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Brooke Shaffer

Author, Ski Patroller, and Pasta-Eater Extraordinaire

Writing Historical Fiction: What (Redo)

Again I apologize for my terrible, distracted writing from before, so here is the redo for WHF: What.  Seeing how it is New Year's Eve, I decided that this would be an excellent launching point for the (new) piece.

The "what" of your historical fiction piece refers to what your character or characters will experience.  There are two ways to approach this:

The Action-Based, High-Intensity Piece

This is going to be war, politics, and other major events that people have probably heard about, whether locally or globally.  In war stories, your what potential sequence of events is going to involve battles, political changes, and the every day riffraff.  The events are more rigid, in that, they pretty much have to happen, or at least end, a certain way.  The American Civil War has to have the Union win (with exception of intentional alternate history or other thought pieces).

This approach is ideal for those who are good at the technical but lack in the creative.  Maybe you can write a painfully detailed battle scene, but when it comes to regular family life, well, your dialogue sounds like it belongs in the Star Wars prequels.

That's not to say that you can just skip from battle to battle to battle.  Otherwise you're just writing a historical analysis, not historical fiction.  There should be some overarching theme, a goal for the character to hit, something to wrap up the story and come to a satisfying ending.  Maybe your character is a naive young lad who romanticizes war in his mind, and through a series of battles and other war stuff, he learns more about the world and himself and grows as a person, all of it culminating with a short scene at the very end where he is old now and tells another naive young lad not to run off to war because he thinks it's glorious.

With an action-based piece, especially in historical fiction, the base story is written for you.  You're just interpreting it for a new, fictional character.  This gives you some time to craft your character (see WHF: Who).

The Thought-Based, Interpretive Piece

These stories, while they may take place around, say, the Civil War, do not focus on it.  Maybe your story is focused on the family the soldier left behind.  In this case, you're going to be drawing on historical counts--whether newspapers, diaries, general research--in order to craft a realistic series of events that could reasonably be considered standard for the time.  Some creative license may be taken, but overall, it would be believable and provides good insight into the time.

This approach is good for those who are more creative but perhaps struggle with the technical.  You can take bits and pieces of information from various sources and work your magic to pop out Little House on the Prairie (or something).

The pitfall here is that you still have to stick with the times, and deviating from set, known events (like war and battles) into the wilds of creativity can tempt the author to go off the rails into something unbelievable.  And history is rife with unusual or now-unpopular views.  While it may be tempting to make your character "ahead of their time" in particular views, not everyone can be like that.

What this means for your what is that shying away from difficult historical events does not free you from difficult historical views.  Let's say your main character is a woman and children left behind by her husband who goes off to the Civil War.  Let's pretend they're Confederate who are nice people but see no problem with slavery.  They're not mustache-twirling villains.  They themselves have no slaves.  They just prefer things to remain the way they are, and they don't like the idea of the Union invading their home.  Maybe you want your wife and children to come to the realization that slavery is in fact wrong, and slaves ought to be freed and treated with the dignity of any human being.  Sorry to say, this isn't going to happen in a vacuum.  Your wife and children can't just huddle at home under the blankets and suddenly have an epiphany.  Hubby is out fighting the enemy for them, to protect them and their way of life.

Your main characters, then, will have to experience life.  And they will have to experience some difficult events and have some tough conversations.  In this instance, battles are far away.  You don't have to worry about the precise movements of the enemy soldiers, but political fallout may resonate more strongly, especially in the social scene.  Then you have a different set of events to contend with, drawing on other historical accounts.

The point of the what is to drive the story to its conclusion.  You have a time and place.  You have a character.  What happens to that character?  What conclusion do you want them to reach?  What changes do you want to effect in their lives?  What events are going to shape this and why?

Events and Psychology

The same event can affect different people in different ways.  This is where preplanning can come in handy.  Maybe your story starts with your character in their 20's.  Investigating other events that would have happened to them when they were a child (or to their parents) can help to shape the present moment.  Maybe your main character is perfectly okay with slavery, but he's never left his marble palace to see the fields.  When he finally sees a slave being mistreated or dying in the fields, he is going to react differently than, say, his father who not only sees it regularly, but doles out the punishment himself.

It's not enough for an event to simply happen.  Your character has to react to it, and this, too, will shape the what.  Maybe your soldier character is excited to run into his first battle.  Suddenly he realizes what battle is.  His second battle, he's not so eager, but he does it anyway.  His third battle, he runs.  He deserts.  Or maybe he has a psychotic break and by his third battle, he has alienated his friends and is even feared by them because he's gone insane and loves the thrill of battle and no longer feels.  He's almost not human anymore.

So maybe you're planning a Civil War novel and decide, "I want him to go into this, this, this, this, and...this battle." If he gets to that fifth battle and is still the same person he was when he first enlisted...sorry to say, but do you even war?  I'm not saying he has to drop out, but zero character development can hurt even the most well-crafted sequence of events.

Similarly, a housewife is going to change while her husband is gone to war.  Before, she always had this support and security, and now she's left alone to do everything.  She is going to change as she must become strong.  Maybe she steps up.  Maybe she has an affair.  Maybe she moves back in with her parents.  Or maybe her husband was a lazy drunk and she's glad to be rid of him.

The Finale

The thing about history is that it's still going on.  I don't know about now, but even The History Channel's slogan used to be "History.  Made every day."  So, to that end, it can be difficult to choose an "end" to your story.  In war, the logical conclusion might be the end of the war.  But whether you are writing an intense, action piece or the more fluid thoughtful piece, the story can end at any point once the goal has been reached.  Again, in the intense stories, if you have no "in-between" moments and jump from event to event to event, it's not fiction, it's an analysis.  On the flipside, in the thoughtful stories, if you never anchor your piece to any even remotely recognizable historical event, it's not fiction, it's a diary or a fantasy.  Intense stories need character development in order to come to a meaningful conclusion.  Thoughtful stories need events to shape your characters in order to come to a meaningful conclusion.

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