Using the Historical Nugget & Making It Shine

I’m delighted to have Karen Odden talk about using nuggets from the historical record to enhance a novel’s impact. Karen in the author of five mysteries set in Victorian times with the latest being Under A Veiled Moon.

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In July, I attended my first in-person Historical Novel Society conference, where I served on the panel “Historical Fiction Revolving Around Real-Life Crimes” with Nancy Bilyeau, Mariah Fredericks, and Weina Dai Randel (right to left; I’m second from left in the photo). As good panels often do, it caused me to reflect further about how I use that valuable nugget of history – whether a true crime or not – once I find it. How do I know a historical nugget has the heft to be the core of a book? Or – more precisely – how do I frame a true historical event to give it that heft within my novel? 

Many authors of historical fiction love to research. We find fun factoids that zing in our brain, inspire us, and raise intriguing questions, and we are excited to share them. But we also know the perils of the info-dump – that passage of unprocessed historical data that drops in with a clunk and jars the reader out of the story. As someone who once had an editor tell me I had to cut the seven chapters of historical backstory before the inciting incident (a train wreck) that kicked off the plot, I know it’s easy to dwell in our rabbit hole and want to pull others in with us.

So how best to use the nuggets? I would say they shine brightest when we use them to immerse the reader, heighten stakes and symbolism, and gesture toward larger themes

Step 1: Finding the surprising nugget. 

My first step in using historical facts is to pay attention when something pulls me up short during research, makes me do that double-take — “Wait, what?” I think surprise is especially valuable as a gauge for what’s worth pursuing. The energy that surrounds genuine surprise can inspire me for two or three chapters, which is enough to get the ball rolling.

An example: As I was researching for Down a Dark River, I was reading about the minutiae of maritime law, and I came across a sentence something like this — “In the wake of the worst maritime disaster London ever saw, the loosely upheld traditions and conventions governing traffic were codified into law in the 1880s…”

That tragedy, tucked into a prepositional phrase, stopped me dead. Wait, what disaster? I googled and found the story about the Princess Alice, a small wooden pleasure steamer on the Thames in the 1870s. On September 3, 1878, it was rammed by a 900-ton iron-hulled coal carrier, the Bywell Castle. For comparison, this is somewhat akin to a railway engine slamming into a baby carriage. The Princess Alice broke into three pieces and sank almost immediately, hurling 650 passengers in the water. Most drowned — and in a cruel twist, because it was a pleasure steamer, akin to our hop-on-hop-off buses, no one knew who was on the boat. London devolved into panic as desperate families and friends searched for survivors and then the bodies, which were scattered over miles of riverbank.

Source: Getty Images

This was certainly a horrible but lesser known and highly valuable nugget of history, and in describing it, I slowed down the pace of the narrative to fully immerse the reader. 

But how could I give this episode big stakes? How could I best use it as an element in my book, beyond its sensation value?

Step 2: Find the extended meanings.

I brainstormed a few aspects of the world of 1878 London that might give this event particular cultural meanings.

For Under a Veiled Moon, I came up with these:
(1) the collision between a huge metal boat and a small wooden ship suggested the clash between different modes of production — namely, between mechanization and agriculture and between industrialization and cottage industries that had existed earlier in the nineteenth century.
(2) there were Irish crew members and Irish men and women on both boats; I thought I might tie this into the vicious anti-Irish discrimination that I’d been reading about in the newspapers and the socio-economic and political spheres.
(3) there was still suspicion of Scotland Yard after a corruption and bribery scandal and public trial put four Yard inspectors in jail the year before, in 1877. Should they be trusted to find the truth about this accident? Should Corravan (being Irish himself!) be trusted with this?
(4) the lack of passenger manifest, and no way knowing who was on the boat, suggests the depersonalization and anonymity felt by many individuals in the lower and middle classes in the enormous city of London; and the vanishing of the individual in large impersonal bureaucracies and cities (typical of modernity).

One way to add depth to a novel is to find ways the historical nugget can add symbolic resonance and establish larger stakes by gesturing to important aspects in the world of the novel.

Step 3: Ask the “what if” question. 

True history tells us that the Princess Alice/Bywell Castle collision was the fault of both ships: the Princess Alice was in the wrong place, the Bywell Castle was going too fast. But what if it wasn’t an accident? What if it was sabotage? Who would do such a thing and why? That’s the question that helps me discover my characters – the villains, the victims, the innocent bystanders, the protagonist, and the forces allied against him.

Don’t be afraid to bring in a second historical aspect to be the warp to your weft. For Under a Veiled Moon, I brought in the Victorian (social) media – the  hundreds of London newspapers that printed rumors and misrepresentations in the aftermath of the disaster. I departed from the truth in saying that London papers were all accusing the Irish Republican Brotherhood of sabotage. And I use my Author’s Note (Acknowledgments) as my get-out-of-jail-free card, explaining where been historically accurate and where I’ve taken liberties.

How do you use your historical nuggets? What are some that you’ve used? Or decided not to use?

Many thanks, Karen. So many subtleties that go into writing historical fiction. You’ve explained this beautifully.

USA Today bestselling author Karen Odden received her PhD in English from NYU, writing her dissertation on Victorian literature, and taught at UW-Milwaukee before writing fiction. She sets all her mysteries in 1870s London.

Under A Veiled Moon by Karen Odden ~~ September 1878. One night, as the pleasure boat the Princess Alice makes her daily trip up the Thames, she collides with the Bywell Castle, a huge iron-hulled collier. The Princess Alice shears apart, throwing all 600 passengers into the river; only 130 survive. It is the worst maritime disaster London has ever seen, and early clues point to sabotage by the Irish Republican Brotherhood, who believe violence is the path to restoring Irish Home Rule. 

For Scotland Yard Inspector Michael Corravan, born in Ireland and adopted by the Irish Doyle family, the case presents a challenge. Accused by the Home Office of willfully disregarding the obvious conclusion, and berated by his Irish friends for bowing to prejudice, Corravan doggedly pursues the truth, knowing that if the Princess Alice disaster is pinned on the IRB, hopes for Home Rule could be dashed forever.

Corrovan’s dilemma is compounded by Colin, the youngest Doyle, who has joined James McCabe’s Irish gang. As violence in Whitechapel rises, Corravan strikes a deal with McCabe to get Colin out of harm’s way. But unbeknownst to Corravan, Colin bears longstanding resentments against his adopted brother and scorns his help.

As the newspapers link the IRB to further accidents, London threatens to devolve into terror and chaos. With the help of his young colleague, the loyal Mr. Stiles, and his friend Belinda Gale, Corravan uncovers the harrowing truth—one that will shake his faith in his countrymen, the law, and himself.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY 

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel is THE ADMIRAL’S WIFE, a dual timeline set in Hong Kong. Mary’s other novels, PARIS IN RUINS, TIME AND REGRET, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

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6 Responses

    1. Thanks, Dorothy!! I’m glad you enjoyed it – and appreciated the true history element. 🙂

  1. First off, Karen, I absolutely LOVE your books. I have not yet published myself, but hope to be one day. It did my aspiring author heart such good to read your ‘What if…’ section. I very much did a ‘what if’ in the manuscript that my agent currently has out on submission to a few publishers. And I love the Monopoly game reference to the Author’s Notes being the ‘Get-Out-of-Jail-Free’ card. Reading what you’ve done with this nugget of history reminded me how much writing is like PLAY! Thank you.

    1. Thank you so much!! Yes, I sometimes have to remind myself that writing, for me, is like golf. As soon as I start trying hard and forgetting it’s a game, my swing falls apart. Keep the PLAY in!! And thank you for reading and loving my books. 🙂

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