The Stakes are High When the Stakes are Small

High-Stakes-Small-StakesBrendan Hodge is guest posting today. Brendan first became fascinated with World War One in high school, when he read the poems of Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves. His novel about WWI has been brewing for a long time and Volume 1: Things Fall Apart is available in draft form to read and critique on his website. You’re a brave man, Brendan!

The Stakes are High When the Stakes are Small by Brendan Hodge

Written in the 1860’s about the Napoleonic Wars sixty years before, War & Peace is one of the grand-daddies of historical fiction. In a novel whose size rivals the country it describes, Tolstoy takes the reader from St. Petersburg and Moscow to Austria and Poland. However, although we get to listen in on the councils of Tsar Alexander, Napoleon, and General Kutuzov and view such epic scenes as the Battle of Austerlitz and the burning of Moscow, it’s not actually these giant historical set pieces which keep us turning the novel’s 1200+ pages.

We read the novel to find out what happens to the characters. Will impulsive young Natalie at last find love and happiness? Will idealistic Pierre manage to act on his good intentions rather than being at the mercy of his impulses and his unscrupulous wife’s family? Will Princess Maria escape the domination of her manipulative father?

Even though the novel delivers on the epic proportions of its title, the most suspenseful and involving moments are small scale. I read far more urgently to discover whether Natalie would run off with the unscrupulous Dolohov, whether Nikolai would ruin himself at the gambling table, or whether Pierre would be executed by the French on suspicion of arson than I did to see the conclusion of any of the major battles portrayed.

This is just as true of popular modern examples of the Historical genre. When Bernard Cornwell brought his initial series of Richard Sharpe novels to a conclusion with Sharpe’s Waterloo, putting his up-from-the-ranks rifleman hero into one of the biggest and most pivotal battles that Europe had seen to date, the key drama does not come from the clash between Wellington’s and Napoleon’s armies on the battlefield, but rather from conflicts closer to the main character: Sharpe’s struggle against the incompetence of his commander, the Prince of Orange, and the deadly rivalry between Sharpe and Lord Rossendale, with whom Sharpe’s wife has run off.

In these examples we see one of the contradictory dynamics of historical fiction: For many readers, seeing historical periods and events come alive is a key attraction. And yet, even the most dramatic historical event is not, in and of itself, sufficient to create a gripping novel. Why?

In any story, whether it’s a five minute acting scene or a thousand page novel, drama is created by stakes and conflict. What does the character want? What is keeping him from getting what he wants? What will happen if he doesn’t overcome those obstacles? The bigger the obstacles and the higher the stakes, the more gripping the drama.

Historical events seem like they should be high drama. After all, the historical novelist can write about some of the most dramatic moments in the history of the world: the Battle of Britain, the fall of the Aztec Empire, the Black Death.

Yet although historical events are big and in a sense high stakes, there are two reasons why they do not provide enough drama to carry a novel on their own: The reader already knows how historical events turn out, thus reducing suspense, and many historical events are so big that they provide a context for character conflict rather than providing the conflict itself.

Take the Battle of Britain, Hitler’s 1940 attempt to conquer Britain through air power.  Churchill said that, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few” so you would think it would a perfectly gripping novel. You glance at a back cover:

August 1940: Karl is a Spitfire pilot. He is just twenty years old, and het when the sirens sound over London each night his duty is to rush for his fighter and lift into darkened skies to combat the Luftwaffe pilots seeing to bomb Britain into submission.

This is a setting, but it’s not really a story. Even if the author has done lots of research into the dynamics of night fighting and prop fighter planes, there’s nothing here to tell us why we should keep turning that pages. Where is the conflict? Is it the conflict between the Nazi and British air forces? We already know that the British won. And although Karl is taking part in that struggle, whether he shoots down a dozen Messerschmitts or goes down himself in flames, Karl is not likely to be the decisive figure in whether the Battle of Britain is won or lost. The battle itself is too big a conflict to provide the story. Maybe this would be a good novel, maybe not, but we have no way of knowing from the above description because it doesn’t describe any actual story conflict to us.

Now how about this one:

August 1940: Twenty year old Karl is one of the few, the young men who jump into Spitfires and Hurricanes when the air raid sirens wail, roaring into the sky to fight the Luftwaffe.  But under his RAF blues lurks a secret, and when a stranger with a shabby grey suit and a suspicious accent is seen asking for him around the base, he’s afraid it is about to be revealed.

His RAF papers list him as Karl Howard, but he was born Karl Habicht in East Prussia.  Karl last saw his uncle Walter in 1934 when Walter vanished into SS custody, accused of ties to Stalin’s Russia.  Now this stranger claiming to be from occupied Poland brings him a message: Walter Habicht is working for a communist faction hunted by both the Nazi’s and by Stalin’s NKVD.  Uncle Walter needs a place to hide, and he has smuggled information about a German radio technology which may explain how German bombers are able to reach their targets in the dark with such deadly accuracy.

By taking in Uncle Walter, Karl could help win the war, or he could expose himself as an enemy alien and a communist sympathizer in a country gripped by fear.

This isn’t just a setting, it’s a story. Karl is no longer just a single person swept up in a historical conflict much larger than he. Now he has personal stakes: A hidden identity, an unwelcome stranger, a lost uncle, espionage. He can help his cause, but he risks revealing a past which will make him a hated stranger. These are all much smaller conflicts that the Battle of Britain as a whole, but they have stakes which directly touch on Karl and which he himself can resolve through his choices. If the other pitch was really just a setting, this one is a story. We don’t know how this small scale conflict will end, and it’s one which touches directly on the things that Karl cares most about.

All compelling historical novels work at these two levels, having both a setting which provides for exciting history, and also a smaller scale conflict which creates stakes for the individual character[s] in the novel. A well done historical novel picks individual conflicts for the characters which serve to further explicate the greater historical events playing out on the world stage, allowing the reader to see those themes play out in small within the character arc of the story.

Oh, and Karl?  Feel free to figure out his story and write it. I’m a World War One guy myself.

Many thanks for being on the blog today, Brendan, and for sharing your insights on historical fiction.

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 and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.

Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.

Open Request Revisited – Part 2

History+FictionFurther to last week’s post on the ‘magic ingredients” of historical fiction, let’s hear from a few more write-in comments. Several of these are from readers who put their thoughts in an email.

Olga Walker: “I think they [the best historical fiction authors] weave the ‘facts of the time’ in with the story so that it is a wonderfully merged creation and you are not aware of when this is happening.”

Nicole Evelina: “You have to make the reader feel like the slang is on the tip of their tongue, too, the stench of the streets is something they can actually smell, and the political or cultural views are their own. You have to take them back in time in as many ways as possible.”

Sorayabxl: “reading a historical novel adds the extra satisfaction of quenching your thirst of knowledge and curiosity for a certain time period. When I pick a historical novel, I want to enjoy myself and live another life but I also want to find out at the same time “How was it really like to live back then?”

Ellie Stevenson: “Evoke a sense of place and time that’s so authentic you can almost touch it and smell it.”

Tam May: I try to use a variety of resources, including resources published at the time (like newspapers, conduct books, pictures, etc.) and those that are analyzing what happened in the past. I think having both sources that were “in the moment” as well as those that have a perspective on the past give a good variety of sources.

Brendan Hodge: I like to read novels set in other times and places (whether conscious “historicals” or novels actually written near the time and place they portray) because they allow you to see how the universal aspects of the human experience play out in a very different setting.

Historical fiction is certainly a powerful genre.

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 and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.

Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.

Open Request Revisited

History+FictionDecember’s post asking readers of the blog to respond to questions I’ve labelled ‘inside historical fiction’ elicited a range of comments and insights. Today I’ve gathered together a number that struck a chord for me.

Maggie Scott: “Any unforgettable or irresistible historical novel absolutely must have characters true to their era, in a setting unique to that era, and with a plot that is believable for the era.”

Prue Batten: “The special ingredient for me is to read a novel which ISN’T about an historical figure of renown. It is the crafted ‘man in the street’ who can give me a honest and very private view into life in whatever times the book might be about.”

Sophie Schiller: “The magic ingredient is using the art of storytelling to give the reader a front-row seat at some interesting historical event.”

Jessi Peterson: “Language is so key: period accurate usage and vocabulary and also period accuracy in what is left unsaid. Things that we voice as a matter of course in our time would be left unsaid in other time periods, so knowing how to balance your storytelling between what must be said and what should be implied or drawn in another way is a key skill.”

Elizabeth Chadwick: on the topic of what aspects about the past she specifically tries to highlight in her novels – “Mindsets. As a reader I find that’s the item that many authors struggle to get right and it’s an aspect that takes one heck of a lot of background reading to get right. I look at what’s behind general details and facts for the ‘advanced settings’ (I suppose you’d call them on a computer) – and that’s when one starts hitting the real paydirt and finding stories beneath the stories.”

Simon J. Kyte: “If a novel has a geographical setting, it needs to read as though the author knows it from childhood.”

Brendan Hodge: “an author who really gets into another time and place as another world and shows how real people just like us had very different impressions and faced very different decisions based on the times and places where they lived.”

I’ll share a few more next week.

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 and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.

Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.