Writing fiction based on history is a multifaceted challenge. Like an uncut diamond, a good story based on historical fact can be the heart of a great novel, a polished gem. There are literally millions of such stories out there. As a writer, I not only hear them regularly, I seek them out. The truth though, is that while these stories can be compelling in their own right, they often can’t carry a 300+ page novel. What is a novelist to do?
Research, Research, Research
A writer faces a difficult task, staying true to a story often not their own. They must make the story compelling enough to keep a reader interested to the end and to compel that reader to recommend the story to others. At the heart of that task is thorough research.
Often research begins with a story told by someone who experienced it. In some cases, the story may be relayed by someone who has heard it, but not experienced it directly. There may be increasing levels of separation between the author and the event. Stories though, while unique, do not exist in a vacuum. That’s where the writer’s research begins.
For any writer worth his or her salt, knowing as much about the period of which they write and seeking out other similar stories is critical. A science-fiction writer creates worlds. A historical history writer re-creates worlds. Today, research is easier than ever. There’s nothing one can’t find on the internet. It’s all there, forever, and I say that with a sardonic smile.
Once you’ve settled into the heart of your story, get acquainted with the period. Look at photographs of the setting from the period about which you’re writing. Look at maps from that time and compare them to today, to understand how the place has changed. Read personal accounts from the period, especially diaries – you have no idea how many people kept diaries, especially before the advent of television. Personal letters are a treasure trove as well for understanding how people thought and felt. Study the time and place until you feel like you’ve lived there. It will show in your work.
Dramatic license vs. actual events
Once you’ve immersed yourself in the time and place, and you’ve got the accent and feel of the place down in your writer’s mind, you can tackle telling the story.
First though, some basic rules, or at least mine. Most important, if your point of reference is a major historical event, you can’t change it, not even the date. So, to oversimplify, World War II always starts on 1 September 1939.
Here’s an interesting true story about that. In his best-selling novel, War and Remembrance, Herman Wouk sets a scene in Poland on 1 September 1939, the day the war began. He wants to recount the experience of a specific character, a Polish Jew, on that day. He places him inside a synagogue as the bombs begin to fall. To place him in that synagogue at this unique moment in history, he notes that 1 September 1939 is also the beginning of the Jewish New Year celebration that year. Very dramatic, but wrong, nonetheless. That year, the Jewish New Year fell on 15 September 1939. But it worked. Why? Because, for the vast majority of readers, the actual date of the Jewish New Year was unknown, and much less important than the dramatic effect of the scene.
Stitching it together
Another important ingredient in making your story compelling is to make it exciting and encompassing. As I mentioned, a particular story may be dramatic, but might not carry a 300+ page novel. You may come across another story that dovetails with yours. Research it. The two stories may stitch together well to make a more interesting whole. That second tale might be a first-hand account, or it might be something you’ve come across in research, or you may have heard the tale from someone.
The more detail you have, the more visual it becomes for the reader, the better. Remember, it’s a novel, not a history, memoir, or biography. You want to get the feeling across while not ‘creating’ facts. There are only facts, not alternative facts. That’s alternative history.
In the end, the key is to give your readers a satisfying experience, a time machine in which to travel to a place about which they’re curious.