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.

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21 Responses to “The Two Essential Rules for Historical Fiction”

  1. Helpful lesson in all fiction writing. Thank you for the reminder.

  2. Jamee Says:

    I recently wrote a scene for my novel that dealt with some complicated financial information I feared would be mind-numbingly boring. I went the same route as you’re suggesting and for the same reason – kept the info short, put it it in the context of a conversation and played up the more interesting and relatable aspects. If I wouldn’t like reading such a snore of a scene, I can’t put my reader through that either!

  3. Thank you! These rules are helpful.

  4. very good advice. It is also how I teach academic writing. Every paragraph should be a scene. The thesis statement is the protagonist. It must exit the scene having been irrevocably changed. Its transforming agent is the evidence supplied in the paragraph. There shouldn’t be any evidence provided other than what pertains to the thesis statement – this scene.

  5. I’m writing a narrative non fiction/memoir FAR OUT that takes place in the near history of the 1970’s and yet I found myself facing the same problems you did. It was an important time to me and I felt that a younger generation should know how it evolved but then became the teacher instead of the writer and the work was leaden. Your 2 points apply exactly. Even though I lived through the period, it was still history. Have always loved your work and look forward to reading your next novel.

    • Carol, I’m having the same problem. My work is a novel and set in present day but any mention of the sixties and how they inform my character and the new millenium seems to turn readers and agents off before they even give it a chance.

      Janet, great advice as usual! Can’t wait for your next book. I met you briefly at Squaw maybe 7 years ago and was as impressed with you as I’ve been with your books.

  6. When I was writing THE BAD BEHAVIOR OF BELLE CANTRELL which was set in 1920, I found lots of fascinating information about women’s suffrage and the rise of the KKK. I wanted to share it with the world. But Julia Glass, who won the National Book Award, warned me not to make an information dump, even if the information was interesting to me. She was so right.

  7. Having similar issues when writing scenes for my historical fiction novel which is is set in 17th century New England. Trying to tie in the social, political, and religious aspects of that time is difficult to do without it coming out like a lecture. Thanks for the tip!

  8. Useful information – that should be remembered! (I also have huge difficulty with political basics in my novels – especially as I am not politically minded in the first place LOL!)

  9. Sorted! Hee hee, the art of drip-feed instead of information dumping! 😉 best F.

  10. Good tips. I realized when some novels gets to the centre of the story they get plain boring. Now I am and always will be a student of history but it just hurt me when a writer throws information at me so drastic after a character does something like walk up a significant hill.

  11. Melissa Says:

    Hi Janet,
    Your post made me think of a book that I recently completed and loved: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra. He uses the backdrop of two Chechen wars and manages to provide enough history using beautiful language. The story is fascinating, sad, quirky and heart-warming.

  12. This advice isn’t limited to history. I’m working on a middle grade novel that includes, for the fun of it (?) a variety of math applications and problems. That also has to be kept conversational. When it put me to sleep, I knew I overdid it.

  13. Janet, I recently read The Little Russian by Susan Sherman. She did a nice job of telling the bigger story of the revolution through the eyes of her characters. You might want to take a look at her book.

  14. What a useful post, I’ve just started an embryonic historical novel and am really struggling with my love for the history of the time and the focus of the action. Thanks for the tips:-)

  15. Loraine Shields Says:

    Thank you Janet for honestly and generously sharing your process and rules. Your gifts of wisdom and expertise which you never cease to share and carefull give to others sets you apart as a double threat. You are both an artist and a teacher. Wow ! The keys to the kingdom every time. I bow to you with gratitude.

  16. The rules are very useful, as are the comments and experiences that follow. I wish I’d had the succinct dramatic analogy expounded by xion when I was writing my thesis…..and hopefully will gain from your experience and expertise as I develop historical fiction skills. Thank You

  17. I like the fact you were overwhelmed. Been there, especially since I’ve spent most of my adult life as an historian. Great advice. Thanks!

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