Torment & Conflict – the spurs that drive characters into action

Patricia Bracewell is the author of The Emma of Normandy Trilogy and March 2nd marks the release of the last novel of this trilogy: The Steele Beneath the Silk. It’s a story “brimming with treachery, heartache, tenderness and passion as England’s queen confronts ambitious and traitorous councilors, invading armies and the Danish king’s power-hungry concubine.” With that as context, we can be assured that Patricia knows a thing or two about conflict – her topic for today.

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Drama, conflict and change—things that cause such agonizing disruptions in our own lives—are what make the imaginary world of a novel utterly compelling. Conflict, in particular, is the engine that drives a story, no matter the genre. But unlike writers in other genres, historical novelists must reach into the past, must root the conflicts portrayed in their novels within the history and culture of their chosen historical periods. Conflict then becomes a tool to not only move the story forward, but to immerse readers in that other time and place.

There are three types of conflict that should be in every novelist’s toolbox: Man vs Man, Man vs Nature, and Man vs Himself. And because a writer cannot rely on just one type of conflict to carry a story all the way through to the end, all three should appear within the pages of any novel. The historical novelist, though, mines the past to find them.

In my trilogy set in 11th century England, I found plenty of Man vs. Man conflict in the decade-long Danish effort to conquer England. Big men with swords emerging from dragon ships appear in the early pages of my first book, Shadow on the Crown, and the viking invasion of England is the overarching background of all three novels. 

But although I was writing about war, my main interest was not in men and battles, but in the women who lived through that conflict yet made only rare appearances in historical documents of the time. So I kept battle scenes and skirmishes to a minimum, and often described them through the words of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle—the contemporary account of events in 11th century England. In The Steel Beneath the Silk I quoted a Chronicle entry that described a viking attack on Canterbury and was probably written by a monk in that city within living memory of the incident:

They beset Canterbury, and seized Archbishop Ælfheah…and they overwhelmed him with bones and horns of oxen; and one of them smote him with an axe-iron on the head, and his holy blood fell on the earth. 

It seemed to me that this account by someone who quite possibly knew the murdered archbishop would be just as moving as anything that I could invent. 

War, though, is only one kind of Man vs Man conflict. Ambition, resentment, suspicion, and rivalry can lead to conflict that is far more subtle and is conveyed through dialogue and internal monologue. For example, knowing that the two central historical figures of my story, Emma of Normandy and Elgiva of Northampton, would be pitted against each other in a struggle for power in England many years after the time period of my trilogy, I imagined how that later conflict might have begun decades earlier, and I brought it into the pages of my novels. Here Emma and Elgiva face off in The Steel Beneath the Silk:

For a long moment Elgiva continued to regard her old enemy in brooding silence. Emma was far too arrogant, she decided. She still thought herself a queen, and that was Cnut’s fault. He had foolishly made her imprisonment much too pleasant, and it was long past time to do something about it. 

She said, “I wish to talk to you about your sons, Emma. I have seen Edward.” And she watched with satisfaction as Emma put aside her needle, dropped her hands into her lap and turned to face her.

“You saw him—where?” Emma asked icily, her green eyes appraising Elgiva as if trying to determine the truth of her claim.

No swords in that scene. Only a needle, resentment, suspicion, sharp words and frosty glances. Conflicts within the family, within the court, and within the realm and the wider world are the base metals that a historical novelist can, like an alchemist, transform into gold.

As for Man vs. Nature—sickness, foul weather, the very real hazards of getting somewhere on a ship, a horse, a cart or on foot—especially if time is a factor—all of these add drama and tension to any story. The characters in my novels suffer miscarriages, pestilence, terrible weather, filthy roads and dangerous sea voyages, all pulled from my research. A good example: in The Steel Beneath the Silk a tidal wave wreaks havoc on the English coast: 

Merchants arrived with stories of harbors that had been devastated by a great wave; of ships that had been swept inland and left, battered and broken, far from the sea; of countless bodies of men, women and children lying like bundles of rags on the beaches or floating off shore. Even the larger towns on the English coast had been savaged by the sea, while numerous small villages had been entirely swept away…and no one left behind to even tally the dead…All had been destroyed by a tide that many believed had been directed by the hand of a wrathful God. 

I didn’t make that up. The tidal wave that hit Britain in 1015 was attested to by chroniclers in Wales, England and the Low Countries. My description, though, was based on images of the tsunami that devastated Thailand in 2004—history repeating itself.

As for Man vs Himself, that conflict is usually portrayed through internal monologue as the author slowly reveals a character’s personality. But because the king who appears in my novels had been described by a 12th century historian as “haunted by the shade of his brother” I decided to use that ghost as the embodiment of the king’s guilt, fear, and indecision:

…looking warily into the middle distance before him, he could see the air rippling like water as his brother approached, every wound on his body gaping like a bloody mouth.

Forced to stare into his brother’s burning eyes he silently cursed the horror that held him in thrall. The martyred Edward, he knew now, would never settle for a golden shrine, nor even for a king’s son consecrated to his service. An eye for an eye, the Bible said. A crown for a crown. His brother and his God demanded restitution, and nothing less. There would be no forgiveness, no peace, until he relinquished the crown that should never have been his.

And that he would never do.

Fear, guilt, indecision, frustration, forbidden passion—these all lead to inner turmoil with which to torment our characters. And torment is the operative word here. The last thing a writer wants to do is to make things easy for the characters in a novel. Torment and conflict are the spurs that drive characters into action. However much we love them, we have to make them suffer until almost the very last page.

The Steele Beneath the Silk by Patricia Bracewell ~~ In the year 1012 England’s Norman-born Queen Emma has been ten years wed to an aging, ruthless, haunted King Æthelred. The marriage is a bitterly unhappy one, between a queen who seeks to create her own sphere of influence within the court and a suspicious king who eyes her efforts with hostility and resentment. But royal discord shifts to grudging alliance when Cnut of Denmark, with the secret collusion of his English concubine Elgiva, invades England at the head of a massive viking army. Amid the chaos of war, Emma must outwit a fierce enemy whose goal is conquest and outmaneuver the cunning Elgiva, who threatens all those whom Emma loves.

Many thanks, Patricia. I’m sure readers will be captivated by The Steele Beneath the Silk.

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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 AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Tips on Writing a Series #HNS2019

At #HNS2019 I attended In For the Long Haul: The Craft of Writing a Series. This panel was moderated by Donna Russo Morin (great job, Donna!) with Nancy Bilyeau, Patricia Bracewell, and Anne Easter Smith as contributors. The session was designed to “weigh the pros and cons of writing a series and look at the decisions necessary in the earliest planning stages and beyond.” So let’s see what these wonderful writers had to say.

At the beginning the moderator made two clarifications: (1) a trilogy involves three novels with a tight connect of time, theme, character and sometimes location; (2) a series often involves one main character and is often based on a series of mysteries. As the session began, Donna asked each author to give some general comments on their series.

Patricia Bracewell: has written a trilogy based on the life of Emma of Normandy, England’s twice-crowned queen, which sprang from her life-long fascination with all things medieval. In her novels Pat attempts to re-create Emma’s early medieval world for readers as well as introduce them to this little known queen who has slipped into the footnotes of history. She feels that the same theme(s) will often run through a series/trilogy. For example, family, loyalty, duty. Such themes connect readers to their current lives and circumstances. However, conflicts vary from book to book to make the entire series more interesting.

Anne Easter Smith: her series based on the York family during the War of the Roses deals with different characters and could be considered a family saga. Each book is complete on its own and yet together they give an in-depth look at one of the two families whose viable claim to the throne threw England into civil war. Themes of morality, love vs. lust, duty, family, and loyalty are explored. Anne gave each protagonist a different skill – such as a musical instrument or a love of reading – that allowed exploration of something unique to that time period to enhance the story.

Donna Russo Morin has written a series telling the story of a secret society of women artists, under the tutelage of Leonardo da Vinci, who must navigate the treacherous life of 15th century Florence while trying to bring their artistry to the world.

Nancy Bilyeau’s series begins with The Crown where an aristocratic young nun – Joanna Stafford – must find a legendary crown in order to save her father—and preserve the Catholic faith from Cromwell’s ruthless terror. Subsequent novels continue Joanna’s story.

The group moved on to the pros and cons of writing series:

  • you can leverage your research because each novel is immersed in the same time and place
  • you have to like your characters because you will be spending a lot of time with them!
  • maintaining consistency of fact is essential (the authors have different ways to do this)
  • you need to avoid getting into a rut in terms of scenes; for example, you can’t have every scene happen in the Great Hall of some grand family castle
  • readers who have enjoyed your first book will usually stick with you for subsequent books in the series
  • you need to find ways to cover the years that intervene between stories in the trilogy, while avoiding a major information dump at the beginning of each subsequent novel
  • in addition to consistency of fact, you must maintain consistency of character
  • at times you can write the same scene but from a different character’s POV

Then there was a discussion about having an overarching storyline or book-specific storylines:

  • leave open questions at the end of your 1st and 2nd books (if writing a trilogy). This will entice readers to return for subsequent novels.
  • each book has to have a major conflict and a major resolution, even if there is an over-arching storyline for the series
  • you have to know what the final resolution will be; Donna Russo Morin (DRM) said that she wrote the last three chapters before writing the rest of the book. Donna has written the Da Vinci Disciples series.
  • Nancy Bilyeau (NB) mentioned that if she had to do it all over again, she would make the books more self-contained so that each story stands on its own. Nancy novels are about a novice in the time of Henry VIII.

General advice:

  • create a genealogy chart and a dramatis personae list for your novels
  • get clear about the historical events that will appear in your series/trilogy
  • start young in the life of your character, which leaves lots of room for excitement
  • think carefully about whether your fictional character has children because those children will have to appear in the story (of course, you can’t change the facts about the children of real characters)
  • PB has a “rap sheet” for each of her 80 characters; she updates these rap sheets for subsequent books and plants the seeds of change in book 1 for subsequent books
  • a huge amount of planning is required to get it right
  • historical series are popular with publishers, although most publishers buy one book at a time

Words of wisdom if you are considering writing a series or trilogy.

The first post I wrote about #HNS2019 is The State of Historical Fiction through the eyes of agents and editors.

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.

Successful Historical Fiction with Nicole Evelina

Thanks for your indulgence while I enjoyed a brief hiatus from blogging in the lead up to our son’s wedding. I’m delighted to tell you that all went well!

Today, I have Nicole Evelina on the blog discussing the topic of successful historical fiction. Nicole writes stories of strong women from history and today. She also appeared on A Writer of History in 2016. Many thanks for sharing your thoughts, Nicole.

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What’s your definition of successful historical fiction?

Successful historical fiction transports you to another time and place without you realizing it. It is great fiction in general, according to the rules of writing you’d apply to any genre. And the very best helps you learn something about human nature, the time period, a famous historical personage, and/or yourself.

What attributes are most important to you when designating a novel ‘successful historical fiction’.

Historical accuracy and a good story.

Which authors do you think create the most successful historical fiction?

Patricia Bracewell, Geraldine Brooks, Anne Fortier, MJ Rose, and Susanna Kearsley.

What makes these particular authors stand out?

They all paint rich pictures and tell stories that stay with you long after you are done reading.

In your opinion, what aspects prevent a novel from being designated successful historical fiction?

Anything that takes you out of the time and place, feels forced or anachronistic. Even when words are historically correct, if they feel too modern, it can be jarring. For example, I read a book that takes place in the 1920s that used the term “mixologist” for a bartender. I looked it up and it is technically correct for the period, but that word has become so synonymous with recent years that it tripped me up. Lack of research/lazy research goes along with this. Also, forcing modern viewpoints on historical characters.

Are famous people essential to successful historical fiction?

Not at all. I think the unknowns are even more fun because then you learn something about a  real person at the same time you are entertained. Fictional characters are often a good way to see a different POV of an event/time period.

Does successful historical fiction have to say something relevant to today’s conditions?

Yes. I think every book has to say something relevant to readers. If it doesn’t, we can’t relate to the book, characters, etc. and are not inclined to continue reading. Luckily, the basics of the human condition don’t really change. So even though slavery is illegal in most places now, we can still read stories of the US pre-Civil War south or the Roman Empire and emphasize with struggle of the slave because it’s part of human nature to not want to be in forced servitude. In the same way, we can read about times when women didn’t have any rights because it shows us how far we have come and how far we still have to go.

What role does research play in successful historical fiction?

Aside from the basic skills of any storyteller, research is everything. It’s what makes historical fiction what it is; it’s what enables writers to convincingly time travel to a period they can never actually visit; it’s what makes a book feel authentic, and these things are key to a good reading experience.

In your opinion, how are these elements critical to successful historical fiction? Characters. Setting. Plot. Conflict. Dialogue. World building. Themes.

Characters, world building and setting must be authentic to the period for a reader to take them seriously, hence the role of research. Plot must be well-written and realistic and conflict must make us want to keep reading – just as in any other kind of book. Dialogue must sound like it is right for the period – no modern language, yet also not so historically accurate that a modern reader can’t understand it. Themes are what make the books relevant to modern readers.

Do you judge historical fiction differently from contemporary fiction?

Yes. I hold it to a higher standard because of all the work that goes into creating it. Having written both, I can confidently say there is so much you don’t have to think about when writing contemporary fiction because it is second nature to you and to your readers. Those very same things are part of what makes successful historical fiction shine – the very fact that you don’t notice how different they are from today because the author has done their research and convinced you they are part of the everyday life of the characters you are reading.

Many thanks for adding to the discussion, Nicole.

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.