stellar moments on occasion (as is true of us all): his enemies pretty much were all well known rustlers, collaborators with criminals, on the graft, and ended up either in jail or shot for their crimes; his enemies tended to ambush people and shoot people in the back; Wyatt ended his life respected and loved by some rather upstanding and interesting people.

There is probably no way at this late date in history to ever completely know just what kind of man Wyatt Earp really was, and in the end it's not necessary to me as a fiction writer to recreate the man. I have, in the end, simply created a man that I call Wyatt Earp who re-enacts many key elements of the original's life but is, in fact, quite uniquely himself. You cannot take the role of another for ten years and not infuse something of yourself into him - whatever your take on history.

This year as a writing group it seemed like we finally had the chance to write about the events that seemed to have thrust Earp into the history books whether he like it or not. These events, the Gunfight, which should more accurately be called "the street fight in the vacant lot by C.S. Fly's Photography Studio (not so catchy is it?), are not exactly pivotal events in the history of our nation. In fact it's a wonder that they survive as more than a footnote in the annuals of the history of frontier law and as one of the only actual gunfights to take place in western American history - unlike the Dime Novels would have had us to believe.

But it is a pivotal event in the history of the American Myth, and part of the stories that make us, as a nation, who we are, or at least who we like to be. Wyatt Earp's name is known around the globe as a symbol of American shoot 'em up go get 'em and ask questions later law enforcement. He is the predecessor of characters like Bruce Willis plays in the Die Hard franchise. Going back to the shoot out itself, even if it was just in a collaborative fictional setting, our history books open, was to watch the birth of something huge and looming in the American psyche. I make no judgments here whether it this thing is good or bad, but it is part of us, even to the people with no interest in the 'Wild West' or Wyatt Earp. We are touched by it whether we like it or not. It's relevant to our dealings in law enforcement, our dealings in government, in foreign policy, and how many of us see ourselves.

So it was with some sense of awe and accomplishment that I completed a twelve hour long role-playing session at Pan Historia on Oct 26th with my fellow writers (much thanks to the other big players Virgil Earp and Doc to use their Pan identities), as well as all the other wonderful writers and supporters playing characters both made up and historical. As the day flowed from one tense moment to the next, after weeks of building up the tension in town to get the heat right, I finally made sense of what, no matter how well explained in a history book, had previously left me confused and without answers: what happened that day to cause the Earps and their friend Doc Holliday to participate in a gunfight that hurtled three men to their deaths, made Wyatt and Doc famous, but ultimately destroyed all the ambitions of the Earp family.

And in making sense of it the event finally became more than just fiction, it became history.

2 comments:

Hatshepsut / Kelly Silver said...

History is one of the most elusively tangible creations we fabricate, along with time, religion, so on and so forth.

So - I had a great time joining in on the fun at Tombstone. Good times had by all and we accomplished something incredible! Thank you for giving me the opportunity to be part of your story and the inspiration to take up my own Victorian-Western historical muse.

And to think I used the word "NEVER" well over two years ago!

Pan Historia said...

I remember that "never" well.