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Developing Original Plots From Historical Events, by Gary Worthington

Of course, historical novels do not need to be based on actual events or people. The plots and characters can be entirely imaginative, so long as the author strives to be as true as feasible to the details of the time period and the general setting.

Often we want to use a known historical person or actual events in our fictional tale. Sometimes the historical person may only appear briefly in the story, or an event may be in the background of a tale that is only peripherally related. Other times we want the historical person to be a major character in our story or even the protagonist, and we want our plot as a whole to be based on the historical events as they occurred in reality.

I’ve taken all of these approaches in various stories, but here I’ll focus mainly on using actual historical persons and events as main elements in the tales, since that can be the most challenging approach for a writer.

Sometimes, to the extent that the actual facts are known, they may not lend themselves easily to a straightforward sequence in a plot. Maybe the happenings are spread over too long a time period for the tale you want to tell (the Hundred Years War may be an obvious example). In some of my tales I’ve simply made a break between time periods by starting a new chapter, but I make it clear just how many years have passed since the end of the last chapter.

For example, part of my novel India Fortunes is a long tale featuring the famous Hindu warrior king Shivaji. I used a fictional prince as the protagonist who has a peripheral but important relationship with Shivaji during some known major historical episodes. The beginning of the tale is set in 1663-1664. The next events I wanted to use occurred in 1666 in another part of India. Rather than padding the story to fill in a gap of over two years, I started another chapter with the later scene and wove in mentions of some of the intervening events to bring the reader up to date on how the characters ended up in the new locale.

Often,  the historical person you want as your main character was never known to actually be present at some of the events you want to use as dramatic elements in your plot. A generally agreed upon rule in writing historical fiction, and one that I’ve always adhered to, is to not contravene any known significant facts. If the real life person was known to be elsewhere at the time of an event and could not possibly have been physically present, then you shouldn’t put him or her there.

On the other hand, maybe it just isn’t known where the person was at the time. In that case, barring any other major inconsistencies, you can feel reasonably comfortable in writing the person into the scene. Or if the character was thought to be elsewhere in the general time period but you can come up with a reasonable theory on how he could also have been at your scene, go ahead and use the plot device.

As an example, the first Prime Minister of modern India, Jawaharlal Nehru, tirelessly worked for decades to bring about his country’s independence from rule by the British. His travels and activities are well documented, typically down to the specific dates for each locale he visited. In my novella “Reformers in Mangarh” in India Fortunes, I wanted to have him give a speech before a crowd in the fictional town that appears throughout my India tales. Clearly he was never there, since the town never existed. But I found some dates when he was touring the general region, and he often traveled by train. So I had him and his daughter, the future prime minister Indira Gandhi, make a short stopover in 1939 at a fictitious railway junction outside my fictional town, where they were met by local residents with a motor car. The words that he spoke at the event in my story were taken from actual speeches he gave elsewhere.

Naturally, unless you can use an historical figure’s actual words as recorded, you should ensure you know enough about the person to feel confident he or she reasonably could have said the words you’re having them speak.

Typically, the farther back in time you’ve placed your story, the less is known about details of what historical figures did and said. In my young adult novel Elephant Driver, set during the time of the Mauryan Empire around 265 BCE, very little is known about the chronology of the activities of the emperor Ashoka. Our only records of what he said come from his messages to his people in the form of inscriptions on rocks and pillars. I felt free to have him say anything consistent with his personality as revealed to a limited extent in those inscriptions, and to place him wherever needed for the purposes of the tale.

What if you’ve thought about it extensively, but you just can’t make a character appear when and where you want him without violating known facts? You may just need to write around the event by leaving it out of your story, much as you might dislike doing that.  Assuming the luxury of a number of days to do the writing, my favorite approach is to let my subconscious work on this type of problem, as well as on other plot conundrums. Set the matter aside at least overnight, much longer if you can. Write another part of the tale or work on a different story. There are no guarantees, but it’s quite possible you may wake up one morning suddenly knowing how to solve the dilemma in your plot. I’m glad to say it’s worked numerous times for me, and often the stories are much better as a result.


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4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Reblogged this on DH Hanni.

    September 1, 2013
  2. Thanks so much for this post. It’s like you read my mind and answered many of the questions there! “Elephant Driver” is a great title, certainly piqued my curiosity to learn more about the book and perhaps read it. 🙂

    September 2, 2013
  3. Thanks for this. I also write about real events and people, and have this crop up a lot. It is helpful to see how others deal with this too. It has meant that further research has pulled up facts (such as a character’s execution turning up on the Old Bailey records which wasn’t there when I wrote and redrafted grr) which have caused a whole plotline to be culled and rewritten. At some point, however, you have to accept that you are writing fiction, not a fact book on your subject, and things added or taken away are done for dramatic reasons.

    September 3, 2013

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