Month In Review with Steve Rossiter (April 2013)
Writing Historical Novels has reached the end of its fourth month of articles, from this year’s diverse line-up of historical novelists from the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, Canada, India and Morocco.
The purpose of these Month In Review articles is to:
– provide a handy list of links to the articles for the past month, then to
– relate some of the content of these articles to my own novel writing to help novel writers and other interested people discover the month’s content and gain some insights into ways the month’s content can be engaged with in a practical context.
Articles for April 2013
This month’s articles and writing my historical novel
Jane Kirkpatrick wrote: At author forums, I am often asked what my writing day looks like or what my writing practices are that have helped me write a historical novel each year. I tell them first about a book, Structuring Your Novel by Robert Meredith and John Fitzgerald. It was a suggested read by my first editor and the book has enhanced my work before actual writing. One of the most important practices suggested in that book has been to answer three questions posed by the authors to would-be novelists.
The first question is: What is my intention? […]
The second question is: What is my attitude (what do I feel deeply about)? […]
The third question is: What is my purpose? It’s corollary is: How do I hope a reader will be changed by reading this work?
Paul Dowswell wrote: Setting a story in the past convincingly is one of the greatest difficulties for writers of historical novels – aside from creating memorable characters and a rip-roaring read, of course.
Eva Stachniak wrote: “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” – L. P. Hartley, a British novelist. For a writer of historical fiction this is a sentence worth remembering. They – the people who become the characters of historical fiction – do things differently, and a writer has to express these differences in ways that are not only correct but also relevant and meaningful.
The three questions discussed by Jane cover what you are writing about, how you will write about it and why you’re writing it. Answering these questions will require consideration of when and where your story will take place and who your story is about, covered by Paul and Eva’s points. That’s:
– who (will you write about)?
– what (will you show them doing)?
– when (will the story be set)?
– where (will the story be set)?
– why (are you writing this story, as opposed to a different story)?
– how (will you show the story to readers through your writing)?
The who, what, when, where, why and how above are as asked by the author. It is equally possible to ask who, what, when, where, why and how from the fictional perspectives of characters in your story-world. The discussion below deals with these questions asked from the author’s perspective.
If each question is given sufficient consideration, readers won’t be able to tell whether you started your story development process by, say, choosing a setting then adding characters then adding a narrative style then having a rough idea of the plot develop into a more detailed plot as you write, or whether you start with a kind of story you want to show readers then add characters then add a broad narrative style then add the setting and adjust the characters and narrative style to fit the setting before you start writing a full draft. Of course, there are many other possible combinations.
Many people’s ideas of character-driven or plot-driven stories are premised on starting with character (who) or plot (what) and neglecting other aspects of their novel, to the point that readers can tell which they started with. Similarly, many other writers start with setting (when and where), what the story means to them (why) or narrative style (how) and neglect other aspects of their novel. That’s why so many novels have lots of detail about the setting and lots of meaning for the author but an incoherent plot and a clumsy narrative style – for example, if it’s a historical novel written by an academic historian set in a place where they have family history. It’s also why so many novels have a defined plot but one that doesn’t seem to fit within a coherent and plausible story-world in which actions seem to be driven by motivations arising from the personalities of realistic characters – for example, if someone examined bestselling historical novels from the past five years and tried to distill the plot and character development for each novel into a series of steps to transplant into their own novel (or if someone read a writing manual based on someone else doing something similar). It’s also why so many novels have lots of detail about characters, such as lots of exposition about the characters’ backstories and descriptions of objects in relation to what they mean to characters, and character relationships, such as lots of introspection by characters about other characters, and lots of attention to abstract stylistics in the narration, but little sense of story purpose or momentum – for example, a novel written by someone who has studied a linguistics, sociology or anthropology course and is in the habit of speculating about abstract ideas and organising relationships between hypothetical constructs within and between minds. Again, there are many other possible combinations.
So a lot of things which could be avoided by asking some simple questions and coming up with some clear answers can, and frequently do, go wrong with novels.
Here is an example of how I might answer these questions about my novel in progress. There is a lot more I could add in response to each question – such as a day-by-day, hour-by-hour or minute-by-minute breakdown of when and where things will happen and plot it on a 1939 street map of Bydgoszcz, Poland, where my novel is set, which I’ve been doing. For the purpose of this article, I will keep the answers brief and let you imagine how each answer might be expanded into something much more detailed.
Who (will I write about)?
A Polish teenage boy who discovers he was born to German parents and adopted, and the people around him as he tries to keep his family together.
What (will I show them doing)?
When his biological parents tell him he is their child and that he was adopted – and try to take him from Bydgoszcz, Poland to Berlin, Germany to escape the conflict that breaks out in September 1939 – he flees back to Bydgoszcz and tries to keep together the family he grew up with, amidst the difficulties of life in Bydgoszcz during the German invasion and occupation of Poland during late 1939.
When (will my story be set)?
My story will be set in late 1939.
Where (will my story be set)?
My story will be set primarily in the city of Bydgoszcz in western Poland.
Why (am I writing this story, as opposed to a different story)?
The short answer, to quote my April Month In Review article for Writing Novels in Australia, which contains a more detailed explanation, is that “it’s meaningful to me as an exploration of human behaviour at a very significant turning point in world history – the German invasion of Poland in 1939, which brought the Great Powers of Europe into conflict and precipitated World War 2. It also personally interests me to go beyond the typical textbook and history book accounts of this setting to investigate the day-to-day human dimension of life in Poland in late 1939.”
How (will I show my story to readers through my writing)?
In my draft, as this is a novel-in-progress, my story will be told in first person, present tense from the perspective of the teenage boy discussed above. However, I could potentially change this if I decide that third person and/or past tense is better suited to the novel as I move it closer to its final form.
As you may have noted from the answers above, giving a proper answer to one question may create overlap with the answers to other questions because you are describing interdependent aspects of the same novel: who a character is in the context of story is related to what they do in the story, when and where the story is set will have some bearing on who the characters are and what they do in the story (at least in a story firmly situated in its setting), and so on.
Writing Historical Novels