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.

Looking back – 13 insights on historical fiction

In 2017, I asked readers and authors to look under the covers of historical fiction and examine what sets the genre apart and makes it tick. Today, I’ve gathered together various insights that resonate for me.

Historical fiction adds context to modern-day social problems … my preferred approach is to let characters and their responses to the conditions around them inform the reader. Janie Chang author of Dragon Springs Road

The magic ingredient of historical fiction is the emotional truth of the time, the landscape of consciousness in the era described. Simon Parke author of The soldier, the gaoler, the spy and her lover

I build my worlds in concentric circles. The outer circle is the social, political, religious, economic and historical backdrop within which my story takes place … The next circle in will include the ‘props’ that the characters interact with … the innermost circle is the emotional core of the characters living in a particular period.  Fiona Veitch Smith author of Pilate’s Daughter 

The historical writer has to juggle with making sensibilities and prejudices true to the time while not overly offending the reader. Rhys Bowen author of In Farleigh Field 

World building is absolutely essential, and it is probably the deal breaker as far as I am concerned. I come to the book for the setting, I enjoy plot and characters, but if the world does not come alive for me as I read, I consider it a big let down. Author, Davide Mana responded to my questions as a reader.

Details have to be woven in seamlessly, so that it doesn’t come off as a contemporary novel dressed up in historical costume. Also, an author needs to give just enough description, but not so much that it weighs the reader down and interrupts the flow. Author Michelle Cox responded to my questions as a reader.

Until scientists succeed in inventing a working time machine, historical fiction is the best means we have of sinking into vanished worlds and gaining a sense of what it must have been like to live in another time. Jennifer Robson author of Goodnight From London 

Also responding as a reader is  Margaret McGovern author of The Battle of Watling Street – History is concerned primarily with conflicts, winners and losers, and what historical fiction adds to a dry retelling of history is where it imbues the events of the past with characters that reach back in time to make it happen again for me, the reader.

“Novels are about exposing the truth” of who we are and who we have been, particularly women. Geraldine Brooks author of The Secret Chord

Character is the bridge to the distant past. Exploring the nature of a character from the past, whether fictional or historical, requires embracing what makes them different, even if that means showing how their perspective differs from how we think today. Cryssa Bazos author of Traitor’s Knot

Conflict is everything in stories and when that conflict is internal as well as external, it produces a mouth-watering cocktail. Mark Stibbe author of The Fate of Kings

As historical fiction writers, we’re chasing the bubble of verisimilitude … By this I mean not only their dialogue, but also their patterns of thought, reactions to all manner of situations, and interactions with each other and their world. Jeffrey Walker author of Truly Are the Free

But perhaps for historical novel readers, it is the spicy details that change our experience from commonplace to a story that transports us to a time long ago. Rebecca Rosenberg author of The Secret Life of Mrs. London

Do these resonate for you? 

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.

 

 

The Ten Thousand Things – exploring successful historical fiction

In February I included a list of award winning historical fiction with the thought of exploring what readers think made them superb examples of the craft. I didn’t get very far on this topic and thought I’d return to it today with a look at John Spurling’s The Ten Thousand Things, winner of the Walter Scott prize for historical fiction in 2015.

What’s it about? In the turbulent final years of the Yuan Dynasty (13th century China), Wang Meng is a low-level bureaucrat, employed by the government of Mongol conquerors established by the Kublai Khan. Though he wonders about his own complicity with this regime—the Mongols, after all, are invaders—he prefers not to dwell on his official duties, choosing instead to live the life of the mind and his paintings. A novel of fated meetings, grand battles, and riveting drama.

One reviewer on Goodreads writes: “Spurling’s writing is exquisite. He creates scenes with a sensitivity and attention to aesthetic detail that seems light and effortless, yet deeply moving. To read this book is to plunge into another world, to be transported, not into some dimly remembered past, but a very real and vividly imagined world that is thoroughly convincing.”

Another says: “I now feel like I’ve been to China in the 13th century.”

So clearly Spurling is a master at transporting readers in time and place.

Many readers attest to Spurling’s wonderful prose, comparing it to the beauty of the paintings his protagonist creates. Another praises the dialogue and comments that Spurling’s experience as a playwright may be the source of his excellence.

There are numerous references to the authors blending of philosophy and politics into the story. “The Ten Thousand Things is a literary masterpiece that reveals classical philosophy and art of 14th Century China.” “Any student of Chinese history will appreciate the story and the insights into the politics, art and history of that time period.”

Kirkus Reviews has this to say: “The great strength of this novel is not so much the plot but the rich detail that sets the reader in the middle of China.”

The South China Morning Post [Hong Kong’s major English newspaper] says: “Like one of Wang’s paintings, this story is a highly crafted masterpiece that cannot be enjoyed in one sitting … Even a reader who starts out with no interest in China or Chinese artists will be sure to return to this story over the years, as its truths remain timeless.

So – superb writing, evocative time and place, timeless truths, rich details. I’ve certainly looked at enough reviews to add this one to my TBR list.

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.