Writing Personal, Evocative And Novel Historical Fiction, by William Dietrich
Why do some historical novels become our favorites? The judgement, “It’s good,” is not analytical enough to help aspiring novelists. When you find a book you like it helps to figure out why its formula succeeded.
Here are three guidelines. Make it personal. Make it evocative. Make it novel, meaning it’s a view of history we haven’t experienced before.
Two American Civil War novels illustrate the first idea. Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage is loosely based on the Battle of Chancellorsville, but the reader is never told exactly where or when we are. It is a view of war solely through the eyes of Private Henry Fleming, who flees the first day of fighting but returns to become a standard bearer on the second.
The 24-year-old author had never seen battle, but his psychological exploration of fear and courage transcended any particular history. By making the novel internal, instead of external, it turned battle narrative into an exploration of the human soul.
Gone With the Wind has a broader canvas and distinct time and place. As a story it is arguably rambling and inconclusive, but selfish, willful, brave and foolish Scarlett O’Hara represents the South’s haughtiness and sorrow with a clarity a more politically realistic novel would have missed.
The character’s original name was Pansy, by the way. The book, nine years in the writing, was heavily revised by author Margaret Mitchell after its purchase, and she rewrote the opening chapter several times.
Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War is also sprawling but uses the same tactic of telling an impossibly big story, World War II, through the eyes of key compelling characters. For a writer, the lesson is harnessing character to convey epic.
Another tactic is to take us to a time and place with the vividness of a time machine. Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44 is a relentless thriller about a serial killer, but what really makes it enthralling is its paranoid evocation of Stalin’s Soviet Union.
Similarly, Alan Furst’s series of Occupied Europe novels such as The Polish Officer do not always bother with neat plots, but they utterly trap the reader in survivalist mode in Nazi society. His details of everyday life are creepily enthralling.
Kenneth Roberts’ 1937 novel Northwest Passage, set during the French and Indian War, or Brian Moore’s 1985 novel Black Robe, the source of an excellent movie about a missionary to Canadian Indians, make us forget what century we’re in.
A third tactic is to give the reader something new with a view of history that’s different. I try to do that with my Napoleonic Ethan Gage novels by having a hero who is American, not directly enlisted in either side’s military, and thus viewing the action with a cheeky and flamboyant eye that is very different than, say, a Horatio Hornblower or Jack Aubry. Ethan is by turns skeptical, awed and horrified.
Steven Pressfield’s Gates of Fire is a retelling of the ancient Battle of Thermopylae, but by immersing us in Spartan military culture it presents a view of the world completely foreign to modern Western readers.
Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man stands the Western on its head by having a hero who survives by flouting all the traditional heroisms. George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman novels do the same by making cheery fun of the Kipling tradition. Robert Graves’s I Claudius replaces the stereotypical Caesar with an accidental and stammering one at the mercy of ruthless women around him.
History is the starting point. The author’s vision and voice is the end.
William Dietrich’s author website: www.williamdietrich.com
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Writing Historical Novels