Thursday, 1 October 2009

Story Arcs in Historical Fiction

As any author will tell you, conflict is the essence of drama. It’s the primary ingredient that weaves together the other elements of a novel. Without conflict, you don’t have a novel. You also need a structured story arc, with subplots and a solution.

These principles, however, don’t quite fit when writing historical fiction. In history, the action, conflict and plot don’t necessarily follow a straight course, and often there isn’t a clean cut climax to give that satisfactory resolution all readers want when they close the back of the book.

Real life is messy, loose ends don’t necessarily tie up and there isn’t always a happy, or even an acceptable ending because in real life, heroes and villains don’t always get what they deserve.

Where the mists of time separate the author from the facts, who can really know how the characters felt at that time, so a certain amount of licence is required to make the story something a reader wants. True - that’s what makes a novel rather than a biography, but it is those details which present problems with my latest novel, and I have no idea how to begin solving it.

The external conflict is restricted to historical happenings and timelines, so I have to make the internal conflict stand out – but when that same ambition runs through the series of events and repetitions occur – and at which point do my readers become bored with the same thread?

In writing a first person novel, I’m also faced with setting credible scenes that my 17th century female heroine is likely to have been involved in. She won’t see any battles, and she’s unlikely to be a party to military and political activity. Nor is she going to be part of the Oxford Parliament of 1644, so how do I involve her in the action that takes her outside clichéd dinner parties and girly chats in drawing rooms?


Anne Gilbert said...

A great deal depends on what kind of historical novel you're writing. If you're writing biographical fiction, creating a story arc may be much harder than when you use fictional characters on whom whatever historical events, may have some impact. In the latter case, you can(I think) create a story arc using whatever events were happening to create or enhance a story arc.This is not "fudging" history at all(unless very little is know about aspects of the history). It is simply using the history as a way of influencing the characers' actions, so that a story arc, and story conflicts, can occur.
Just my 2 cents/pence,
Anne G

N. Gemini Sasson said...

This is a dilemma that tripped me up for a long time, until I realized there need to be two stories co-existing and their climax culminating at roughly the same point: the external (history) and the internal (how the heroine is either affected by and/or goes about influencing those external events). If events seem repetitive, some are better just skimmed over, allowing the pivotal ones to be explored more in depth. Now, how to get her involved behind the scenes? Well, I figure more than one eavesdropping per book and you begin to lose credibility with the reader. Letters? A spy that reports back? A discussion with a trusted friend at the event? An argument with a nemesis? The more variety the better, just as long as it's all plausible.

Jen Black said...

I agree with your probs! Probably this is why romance seems easier - matters of the bedroom are allowed. You could "invent" characters and weave them in among the historical ones. She can have a flirtation or two, argue with her mother, siblings, anyone at all...invent small happenings in the gaps. She could (gasp!) get pregnant and hide it from the world and the history books would never record it. You have to choose something that is "in character" for her, of course. Does she dabble in alchemy or has that died a death in the 17th century?

Jackie Hodson said...

Hi Anita - A little thought or two.
Does your MC have financial problems? Does she gamble? My own MC spent many years in litigation with the men in her life who were forever spending her money.
Is she a patron or a client or even a broker? Patronage was a huge part of 17th C life - and it's not a million miles away from blackmail!! Did she seek patronage from someone higher, or give it to someone lower? And with what conditions attached?
Women - then as now - were very good at setting up circles of spies and informers. She may not be at the Oxford Parliament but....!
All the best :o)

Swapna Raghu Sanand said...

I liked your point about conflict in a novel. I found it very relevant and will be using that point (with credit to you) on my next post. So, feel free to check it out.

Victoria Dixon said...

This is why I write what I refer to as "Historical Fantasy." I don't have to stick to strict historical facts, but can use them as needed. The best part is, it's not cheating. It's fantasy. ;D

Mirella Sichirollo Patzer said...

I concur, Anita. One of the pitfalls of writing biographical historicals is that there always is times of boredom. We do our best to create conflict through other means, and sometimes this makes us stray a little from fact.

It's part and parcel of biographical historicals and we all struggle with it. You are definitely not alone.

Dawna said...

I take a different approach (I know, I know - as usual, right???)

It's absolutely irrelevant that we're writing historical fiction. Irrelevant.

What matters - what makes a reader care about a story enough to BUY it - is whether that story has enough ambition, love, hatred, vengeance, greed, betrayal, jealousy, and defeat to carry it forward. And how well the author can make these things real for the reader. Those things are universal, and the reader can identify with them - whereas they may not give a hoot about Vikings, Tudors, Saxons, Egyptions, etc.

"The Other Boleyn Girl" is a perfect example of this. If you look closely, absolutely NOTHING happens - no battles, no swordfights, no military plotting. Yet it was made into a movie and became a mainstream hit. Why? Because it made day-to-day clashes into larger-than-life struggles with implications for the bigger picture. And those "little" clashes reinforced - but didn't give the blow-by-blow of - the historical events. Because ultimately the reader (I think) wants mostly to be entertained, and being informed comes a distant second.

Anyhoos - (sheepish grin that's the approach I'll be taking. I'll let you know how it works out :)

Anne Gilbert said...

Dawna and Mirella made some quite interesting observations, and I concur with both of them. For me, the problem with biographical fictino is that, well, it's episdoic episodic, unless the subject of your fiction has lived a very dramatic life. Life, for most people, even important ones, is "episodic". And, no offense to those who write such fiction, but that's why I won't. Waht I like is a kind of blend of historical fact and fiction, and that's why my main characters are either people about whom not a lot is known or completely made up. You can create a more dramatic story arc that way, yet still be "true" to whatever historical facts there are. But as Dawna said, it's fiction, not history. Make your choice and write the way you prefer. That's what I'm doing.
Anne G

Lisa Yarde said...

Part of why historical figures fascinate is because we often don't know everything about their lives. As long you know the end result of any pivotal scene, sketch characters actions and emotional responses to it within the realm of possibility. Who's to say you're wrong?

Glynis said...

I have had to stop and think a few times with mine. I have had to fight from adding a few extra historcal facts to 'beef' up a chapter. It has been a challenge and I hope I have managed to pull it off.
Good luck!