Dear Dr Darwin,
I’ve found a gripping set of historical events that I want to build a novel round, and before you start shaking your Tudor bonnet, it’s not because I have a non-fiction agenda: this is a glorious concatenation of politics, faith, personalities, clothes, weapons and all the other things that make historical fiction fun and exciting. I’ve worked out what slice of the actual history will make a strong story with a good structure, but I can’t find a way in: I’ve answered the What is my story about? question, at least for now, but not the How do I tell it?.
Muddled of Munster
If you’d first been gripped by a particular person or group, that What? would have painlessly narrowed down the options for How?, but you haven’t been. The idea that ‘Story is the journey you make; plot is the route you take’ is useful here; it’s the main character/s who will be the reader’s representatives in the outer and physical journey through these events, and the MC’/s’ inner and psychological journey/ies will be the one/s that we’re most engaged with (enough with the forward slashes!). So have a look around your world and the events of your story. Whose story offers the greatest scope for both outer and inner journey to engage the reader with full drama, with plenty at stake, and stakes that rise steadily? When you’ve got a shortlist of candidates, ask yourself these three questions of each of them:
Whose story is being told?
a) Are they real or fictional? With real historical characters you’re tied to the record, with the limitations and opportunities that presents: having lots of facts and historians’ analysis can be wonderful, or horribly restrictive, depending on the rules you make for yourself about what you must stick to and what you can change or invent. With fictional characters you have more freedom, but will have to find a way to slide them convincingly into the gaps in the real history. Robert Harris’s Pompeii uses almost all the possible combinations of fictional and non-fictional characters, and is worth studying.
b) Are they instrumental, or incidental? Remember that it’s extremely difficult to make a compelling story out of someone who is never instrumental in the events of their own life. But when it comes to historical events, too, choose carefully. Giving voice to those who’ve been ignored in the record is a great reason for writing historical fiction, but if you chose a protagonist who can’t convincingly be instrumental in the action and events then you’ve got a problem: there’s only so many slaves watching through windows, and women listening to messengers describing battles, that a novel can stand.
Who is telling this story?
a) An internal narrator: a character in the story who narrates in first person. They may be the central character, in which case it’s their take on things – their point-of-view – which defines your How: what do they choose to dwell on, or skim over, or skip altogether? And how does their personality affect the words in which they dwell or skip?
Or they may be telling someone else’s story, in which case you need to decide what sort of connection, job and personality will give you the most compelling How. The (fictional) servant of the (real) main character is a classic How, but what about an enemy, or a grandparent? But do remember that the drive and structure of the narrator’s own story matters too; they can’t just be a lens for someone else. Allan Massie’s Caesar does this very well.
b) An external narrator, who wasn’t present at the events, and so narrates in third person. It’s up to you how much personality you give this storyteller-narrator, and how much that shapes the What and the How; it may be no more than what comes naturally to your voice as a storyteller, inflected by the fact that it’s telling stories about the past (no couch potatoes in Medieval England, no helicopter parents in Periclean Athens). And don’t forget that, thanks to Free Indirect Style, characters’ voices, too, will colour the narrative as you get closer in to their point of view.
But you might choose to give your external narrator more personality in both language and attitudes. All our experience of the past is mediated through some kind of lens, after all, and chiefly by the written word: why not give the narrative voice that quality of subjectivity and individuality?
Where are they standing, relative to the events?
a) Everything narrated is within the ‘present moment’ and known past. Even if you use the traditional narrative past tense, you can lock the How close in, as if it’s being told from only just after it all happened. Present tense also works, but with an internal narrator it can be restrictive, as it’s so hard to escape from the monotonous ‘now-now-now’ of each passing moment.
b) The story happened earlier, and we’re aware that your narrator is looking back to recent or long-distant events. I’d say it’s essential, with an internal narrator, to decide Why they’re telling this story, as that will help you to decide the How: why has it become urgent and important, and what are they hoping to make happen by telling it: forgiveness? revenge? closure? But it’s worth thinking about this question for an external narrator too, however unspecified they are, as a way of developing the voice and making the How more interesting.
One last thought: obviously, an external narrator can know as much about anything in time or space as you want: it’s your story and you control what access you give them. But remember that an internal narrator, too, is a storyteller, making their own rules. Particularly if you form the story as that character-narrator looking back, they can since have discovered or understood more than they knew at the time, and that will inflect their How. You don’t need lots of ‘I didn’t understand then …’; just work out roughly how they might have come to this knowledge, and your How will be tacitly but consistently underpinned with likelihood; readers will happily go along with you.
Got a question for Dr Darwin? Email firstname.lastname@example.org. We can’t promise a reply but all questions will be considered for future columns.
Emma Darwin’s latest book, Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction, is out now. Emma has a PhD in Creative Writing (so she really is a doctor), was for several years an Associate Lecturer with the Open University, and shares her knowledge on her blog This Itch of Writing. Her fiction includes The Mathematics of Love, which was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Best First Book and other prizes, and the Sunday Times bestseller A Secret Alchemy.