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.

Inside Historical Fiction with author Jennifer Robson

Beyond writing historical fiction, Jennifer Robson and I share Toronto as our home town and I was delighted to meet her in person two months ago. Goodnight From London, Jennifer’s latest novel, was inspired by her grandmother’s wartime experiences in WWII. Jennifer’s debut novel – Somewhere in France – received accolades for its story of a woman who breaks away from her aristocratic upbringing to serve in World War One. Clearly Jennifer enjoys wartime settings! Today, she discusses the factors that make historical fiction tick.

What are the ‘magic ingredients’ that make historical fiction unforgettable/irresistible? And in your opinion, what do the best historical fiction writers do to ‘get it right’?

I think it’s the promise of a glimpse into the past that makes historical fiction so appealing to its fans. 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.

Are historical novels inherently different from contemporary novels, and if so, in what ways? 

Many years ago I asked this exact question of Margaret Atwood, and I was surprised when she insisted that fiction was simply fiction – she didn’t like adding the term “historical” to it. I have to (respectfully) disagree, if only because the recent past and the distant past are such different animals in terms of research and the author’s imagination. Yes, technically, the 1990s belong to the past, but I experienced them directly and have clear memories of the decade; it isn’t terribly hard for me to establish a believable setting for a book set in 1992, for instance. It’s also the case that there are plenty of living witnesses to interview, and with their contributions I can enrich the narrative I’m creating.

But as soon as you go back a hundred, five hundred, or a thousand years, you are on your own. You can’t ask any questions – you can only read the answers that people have left behind. Resources dwindle, and you’re at the mercy of your own preconceptions and assumptions about how people thought and spoke, what they believed, how they looked, and even what they found funny or moving.

I know I make mistakes in my books, and I know they present an incomplete picture, at best, of the past. But the point is that I try. We all try, and when we get it right the results can be magical.

What aspects about the past do you specifically try to highlight in your novels?

It’s the details of ordinary life that fascinate me – how people got through a typical day, and the ways in which it was different from an ordinary day for any of us. I want my readers to feel they can almost smell the world I’ve created, which of course isn’t always a good thing! The idea of writing ‘wallpaper’ history, where people are dressed in vaguely old-fashioned clothes, and there are horses instead of cars, and otherwise not much else is different – that is the sort of historical fiction I find profoundly uninteresting. I really want to discover what life was like a hundred years ago, the good and the bad, and I want my readers to learn along with me.

In writing historical fiction, what research and techniques do you use to ensure that conflict, plot, setting, dialogue, and characters are true to the time period?

My books have all been set in the first half of the twentieth century, which makes world-building considerably easier for me than for, say, someone writing about Imperial Rome. I rely on the same sources that any other historian would use, beginning with secondary sources and digging down to the primary source stage. I also augment my research with sources that surprised my peers when I was at Oxford – I used to get no end of strange looks in the Bodleian when fellow students noticed I was combing through old issues of British Vogue or Women’s Weekly. I also turn to newsreel footage – British Pathé has a very extensive online collection – as well as movies, tapes of radio broadcasts, commercial fiction from the period I’m researching, commercial art such as advertisements and posters…I could go on and on!

What aspects do you feel need to be included when you are building a past world for your readers?

It’s crucial that you get the setting right in any work of historical fiction, but the characters themselves need to be true to their time. This is where a lot of writers, myself included, often have difficulties. I do my very best to ensure that my characters belong to their era, and aren’t burdened by apocryphal attitudes or beliefs, but it’s hard. I write commercial fiction, and my readers have a certain expectation that my heroines will be people they find engaging and interesting, if not always likeable. To that end I often err on the side of caution – my heroines are more independent than is typical of their female contemporaries, for instance, or are more liberal in their world view than would be typical of the average person. That is not to say that a woman living in 1916, for instance, couldn’t be brave and resourceful and lacking in prejudice towards others – she absolutely could be all of those things. But it does make her rather more of an outlier, as it were, and I have to be careful not to turn the entire book into a fairy tale in which the past has been prettied and sanitized beyond recognition.

Please tell us a little about your latest novel.

Goodnight From London is the story of Ruby Sutton, an American working for a British weekly newsmagazine in London during the Second World War. Ruby ends up staying in Britain for the duration, and her experiences – of enduring the horrors of the Blitz, of traveling to France after D-Day – are based on those of other journalists of the time. I was inspired to write Goodnight From London by the experiences of my late grandmother, Nikki Moir, who was a newspaperwoman in Vancouver from the 1930s onwards, and who worked throughout the war. I was always so proud of her, and after she died I decided I wanted to use her example as an inspiration. In my dedication to the book I say that Grandma was the woman who led me to Ruby, and I can only hope that she would be happy with the book I wrote.

My work in progress is set in London in 1947 and has three women as its central characters. They are embroiderers, working for Norman Hartnell at his salon on Bruton Street in Mayfair, and are among those who worked to create Princess Elizabeth’s wedding dress. In the course of my research, I saw the wedding gown on display at Buckingham Palace and I met and interviewed the last surviving seamstress who worked on the gown. I also spent a day at Hand and Lock, a famed embroidery studio celebrating its 250th anniversary this year, so I might learn what it was like to do the sort of very fine embroidery and beadwork that embellished Norman Hartnell’s designs. It is set for publication in late 2018 and the working title – one I hope I’ll get to keep – is The Gown.

Many thanks for offering your perspectives on writing historical fiction, Jennifer. I’ve read Moonlight Over Paris and I’m sure readers are in for a treat with your latest novel!

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, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016. 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.

Discussing historical fiction – Fiona Veitch Smith

pilates-daughterFormerly a journalist, Fiona Veitch Smith now writes novels, theatre plays, and screenplays. Her mystery series, Poppy Denby Investigates, is set in the 1920s. Fiona has recently written Pilate’s Daughter, a tale of star-crossed lovers. Welcome to A Writer of History, Fiona.

What are the ‘magic ingredients’ that make historical fiction unforgettable/irresistible? And in your opinion, what do the best historical fiction writers do to ‘get it right’?

I know it’s a cliché, but historical fiction ‘brings the past to life’. I remember reading it as a teenager and discovering that history – the often dry stuff we learned at school – was about real people who really lived. They were people I could identify with, and, through my imagination, was able to travel back in time and live their stories with them. As I grew up I discovered that some of my favourite authors were criticized for historical inaccuracies. But, and don’t shoot me here, ‘accuracy’ of fact is not as important to me as ‘authenticity’ of experience. A book that draws me in and gets a few facts wrong, is far better in my opinion than one that gets everything ‘right’ but does not connect with me emotionally.

So I think what the best authors do is create characters we can identify with. That we can feel what it’s like to be them … and then put them in a richly evoked – through sights, sounds, smells and tastes – ‘alien’ world. The characters should be brought to life emotionally, and their world sensually. Add to this an understanding of the social, economic, political and cultural context in which they live – without allowing it to overpower the story – then I think you’ve got a winner.

Are historical novels inherently different from contemporary novels, and if so, in what ways?

People read historical novels to immerse themselves in a bygone age. We have a fascination with our past and instinctively don’t want to be cut off from it. That’s why all pre-literate cultures have an oral storytelling tradition that keeps each generation connected to those who have gone before. Historical fiction – and creative non-fiction – performs the same function. So yes, we read these books to enjoy a good yarn, but I believe they perform a much deeper function than that. That’s what makes them different to contemporary novels.

What aspects about the past do you specifically try to highlight in your novel(s)?

Your readers might be surprised to hear that I always consider the present – the contemporary world around me – when deciding what to highlight in my historical novels. When doing general reading into a historical period, I look for issues and situations that have a modern, contemporary resonance. I look for things that can contrast with the way they are today; perhaps that readers can say: ‘Gosh! Look how far we’ve come!’ Or the opposite: ‘Oh dear, the more things change the more they stay the same.’ All of my historical books – four published so far, one due out later this year – have all focused on the issue of outsiders in society and how they are able to overcome societal and inter-personal opposition to achieve their potential. I have looked at this issue in Apartheid South Africa (The Peace Garden), Edwardian and 1920s Britain (The Jazz Files and The Kill Fee), and now, in my latest book, first century Palestine (Pilate’s Daughter).

Women play a large part in the stories I choose to write. Apart from the one set in Apartheid South Africa, the primary ‘outsiders’ in all my books are women. The connection with today is of course the continued journey towards equality of opportunity that is sadly still very variable. In a similar vein, ‘class’ is something that attracts me too, and how the accident of one’s birth will affect the opportunities available to you.

In writing historical fiction, what research and techniques do you use to ensure that conflict, plot, setting, dialogue, and characters are true to the time period? 

As I also write for stage and screen, my writing tends to be very visual. One reviewer said she could almost ‘see’ the story as if it were being acted out on stage. Just as I create the mis en scene in a play or film, by selecting representative costumes, props, music and actions to evoke a sense of period, I do the same in my novels. I absorb myself in the music, fashion, art, architecture, cuisine, theatre etc of the period. There are lots of collections online, plus books to read and museum exhibits to visit. In addition I like to ‘hear’ the voices of people who actually lived in the period I’m writing about. I read books and memoirs written by those who lived at the same time. In terms of my new Roman / Jewish book, I have read Josephus and Herodotus as well as letters and ‘writings’ by women of the period (in translation, obviously!) – as well as the Gospel stories. This helps me with dialogue – but, more importantly, my understanding of the mindset of the real people who lived in the time I am writing about.

Conflict and plotting are something that all good writers should be able to turn their hands to, not just historical novelists. Again though, my experience in scriptwriting is most useful, as scripts are structured primarily around conflict and plot. Hence I draw on scriptwriting technique – particularly three-act-structure – in my novel writing too.

What aspects do you feel need to be included when you are building a past world for your readers?

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. This needs to be dealt with lightly as it can easily overpower a story. The trick is to provide enough for readers who really like to get their teeth into the ‘history’ of the period, but not enough to weigh down readers who are more interested in the genre element: ie the romance or the mystery. But you can’t please all the people all the time. I also try to use recognisable historical events and – at times – real historical characters that can help set the scene for the reader. This allows them to bring their existing understanding of what happened in the period as a foundation on which I can build.

The next circle in will include the ‘props’ that the characters interact with – the vehicles, the food, the clothing etc, as well as the social mores and style of dialogue.

Finally, the innermost circle is the emotional core of the characters. This is the most speculative of the three circles as no one really knows what it felt like to live in a particular period. We can get glimpses of it through diaries and memoirs, but these still need to be filtered through our own emotional experience of what it is like to be a human being today.

Do you see any particular trends in HF?

I think we are seeing more novels about women in history that are not just ‘simple romances’. For too long women featured in historical novels either as the love interest or the pursuer of love. Although my book Pilate’s Daughter is a romance – and the success or failure of the key relationships is the structural core of the book – it is more about women as real people in history and the active role they played in shaping it. The book is about far more than whether or not the girl and boy live happily ever after. I see this as a welcome trend in historical fiction with books such as Paula Maclain’s Circling the Sun and Emily Holleman’s Cleopatra’s Shadow, as well as Michelle Moran’s books, being very good examples. Like Pilate’s Daughter, they mix real historical women and fictional ones and show them as more than just the object or pursuer of love.

Please tell us a little about your latest novel.

Pilate’s Daughter (Endeavour Press, 2017) is set against the Roman occupation of Palestine in the first century. Claudia Lucretia Pilate, the daughter of the governor of Judea, falls in love with Judah ben Hillel, a young Jewish Zealot who has been tasked to kill her. But Claudia is promised to a dashing young Tribune whose job it is to rid Palestine of the Zealot problem, and to complicate matters further, is having an affair with a conniving slave who is set on getting rid of Claudia. In the meantime a Jewish prophet from Galilee has been stirring up trouble, claiming to be the long-awaited Messiah. Judah is torn between following the prophet and eloping with Claudia, and as the last days of Jesus come to a head in Jerusalem, so does the destiny of the four lovers. The lives of the lesser-known characters of the gospels rub shoulders with fictional characters in this historical Roman romance. The Pilates, the Herods, Barabbas, Caiphas and Judas Iscariot are shown not just as walk-on parts in the Jesus story, but as real people struggling to reconcile love and duty in one of the most volatile periods of history.

Many thanks, Fiona. You’ve given us many interesting ideas on the craft of historical fiction. One perspective I particularly like your notion of concentric circles! Good luck with Pilate’s Daughter. It sounds like just the kind of novel I enjoy.

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, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016. 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.