By E. C. Ambrose
Some of the most compelling fiction arises out of the writer’s engagement with a narrow aspect of history. It might be an event with an exciting impact on the people involved or the future of nations. Many authors come to historical fiction because of a personal connection to a distant time and place, and their writing explores the experiences of people who lived in that milieu. My obsession is early technology, and my latest novel was sparked by a footnote.
So how do you transform a passion for history into a compelling narrative?
Begin by framing your concept: the specific niche in history you’d like to write into, and why it excites you. Are you most excited about the setting, the event, the people, or perhaps the transformation around one of those elements? Freewriting about your enthusiasm can hone your focus. Capture this excitement in a brief statement to guide the choices you make as you brainstorm narrative ideas. If you’re developing a counterfactual or supernatural story, be sure to integrate that direction.
I organize my ideas using a spreadsheet for a timeline, characters, specific locations, scene ideas, etc. You may prefer a notebook with dividers, or some other format. The earlier you can settle on a system, the easier it will be to exploit your notes, both historical and fictional.
Now that you know where (and when) to begin, consider how to build a story about that concept. Here are a few questions to guide you.
1. Where is the most striking conflict in this concept?
What is at stake? A battle might be life or death for the soldiers on the field. It might be existential for the future of the region or intensely personal for the groom who tends the warhorses.
Each of these levels can make an engaging narrative, and will suggest the character(s) involved as well as the breadth of the story. A larger, more complicated conflict signals the need for a larger structure to fully reveal it. If you’d like to craft a short story instead, look for a more intimate view into the conflict and explore that impact. Incorporating several layers of conflict adds richness, and shows why this character is invested in this particular conflict. That helps the reader to develop a rooting interest in what happens to them.
2. Who has the most to gain or lose in your concept?
This suggests possible characters. To tell the complete story of the battle, you may need characters who have a top-down view like generals or nobility, as well as participants on the battlefield. These affected characters may not all have a narrative perspective in the work, but the protagonist’s encounters with them will reveal new insights. What additional layers of internal or personal conflict will these characters contribute because of who they are, the roles they play, or their own background? Characters with opposing views illuminate the history in a more three-dimensional way. Creating a cast list of the people most impacted, and how they relate to each other can help you imagine scenes and personal moments to build your plot.
Whose stories dominate the current narrative around the history and whose stories haven’t been told? Are you the right author to reveal lesser-known narratives? If you can respectfully present a new perspective, especially on a familiar or perennial historical moment, that can help to set your work apart.
3. What aspects of the milieu are most critical for readers to understand the concept and story?
How can you reveal those aspects in the most engaging way? Lectures, backstory and summary are the bane of historical narratives. Instead, look for ways to embed historical details and context into scenes, through what characters experience, do, or understand. Deliver information through action or discovery, using sensory details to show the setting. As your reader experiences scenes alongside your characters, they will absorb the historical backdrop those characters inhabit without needing lengthy passages of exposition. My spreadsheet includes a column for brainstorming how to deliver the historical context my reader will need.
In particular, avoid explanatory dialog in which characters simply tell one another the information you want the reader to have. Instead, consider conflicts and opposing characters. Can they withhold, discover or argue about the information instead of simply delivering it?
4. What expectations will readers already have about this concept?
Reader expectations can enhance or distract from your story. For instance, readers of a Titanic novel are aware the ship will sink, and that creates added tension. Which of the characters will survive and how? If your work contradicts reader expectations, either because it’s a counterfactual or fantastical narrative, or because those expectations are flawed, you’ll need to carefully frame the contradictions to draw the reader closer rather than losing their trust because the author appears to have their facts wrong.
As these questions spark ideas for scenes, add those to your notes. Look for ways to increase the conflicts and raise the stakes through arranging those scenes for maximum impact. I use notecards, dealing out possible story and character arcs until I arrive at the most compelling version, or know what I need to brainstorm next. Spinning your historical grist into these narrative elements should deliver plenty of material to weave your concept into a story.
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