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Brooke Shaffer

Author, Ski Patroller, and Pasta-Eater Extraordinaire

Writing Historical Fiction: What

In this installment, we're going to discuss the what of historical fiction.

By this time, you have decided who your main character or characters are, their sphere of influence and other people they are likely to encounter.  You have decided the when and where, and you should have done some research on the years leading into and out of your intended time frame.

Now it's time to figure out what your character is going to do.  While the details are yours to decide, this is where all the elements come together.

Let's pretend you're writing a World War II story.  World War II was a big war, a long war.  Your main character can't be everywhere in every battle.  It is physically not possible.  So it's time to figure out the sequence of events that you want to hit.  Maybe you need to take your character out of the war due to injury or calamity at home.

Take a look at this list of battles in World War II.

If your main character is in Europe, you can immediately eliminate all of the Pacific Theater battles.

If your main character does not enlist until 1942, you can toss out all prior battles.

If your main character is destined to die in 1943, well, we know how that goes.

If your main character is destined only to be injured and discharged in 1943, you don't need to worry about battles afterwards.

If your main character is infantry, he is going to have a different experience than someone in the cavalry or a medic or a pencil pusher.

Special Note on Battles and Intense Action Sequences

Battles are chaotic endeavors with literally thousands of moving pieces.  Movies are the best at capturing the action because it happens so fast and you can see the pieces moving.  You can see it, hear it.  For some, you can feel it and remember it.  Books are a little different because it is slower processing the words and it slows the progression of events.  A bullet travels over a thousand feet per second, but it takes longer to read a sentence about bullets flying.  Now, you could mention in a single sentence that "bullets whizzed through the air" but the general atmosphere of the battle is done in only a few seconds.  You could also mention individual bullets that fly by your main character, pinging off of metal objects or burying themselves in stone or brick.  You could describe a volley of gunfire, but once again it takes several sentences to describe two seconds of action.

Intense Action Sequences (IAS) can be difficult to manage, in terms of getting the action and intensity across without dragging it out too long or making it too short.  So here are a few suggestions:

Describe the battle from multiple points of view.  My personal favorite, especially when done with characters in various functions (infantry, cavalry, medic, etc.).  You could also describe the battle from the opposing sides.  Personal thoughts are fantastic, especially when considering different cultures, different cultural values.  Empathy is fantastic.

Describe the battle from a crow's point of view.  Maybe a literal crow, or the God point of view.  This is good for lesser battles.  Especially in fantasy and other battle, when you don't want to get too amped up over every battle, this can be a good way to have a battle without automatically going to a black out.  If you plan to revisit a site for a battle, going for the crow the first time around can really help set up the geography of the situation, allowing for more freedom in the second battle.

Describe the battle in retrospect, as from a diary entry or letter home.  This can help ease the expectation of extreme action, as in the movies, and while the same information is conveyed, it may be more appropriate, depending on the focus of your story.

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And on that note, your what is going to change depending on how your story is told.  OSaS is written as a reflective narrative, rather than a present story.  Therefore, detail is on a need-to-know basis.  Later on, when it turns into a present story, it is still more about Owain's thoughts and his struggles in life.

In the next installment, we're going to cover what no one wants to find in a historical fiction, especially their own novels: mistakes.

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