4 Types of Conflict

Annie Whitehead is a History graduate and an elected member of the Royal Historical Society. She has written four novels set in Anglo-Saxon England, one of which, To Be A Queen, tells the story of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians. She has contributed to fiction and nonfiction anthologies and written for various magazines and was the winner of the inaugural Historical Writers’ Association/Dorothy Dunnett Prize 2017.

Annie’s latest novel, The Sins of the Father, releases today and I’m delighted to have her on the blog – the topic is conflict, an ingredient at the heart of successful novels.

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Conflict is one of the seven elements of historical fiction outlined in Mary’s blog post. It has to be present in any novel, but of course it means many different things. I’ll start with the most obvious, and the one involving the most people, and then reduce the numbers of participants:

War

It’s likely that, if you write historical fiction, you’re going to be writing about a period in which a war or battle was fought. The period I write about has a lot of battles; not outright wars, but every so often one kingdom would turn on another and fights occurred. In the later part of the Anglo-Saxon period, there were Vikings to contend with. War is bloody, brutal, and traumatising and that’s true whether it’s a Viking incursion in the ninth century or a battle in WWI. The thing to do, I feel, when writing about battles, is to make it personal. That might mean showing why it matters so much to certain kings, or tribe leaders, that they win a particular fight and what’s at stake, or it might mean showing the story of individual soldiers at the front, or the stories of those waiting for them at home. I’ve read many books set during the ‘Great War’ and it seems to me that by focusing on one or two individuals and their stories, the tragedy can become more affecting, as they come to represent the millions who were involved.

Conflict within the setting

Not all historical fiction will focus on, or even feature, any kind of pitched battle. Yet conflict will still be present as a major element of the story. Perhaps mill workers are badly treated by the mill owners. Tenants might be evicted, on a small scale – perhaps the family who are the main focus of the story – or on a larger scale, such as the highland clearances. Warring families, such as the Poldarks and the Warleggans in Winston Graham’s novels, who are on a more equal social footing, are still locked in conflict which drives the drama long after Ross Poldark returns from war. The Industrial Revolution era will provide rich seams for such conflicts: businessmen seeking opportunities and coming up against opposition from others like them; the struggles of movements which would eventually become the trades unions. In nineteenth-century America, the conflict does not just come in the form of the civil war which fractured the country, but the tension surrounding slave ownership and the abolitionists where again, focusing on one small group, family, or individual, makes for a powerful drama. 

It’s always worth remembering, too, that conflict among people on the same social stratum can arise from misunderstanding, by one or both parties. In my novel Cometh the Hour, the first in my two book series of which the new novel is Book 2, two kings went to war because they both believed the other was harbouring an enemy. Conflict born of misapprehension can add a level of pathos to the story.

Conflict within the setting would also include those who rail in some way against the status quo, against the accepted thinking of the age, or against their perceived place in society. The pitfall here is that the character might step too completely out of their time period. The historical novelist must think about the mindset of the period, but within that there is scope to have a character trying to step beyond the confines of their prescribed life. In the time in which my latest novel is set, women ran the abbeys, which were sociable places, and were ‘double houses’ where both monks and nuns lived. The religious life was a good one, often readily chosen, but in later periods, this wasn’t necessarily the case. Young women with no protectors, no dowries and/or no great social standing, might find that was the only option for them but it doesn’t mean they welcomed it. A woman seeking to escape this life would be in conflict with the norm, but would not be stepping out of her period and nor would she be introducing modern attitudes to the story.

Conflict Within the Family

A truly universal theme! Inter-generational conflict can be found in any period, and will be recognisable to modern readers: the son who does not wish to follow his father into the family business, or who wants a better life, the daughter who wants to work for her own living where her mother was not able to. There is also conflict between siblings, another familiar aspect to life. In my latest novel, two brothers are extremely close and love each other immensely. They are bound together by the tragedies which befall their family, yet each has a different idea about the path he should follow. One wishes to emulate their father and he is driven by a need to prove himself just as capable and, though he does not admit it, by a fear of failure. The other is more circumspect, feeling that the past should be left alone, and that old mistakes should not be repeated. He is also in awe of his elder brother and feels inadequate, living life in the shadows as it were. Their different approaches to life lead to conflict, made more bitter by the fact that they love each other so dearly. This, I think, hurts so much more than conflict between natural enemies.

Conflict Within

This is a special sub-branch of conflict, which leads to self-doubt, anxiety, and moments in the story where the main character reaches a point of despair, feeling thwarted or hide-bound by an inability to make a decision. My main character in the latest novel, the younger brother mentioned above, has moments where he is frozen by doubt. The youngest of nine children, he feels that his elder siblings have it all figured out, and he constantly questions why he feels differently about the things that matter most to his family. Then, around three-quarters of the way through the novel, there is a nasty twist and he finds himself having to act against his own principles, and in the process alienates himself from several family members. He’s placed on the horns of a particularly troublesome dilemma, where taking one path will hurt those he loves, while the other will also hurt people whom he cares for. Battling with one’s emotions, with a heart versus head scenario, or where duty must come before love, adds deep layers to a character’s story and offers the reader a chance to sympathise and empathise.

Thank you for your take on conflict, Annie. The examples you’ve given are truly universal, and, as Alma Katsu discussed in her recent master class on conflict, ‘upping the ante’ in terms of multiple levels of conflict really adds to a story’s success.

The Sins of the Father by Annie Whitehead ~~ A father’s legacy can be a blessing or a curse…

AD658: The sons of Penda of Mercia have come of age. Ethelred, the youngest, recalls little of past wars while Wulf is determined to emulate their father, whose quest to avenge his betrayed kinswomen drew him to battle three successive Northumbrian kings.
Ecgfrith of Northumbria is more hostile towards the Mercians than his father was. His sister Ositha, thwarted in her marriage plans, seeks to make her mark in other ways, but can she, when called upon, do her brother’s murderous bidding?


Ethelred finds love with a woman who is not involved in the feud, but fate intervenes. Wulf’s actions against Northumbria mean Ethelred must choose duty over love, until he, like his father before him, has cause to avenge the women closest to him. Battle must once more be joined, but the price of victory will be high. This stand-alone novel is the second of the two-book series, Tale of the Iclingas, which began with Cometh the Hour.

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 with author David Ebsworth

David Ebsworth, author of A Betrayal of Heroes, explores the role of world building in historical fiction and takes us on a journey from wartime Casablanca to Brazzaville, from the cauldron of Normandy to the Liberation of Paris. World building is an essential element of historical fiction and David’s examples and experiences help illuminate the challenge.

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As Wendy Holden tells us: ‘For historical fiction, the world that our characters populate must believably be one that actually existed in the past, and yet one into which the modern reader enthusiastically enters.’ 

There’s some useful guidance for historical fiction world builders and Wendy’s Unlocking the Secrets of Historical Fiction is just one.

My own approach broadly follows the pattern set down by Gabriela Pereira, tutor of online Creative Writing courses and herself an accomplished writer. Start with the key ingredient, world building around the main protagonist. Then add the world of any major supporting characters. Third, the physical surroundings. Next, the society and culture within which the characters live. Finally, season with the historical setting. 

World Building for the Main Protagonist

Jack Telford has been the principal character in two of my earlier novels. He’s been with me a long while. So, mentions of his favourite cigarette brands, his passion for good coffee, and the five things he always carries in his pockets – those flow easily enough. But now he must survive in wartime North Africa and Equatorial Africa. Cigarettes available in 1940 at Rabat, or Libreville, or Faya-Largeau? Brands of beer? Thank goodness for search engines.

Map of Casablanca

Next, Telford must abandon his old life as a Sunday newspaper journalist and take up a new role as a war correspondent. I studied the Second World War’s frontline journalists, men and women, so I could “teach” Jack this new craft. From some of their writing collections I was able to draft what, I hope, are credible snatches of “Jack Telford” journalism. More than this, I realised that Jack’s journalistic pieces could help to show a different side to his character, his inner conflicts – but in the words of the period.

Jack’s big challenge, however, is adapting to life with the military, a section of Leclerc’s Free French army, to which he’s formally accredited as a correspondent. He has to live and breathe among the men and women of Leclerc’s army for four years. Naturally, there were endless non-fiction histories and autobiographies. But I learned so much more from another lucky find, a personal contact with Bob Coale, Professor of Hispanic Studies at the University of Rouen, who helped to steer me through the learning curve.

The World of the Supporting Players

The secondary characters in A Betrayal of Heroes are a mix of real-life historical personalities and fictional players. The real-life examples include Josephine Baker and heart-throb Leslie Howard. But those are cameos and simply needed plenty of biography studies – though both of them, through their music and their movies, helped to build my 1940s world. 

More important, the novel heavily features the women ambulance drivers (some real, some fictional) serving with Leclerc’s Division. These were the famous Rochambelles, and their remarkable world was presented to me in two fabulous booksWomen of Valor, The Rochambelles on the WWII Front by Ellen Hampton (highly recommended) and Quand J’Étais Rochambelle, the first-hand account written by Suzanne Massu. 

Other first-hand accounts helped me to more accurately depict the wartime difficulties of travelling from one location to another, or the price of tickets, hotel rooms, food and the rest – or simply the way the senses of combatants are assaulted in various war zones. 

Creating the Scenery

I’m always cautious about this one. Scenery here isn’t simply a bunch of theatrical backdrops, it’s the stuff with which the characters must interact, making the world come to life.

It’s fairly easy to build accurate scenes of Europe during the Second World War. But Oran? Rabat? Brazzaville? The towns of Chad? It was getting to be a struggle, until I stumbled across the archive of maps in the University of Texas Libraries. These are detailed street maps produced in 1942 by the US Army Map Service. And from those maps, and from contemporary travellers’ journals, I was able to construct the realistic settings for Jack Telford and his associates to populate – the weather, the sounds, the smells, the tastes, the architecture, the flora and fauna.

A Sense of Contemporary and Geographical Culture

Harry Sidebottom, author of the Warrior of Rome series said: “The past is another country, they not only do things differently there, they think about things differently.”

Those inhabitants of the past have different language, food, lifestyle, religion, mythology, politics, trade, medicine, sexual attitudes and class structure – among a host of other things. In A Betrayal of Heroes there were three distinct collections of cultural issues with which I had to wrestle. First, Jack’s life within the 1940s Muslim world of North Africa. Second, to Equatorial Africa.  Third, the cultural experiences of Spanish communities in North Africa, or the Spanish Republican refugees who survived the horrors of French internment camps and still later went on to fight for Free France. 

I determined that, once again, I’d only use local writers as sources – like Oumama Aouad Lahrech in Morocco, Patrice Nganang from Cameroon, and the Spaniard Eduardo Pons Prades.

The Historical Setting

Last, but not least.

I needed a historical timeline. Basically, A Betrayal of Heroes covers the entire span of the Second World War – but I needed to make this fresh, to tell the tale from a new angle. In this case, telling it from the perspective of the Free French, of the Spaniards and Equatorial Africans fighting for Leclerc, gave me that angle.

Again, I was lucky that journalist and historian Evelyn Mesquida collected interviews with many of the Spanish Republicans who had fought for Leclerc. A rich source. And Patrice Nganang’s novels are also based on real-life experiences. Hindsight knowledge of World War Two is a wonderful thing, but for those who lived through the period, how and what and when they learned about events was often very different to the way we see them eighty years later.

Many thanks, David, for providing such an insightful look at world building.

A Betrayal of Heroes by David Ebsworth

Headstrong newspaperman Jack Telford’s weapon is his pen, but the oath he’s taken at Kufra will still bind his fate to the passions and perils of the men and women who shape his life – his personal heroes, like the exiled Spanish Republicans now fighting for Free France. But from Oran and Casablanca to the heart of Africa, then into the cauldron of Normandy and the Liberation of Paris, Jack’s fate is also bound to those who will betray them, and to the enemies who want Telford dead. 

Readers should pack their bags for an epic adventure back in time through the pages of the latest Jack Telford novel, A Betrayal of Heroes, and some less frequented settings of this Second World War thriller.

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.

Dialogue and character with Sarah Taylor

Sarah Taylor has a BA in History and an MSLS and is a writer of historical fiction who recently published her first novel, Beautiful Dreamer, a novel about Steven Foster We met online as people do these days and our conversation led to today’s post. Welcome to A Writer of History, Sarah.

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M.K. Tod’s article, “7 Elements of Historical Fiction” outlines the seven most important aspects of historical fiction. I will focus on two of them, dialogue and character, as they shaped my recent novel, Beautiful Dreamer. Set in nineteenth century Pittsburgh, it follows the life of America’s first professional composer, Stephen Collins Foster. I have previously written historical fiction and historical fantasy about fictional characters.

Many new historical fiction authors create characters who behave like twenty-first century people, no matter the era they lived in, but, as historical novelist Harry Sidebottom said, “The past is another country.” It can be difficult to think as someone in another era thought, especially when they may have had beliefs contrary to the twenty-first century’s. With fictional characters, it’s easy to want to make them likeable—“They should be anti-slavery or pro-suffrage”—forgetting that political correctness as we know it today did not exist until 1970; before then, it meant “according to fixed laws” (late 15th century) or “in a politic manner” (1580s). Especially with real historical figures, they may have thought differently than people do now, and, even if you wonder, “How could they have thought that?”, it is important to represent them fairly and accurately.

For instance, in real life and as portrayed in my novel, Beautiful Dreamer, the Foster family was mostly conservative and pro-Southern, though they lived in the North, while Stephen Foster was pro-Union and anti-slavery. His father was a Jacksonian, and his brother wrote articles during the Civil War like “The Uses of Slave States,” while Stephen dedicated songs to President Lincoln. The family didn’t necessarily write why they believed what they did, which meant reading between the lines and researching reasons why similar people were pro-Southern or pro-slavery. It broadens our perspective to look at both sides of an issue, such as the North and the South, beyond the one side that’s commonly taught or discussed. Though the Civil War is often cast in moral terms, such as the North was “right” and the South was “wrong,” writing and researching different perspectives on the war helped me see all sides of an issue. As a historian and as a writer, I try to portray historical individuals sympathetically, no matter their political views.

Their hundreds of family letters opened a window on how they talked, and I drew quotes from them as they fit into the story. For instance, Stephen later wrote a friend about selling his song “Oh! Susanna” that “Though this song was not successful, yet the two fifty-dollar bills I received for it had the effect of starting me on my present vocation as songwriter.” I included this quote in the scene where he sells “Oh! Susanna” to a publisher and is happy to receive two fifty-dollar bills for it, though the publisher made $10,000 on the song. Historical people spoke and wrote differently in some ways than we do, but, in many ways, people from the nineteenth century spoke and wrote similarly to now and used familiar idioms. What Diana Gabaldon calls the “PBS voiceover effect” often used in Civil War era novels and films may be exaggerated.

If writing fictional characters, reading letters by individuals similar to your characters, whether a nineteenth century aristocrat or an eighteenth-century maid, would help, as would reading plays and novels of the time, such as Shakespeare or Charles Dickens. The Little Book of Lost Words: Collywobbles, Snollygoster, and 86 Other Surprisingly Useful Terms Worth Resurrecting, by Joe Gillard, creator of the website “History Hustle,” compiles historical words that are no longer commonly used (but should be), and the Writer’s Digest Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life series covers historical eras from the Middle Ages to the Wild West, compiling every fact important to constructing a historical era, including a glossary of slang unique to that era. Etymonline.com and dictionaries such as Oxford English Dictionary list the etymology of every word and idiom and when they first appeared.

While accuracy is important to historical dialogue, so is readability. If the dialogue is too historically accurate, a twenty-first century person might not understand it. For instance, I had to edit the quote from Stephen Foster above in the novel for clarity. It’s important to strike a balance between accuracy and understandability. I also fit dialogue from recollections of friends and family who knew Stephen into the story, including the scene where Stephen proposes to his wife, Jane McDowell, after both he and a rival suitor, Dick Cowan, accidentally show up at her house at the same time:

The next time I came [to Jane’s house], Joe [the servant] brought none other than Dick into the parlor. “What’s Dick doing here?” I whispered to Jane, but she just rose with a smile as Dick hung up his military broadcloth cape.

“Good evening, Miss Jane. You’re looking wonderful as always.”

“You flatterer.” She laughed as they sat down.

“Good evening, sir,” Dick told me. I turned my back to them and didn’t answer, picking up a book and flipping pages without knowing the contents. Why was Dick here unless Jane had asked him to come and forgotten I was coming at this time? Jane and Dick went on talking as if nothing were amiss, and I went on flipping pages. If I acknowledged him, that would give him more reason to tease me the next day. At long last, Dick stood up and said, “Good night, Miss Jane” and “Good night, sir” to me. I ignored him. Picking up his cape, Dick left, and Jane rose to see him out.

I stood, shaking; if Jane mixed up the times on purpose, she achieved her desired effect. When Jane returned, I gathered up my nerve to ask her. “And now, Miss Jane, I want your answer. Is it a yes? Or is it a no?”

She blinked, startled, and then recovered with a slight smile. “Yes.”

I wrapped my arms around her waist and kissed her. Yes. She said yes.

Don’t be afraid to let your historical characters, whether fictional or real, espouse views that may now be considered controversial. At one point, they may have been considered mainstream; woman’s suffrage, for instance, used to be a minority view, while most women were indifferent or opposed to it. Use primary sources, such as letters and literature, for historical thought processes and dialogue, as well as dictionaries and etymonline.com to avoid anachronisms. By following the “7 Elements of Historical Fiction” outlined by M.K. Tod’s blog post, you’ll be able to write historical fiction that readers will be immersed in and remember.

Many thanks, Sarah, for adding to the discussion of the seven elements of historical fiction.

Beautiful Dreamer by Sarah Taylor ~~ Quiet and dreamy-eyed, Stephen Foster wants nothing more than to be a musician in a world where boys are supposed to grow up and go into business, like the family hero, his older brother William. Even though he can play the flute perfectly from the age of six, his family’s expectations of a traditional profession drive him to Cincinnati, where he works at his older brother Dunning’s warehouse. While in Cincinnati, he publishes his first great hit at the age of twenty-one, “Oh! Susanna.” With Firth, Pond and Company, the best New York publisher, to sell his songs and E.P. Christy, among the greatest of minstrel performers, to sing them, Stephen is sure he can make songwriting his business. He turns out hits like “Old Folks at Home” and “My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night,” songs that Frederick Douglass said “awaken the sympathies for the slave,” as if his life depends on it. With the Civil War approaching and personal tragedies striking, it does.

Beautiful Dreamer is available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.