Plot is one of the 7 elements of historical fiction. In the original post outlining these seven elements, I wrote:
… the plot has to make sense for the time period. And plot will often be shaped around or by the historical events taking place at that time. This is particularly true when writing about famous historical figures. When considering those historical events, remember that you are telling a story not writing history.
Let’s dig a little deeper.
When you’re plotting, you are essentially devising the sequence of events that link your scenes and chapters and your character arcs into a compelling story for readers. Christopher Booker took 34 years to write his book The Seven Basic Plots. Wikipedia describes each plot type briefly and, if you’re interested, the New York Times has reviewed Booker’s book.
Booker’s seven plots are:
- Overcoming the monster
- Rags to riches
- The quest
- Voyage and return
Which of these plots fits the story you want to tell and its historical context?
According to Elizabeth George in her book Write Away (a resource I consult frequently), “plot is what the characters do [George’s emphasis] to deal with the situation they’re in.” Elizabeth George builds on this:
- “To have a plot … you must have characters … you also must have conflict.”
- “But you must also have events that occur as the conflict unfolds, and these events must be organized with an emphasis on causality.”
- As she explores causality, George introduces the notion of “dramatic dominoes” – essentially scenes that trigger an event that follows.
- To this she adds: “… your plot has to have high points of drama” that deeply involve your readers.
So, what does this mean for historical fiction? I’m sure someone could write a thesis on this topic, but let me offer two points:
If you’re writing historical fiction based on a real person’s life, then history provides all – well, almost all – the details you will need. The challenges are (1) to pick the true events in that persona’s life that will actually make a story worth reading bearing in mind the need for tension, conflict, causality, dramatic dominoes, and high points of drama, (2) to leave out the bits that are tedious or don’t advance the plot, and (3) to judiciously insert the scenes and characters that are plausible and will add those extra bits of drama and sparkle. Remember, you’re writing fiction not biography.
Do we know what Eleanor of Aquitaine said to Henry II on their wedding night? No, but with the right research a good author can imagine it.
Do we know whether J. P. Morgan had an affair with his personal librarian Belle da Costa Greene? No, but Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray do a wonderful job of imagining the dynamic between these two individuals in their novel The Personal Librarian.
If you’re writing historical fiction with fictional characters, then choose the historical events that frame the story, drive the plot, are inherently dramatic, and can realistically involve your characters. If your character is a captain in the British army during WWI, choose a suitable regiment and research where that regiment was during the war and therefore what battles, what losses, what victories and so on could have shaped your captain’s life. If you need your fictional captain to have met Winston Churchill, there has to be a plausible reason and accurate regimental specifics for him to have done so. More than that, the meeting with Churchill should advance the main character’s arc while adding tension and conflict and laying down another dramatic domino for the story.
In Robert McKee’s book Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting, he also defines plot:
To PLOT means to navigate through the dangerous terrain of story and when confronted with a dozen branching possibilities to choose the correct path. Plot is the writer’s choice of events and their design in time.
What are the branching possibilities your plot faces? What events will you choose? How will they unfold in the timeline you’ve chosen?
McKee’s notion of navigating the correct path makes me thing of Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken:
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
I should keep that in mind as I devise my next plot.
DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION. FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY
M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available on Amazon US, Amazon Canada, Kobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.