The Plot Thickens

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
  • Comedy
  • Tragedy
  • Rebirth

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.

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, 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 AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Essex – Tudor Rebel by Tony Riches

Since his first novel, Owen – Book One of the Tudor Trilogy, Tony Riches has written many stories related to the Tudor dynasty. Of that novel, Tony said: “The idea for the Tudor Trilogy occurred to me when I realised Henry Tudor could be born in book one, ‘come of age’ in book two, and rule England in book three, so there would be plenty of scope to explore his life and times.”

Tony didn’t stop with one trilogy. He went on to write other novels featuring members of the Tudor family as well as novels featuring other historical times. His latest trilogy returns to the Tudor era – more specifically the reign of Elizabeth I and famous figures like Francis Drake, Walter Raleigh, and Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. I’ve just finished reading Essex – Tudor Rebel and can tell you that it’s one of those wonderful novels that transports you in time and place.

And what a time it was! Wars, spies, palace intrigue, lovers, family feuds, conspiracies, and a monarch who capriciously alternates between approval and disapproval – the drama increases as Robert Devereux’s life unfolds. I highly recommend the story.

I asked Tony a few questions, beginning with why he’s fascinated with the Tudors.

Tony: I was born in Pembroke, South West Wales, a town dominated by the castle where Henry Tudor, who became King Henry VII, was born in 1457.

I began researching his life and realised I’d gathered enough material for three books, which would cover his birth, coming of age, and becoming King of England. I’m pleased to say the resulting Tudor trilogy has become an international best seller.

Henry’s youngest daughter, Mary Tudor, cared for him in his last months, and I became intrigued by the story of how her brother (Henry VIII) married her off to the aging King of France. I decided to write Mary’s story as a ‘sequel’, continuing the story of the Tudors, and this became the Brandon trilogy, after she married the king’s best friend, champion jouster Charles Brandon. The third book in the trilogy is about Charles Brandon’s fascinating last wife, Katherine Willoughby, which took me right up to the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

Why these three men (Drake, Essex and Raleigh)?
 
I decided it would be fun to tell the story of the last Tudor through the eyes of her favourites. As a sailor myself, I’ve always been interested in Drake’s adventures, and I really enjoyed sailing around the world with him on the Golden Hind. (I was able to visit the impressive replica on the Thames in London, which gave me a real sense of what it must have been like.)
Replica of the Golden Hind

Drake worked his way up, against the odds, and had no time for arrogant nobles, so was appalled when Robert Devereux, the dashing young Earl of Essex, commandeers a warship from his fleet to sail in the ‘English Armada’ and attack Lisbon.

Francis Drake knew Queen Elizabeth had forbidden Essex to join the expedition – and he had no experience of naval command or fighting at sea. With typical bravado, Essex leapt from his ship into deep water, causing many of his followers to drown in their attempt to do the same. He then led the forty-mile march to Lisbon, without waiting for supplies, and many soldiers died from hunger, heat exhaustion and thirst. The whole enterprise proved a costly disaster, and set the tone for Robert’s later adventures.

I was intrigued to understand how the queen’s favourite got away with such behaviour, then turned against the queen with his ill-fated ‘rebellion’.  

Walter Raleigh was Robert Devereux’s rival for the attention of the queen, and was the obvious candidate for the third book, which I’m currently researching. I visited Raleigh’s cell at the Tower of London (where he was imprisoned three times!) and am looking for a new angle on his life. (Outside his cell is a herb garden, which was originally planted by Raleigh.)

What did you learn about Elizabeth I from your research?

Although her father tried to control the use of his image, Queen Elizabeth was ahead of her time with her strictly controlled branding as ‘Gloriana’. I found a troubled woman beneath  the thin veneer, who could be manipulative and vengeful. A skilled politician and diplomat, she managed her parliament and even the most ambitious men of her court. I’ve developed my research on Elizabeth into a series of three podcasts, which can be found here:

  • Queen Elizabeth Part I – the first of a series of three looking at the life of Queen Elizabeth the first, and is an introduction to the key events of Elizabeth’s life and challenging childhood
  • Queen Elizabeth Part II – the second podcast explores the myths and rumours surrounding the life of Queen Elizabeth I
  • Queen Elizabeth Part III – further explorations of Elizabeth I’s life

Many thanks, Tony. Wishing you all the best for Essex – Tudor Rebel. Other conversations with Tony Riches include:

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 for pre-order on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, 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 AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

The Life of a Blog

Today, I’m looking back at the journey I’ve taken with A Writer of History. And no … this is not the end of A Writer of History. Just an opportunity to contemplate how it has evolved.

It all began early in 2012, when I decided to “push the reset button” and create a new blog to focus on the writing of historical fiction. I’d kept an earlier blog (now defunct) called One Writer’s Voice where I wrote about the business of writing and the notion of being an author entrepreneur. Ultimately, though, I decided to shift gears and create A Writer of History. You can find that first blog post about new beginnings here.

The last seven (!!) years have been a wonderful experience. One that has connected me with many authors, bloggers, and readers, and I’m grateful to all of you who have come along with me on the journey, to those who have contributed thoughts and content, and to those who visit from time to time. I’ve written 817 posts (818 if you include this one). And visitors have grown from 964 in 2012 to over 56,000 in 2018. Never would have imagined that!

At the beginning, I decided to survey those who read fiction with an emphasis on historical fiction. I thought a survey might be useful and I could share the results on A Writer of History. One of the results from that survey was a list of Top Historical Fiction Authors and from there I went on to interview some of those authors including Elizabeth Chadwick, C.W. Gortner, Hilary Mantel, Jacqueline Winspear, Margaret George, Helen Hollick and many others. I also interviewed bloggers who focused on historical fiction included Amy Bruno, Richard Lee,

Because I was writing novels set during WWI, I included many posts exploring my findings – from fashion, to military strategy, to WWI trench standing orders.

At some point, I began to receive book review requests – the first one being The Twelve Rooms of the Nile by Enid Shomer. I was astonished to be asked for a review … imagine, someone ‘out there’ had noticed my little blog. I have to confess that I don’t do many of those anymore given that reading and then reviewing is such a time commitment. Instead, I invite authors to guest post or be interviewed, which also offers a chance to feature something about their latest novel as well as a book cover.

Over the years, various topics have attracted my interest: the role of social media and reading, the life of an author, the excitement of historical research, the daunting challenge of marketing, my self-publishing journey, and the joy of being published. I’ve also included snippets from my own writing and sources of inspiration including my grandparents’ photos and mementos.

I belong to three book clubs and have often posted about our book selections and the lively discussions we have. And for several years now, I’ve posted ‘A Year of Reading’ list with brief thoughts on each novel read that year.

More surveys followed in 2013, 2015, 2017 and 2018. Each survey was an opportunity to discover more about the world of reading and to explore what the findings mean for authors. Although time consuming, the surveys have prompted much interest and I’ve used some of the insights in my own writing and marketing as have others.

My first novel Unravelled was self-published in 2013 followed by Lies Told in Silence in 2014, and then Time and Regret was published by Lake Union in 2016 – I posted about them here and you celebrated with me.

A few years ago, I decided to focus on a themeInside Historical Fiction – to look under the covers of historical fiction and illuminate those attributes that make it different from contemporary fiction. Many writers and readers contributed their thoughts. Another theme was Successful Historical Fiction. Last year’s theme was Transported in Time and Place which began with Dazzled by a Green Door. I’ve written about the purpose of historical fiction and compiled a list from the 2015 survey of favourite historical fiction novels. Another popular series were the WWI letters home from my husband’s great-uncle who served in France and Africa. I tagged these Somewhere in France and Somewhere in Africa.

On the blog you can also find writing tips from well-known authors like Emma Darwin and personal postsWill the Real M.K. Tod Please Stand Up; Grateful for Every Day (a post following the plane crash my husband and I survived), and one on my own #metoo experiences called A Lifelong Feminist.

Much to my delight, in 2016 Writers Digest selected A Writer of History for its list of 101 Best Websites for Writers – and they repeated the honour in 2018. I’m grateful for the acknowledgement of what we’ve built together.

So my friends, it’s been a rewarding journey. You’ve helped me along the way by cheering me on, adding your voice, and contributing your posts. I’ve enjoyed every minute of it and look forward to much more.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.