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01 February 2011

History as Backstory


In the beginning… Wait a moment, what is the start of a historical novel? Of course, it’s when things get interesting for the characters but when and how much should the novelist start feeding the historical backdrop into the story? How do you hook modern readers on the story without losing them in dry details about an era that ended before their grandparents were born?

I admit I’m pondering this as I write the proposal for a new historical fantasy. Writing any story’s beginning is brutally hard for me – don’t even get me started on penning opening lines! – and I usually go through five or six tries before I get a scene that I like. While I was tearing out my hair, it occurred to me that historical authors might have to consider a few more tricks when starting a book. After all, we have to sneak in backstory for our setting – things like war (Waterloo, anyone?), legal principles like women’s rights, wildly different styles of clothing and shelter, and so on – all while rapidly sucking the reader into the book. Contemporary authors can at least hope that somebody else will have told their reader about these basics. (Not that their job isn’t hard, too; some critics argue that the reader knows so much they’ll be picking holes in every detail and the author must get them Right. But I’m here to talk about the extra Big Stuff a historical author needs to sneak in early.)

So what is history as backstory? How soon does it need to hit a book’s pages?

A story is always about conflict, or trouble. That’s not going to change, no matter how recently it occurred. But what about how it’s told? Les Edgerton’s HOOKED gives several elements to consider. The Setup “sets up the opening scene by giving a snapshot that allows what will take place in the following scene to be clear to the reader.” Backstory is “anything and everything that’s happened up to the time of the inciting incident.” It’s easy to see how history fits into Setup and Backstory. Some description of a castle or ballroom in the Setup, perhaps a long-departed political event or maybe a key cultural change to fuel the Backstory…

But they’re not the important stuff. That comes with what I think of as the Starting Three: The Inciting Incident is what kicks off the story, “the crucial event – the trouble – that sets the whole story in motion.” The Initial Surface Problem “propels the protagonist to take action and assists in eventual revelation of” the Story-Worthy Problem, which “is the real problem that the protagonist must reconcile by the story’s end.” (As you might guess, a large array of Surface Problems usually accompany a solid Story-Worthy Problem.)

Where does history fit into these? It’ll obviously affect Setup and Backstory. For my westerns, I usually handled Setup by a single line at the beginning of each chapter giving the date and place. I used this to very quickly frame THE IRISH DEVIL’s opening scene, where my frustrated hero wakes up in a brothel during Arizona’s Apache Wars. But Backstory? Okay, that will definitely include stuff no contemporary character would think normal. When should it be introduced?

Now, Jane Austen wrote contemporaries but that was centuries ago. Today’s readers consider them historical novels. A male coworker told me he hated Jane Austen because her movies are all about balls and dances and “where’s the danger in that?” I blinked, then asked if he’d ever seen SENSE AND SENSIBILITY, the tale which exposes the dirty historical reasons for women’s fixation on Catching the Right Man.

In her SENSE AND SENSIBILITY, the Inciting Incident is Mr. Dashwood’s death. The Initial Story Problem is will John Dashwood take care of his stepmother and half-sisters? No, he doesn’t, which triggers the rest of the book. The Story-Worthy Problem is will impoverished Elinor and Marianne marry and be happy, despite society’s strict insistence on marrying only for money? Honestly, do we need to know exactly what year Mr. Dashwood’s death takes place? Not in my opinion, at least not when the book opens. However, the tension humming behind Mr. Dashwood’s request that John look after the ladies? Frankly, that’s not very twenty-first century when women usually have other financial options than depending on male relatives’ charity. Hmm, starting to feel the need for some historical backstory here. As for the Story-Worthy Problem? Why do our heroines wind up in that tiny cottage after living at that truly gorgeous estate? Why did the Colonel’s lost love descend from impoverished respectability into prostitution when he didn’t marry her – and is that fate truly possible for our young heroine? All this conflict makes me very sure historical backstory will come in very handy to understand all the dangers to my heroines.

Now I admit I throw history into my westerns a lot faster than that. For example, THE DEVIL SHE KNOWS’ Inciting Incident is teenaged Portia Townsend’s unwelcome arrival at a stagecoach depot deep in Arizona, during a series of Apache raids. Initial Story Problem is how can Gareth Lowell get Portia to Tucson alive and well so she can help succor her foster family? (Alive, yes – but in the process, he totally destroys her hunger for him.) Story-Worthy Problem is will Portia grow up and convince Gareth her home is with him – no matter where that is – in time to save their lives and an empire? Yup, I stuffed the history straight into the Inciting Incident and emphasized it in the Initial Story Problem and Story-Worthy Problem. (Hopefully, it was emotional and fully understandable!)



What about the new book? Mercifully, my historical fantasy is – so far – being fairly well behaved as to when it wants history spoon fed. The first chapter takes place in a setting so iconic that I only need to identify it within a century and a thousand square miles or so. (Yes!) However, the second chapter becomes very specific as to time and place, zeroing in on a single city in a single month and year. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

What about you? How early to you like to smooth your history into your story and how do you do it? What about your favorite historical novel?

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9 Comments:

Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Such a difficult, complicated, fun fun fun question, Diane, with so many answers working in concert.

For me a few of the biggies are:

History as manners? If you have some understanding of the class structure of, say, Regency England, it's an important way into real issues of inequality and opportunity (not to speak of ways in which h and h perceive each other, not to say some neat opportunities for lust).

History as event? How many of our heroes' lives are changed at Waterloo?

History as h/h conflict? a subsection of history as event, in some ways. As my husband likes to say of my THE SLIGHTEST PROVOCATION, how many romance heroes and heroines argue about habeas corpus? (Post coitus, I might add.)

And also a subsection, sometimes, of history as social structure.

So many opportunities for change and conflict -- and hot sexuality. Not easy to do, but a wonderful challenge.

9:08 AM  
Blogger Diane Whiteside said...

Hi, Pam! Yes, you're so right: How history plays into the conflict affects how you introduce it.

My THE IRISH DEVIL is actually "history as manners" as you so neatly put it, where class structure fuels inequality and opportunity. My hero's lust for my heroine drives that western's plot because there's no way on an Anglo-Irish estate, he'd have been allowed near an upper-crust Anglican aristocratic lady. But I could delay sneaking his motivations into the story until after readers knew why she was in such a fix.

History as event? Gosh, I love to read books that revolve around that, whether it comes in the beginning, fuels the book itself - THE SPANISH BRIDE, anyone? - or powers backstory. In Elswyth Thane's THE LIGHT HEART, I understand exactly why Rosalind marries that Prussian prince in 1897 instead of Charles, her childhood friend. But OMG, the heartache that follows...

History as h/h conflict? I must reread that scene in THE SLIGHTEST PROVOCATION! I'm always fascinated by authors who make both sides of a historical argument relevant to today's reader.

12:07 PM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Great post, Diane (and cool trailer!). Since my novels are about actual historical figures, my biggest problems aren't what to put in, but what to leave out!

2:04 PM  
Blogger Diane Whiteside said...

Hey, Leslie - Glad you like my trailer! Isn't it always a pain figuring out what to omit when a story is set firmly in one time and place? I ferociously pruned BOND OF BLOOD to keep the Spanish medieval history down to something remotely comprehensible by modern audiences.

Given all that, how do you figure out what to leave out? For BOND OF BLOOD, I even had problems mentioning clothing and swords (!) because they were so different from English/French customs at the same time.

2:23 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

This is a terrific post, Diane, and very helpful! I am always afraid I am including too much historical detail and then not enough. Walking a fine line to say the least. Especially if you've spent hours researching something and realize to your chagrin you are only going to use half a sentence to get it into the story. So much of writing Regency historicals is writing in such a way that the rules of society aren't broken, until your hero and heroine DO break them and then the fun begins! So far I have smoothed the history in as setting, in the dialogue and in characterization. But as Joanna Bourne says - the first million words are for practice! I just strive to get better and better at it with each book!

4:43 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

And by the way the trailer is gorgeous!

4:45 PM  
Blogger Diane Whiteside said...

Louisa - Isn't it amazing how long it can take to research something - and then how appallingly little space it takes in the book? For THE NORTHERN DEVIL, it took me months to figure out how the cabal behind my villain worked. (And how my hero's father could twist it to affect a rapprochement. ) Yet all that work came to only a single published page. Le sigh.

Great quote from Joanna Bourne! Yes, the first million words are just for practice. We must make wordsmithing look easier and easier with every book somehow.

Glad you enjoyed TDSK's trailer!

6:59 PM  
OpenID JaneE2059 said...

I am not a writer, but I love reading historical fiction. I really like when an author writes historical details accurately.

This isn't about a book, but a television show. I saw a few episodes of THE TUDORS, and I hated when they got the details wrong. It bothered me so much that I stopped watching altogether.

9:16 PM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

To address Jane E's comment: I agree wholeheartedly. And being an actress also, the mostly abominable acting in THE TUDORS makes it doubly painful for me to watch. And because I also write historical nonfiction, it makes me crazy when shows like THE TUDORS get it SO wrong -- because (a) it's just as easy to get it right; and (b) most of the time, the real history is a whole lot juicier and more compelling than anything the screenwriters could come up with. What stymies me is that the producers on THE TUDORS have given interviews explaining that they knew that they were playing fast and loose with the facts, but chose to do so anyway. Did they not trust the intelligence of their audiences to be ok with the fact that more than one person was named Mary at the time?

All I can hope is that shows like the Tudors spur people's interest in reading the real history.

10:13 AM  

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