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Worlds Apart February 2008

February 2008 Issue


The Questions of Description and Detail:

Establishing the Context 2


First of all, New Year’s greetings to all the readers of the Muse Marquee throughout the world!


In our last column we began to examine the ways in which we establish the historical context for a story set in a past time. We said there were basically two general types of historical tales: those whose plots rely on, or at least make use of, actual recorded historical events, and those whose plots do not. We considered the latter sort last month because it tends to be the smaller of the two groups, but this month we will look at the first.


To summarize what we said last month, though, when we deal with stories whose plots are independent of historical events, our task is simply to provide sufficient description of the world at that time to allow readers to see and understand it as clearly as possible. The world that we build must be consistent, be free of anachronisms and as vividly real as we can make it.


All those requirements exist for the other type of story as well, but we face the additional challenge of providing information on the various historical events needed to move the storyline and plot forward. I use the word challenge for good reason, because although most readers of historical fiction do want to learn something, they usually aren’t interested in reading something that sounds like a history textbook. Hence, the challenge I refer to is one of placing the necessary information into the story in such a way as to make it both clear and easy for readers to absorb. Ideally, it should be entertaining as well.


So how is this to be done? There are a number of ways and a number of pitfalls as well.


The first pitfall is one we have often referred to, and that is the matter of pacing. It is important that historical information not be driven into a story like a wedge that ends up detracting from the storyline or stopping the action dead in its tracks. As writers we are always concerned with the flow, or smoothness, of our writing, and that is a particular concern here. When you inject a piece of historical information into a story it should fit naturally; it should add to the readers’ understanding of what is happening in the story as the plot unfolds at that stage.


So, assuming you are at a point in a story where some historical chronology or event must be included, you face the question of how to do it. To start with, you may simply place a paragraph of straight narrative exposition. This is perfectly fine so long as it does not represent too drastic a change in the point of view from which you are writing. If your POV is an omniscient one – which a number of historical fiction writers do use – then this problem is minimized, but if the story is couched in the POV of a particular character, the straight narrative may not work as well. One method of remaining true to POV is to use explanatory expressions such as: He had heard…, or, messengers had arrived with the news that… By this means you are able to explain how the POV character came into possession of the information that he or she needed to have at that time, and which you also want the reader to know as you develop your plot and storyline.


I use both narrative and explanatory expressions a lot in my own writing, such as in this example from my novel Jade Hunter


James knew war with France was virtually inevitable; it had been the subject of coffee-house gossip and speculation for weeks. The government had made it clear that if any harm came to King Louis there would be serious consequences, so when James read in the Portsmouth broadsheet of the execution of Louis on January 21st he knew he must prepare his ship for war. And news of that war came to him less than two weeks later by post rider from the Admiralty in London.


In this passage the POV of the central character, Captain Sir James Braidwood is preserved, while at the same time the historical events of the death of the French king and the outbreak of the war between France and Great Britain are set forth through a combination of narrative and explanatory expressions.


Next month we’ll look in detail at another technique of presenting historical detail through the use of dialogue. This technique, while probably the easiest way to provide context is not without its pitfalls either. Suffice it to say for now that even when characters provide information, they still have to have a way of knowing it in the first place!


Write on,