by Susanne Dunlap
Planning ahead is especially important when you’re writing a historical novel—whether it’s based on family or local history or anything else. Why? Because there are plenty of research rabbit holes and world-building pitfalls you can avoid, or at least mitigate, if you’ve thought through the broad strokes first. That doesn’t mean you can’t follow your instincts and imagination when you’re writing. It just means you’ve put a few important structural factors in place to make your project more doable.
So what are these magical factors? Not so magical, in fact. Simply ask these questions about your story: Why? When? Where? What? Who?
Let me explain.
Why ask why? There’s a very good reason to ask yourself why you want to write this novel you have in your head. It’s simply that writing a novel—any novel—involves commitment, work, passion, more work, more commitment, and more work… In essence, you have to be certain you have the will to do what it takes to bring your idea to life, and that involves discovering what makes you believe in this story. It takes more than simply wanting to write a book. You have to really, really, want to write this particular book.
Narrow down your when. Of course in historical fiction you start with the period during which your novel takes place. But that’s just the very beginning. You need to define narrower limits if you have any hope of doing your story justice. Think about the points at which the specific story you want to tell begins and ends. And then look again and see if you can tighten it further. This will help not only with story structure, but with focusing your research where you really need it.
Where is important too. This goes hand-in-hand with when. Having a specific location or locations is not just helpful for limiting the scope of your research, but with moving your characters around. And perhaps most importantly, it’s the basic foundation for your world building.
What happens? Think about it. The central events, the central conflict of your story, will power everything forward, creating that all-important narrative drive. Think of the big, “tentpole” scenes that form the underlying scaffolding for your story. Once you determine the what, you can structure your research around topics that really matter to your story. And at this stage, they’re not set in stone: they’re just guidelines to light your way when you get mired in a messy middle, or find yourself diving down a research rabbit hole.
Who is your protagonist? Although the plot gives your story momentum, the real force of propulsion in a novel is the protagonist’s interior journey, the decisions, the reactions, the consequences of their mistaken beliefs. In fact, someone whose name I cannot remember said that the story starts the moment the reader cares about the protagonist. And it’s your job as a writer to make sure the reader cares. So when I say “who,” I don’t just mean that in an external identity way. I mean who—in essence, in their heart—is your protagonist. In historical fiction, therefore, your best protagonist might not be the one at the heart of all the action, but the one with the most action in their heart.
These are the broadest strokes of the kind of thinking that will help you wrap your arms around a meaty historical story. I’ll be going into much more depth and detail in my upcoming workshop, Spinning Your Gold: Turning Family/Local History into Fiction. I hope you’ll join me!