Meshing Public with Private

Writing historical fiction entails blending what is real with what is made up. Because, even today, so much that happens in a historical figure’s private life is unknown, a writer has plenty of room for the imagination. One bedeviling issue that can arise early in a book’s plotting is: how much dramatic weight should a defining historical event have on the story?

I’ll throw out an example to put the matter in more concrete terms. Let’s pick the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Let’s further postulate that your original story germ was a tale of two brothers who live on the big island of Hawaii: one for whom love goes good and the other where it goes bad. You were thinking it would happen in or around the 1930s because that’s a period in Hawaiian history you find intriguing. Yet Pearl Harbor is a draw for readers, who otherwise might shrug at a novel written during an obscure time in Hawaii. 

Once you decide to include it, a logical first impulse is to make the attack the climax of the book. I mean, how can you top Pearl Harbor as a plot event? You can’t get a more bang-up finale than that. Yet in your initial plot notes, you don’t have either of the brothers going to Oahu at all. Maybe one of the themes of the novel is the islanders’ resentment of the encroaching Americans. Do you really want to warp the entire book just so it includes an event that, admittedly, would be very attractive to readers of historical fiction?

You decide: one of the brothers could decide to sign up as a sailor in the summer of 1941. He’s rebellious, and he’s going to lose in love anyway. The more you mull over the consequences, though, the more you realize that you don’t want to research Honolulu, don’t want to research the requisite military history—heck, you hate that your tax dollars are wasted on the bloated military budget. So, does Pearl Harbor have to go in the trash can?

A marketing concern does not have to be a novel’s main concern. You could devise a scenario where the #3 male character in the book—say, a rival for one of the women—enlists only to be killed that day. The attack happens “offstage”—that is, not covered in a live scene. The fallout of public opinion would still wash over the book, but now the event is confined in the private sphere where you’d like the story to take place. 

Exercise: A good way to achieve both aims is to feature the selected character (the #3 in the example above) showing repeatedly their interest in your historical event. If that character talks in multiple scenes about proving himself as a man, or really hates the Japanese merchants in their Hawaiian town, you are guiding the reader toward the public aspect of the novel.

“What is history but a fable agreed upon?” —Napoleon Bonaparte

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved. 

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.