When done well, like anything else in Historical fiction, inserting real figures can add dimension to the scope of history, the setting and the tone.
I am a little concerned about my ability to draw on and re-imagine historical figures fictionally. I am too afraid to try and make them speak or move around or interact with my characters. As I become a more confident writer this might be part of my future, but for now I have inserted historical people in a deft and rather subtle way. They get cameos. Not speaking cameos so much as hearsay cameos.
Since I am writing about the Halifax Explosion, there are several central figures pertinent to the disaster and its after-math: Prime Minister Borden, on business is Charlottetown, stopped by Halifax and Mass. Governor McCall helped sponsor the building of transitory apartments while the North End residents were getting back on their feet. Both of these men were in Halifax; and while I mention their impact and what they were doing there, it is through character conversations and recollections of newspaper headlines.
|some of the damage in richmond after the ships collided: c/o collectionscanada.gc.ca|
The other historical figure that makes a cameo ( and a well-deserved one at that ) is Vincent Coleman, the telegraph operator who sacrificed his life to ensure a message got out via morse code to the expected overnight express train chugging in from St. John, NB. A sailor warned Coleman and his colleague that the ship that had caught fire in the Harbour was carrying explosives. While his colleague fled and with his foreman's voice in his ear beckoning him to do the same, Coleman made sure that he made communication with incoming trains. He wanted to stop the devastation before it quelled further.
He died instantly. You can even see some of the articles they found, charred and disfigured at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic.
I couldn't write a book about the Explosion without inserting Coleman; but I also didn't trust myself to flesh him, or the other aforementioned personages, out with speaking parts and fictional action.
Have you seen this device used well? What memorable historical figures have you encountered in novels? Have any writers back-fired on this front?