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.

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.

Unearthing a Lost World in Island of Gold

Friend and fellow author Amy Maroney’s newest novel, Island of Gold, has just released. It’s set in the 15th century featuring the Greek island of Rhodes, the Knights Hospitaller, and a story of love, danger, and ambition. Amy studied English Literature at Boston University and worked for many years as a writer and editor of nonfiction.

Readers and authors will be fascinated by Amy’s insights into the techniques and research required to create such a long ago time and place.

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Island of Gold, the first book in my Sea and Stone Chronicles series, was inspired by a visit to the Greek island of Rhodes back in 2012. With my husband and two daughters, I got to know the island and its people over a period of three weeks. 

In the port community of Rhodes Town, we wandered past fragments of ancient temples half-buried in the soil, then strolled along medieval stone ramparts built by the Knights Hospitaller of the Order of St. John. Gazing out at the sparkling waters of the harbor, I imagined the fabled Colossus of Rhodes straddling the seawalls. Had the statue truly existed? Did merchant galleys and warships glide beneath it, their crews staring up at the giant bronze man with awe and fear in their eyes?

History Architecture Greece Castle Fortress Rhodes

Later, exploring the rebuilt palace of the Order of St. John, we saw dusty granite slabs emblazoned with the coats-of-arms of long-dead knights. I wondered about the origins and fates of those men. What had life on the island been like under the rule of the knights? How had local Greeks fared? Who had thrived in the shadow of the knights—and who had suffered? My curiosity only grew as the years wore on. Rhodes had cast a spell on me, and by 2020 I knew it would star in my next historical fiction series.

MINING THE HISTORICAL RECORD. For Island of Gold, I needed to ground my tale in two settings: France and the Greek islands ruled by the Knights Hospitaller. I had a head-start for the French research—my first historical trilogy was set in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century France and Spain. Fifteenth-century Greece, however, presented a new challenge.

UNDERSTANDING THE MEDIEVAL MEDITERRANEAN: In 2020, I started to dig into the historical record, relying heavily on Academia.edu, Interlibrary Loan, and the kindness of researchers all over the world.

To understand the maritime economy of the Mediterranean during that era, I studied The Book of Michael of Rhodes, an illustrated journal of sorts written by a Rhodian-born seaman who made a living working on various Venetian ships in the early 1400s. Michael’s book is a treasure trove of information about sailing, navigation, merchant ships, the Venetian influence in the Mediterranean, and more. 

UNLOCKING THE SECRETS OF THE KNIGHTS HOSPITALLER: To gain insight into the Order of St. John, I relied on several key books about the Knights Hospitaller, especially The Knights Hospitaller by Helen Nicholson and The Knights of Rhodesby Elias Kollias. I learned the knights were few in number—about three hundred of them lived in Rhodes Town during the mid-fifteenth century, when Island of Gold takes place—but they were supplemented by thousands of mercenary soldiers and bolstered by their powerful naval fleet. Their primary goal was to defend Christendom from Muslim forces in the East, both the Ottoman Turks and the Mamluks who ruled Egypt. 

Academic papers by researchers who specialize in the history of Cyprus proved especially illuminating (the knights were also power players in Cyprus at the time). I followed clues in footnotes to historical tidbits that became excellent fodder for plot twists.

CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT: As I dove into history, I began imagining the people who inhabited this distant world. The only real-life character who figures large in Island of Gold is Jacques de Milly, the organization’s grand master from 1455-1461. Fictitious characters roamed my mind, demanding attention. I could not shake the image of a tumultuous relationship between a French falconer and the daughter of a wealthy French fabric merchant. What would happen, I asked myself, if they somehow ended up in Rhodes living in the shadow of the knights?

To create my hero Cédric de Montavon, I read The Hound and The Hawk by John Cummins and H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. I discovered six-hundred-year-old manuscripts in the digital archives of France and other European countries that helped me visualize Cédric’s surroundings and influences.

One, a treatise on falconry written by a Frenchman, relies heavily on the advice of Rhodian Agapitos Kassianos, a Greek falconer who became pivotal to Cédric’s story.

Three other manuscripts contain exquisite painted illustrations and woodcut drawings of medieval Rhodes. Finding any images of that time and place is extraordinarily difficult, so I studied these precious visual aids constantly while writing Island of Gold.

To create my heroine Sophie Portier, I started with research I had already done for my first series. Next, A Distant Mirror by Barbara W. Tuchman gave me essential background about the fourteenth century and how the plague and other major events set the European stage for the fifteenth century. Two books about medieval life helped me create realistic domestic scenes and deepen Sophie’s character: Living and Dining in Medieval Paris by Nicole Crossley-Hollard and A Small Sound of the Trumpet: Women in Medieval Life by Margaret Wade Labarge. 

Then I turned once again to academic papers and the breadcrumbs in their footnotes to find evidence of women in medieval Rhodes and Cyprus who owned property, bought and sold goods, left wills, were enslaved, or were freed after periods of enslavement. The historical record from this period has scant information about women, so each of these discoveries was hard-won. I also unearthed small but critical details about the cost and origin of silks and camlet fabrics, about the currencies in use at the time, about the way fabrics were measured, and more.

WORLD-BUILDING: Of course, I had lovely memories to draw upon from my time in Rhodes, but that was a decade ago. I found bits and pieces of memoirs by medieval pilgrims and other travelers who had spent time in Rhodes en route to Jerusalem. A footnote led me to Reflections on a Marine Venus: A Companion to the Landscape of Rhodes by Lawrence Durrell. Written in the period immediately following World War II, the book is rich with history, descriptions of flora and fauna, and cultural observations. I also studied data about plant and animal species endemic to Rhodes, and learned as much as I could about weather, wind, and other natural influences on the island.

Rhodes Cove and Ruins – Unsplash

As Anthony Doerr wrote in his memoir Four Seasons in Rome, “Not-knowing is where hope and art and possibility and invention come from.” That’s what fuels my research—the tantalizing promise of all the astonishing things I haven’t yet unearthed. The questions I pondered a decade ago in Rhodes launched me on this particular journey, but it’s far from over. Inevitably, the more I learn, the more I want to know. 

Many thanks, Amy. You’ve provided excellent suggestions for other authors as well as a rich and rewarding look at the research involved in historical fiction for those who love reading this genre. I wish you every success with Island of Gold. PS: love the quote from Anthony Doerr.

Island of Gold by Amy Maroney ~~ When Cédric is recruited by the Knights Hospitaller to the Greek island of Rhodes, his wife Sophie jumps at the chance to improve their fortunes. After a harrowing journey to Rhodes, Cédric plunges into the world of the knights—while Sophie is tempted by the endless riches that flow into the bustling harbor. But their dazzling new home has a dark side. 

Slaves toil endlessly to fortify the city walls, and rumors of a coming attack by the Ottoman Turks swirl in the streets. Desperate to gain favor with the knights and secure his position, Cédric navigates a treacherous world of shadowy alliances. Meanwhile, Sophie secretly engineers a bold plan to keep their children safe. As the trust between them frays, enemies close in—and when disaster strikes the island, the dangers of their new world become terrifyingly real. 

You can reach Amy on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and on her website.

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.