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Hooking Readers With The Opening Of Your Historical Novel, by William Dietrich

Don’t start your novel at the beginning of your story.

Oh, your historical novel will have an opening, of course. But you want one that really grabs the reader, and that often means advancing into the story to create an effective grabber.

Yes, your pioneer family has an interesting lineage, a noble struggle moving from civilization to the frontier, an exhaustive period of cabin building and crop sowing, and so forth, but the reader imagines all this anyway. Consider starting with the Indian attack at dawn that is going to set the subsequent plot in motion. A blood-curdling howl is a better hook than a judicious discussion of whether to move west.

I open The Emerald Storm with hero Ethan Gage, intending to retire, instead clinging to an icy fortress wall. Then I backtrack. We wonder what the devil he’s doing there, and how he’s going to escape.

In retrospect, I could ramp up the start of some of my novels. I dearly love Hadrian’s Wall but it begins with a historical prologue, which always risks reader impatience: get to the real story! Then there is a Roman inspector trying to piece together the tale of a disaster that has already happened. It works, but I could have jumped into the story with immediate blood and thunder.

You don’t have to dip very far into your tale. My first novel, a Nazi-era thriller called Ice Reich, begins near the beginning, with a flight into an arctic storm. But I didn’t begin with extensive background on my down-on-his-luck hero, or with his takeoff from an airfield, or with explanation of Nazi ambitions. I needed a punchy lead to engage the reader.

The result: “The flying was bad. The corpse made it worse.”

What corpse? That brings us to another effective way to hook the reader. Can you pose a question that your text promises to answer? We humans are curious as cats and will keep turning pages to learn who, what, when, where, how, and why.

When Dickens tells us ‘it was the best of times, it was the worst of times’, we want to know why. When Tolstoy claims ‘all happy families are alike but unhappy ones are unhappy in their own way’, we want to know how.

Thriller writer Lee Child suggests, “Pose a question on your first page that you don’t answer until the last.”

Another strategy is surprise. In The Lovely Bones we’re told immediately that the narrator is already dead and in heaven, arousing our curiosity. In Little Big Man, we’re told the narrator is a hitherto unknown white survivor of Custer’s Last Stand, again intriguing us.

Grab attention. In The Rosetta Key, Ethan opens by eyeing a thousand musket barrels aimed at his chest. In The Scourge of God, a Roman emperor and Catholic Bishop set out to strangle the lover of the emperor’s sister.

Readers want authors to succeed, but they have limited time and literally millions of choices. If they bite on your hook, don’t let them wriggle off. Snap the pole by making them want to know more.


William Dietrich’s author website:

William Dietrich’s bio page


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The Emerald Storm: An Ethan Gage AdventureThe Rosetta KeyHadrian's Wall: A NovelScourge of God: A Novel     Hannibal: Enemy of RomeThe Winter Palace (a Novel of the Young Catherine the Great)Fortress of Spears (Empire)

Writing Historical Novels

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