Friday, August 16, 2013

When History Gets in the Way of a Good Story

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.

Case in point. When I approached the idea of writing Flight of the Earls, an epic saga of Irish immigration in the 1840’s I knew I was treading into dangerous waters. I wanted to make the setting during the Great Irish Potato Famine, one of the most significant historical time periods in Irish (and British) history.

But, I did not want the novel to devolve into political or religious commentary. This was an almost impossible task when writing about a historical event which was rife with conflict between the English and Irish as well as the Protestants and Catholics. Although those are worthy conversations between well-meaning historians and theologians, I did not want these topics to alienate most of my readers and to completely wash out the intended thematic purposes of the novels.

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

Claude Monet, among others, introduced French impressionistic painting with the idea that blurred detailing can actually provide a powerful and succinct image. Photographers use this technique as well by adjusting the aperture on their lens. They can draw the viewer’s attention close-up or far away in a picture with a simple twist of their hands.

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.

Unless a historical novelist is intending to take the central, stereotyped theme of the time period straight on (and this is done well all of the time), there is oftentimes more historical accuracy in keeping these events and cultural pressures in the background. Even during the most difficult times in our history, people found a way to press forward with their day-to-day lives. The dramatic tension between the quest for humanity during inhumane times, is what often makes for great fiction.

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.

Michael’s Website

Flight of the Earls
Amazon US
Amazon UK
In Golden Splendor
Amazon US
Amazon UK
Songs of the Shenandoah
Amazon US
Amazon UK


  1. Hi Michael, thought-provoking post, thanks for the summing up of the dilemmas we do indeed all face, and ways of solving them.

    Good luck too with your trilogy - you must be working really hard to get them out so quickly.

  2. Nice. I often struggle with finding details that I need. I will often just write around it when I can't find the information I need.

  3. Had to share. this is excellent, Michael.

  4. Michael, great post! I'm writing in the 17th century, Long Island, and the rife between English, Dutch and Native Americans cannot be ignored. I love your suggestions, and I particularly like how you said, "Even during the most difficult times in our history, people found a way to press forward with their day-to-day lives." Thanks for sharing!

  5. Hi Michael - great post, thank you.

    I have not long completed a draft of a story which is set in the trenches at Ypres 1917 and found that on many occasions I was caught up in getting facts right rather than exploring the character's reaction to the setting. I eventually decided just to write and then tweak details later. I found that helped create more flow...not sure what that technique is called though!!

    Thanks again.

  6. Great strategies. Your explanations are very clear and helpful. Sometimes the main issues focused on by the history books aren't the most interesting or useful for a story. In fact, by shifting focus, you can broaden your readers' mental picture of an era.


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