Karen Chase was one of the authors who participated with me and others in a Christmas book giveaway. She’s an independent author and a Daughter of the American Revolution with the Commonwealth Chapter in Virginia. Her first novel, Carrying Independence, book one of the 3-part Founding-Documents Series, is historical fiction about the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Karen is also the author of Bonjour 40 – A Paris Travel Log and Mary Angela’s Kitchen and a branding professional—developing platform tools for authors.
I’m delighted to have her on the blog today.
The Revolutionary Historical Fiction Elements ~~~ by Karen A. Chase
I write historical fiction and let me be frank. Until I read M.K. Tod’s fabulous article on the 7 Elements of Historical Fiction(HF), I had no clue there were seven elements HF authors must consider. By luck or by chance (whew), I’m here to say I did incorporate them in my historical novel, set in 1776 at the outbreak of the American Revolution. In Carrying Independence my protagonist, Nathaniel, is tasked with carrying the sole copy of the Declaration of Independence to collect the final signatures, which will unite the colonies.
Character is king.
Well into my first draft, my protagonist Nathaniel seemed arrogant with no room to grow through that first year of the Revolution. And then a friend pointed out the obvious… Unlike Nathaniel, I knew how the revolution ended and how long it lasted. Plus, he’s a teenager. I am not. I rewrote Nathaniel as I was at 18—a bit confident but definitely naïve. A story means more if readers can root for someone more human and flawed like us.
Dialogue in Four Steps
We do include a sprinkling of terms from the era, but we need to write like people speak with one another, regardless of era. For that, I adopted four pieces of advice for dialogue. One, people interrupt people. Two, unless it’s a speech or monologue, people mostly speak in five- to ten-word sentences. Three, people don’t always finish thoughts or say what they’re thinking. Four, what is happening in the scene is sometimes a metaphor for what’s not being said. For example, when one of my characters fails to find words to describe the cruel treatment of Native Americans by the King, she’s is plucking and preparing a pheasant for dinner.
Setting is Linked to the Senses (or Lack Thereof)
I visited nearly every historical landmark and original colony I featured in the book while #ChasingHistories for this book. Standing in, smelling, touching, and hearing a place enables me to write it faithfully. If the historical setting doesn’t exist now—like the open fields for the Battle of Brooklyn—I use comparative places, and envision it as a movie scene/set. Sometimes setting is also described by what’s not there. Here is Nathaniel riding into Philadelphia’s market square, into a town changed by the war:
Nathaniel turned onto Market Street, two blocks north of the State House. Seventy- five vendors usually shouted gaily from beneath covered stalls, hawking goods ranging from muskets to pewter bowls. Today, however, the blacksmiths and gunsmiths were absent. A few dozen merchants and farmers haggled desperately with hesitant customers over unripe apples and day-old bread. A few of the sellers who usually added the smell of their imported spices and teas were not in their stalls. Nathaniel could only smell the briny air of the fishmongers.
Theme is Truth
I talked about theme SO MUCH with my editors (yes, plural). I was insistent I was not writing about war, or getting signatures on a document (that’s my MacGuffin). Theme always comes down to our humanity. It really does transcend history, and in the Revolutionary-era they were wrestling with ideals and truths we still hold to be self-evident. Freedom, independence, and choosing to contribute to secure it. I open the book with those themes. I end with them.
Plot Can Cast Doubt
In historical fiction, you either loosely or tightly link the plot to the events. I am definitely in the latter camp so much that I call my writing “factually-based fiction.” The events of 1776—from battles to the weather, and even the moon cycles—are exactly as they were back then, and I insert characters. But author beware. If you write so closely to the history as it happened, the reader might already know the ending. My goal was to emulate Ron Howard’s achievements with Apollo 13. We all know the astronauts came home, but when we were in the theater we doubted whether or not that was true. My plot had to make people believe that Nathaniel failed in getting that last signature on the document.
Conflict is Also Internal
There must be conflict between characters, but there has to be conflict within the character that is true to the period, too. Remember how I mentioned my troubles in writing Nathaniel authentically? Before I rewrote him, I had him overly confident about staying out of the war. Because he doesn’t know how long it lasts or how it ends, I can have him wonder… Should he engage in the war if it might be over in a few months? Will it even reach his home in Pennsylvania if he stays out? His naivety was crucial to his own conflict, but that is tied to the facts of the period and events of 1776. I highlight these choices in the book trailer.
World Building is in the Details
Stuff. That’s what I think of with world building. Stuff, but in period context. What did they sit on? Eat? Drink? Also, for the Revolutionary era, how long did it take to get somewhere by horse (I use the google maps “bike” feature to sort out approximate horse hours). Mail was slow and often lost. I have Nathaniel change clothes (costumes) multiple times in order to blend in, so what is a Redcoat versus a great coat? Is Madeira too expensive for Nathaniel? No, but Port probably was. My travels and research helped me sort out world building details. Colonial Williamsburg is down the road from me, and reenactors also helped me flesh out details I might otherwise have missed.
My Final Advice
I do have tips on gathering specific period details about people within a webinar I gave: How to Research Women Like an Historical Novelist. It was made for the genealogy and lineage-society crowd, but there’s something there for authors and readers, too. Lastly, don’t forget what a wise editor once told me. Research for a period must be like an iceberg in the final book. Only ten or twenty percent of it shows, and only if it enhances the story. Huzzah!
Many thanks, Karen. I love the way you’ve interpreted the seven elements! And I will be sure to adopt your four tips on dialogue. You can find Karen’s books on her website at KarenAChase.com, and connect via social media @KarenAChase.
Carrying Independence by Karen A. Chase ~~
In 1776, with pressure mounting to join the American Revolution, an intrepid young Post rider, Nathaniel Marten, accepts the task of carrying the sole copy of the Declaration of Independence to seven congressmen unable to attend the formal signing across the colonies, already weakened by war. Through encounters with well-known original founding fathers and mothers, and by witnessing the effects of the Revolution on ordinary Americans, Nathaniel must learn that independence—for himself, for those he loves, and for the country—is not granted, it’s chosen.
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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.