Writing Historical Novels

Writing Historical Novels

Linda Ty-Casper

September 9, 2023
Massachussets, USA

When we were growing up, Gabriela Paez Viardo de Velasquez told us stories of the Revolution against Spain and of the Philippine–American War. Our grandmother, whom we called Nanay, remembered dogs fighting over bodies left in streets and in yards after the forces retreated. During their flight to escape the fighting, they drank water from rice fields covered with dead bodies and frogs. One time, Nanay said they came upon a handful of rice in an abandoned hut. They boiled the grains with water from those fields to feed the children.

Always, Nanay ended the stories with, “Someone should write these.”

I relived Nanay’s stories when relatives and friends visited, or when we visited them: in Malabon, San Isidro, San Jose, Tarlac, Dagupan, Manila . . . some were the ones Nanay was remembering. Her mother, Florencia Paez, was from Malabon; her father, Blas Viardo, from San Isidro. She married Lucio Velasquez from Cabiao and Macabebe. A first cousin was Dr. Jose Albert, member of the First Philippine Commission. When we were sick, he came in a calesa, wearing the white de hilo of government officials, and told Tia Fidela to keep the windows open. Dr. Albert and his wife died during the Liberation of Manila, were buried under the large tree I remembered from our visits.

Those visits introduced me to the characters that would bring life to the past Nanay narrated. Unlike her older sister who went to a colegio in Manila, Nanay didn’t want to leave San Isidro, but she learned to read, and memorized the Pasión by heart. The parroco permitted her to prepare their servants for confession and communion.

As I grew older, landmarks were added to those in Nanay’s stories. During the Occupation, Tia Pinang took me along to have a tree cut for firewood. We ate on the floor with Aling Sepa and her husband. Their farm was near the Tuliahan River, which Filipinos and Americans crossed, chasing each other during the War. When schools opened after World War II, our Girl Scout troop marched to that river; we walked to Caloocan High on the road the revolucionarios walked, now named Heroes del 96. Our school building was where General Antonio Luna waited to intercept the Americans chasing General Aguinaldo to Malolos.

These I discovered years later when I began, on my own, to read about our history. I tried to enroll in the History 
department at the University of the Philippines, but Dean Wico said, “Go across to Law. If they reject you, return.” I loved reading about our history. I imagined the old trees, towering over our Caloocan High schoolhouse, had been there when General Antonio Luna waited for the American troops. I could imagine myself being there: then.

Trips allowed me to feel the lay of the land where our history took place. My father, Francisco Figueroa Ty, was an engineer with the Manila Railroad. During vacations, we rode the train to its northern and southern ends, passing other towns where the Revolution and War took place: Manila, Bulacan, Laguna, Pampanga, Bicol . . . He took us to Calbiga, Samar; his hometown. I waded in the river, knelt in the old church, walked between gravestones. My mother, Catalina Velasquez- Ty, wrote textbooks for the Bureau of Education (including Homeland and Friends of the Flower World), and took us along to workshops in the provinces. With Len, I attended conferences in Cebu, Iloilo, Negros, Zamboanga. (I was saling-pusa, since I was not officially a writer, though the Boston Authors, the oldest continuing writers group in America, invited me to become a member.)

Nanay also said that things will happen if they are meant to happen. No one has to make them happen.

When, after our wedding, Len Casper and I went to the States and I attended Harvard Law, the secretary, one afternoon, announced that because of an impending hurricane, students were advised to go home. Passing Widener, I decided to check the library out before I left Harvard and found in D Level West material about the Philippines I had no idea existed: Mrs. William James’s clippings about the Philippine–American War (mislabeled Philippine Insurrection in American textbooks), letters to editors, and soldiers’ letters opposing the War, Anti-Imperialist material. I was welcomed as a Fellow to Radcliffe Institute by Sue Lyman, the director, whose father was Moorfield Storey, an Anti-Imperialist who wrote a book against the War, The Conquest of the Philippines by the United States, 1898–1925, with Marcial Lichauco.

I realized that some of the books in the Oceania section had not been taken out at all. So instead of writing essays to refute them, I decided that a historical novel would have more impact than another book on the shelf. I thought then, just one historical novel and I’d go on with my life. But at the Boston Public Library, I found more material in newspapers, including The American Soldier, which the staff brought up in boxes from the basement for me to read.

On an impulse, the year Nanay died, Len had given up a Fulbright to London and took a freighter to Manila. If he had gone to London, Nanay’s stories would have remained unwritten, for Len read every page, every draft and revision of the manuscripts. He queried editors and publishers, mailed and remailed the manuscripts, while teaching full time at Boston College (serving in the major committees), attending conferences, helping launch Philippine writers into world literature, writing his own critical work. His first book on Robert Penn Warren, according to critics, “pointed the way for all subsequent studies of the poet-novelist.” The second was described as “lyrical and erudite . . . the crowning achievement in the career of an eminent Warren scholar.”

Nanay’s stories needed some kind of introduction to give it a sense of continuity with the past. The Peninsulars (1964) provided the essence of the history that preceded it. Not set in a specific period, the novel did not name the Governor- General and the Royal Fiscal. The Peninsulars was kind of a preface. It was my first book. Looking back, I could have written it differently, maybe not have tried to approximate the language of the period, so it would have been easier to read.

Guided by Nanay’s stories, I next wrote the Three-Cornered Sun. Afterward, I was going to go on with Life. But as Nanay said, what is meant to happen will happen. Enough material was left for another book so, not to waste it—I decided to write The Stranded Whale. It was to be the third and last; making a trilogy about the Revolution and War. The plan was interrupted by Martial Law. Only after responding to the Marcos dictatorship with novels depicting its effect on people’s lives, could I take up Stranded Whale, again.

At the Ateneo honoring of The Stranded Whale, 2002, Ma. Teresa Martinez-Sicat said, “Every Filipino cannot but savor such a world recreated in the literary and historical text of Linda Ty-Casper . . . In The Stranded Whale . . . we can participate in the creation of that nation that was dreamed of and fought for a hundred years ago.”

Still, people asked. What did you do with your training? UP Law ’55 classmates enjoyed calling me the class “deviate” for writing, instead of practicing.

It was only slowly, incrementally—after the Southeast Asian Writers Award, when a man came up to shake hands after my acceptance speech, and said, “Written just like a lawyer”—that I realized that preserving our part of world history in historical novels is a form of advocacy. It is defending our country against false depictions; making sure the world does not forget us, that we do not forget who we were, and are; and we can therefore resist “occupation” by foreigners, and by our own countrymen.

Nanay was part of our history. Her stories allow us to live it in our time, preserving our country’s role in world history: so we are not just a footnote.

Linda Ty-Casper with the publisher, Mara,at Linda's home. in Framingham, MA

All these made The Three-Cornered Sun “real” to me, my story, too. After much hesitation about writing our history in novels, I started seriously to read for the novel February 25, 1963, writing in longhand, typing, revising, revising. Material left over from research for The Peninsulars also went into the book.

On July 4, 1968, I had 242 pages. On October 3, 1969, I retyped the last two pages, after a trip to the Philippines. In October 1971, I was reading The Three-Cornered Sun again; typing it again, finishing November 14. In April 1974, the novel was up to 379 pages. By May 18, it had 382 pages. In 1979, New Day accepted it. I received my first copy May 1, 1980. The next year, a review of The Three-Cornered Sun came out.

And now, in 2024, you have the Exploding Galaxies edition of The Three-Cornered Sun. I didn’t think there were any new readers for it. I’ve never been widely read, for some reason, but I persisted in writing about us—to fill the absence of our side.





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