Dear Dr Darwin,
I loved doing the research for my historical novel, but a beta-reader friend says that “all the history stuff” is like lumps in the custard. I don’t want to write about Britain in 2014, but if I don’t explain and describe historical things, readers won’t understand what’s happening. Also, they won’t believe in my characters acting as they do, and the time and place of my story won’t come alive. But how do I get rid of the info-lumps?
Fifteenth Century Novice
We do love the history that goes into our novels, and so do our readers, but that makes it hard to spot when the tail’s wagging the dog: when the facts and descriptions are controlling your storytelling, instead of the other way round. We’ve all read novels where the storytelling keeps stopping, the frame is frozen, while the author lobs in a chunk of textbook, or a history lecture. I suggest that whenever you find yourself needing to describe or explain something to the reader, whether it’s history, geography, science or religion, or even just the characters’ own pasts, you ask the novel and yourself these questions:
1. Does the reader really need to know this? You’d be surprised how much readers will take on trust, if the little that you do put in is really vivid and convincing.
2. What’s the minimum that readers need to know for the world, its people and their conflicts to seem urgent and important? It’s like packing to travel light: don’t ask of each thing “Would this be useful or interesting?” ask “Is this essential?”
3. Can you convey this stuff through a particular character, as they experience what needs explaining or describing? That way the character is our representative inside the story and it comes alive for us because it’s real to them.
4. Can you convey the thing not just through the character’s action or knowledge, but filtered through their subjective take on it: their point of view? That means using their voice not just in dialogue but in free indirect style, where their thought colours the narrative voice. Then we get the information, but we’re still engaged with the character. Not only does that add to our sense of them, but we know that another character might think and feel differently; and these people and their world are suddenly a whole lot more three-dimensional.
5. Can you simplify what readers need to know? As playwright Rona Munro does in her utterly brilliant James plays, can you combine several real people (or places or events or groups) into one? Then there will be enough space in the storytelling for you to evoke this character (place, event, group) fully, and we’ll remember and understand them better.
6. Can you use one or two characters to embody and represent wider social or political forces? Again, we readers, being human, remember and understand things better when we’re emotionally as well as intellectually involved, which means connecting with fictional or real human beings, not abstract concepts.
7. Have you checked that your beta-reader actually gets history? Some really distinguished readers (and writers, come to that) don’t understand why anyone would be interested in anything beyond the boundaries of their own time and place, and the only solution is to find a different beta-reader.
8. Are you remembering that this isn’t a history book or a drama documentary, this is fiction? By definition, even if you’re calling your main character Henry VIII or Eva Peron, fiction is a story of something that never (quite) happened, set in a time and place that never (quite) existed. So you get to make your own rules about what needs explaining or describing, and what doesn’t.
Once you’ve made up your rules, all you need do is to keep them, except when the story needs you to break them. Your story, your rules … and the highest rule of all is that you must always do what makes the story work best.
Emma Darwin 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. She has been commissioned to write a handbook on writing historical fiction and is also the author of 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.