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.

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 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.

World Building – another of the 7 elements

Having looked at setting and character, I thought it would be useful to consider world building as it relates to historical fiction.

If you’ve read or watched Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, or Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, you’ll have an inherent understanding of world building.

I would argue that within historical fiction, we’re always building worlds for our readers in order to take them into another time and place – not a fantasy world, but a real world that existed at some earlier point in time.

Let’s begin with a rough definition. I’ve borrowed these questions and examples from self publishing.com – they’re straightforward and will give us a guide for subsequent posts.

What does the world look like? Include things like landscape, weather, terrain, city structures (if there are cities), density, borders, natural resources, rivers, mountains and the like.

Who are the inhabitants? Population, class structure, neighbouring peoples, alliances, origins, dominant tribes, language.

What is the history behind the time of this story? Relevant rulers of the past and present, key events leading up to the story, government structure, historical events of religious or political significance, major environmental disasters, important wars of the past.

What are the rules of this society? Political structure, people of power or influence, rules and norms governing society and individual behaviour, punishments for violating rules, prevailing attitudes towards rules, the role of the military.

What are the religious and social customs? Religious belief system, gods, places of worship, sacred entities and symbols, rituals and customs, religious festivals. Holidays, the world of work, customs, norms of behaviour, gender roles, family structure and significance, ceremonies, marriage customs, morality and immorality, secret societies.

World building for more recent times such as WWII may require less work than for the middle ages or ancient Rome. However, we could argue that a story involving war still requires the author to build a military world for readers.

I’ll explore these questions in more depth and may add a few more critical questions as we go along. Would love to hear your thoughts on the topic as we go along.

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS 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.

 

Setting – Research Sources

Two weeks ago, in Setting is Like an Iceberg, I included a grouped list of the ingredients that constitute setting – one of the seven elements essential to transporting readers in time and place. Where, you might ask, does an author find information about those ingredients?

Primary sources are foundational. They include: first-hand accounts, letters, diaries offer insights on period dialogue and attitudes, memoirs, maps, legal documents including wills, deeds, court rolls, treaties etc., which can also give a sense of language and attitudes of the time. Then there are judicial reports, school log books, ships’ logs, local newspapers, transcripts of old court cases, journals, advertisements, photographs, cookbooks, etiquette manuals, dictionaries of the time. Civil and military records.

Museums contain a wealth of primary material carefully collected and curated to reflect a particular time and place. I remember being in Stockholm where a 17th century ship that sank on its maiden voyage is on display –  mammoth, majestic, intricately carved, it gives ample evidence of shipbuilding practices of the time and could fuel the imagination with what it must have been like to sail such a beauty.

Site visits can be considered primary source material, although never assume that things look exactly the same today as they did in the past. Site visits allow an author to appreciate buildings, landscape, flora and fauna; to feel the land and see the people; to hear the language and engage your senses; to walk the streets and imagine your characters doing the same. Is the earth rich and dark or red and dusty? Are the streets narrow and windy or wide open? Do people speak with a lilt? What building materials were used in Haussmann’s Paris? Where does the sun set and the shadows fall in late September?

Secondary sources include academic writing, non-fiction books, archaeological reports, reference books, biographies, academic lectures, subject-matter experts. Paintings and contemporary portraiture  from the time period show people, clothing, how much traffic is around and what sort, the shop fronts and advertisements. They also illustrate attitudes and interests of the time. Re-enactment groups work faithfully to demonstrate life the way it was, wars the way they were fought. Books on historical slang and foreign phrases. Books on furniture, costume and houses.

Internet trawling is a favourite pastime of authors. Be very wary though of sources and it’s best to corroborate ‘facts’ with multiple sources. Nonetheless, you can find amazing articles, reports, historical timelines, sites dedicated to the fashion of a particular time period or to a specific regiment’s experience during one of the world wars.

Project Gutenberg and Google feee books offer out of print novels, diaries, journals and more. I’ve found fascinating accounts of World War One and the siege of Paris using Project Gutenberg.

Where else can you look? I’ve assembled a list based on my own work as well as suggestions from other writers.

  • Period novels (novels written at the time) to get a sense of how people thought about events then and not how a contemporary author thinks about them through the lens of today
  • Poetry of the time period
  • Government collections
  • Talking to locals
  • Bibliographies are goldmines that lead to other sources and experts
  • For language and dialogue, talking to actors and voice coaches
  • Dictionaries of quotations from the time period.
  • Books of names can offer popular names of the time. Or you can search plays, letters, poetry, stories, and newspapers of the time for suitable names that were popular in the period.
  • Copies of Who’s Who and Whitaker’s Almanack or equivalent
  • Hotel and tourist guides and maps from the era
  • Google maps; Google earth
  • Graveyards and memorials are also helpful for names, facts about your potential characters, typical life spans, class differences, causes of death, family sentiments
  • Broadsheets and plays are ways to access the authentic vocabulary of the time
  • Recordings conducted at the time.
  • Interviews conducted during the time period.
  • Pinterest boards – it’s fascinating the material collected by others!
  • Town histories
  • Farm journals
  • Listen to music, songs and instruments from the period
  • TV and film adaptations
  • Check records on the period for mentions of floods, snow, hot dry summers
  • Newspaper archives
  • Museum websites
  • Historical societies,
  • Educational sites like PBS
  • Children’s books

The possibilities are endless! So I’ll leave you with a quote from Helen Bryan author of War Brides and The Sisterhood.

Another good thing about research is that it’s possible to do it almost indefinitely without actually writing anything, while looking impressively busy.

Of course, it’s also possible to write lengthy articles for your blog instead of actually writing the next chapter of your novel  🙂

See you next time.

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS 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.