Wednesday, December 10, 2014

How Much History In Your Historical Novel

Historical novels are a strange breed of creature. We have stories set in a real time, with real people and events, and yet we weave our fictional characters among these people. As an author, the struggle comes when we have to translate to our readers a time period or a location they might not know anything about, and yet, at the same time, do so without it taking over the central story arc we have planned out.

When we think of weaving in that historical information, the best way to think about it is in terms of world building. You have the entire world in your head and now you have to immerse the reader in your world. Of course, when we spend the time talking about world building, we never just start out the story telling us about the entire world our story is located. Frankly, that would drive away any reader. Along the same lines, we don't, right in the middle of a great scene, stop and unload pages of world building. We eek that information in for the reader on a "need to know basis."

The approach to doing this is pretty simple. When the characters need the information, then reveal it to the reader at the same time. For example, if your hero has just come back from war and the reader needs to know all about who the war was with and what it was like, we don't want to just start cranking out the historical facts. We let the reader learn it when the heroine asks something such as "What was it like?" We have the hero give us through introspection who the war was with, where it happened and what it was like, as he thinks about his brother who died during the war with him - the one he couldn't save.

Now, the amount of history you add to the story depends on the complexity of your plot. If, for example, you are writing a simple Regency, the historical context can be the scenery and the backdrop for the story. We just need to see what it looks like through the eyes of your character. If, you are setting the story in Scotland, again, you can focus on the scenery, but add in a bit of the information about the clan structure.

But, if your story involves a plot element that is a bit more complex, you will need to take the time to have the characters talk about the events with each other to reveal the information to the readers. For example, in Bronwyn Scott's latest novel* PLAYING THE RAKE'S GAME, she has immersed the hero in the middle of the Caribbean Apprenticeship conflicts of 1835. This is not exactly a time period or an event we would have learned about in our European history classes. So, Scott, has one of the characters reveal the information. As, Ren is finding out about the problems on this new plantation he owns, he asks his best friend Kitt what's going on.

Kitt gave another one of his shrugs. "Its the apprenticeship programme. It's a great source of controversy in the parish."

Ren nodded. "I am familiar with it." Slavery in the British Caribbean had been abolished a couple of years ago. It had been replaced with the notion of apprenticeship. the idea was decent in theory: pay the former slaves who were willing to work the land they'd once worked for free. In practice, the situation was not far different than slavery.

Kitt went on. "Finding enough labour has been difficult. The plantation owners feel they're losing too much money so they are working o the labourers to the bone, to death actually."

In three very short paragraphs, Scott has been able to set up, not only the world building of the historical event, but also the conflict the hero is going to have to face. The amount of information is "just enough" at the present moment, to keep the reader going and return the reader, as quickly as possible the central story arc. Throughout the story, as Ren talks with Emma about the plantation, we learn more and more about the history. Subversively, Scott is teaching you about British Colonialism in the Caribbean. Kind of sneaky, isn't it.

Even if your story is a straight up, hard core historical, you have to still walk the fine line of being a story and being a historical textbook. While you needed to have all of the information to create the story, you have to ask yourself if the reader really needs all of that information. The odds are, probably not.

*Note: Thank you Bronwyn Scott for sharing this information. (Scott, 2014). For more information on Bronwyn Scott visit her at:
Facebook @Bronwyn-Scott
Twitter @Bronwynscott

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