Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Boring the Readers to Tears

Some readers, who would rather jump off a bridge than read a nonfiction history book, will enthusiastically pick up a historical novel because, "It's not history--it's a story." Other readers have slightly more interest in history itself, but have selected the novel because they want to get a "feel" for a time period without being deluged with too many names and dates. Without being elitist, I think I can say that very few readers are as interested in the forests of historical minutiae as the author herself is. But that's why the author chose to become a writer of historical fiction--because she loves to uncover every last detail from her chosen period of study.

As a historical novelist, I must wrestle with how to convey this love of history to the readers. How do I include historical background, introduce historical characters, and portray historical details without boring the readers to tears? How do I relay the history in a realistic manner that fits seamlessly into the story, instead of simply giving an information "dump"?

Frequently, authors will use expositional characters to give the needed historical information to set up their plot. A character who is new to a particular setting is ideal for this kind of exposition since that character's ignorance is nearly as great as the reader's. I was noticing while reading Sharon Kay Penman's book Lionheart how she helps the reader "meet" several of the English peers through the character of Isabella Marshal (William Marshal's new wife). Isabella has never visited the court before, and so her husband must explain to her who all the important players are that surround King Richard's household.

A similar narrative device is to have one character explain events to another character who was absent when they took place. In Elizabeth Chadwick's book The Scarlet Lion (which, coincidentally, has many of the same historical personages as Lionheart), Isabella Marshal spends a great deal of time isolated on the family estates in England and Ireland. Whenever her husband William returns for a visit from the court, he brings her (and the readers) up to speed on all the political events of importance.

Lindsey Davis uses first person narration in her detective novels, and we get to hear the story through the mouth of the cheeky Roman informer Marcus Didius Falco. Falco's supposed audience is a provincial member of the Roman Empire who may not know the ins and outs of Roman government, geography, politics, etc. By condescending to explain these things to the bumbling provincials, Falco can also (realistically) describe the needed information for the ignorant reader.

By using a mixture of these narrative devices (and not overusing one of them), an author can create the necessary historical skeleton on which to hang the body of her story.  An author can craft a well-researched historical novel that reads nothing like a nonfiction book.  An author can share her love of history without boring the reader to tears.

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What other narrative devices have you seen used effectively? Which ones have fallen flat?

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