It is some combination of confusing, intimidating and challenging to hear that the very thing that brings a story to life can also – too often, in fact – be the thing that kills it. This is especially true in the historical genre, as well as science fiction and fantasy.
It’s like salt in a great recipe. Absolutely necessary. But too much and the dish is rendered inedible, even though it remains visually appealing on the plate upon which it is served. Toxicity, in food and in storytelling, is often invisible.
The learning is this: it’s not about the salt. Never was, never will be.
Relative to fiction, I’m talking about “world building.”
Writing a story about a time and a place from history (the battle of Iwo Jima, the Alamo, the theater where Lincoln was shot, the Garden of Eden… etc.), for the primary purpose of transporting the reader into that time and place… at the expense of a compelling story unfolding within it… is the great trap for well-intentioned writers who don’t get this principle.
It is also the reason so many historicals get rejected.
And therein resides the seductive aspect of that trap: for you, the author, it very well might be all about the world you are building. It’s why you’re writing it in the first place.
You began with an interest in the time and place of the history you are writing about. Including the reliving of an actual event or time-span. You want to take the reader there with you, and so, you focus on the time and the place, even the event itself, rather than unleashing a compelling story that unfolds there, like a windmill on a landscape.
When that’s the case, story can become an obligation. And too often when that’s the case, it comes off as a contrivance.
It’s not about the landscape. When it works, it’s about the windmill.
The story of the ticket taker at the Ford Theater on the night Lincoln was shot… that’s not dramatic enough. Been there, read about that, saw the movie. Unless you make it dramatic and compelling enough to warrant a novel on its own, which means you have to integrate your story into the historical one. How?
Having that ticket-taker at the Ford Theater witness the tragic events of the night and then tell us his version… that isn’t enough. Having the people behind the assassination set out to eliminate him as a witness (speculative or not; who knows, maybe in your fiction the local cops wanted to frame J.W. Booth as an easy heroic fix)… now that is a story that will get you published. Same time and place, same potential to transport the reader there… but now it’s a story within the real story that comes at it from a new angle. Speculative or not.
Understanding the difference in that example is your ticket.
Published authors in these genres know how to strike the right balance between ambiance and dramatic tension involving the hero of the story (versus a hero who observes it, or wanders around from thing to thing while it’s all going down). Because they understand that, while the reader may have (like you) come for the world building (“I love WWII stories,” for example), they stay for the story.
The best way to learn the difference is to see it in play.
A novel should never be a tour of anything, as its primary narrative objective.
It should give us a hero with a problem to solve and/or a goal to reach… with opposition along the way… and stakes hanging in the balance, the strength of which moves the reader toward empathy.
This is as true for historicals as it is with any other genre.
Unless you’re reading unpublished (and unpublishable) work, you won’t find this type of lopsided, drama-lite, ambiance-rich narrative out there. In published novels you’ll find the balance stricken properly. The key for us as writers, then, becomes recognizing it as such.
And then applying that recognition to our own stories.
The best historicals plop their hero smack in the middle of the action. They play a role, they move the story along, rather than just watching the story move along. Unless your hero is a known person from that page in history, you’ll need to invent someone, and a role for them, that fits seamlessly into the actual history. An unsung hero in a well-known set piece.
Not all historical novels revolve around a documented event.
If your story is set in a time and place and that is the scope of your historical ambition (perfectly fine, by the way), you still need to present a compelling story that makes the time and place dramatic. In The Help (yes, it really was a historical novel), Kathryn Stockett certainly took us back to 1962 Jackson, Mississippi, but the story she told — the dramatic plot and the players within it — was totally of her own creation.
As in any genre, it is the quality of your invention that makes it work. In a historical novel you didn’t invent the history (either specific or ambient), which is why it needs more than the history itself.
Otherwise it’s like taking your reader to Disneyland after they’ve shut the place down… the fun lasts about 10 minutes before they turn off the lights, and there’s no caramel corn anywhere in sight.
The reader is always there for the ride, no matter how vivid and compelling the park itself (your time and place) may be.
Read this piece and find the gold that illustrates these points.
Bestselling author Robert Harris (Fatherland) has written a new spy novel based on actual events (An Officer and A Spy), a story so vividly drawn within a time and a place from history that the environment itself becomes organic and natural… allowing the story to emerge from within it.
This article from The Daily Beast wasn’t written for writers, per se, but if you look closely you’ll see how Harris has honored (seized the inherent power of) the principles described above: the story trumps the ambiance of the history, all while seizing the gritty ambiance of it both in terms of time/place and the events themselves, which are well documented.
Thanks go out to Mike Wustrack for sending this my way.