Historical Determinants

Unless you would like to spend years writing your historical novel, you are advised to consider some cardinal points that will frame your concept. Starting from the ground up may work in history, according to Tolstoy, but that method can lead to dozens of pages you’ll later throw out. Here are some commonsense questions you should ask yourself:

First, why would a reader be interested in reading about a certain time period? Just because you are interested in the separation movement that ended with Kentucky becoming the 15th state doesn’t mean anyone else has any idea what that was. You can develop stirring characters and moving personal dramas, but don’t count on lines at the bookstore based on the concept.

Second, how much does the novel depend on the historical events that occurred during the time frame you have chosen? This genre has severe limitations on the imagination in the public sphere. If you start with the idea about how a family in the era fell apart due to historical circumstances, such as the father heading out west in the 1850s, you have to make sure that his participation in the Kansas border war does not lead the book so far astray that the family left behind is forgotten by the reader too. Otherwise, when he returns home, no one is going to care what happens.

Third, when mapping out the plot, how much research have you done into the historical figures and the events that will appear in the novel? You cannot narrate events that contravene what is known, and often a first pass through a general history of the era does not reveal the fine details you need to know. If you have a great idea about an African American counterfeiter in pre-Civil War New York City, a close look will inform you that blacks were not involved in that type of crime. Counterfeiting depended largely on how the “shover” presented himself to a merchant or banker, and you can’t dismiss the fact that, however wrongly, blacks were regarded in the city as second-class citizens. 

That leads to the question that any historical novelist favors: How well can you organize the novel’s plot around a historical event? To extend the prior example, the signal event for New York African Americans during this time period was the Draft Riots of 1863. So what does Kevin Baker do in Paradise Alley? He starts the novel with a black woman near the present-day Seaport who sees a gang of men marching and shouting in the streets about Abraham Lincoln’s new draft law. Historical and private events are entwined from the very start, and that makes the novel powerful.

“I was reading this book today, The History of Glue, and I couldn't put it down.”   —Tim Vine

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.