by Michael Reynolds
Those of us who make things up for a living understand the significance of meticulous research in our novels. This is especially true with historical fiction.
But does history get in the way of telling a good story? All of the time. The best way to get a historical novelist to tell a horror story is to ask them how historical facts and datelines got in the way of their perfect plot.
Yet, as fiction writers we know our primary role is as storytellers. So it becomes critical for us to develop some tricks of the trade in order to keep our novels page-turning and on plot.
This is particularly true with theme.
Historical novelists approach this challenge all of the time. We choose a time period because of its inherent dramatic setting and dynamic tension, but we must manage these external factors closely in order to preserve the arcs of our stories.
Here are three writing approaches that can be used to accomplish this.
The Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Strategy
One of my favorite movies is Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, from the play by Tom Stoppard. This is a quirky, sparsely-viewed comedy which parodies one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, Hamlet. The uniqueness of the play/film is that it tells the story primarily through the eyes of two of the most minor characters in the Bard’s play.
This same approach can be used by authors. For instance, if your lead character is Winston Churchill in the early 1940’s, you are going to have a difficult time with it not being swallowed up by World War II themes.
However; if you shift your lead character to a young man from India who happened to immigrate to England at the onset of the war, then this can take on a much different path.
The Monet Approach
I used this technique in Flight of the Earls as one of my prevalent themes was the preeminence of hope during the bleakest of situations. I didn’t want this message diluted or confused by Catholic versus Protestant diversions. I solved this by having my lead characters begin the story as Catholic (as they would have been in Western Ireland at the time) but not devout in their practices. That allowed me to blur the details. As their storyline advanced, the focus grew around their faith journey and not their denominational choice.
The Character Pigeon
Another technique that can be used is what I would term a “Character Pigeon”. The idea behind this is that you use a minor character (or characters) to carry the weight of the prevalent, but non-centric theme. That way you’re not ignoring it, but you’re freeing your lead characters to swim in the main waters of your story.
For instance, a World War II-era novel could have a minor character such as a retired, senile general who could be infatuated with the news of the day’s events. Or in the case of my story, I used minor characters that were strongly Catholic, Protestant, Irish and English. That allowed me to be accurate to the time, while keeping my leads out of the fray.
What about you? What ideas and techniques do you have when approaching this challenge?
Michael K. Reynolds is the author of the Heirs of Ireland Series, historical novels based on Irish emigration to America during the 19th Century. His critically heralded debut novel, Flight of the Earls, about the Great Irish Potato Famine released January of this year. In Golden Splendor, which highlights the San Francisco Gold Rush just launched and the Civil War-themed Songs of the Shenandoah concludes the series in January, 2014.