Cut Yourself Off

Historical novels consist of thousands of details, and when you come to the end of a draft and realize you need to cut it down—sometimes by ten of thousands of words—the question is: which details should go? One productive method involves the dictum: show, don’t tell. While this principle applies universally in fiction, the writer of a historical novel can be especially guilty of violating it—because so much has to be explained just to make the time period feel authentic.

A question that helps narrow down any given point is: does the material belong to the present? No matter what time period is chosen, a novel always has a present setting. Background material occurs in the past, as in all novels. Yet because a historical novel is set entirely in the past, its background and present information can be more tightly interwoven. For example, a character remarks, “Alexander Hamilton won’t approve of that.” Then the narrative explains the context in which the remark must be judged: not only the circumstances around the issue but the way Hamilton felt about it prior to the time of the remark.

To accomplish these twin aims, a writer ends up with two paragraphs, at a minimum. Yet you can cut them down by a simple determination: which of the two, the issue or Hamilton’s feeling about it, is more important. If it’s a well-known issue, such as the need for a national bank, you don’t have to explain much. The reader of a historical novel probably already knows a number of factors, including the establishment of the Federal Reserve in 1913. Yet Hamilton was so far ahead of his time, and the explanation of his passion is the core material to keep.

On the other hand, if it’s a minor issue, such as a law case he handled, that paragraph might be dropped in favor of a simple reply to the remark: “You know how much he hates customs officials.” Nuff said, because the story really doesn’t have to slow down for your nugget about how he handled such and such customs case in 1802 or whenever.

You can extend that logic to multiple paragraphs about the same topic. You might have several on how much George Washington valued Hamilton as his wartime aide. Just ask yourself: which of the incidents you’ve listed is the most telling? Pick that one and brush off the other(s) with a single remark. Even if you haven’t made the point as fully as you thought was needed, leave some of the issue allusive and move on.

Exercise: An easy target for cuts is an extended conversation about a topic. Rather than following the dialogue as it wends its way from one historical point to the next, a bridge that often takes awhile, cut the talk short. Insert a single narrative sentence that summarizes the bridge. In all likelihood, you will cut 10 lines to one.

“I don't mind a little praise as long as it's fulsome.”
―Adlai E. Stevenson

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine

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