Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Historical Fiction—Doing it Right

I write historical fiction. I chose this genre because I enjoy the research and a historical novel can last forever. My first book was a nonfiction computer technology book that was obsolete before Wiley could get it on bookshelves. After that experience, I vowed never again to write a book that had a three nanosecond shelf life.

(The Shut Mouth Society is a contemporary thriller, but it still has a strong historical theme around Abraham Lincoln.)

I enjoy history. History is the big, ongoing story about how we developed as a world and as a nation. History is a gazillion stories about people who lead, hindered, or stood around as stuff happened. Every one of them has potential to be an interesting story.

In nonfiction, events should be factually accurate. Historical fiction, on the other hand, can go places where nonfiction dare not tread, but it should stay true to the tenor of events. Although historical fiction may be free of the rigors of documentation, it remains subject to the precepts of storytelling. That means historical fiction, like all fiction, must have a beginning, middle, and end and remain interesting throughout. That’s always a tough assignment, but especially difficult when telling about real events.

A few months ago, Chuck Sambuchino wrote “How to Write Historical Fiction: 7 Tips on Accuracy and Authenticity.” I agree with all seven, but would add an eighth: don’t let research interfere with telling the story. This is not original with me, of course. It is usually stated: don’t let your research show. It’s tempting to drop a factoid into a storyline. Interesting tidbits can add spice and intrigue. They may do just that, but unless the information moves the story forward, it should be cut. The prime directive of storytelling is to never take the reader out of the story. A fascinating sidebar does exactly that. In fact, the more fascinating, the more likely it will distract the reader away from the story. Good writers should cut everything extraneous to the storyline.

Adhering to an accurate timeline can also ruin a story. Tempest at Dawn is my novelization of the Constitutional Convention. In my first draft, I presented speeches in their proper historical order. My book was as disjoined as the actual convention. When someone gave a speech, it took days for an opponent to craft a rebuttal. All kinds of other subjects were discussed in between. By remaining faithful to the actual sequence of events, the critical elements of pacing and tension were lost. I decided to write a historical novel about the convention to bring life to the characters and intrigue. Exactness was defeating my purpose.

There are many top quality history books on the Constitutional Convention, so I decided to tell a rousing story that was true but not completely accurate. In my first major rewrite, I adjusted the convention sequence so speeches were immediately followed by rebuttals. Since I only included the controversial or emotional speeches, the book suddenly took on energy. I also discover that the adjusted timeline made alternate opinions more easily understood.

I resolved the ethical question with a Historical Note at the end of the book that explained I had reordered speeches for clarity. A simple solution to keep the story moving.

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