I've been doing some heavy research for a few weeks now as I world build for a short (or series of) stories I plan on writing. Needless to say, this is the biggest undertaking I have done yet as a writer (And I even used to do competitive slam poetry back in college). However I am a bit stuck on something. The world that I'm putting together is at the end of the 1930's, where the Great Depression hit the United States so hard, that the dollar literally is worthless around the globe, allowing other countries to press ahead scientifically, creating beefed up versions of Germany and Japan (Japan finally gets their giant robots, and Germany is able to create their perfect Aryans).
The only way the US ended up recovering from its slump was the major Crime Bosses of the era such as Capone, Maceo, Moran, and Luciano whose major profits came from Bootlegging during the prohabition era, investing their millions into the country, pretty much growing from crime family to super-corporations overnight. By doing this, the US begins to recover and slowly catches up to the other larger counties in terms of science (I can picture Sam Maceo investing solely into the Sciences). As well as becoming super powers within the country themselves.
That's the general plot of things that I'm working with, its not the final product. Now the main issue I am having is the portrayal of these men (As well as Hoover, who I have beating FDR in the election). As we all know, these men truly existed, and in order for the story to progress I may have to tweek some things, such as deaths, personalities (I would be going by what research I've done about them on how they acted. Moran being short tempered, etc) .
In your writings, how do you portray Historical Figures in a work of Dieselpunk fiction?
Very intriguing question.
I tend to be very cautious at these things, for I'd be putting words in somebody else's mouth. I'm not even refering that someone (family) could be offended, but for me, it strikes as I am defaming somehow someone.
Having said that, I recently tryed to participate of a local (Brazilian) dieselpunk selection. Set in a ficcional political/technological scenario in the 50's, I had the Estado Novo (New State) dictatorship had endured till that moment (instead ending in 45), with an octogenary Getúlio Dornelles Vargas still President.
His personal bodyguard showed up in my story directly, Gregório Fortunato, dubbed the "Black Angel". Fortunato and his men were fiercely loyal to Vargas, and known and feared for their violence. They could be called the Presidential Goons, if someone back then had the courage to speak it loud. I've portrayed Fortunato more as a streetwise-suave character, pulling strings here and there, checking the government interests and above it all, any Presidential envolvement, were guarded with discretion - but prone to use of violence, his and his men, whenever appliable.
I don't know if he could, personally, play that way. But I thought it was a good choice.
I shy away from using real historical figures in my fiction unless they walk and talk the way they did in real life and are used as background pieces. This is because you'll end up pissing off the historians who may inevitably know more about the person than you would ever feel necessary to research. Plus, there's the domino effect of changing history. If Crime Inc. was still in full force after the FBI man hunts of '33 and '34, what happened to the FBI? Being successful at those campaigns set the precedent for having an FBI in the first place. In your world, would the FBI not exist? Without federal law enforcement, would Pinkertons and other private bounty hunters still be running the state lines to bring criminals to justice? These are things worth thinking about if you really want to flesh out your world.
As a writer, it should be easy to come up with crime bosses who are like Capone, Maceo et al without being chained to those specific figures. Let history run the way it did, and use your powers to nudge it towards a better story. That way, you can spend more productive time writing instead of swimming in the black hole of world building.
Many writers I know use historical figures as cameos, because unless you are writing about them, they tend to take over the story from your original characters. However, having your historicals in a significantly changed history isn't un-doable. People fictionalize historical figures all the time--and other people read it without too much pearl-clutching because hey--IT'S FICTION. That little blurb in the front of the book that says "Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead is purely coincidental" ain't just for show. ;)
Now having said that, I've taken a few workshops by alt-history buffs and the general consensus is that the most intriguing alternate histories--along with alternate personalities and the like--come when the divergence point happened some time in the past--like ten or twenty years. That gives you as the author the freedom to develop the world and the characters--both historically based and completely fictional--in a way that emerges from the natural result of the divergence.
So in an America that suffered a severe Depression, the idea that all these recent immigrants might have to return to the Old Country and their impoverishment there could easily propel them into a desire to preserve their current place of flexible mobility. In an America that can't hold its own, Al Capone can't be a crime boss when the Sicilians are bigger, better, nastier, and richer. But in an America that retains its independence and a strong economic base, then Al Capone can be a big fish. An Elliot Ness faced with severely-limited FBI funding might find himself allied with an Al Capone for a common cause (like, say, European Aid coming with European influences (perhaps class-based) in how his G-men do their investigation...so Ness and Capone find a common cause in keeping the Old Countries out of their own playground.
Just tossing a few ideas out there. Remember, you're writing fiction and when you get right down to it, you're writing alternate history. The real history buffs don't necessarily apply. The alternatehistory.com forums actually have sandbox brainstorming forums where you can pitch your divergence point and have people help you run with it, poke holes in your arguments, and offer up different perspectives on what might happen. Take a st. Bernard, though, because you can get lost for DAYS...
This is a very good question. I'm afraid I don't have much of an answer, but I've been asking it myself. I read a pretty good manuscript the other day involving Teddy Roosevelt in which the writer did a good job. But his portrayal of Teddy was built mostly off of his "heroic" and positive traits just making him a bigger than life version of how he is remembered.
For my part, I'm a bit concerned about legal ramifications. If you've noticed, most pieces of fiction have a disclaimer at the front about how everything contained within is strictly a work of fiction and any resemblance to actual people and places is unintended.
For me, such a statement would be a bald face lie. Yet I don't want to piss people off any more than I need to.
In my writing I've taken the easy way out as far as well known figures from history. I usually keep them off the screen so to speak and deal with a lessor assistant or comrade, etc. While all my main characters are totally aspects of my alt-history.
I would love to hear more about what others are doing though.
Athena really hit the nail on the head on involving real historical people in fiction and Eva hit the nail involving research research research, so defer to their posts. And yes, and a long-time participant at alternatehistory.com (I'm there as "Geekhis Khan") I will say it's a great resource, but be prepared for serious "plausibility totalitarianism" as there's a major insistance on hard plausibiltiy and realism, so I'd be sure to preface everything with something like "I'm writing a Dieselpunk novel involving Giant Robots, so I'm flexible on plausibility but really need enough historical realism and background to give it versimilitude".
I wouldn't worry too much about your portrayals. Keep in mind that historical figures are public domain, so shy of seriously offending descendents if your accusations are too outlandish (making Ness a pedophile would be going too far, frex) you're probably fine. Harry Turtledove uses historical figures all the time and goes to great depths on their inner thoughts and desires (sometimes TOO far...brain bleach may be required when the sex scenes appear), and he's a multiple-time best seller and the "Master of Alternate History", so the audience is cool with whatever.
I'd advise researching the characters enough that you can try and "think like them" to some level and be able to predict how they'd act given your circumstances. In this way, their "Reactions", which might end up surprising you (it's amazing how your own characters can get away from you, innit?), can drive the plot along in ways you never expected!
In your story I think your overall plan makes perfect sense. Capone going "legit" in this timeline, frex, seems very in character, as he always strived for recognition as a legitimate "big man" and strived to be a peer of the Morgans and Rockefellers. Portraying him as someone working hard to come across as a high society gentleman, albeit fighting hard to control a violent temper and fighting to repress his bloody past would add a lot of character depth, particularly if you can almost make him sympathetic! Keep in mind also he'll be getting really advanced into his late stage Syphillus as time progresses, meaning there's a real great window for a Howard Hughes like "insane recluse" angle you could exploit.
I can't comment too much as to Maceo or Moran, but Luciano has the potential to slip almost seemlessly into the role of NYC High Society, as he was smooth as silk and cunning as Lucifer.
Well, I see it like Tome.
Adding historical Persons, (exept the reality you are around is a really weird parallel) sort of works like trying to explain the workings of a random ftl-drive in space opera.
In the space-opera/sci-fi setting, an author really should care about science.(not meaning to be an expert, but obeying at least the more common physics, for example. This is, if you are not also a rocket-scientist research-work that should be done.)
I Imagine, with (Alternate-) Historical themes, it might be quiet the same with history. If I want Albert Einstein to play a mayor role in my novel, I will at least have to read a biography and/or watch some movies/documentations.
Not only because you are not upsetting people that know it better (and out there, there really are), but also that you are adding detail to your world, and are discovering quirks and knacks in that particulair person's Personality that might not be that common to the average, but could give some interesting plot hooks/twists and turns.
The Problem here is, that you would have to bring that historical character (with or without modifications) to life, and he has to feel alive, not as a good written character - more as a good personification of himself.
This is why I avoid too much real-life-people. I also try not to use real people I know, because it feels a little like abuse. why should i want to do this to some important historical person? But what If you cannot avoid it?
If there are the american sixties, and you want govornment conspiracy, for example, you might feel the need to include Einstein, Von Braun, Oppenheimer, MJ12 as a whole, maybe Kennedy, maybe Nixon. Neil Armstong?
And there you run into trouble. If you want your characters to be ... say investigating UFOs in the 60s, there will be a point, where they have to talk to someone, who could explain phenomenon X.
So you're running into more trouble, simply by having Einstein explain, why those saucers are seeming to be able to appear and disappear at will, or why they seem to be immune to earth gravity.
You will need an believeable Einstein Character, not simply to talk, merely to interact with your Characters, also you will need to know not only the explanation (by general relativity for example), but how Albert Einstein himself would explain the topic, not in general, but to your especial characters. And all that has to be believeable... and it will be a critical scene. allways.
Done right, people that know it better aren't upset (or at least, they see that you did your homework, what is worth a lot. how often have you put a book away, mumbling something like... no, this simply is ridicilous), and the people that don't know it better are not getting false information, that they might actually believe. (i wonder every time how often this happens... see star trek science for example)
there are also some things, i would want to know abotu your project.
If the Dollar has an appearance like the Rubel had in the 90s, you would be paying serious (if not all) stuff with foreign money. In general, every american would desperately try to get their hands on some more stable currency.
Imagine a 1930s America, where People on the Westcoast are mainly paying in yen (or what it used to be then), north east states are using Pound Sterling, and the Rest? Maybe Reichsmark or Franc?
Also imagine early Hollywood would be dependant on foreign investors, witch are deciding what script would be made a film, and how it would have to end. The Media that would have foreign investors would grow bigger, doing better work, reaching and influencing more people. The lesser market would start to imitate this. Imagine the impact of such a situation on American society. It certainly would be way different. What if a Nazi-investor would control the biggest newspaper in say New York? Maybe all the other countries are having their secret plans of how to use this puppet-america? Are they fighting for it behind the scenes? Was it a police action against a Crime syndicate, or covert british specialists, reducing nazi influence on some resource?
Ok, I hope this is good for some inspiration. that ran trough my head, when i was reading your text.