The Questions of Description and Detail:
Establishing the Context 3
the past couple of months we’ve been looking at the problems associated with adding detail to your stories to establish
the historical context. As we said, historical fiction can be divided into two broad categories: stories which do not rely
on historical events to further their plots, and those that do.
story is of the first variety, then your challenges are to create a realistic and consistent world for your characters that
your readers can see and understand, and we have devoted a great deal of time over the past months to the many ways of doing
that. However, if like many writers of historical fiction, you deal in stories that essentially “dramatize” historical
events, or at least make use of them to further your plots and action, you have challenges in addition to the basic ones.
You must not only re-create or build the historical world in which your tale is told, you must also provide sufficient detail
to allow your readers to follow and understand the historical events in play throughout your story.
take note that you have to do it in such a way as to keep the action moving and without sounding like a history book!
are various methods of doing this, and if you check back over the last couple of months, you’ll be able to learn about
some of them, but the method I want to discuss now is the use of dialogue. Through
dialogue you can place a great deal of expository material into the story without sacrificing pace, while at the same time
enhancing characterization, exemplifying relationships and building the historical world through the use of appropriate speech
patterns and vocabulary. Take this example from my novel Jade Hunter:
“It’s the bloody Frogs, d’you see,” said the admiral. “They have no
idea what they’re about. They’re having riots in Paris, they’ve arrested King Louis and the entire country
is going to the dogs by a short route.”
“What will England do, sir?” asked James.
“We’ll do what we always do, my lad,” snorted the admiral. “If the Frogs
force us into a fight we’ll fight ‘em and we’ll beat ‘em just as we always have, by God. There’s
no French ship afloat that can stand against an English man-‘o-war, you mark my words.”
“Do you believe war is imminent?”
“Aye, that I do. The First Lord tells me our ambassador to the French court, what’s
left of it, assures us that all France wants Louis dead and his family with him, and if he is executed, war is inevitable,
this brief exchange readers learn quite a number of things. They receive an insight into the admiral’s character and
way of speaking, see his contempt for France and the French navy, and also his almost jingoistic nationalism. Readers also
find out about the situation in France, the arrest of King Louis, the social chaos and the general hatred for the monarchy.
In the use of the expression my lad, we are also enabled to see that the admiral
has a certain friendly relationship with the other speaker. Furthermore, it is clear from the way the admiral speaks that
he is a man of the eighteenth century.
there is an important caveat to be noted here.
you use a character in your story as a vehicle for historical detail through dialogue, be sure you pick the right character
for the sort of information to be presented. The admiral mentions the First Lord, and
that is a reference to the First Lord of the Admiralty, a very powerful and influential officer with ultimate control over
England’s naval forces. For the admiral in the above example to have talked with the First Lord immediately identifies
him as a senior naval officer, and thus a man who would be in possession of the information he is imparting. In other words,
he has credibility as a source of information. You would not get dockyard gossip
from a man like the admiral, and by the same token, you would not get news from the French court via a serving wench in a
Portsmouth public house. The point sounds straightforward, I know, but it is an issue needing emphasis.
it is vitally important to choose your characters wisely when you want to use them for information on historical events. They
must be people who would be privy to the information you want them to impart to your readers. If you are not careful about
this, the scene will not ring true, and there is even a danger that your readers will see the inconsistency and the entire
story will lose its credibility, and you may well lose yours along with it. It is usually possible to count on at least some
willingness in your readers to suspend disbelief, but don’t push it.
used wisely and carefully, dialogue is one of the best and easiest ways to present historical detail in a clean, clear manner.