The Two Essential Rules for Historical Fiction
I’ve been working on a chapter in my novel set during the Russian Revolution, trying to depict the rather complex politics of the time, and it’s horrible. Unreadable. And yet, an essential part of the history.
Just after the Bolshevik takeover, there was an long-planned general election which the Bolsheviks permitted. But when the elected body was finally seated (and the Bolsheviks didn’t win a majority,) they closed it down after one session.
That sounds simple, but there were some complex politics that went along with it, that people at the time thought very significant. And I’ve been having such trouble… the chapter’s absolutely leaden, textbook-y. Even I wouldn’t read it if I came across it in a novel.
Oh, maybe it was just me. Maybe it really wasn’t so bad. I tried it out on a very smart but not particularly politically-savvy friend, who confirmed its unreadability.
Damn! I feel like Tolstoy trying to deal with the issue of agrarian reform in Anna Karenina. Nobody cared about it but him. They just wanted to get on with the story.
Unfortunately, you can’t write about the Russian Revolution without addressing the politics. This was a specific time, with specific political parties… Arrgghghh!!! No wonder everybody writes about the Siege of Leningrad or the fight for Stalingrad, with its good guys and bad guys–and nobody writes about the Revolution.
What’s a writer to do?
Then I remembered the two rules of writing that specifically apply to the writing of historical fiction. I’ve taught these very rules over and over and over again. Now they are going to save my life.
Rule No. 1: Write in Scenes. No boiler plate, no textbook language to ‘explain’ what’s going on. You have to have a scene where some issue naturally comes up as part of the scene, where people might argue points. Or someone will see something that brings an issue to mind. But it has to be part of a live scene, with weather and time of day and light and smells and sounds and conflict between characters.
How could I have forgotten this?! Because I’d been too focused in trying to explain the complex situation.
And further saving my life—
Rule No. 2: There should only be enough exposition (explanation, information) for the reader to understand this one scene. Not all of Russian history. Not a bird’s eye view of the election and the political situation and the seating of the Constituent Assembly. THIS scene. THESE people. THIS particular brawl or bread queue this morning. What’s up Boris’s nose TODAY.
Having remembered those two essential rules, I know I can go back and bring this awful chapter to life, in a way that even my history-deaf friend can follow the action and have some idea why the revolution progressed as it did.
Good luck with your own historical fiction! Always remembering, as I forgot yesterday, that you’re still writing fiction, that the history is only your setting.