Posted by: jeannineatkins | December 28, 2008

History and Plot

Joyce moyer_girl just wrote about liking to write historical fiction, because history can suggest a plot, at least after you’ve moved through many pages or papers. Like Joyce, I feel like plot isn’t my strong point, and I’m happy to take any help I can get. History may offer action with a shape, but we still sometimes have to, and sometimes want to, play with how we structure events. In Wings and Rockets: The Story of Women in Air and Space, I wrote about many risk-taking pilots over a period of a hundred years, so there were more than a few deaths. I didn’t want to end chapters with — and then her plane crashed – so devised ways to conclude chapters with triumphs. There are all kinds of ways to structure events, with birth to death being only the most obvious, and often least interesting.

Joyce writes about forging ahead with an outline while she waits for some important research material to arrive. I can’t speak for what works for her and her wonderful books, but that sounds like a good strategy for me. When writing fiction based on history, sometimes what happens can take too big a hold, when what I need is to move around in my imagination. The big events loom, when I need to focus on one character. I’m currently revising a historical novel, which some readers said seemed to keep too great a distant from my main character. While I know his actions in relation to a historical moment, I need to imagine more of his interior growth, and stumbles. While I know what he survived, and the blocks to that, I think I’ve been too taken with his courage. I’m backing up to think more about his flaws, his just-human aspects, the kinds of things I deal with day to day. Messing up and mysteries.



  1. You and moyer_girl just honed in on my goal for my book–that it’s Caro’s story, not history’s story–if that makes sense. I want the book to be about something that could happen almost anytime–which is what YA really needs to do, I think–but that is colored and layered on by the when and where it happens. I am itching to get some history books about Chicago, JUST Chicago to get a sense of the whole place over history, but I have to be really careful not to let all that research take over. We don’t make it easy for ourselves, do we?
    I know you’re going to do it beautifully on this book.

  2. Ack, Jeannine, that last one was me–LJ keeps logging me out for some reason. 🙂

  3. sometimes what happens can take too big a hold
    So true. I find that with Jane now & then. Sometimes I forget that I’m allowed to select my points and details, and that I don’t need every. single. tidbit. that I’ve learned.

  4. Excellent! You’re right, you know. Pushing myself to plot this story out has forced me to think about what is going on inside my character as opposed to finding only what was going on around him. And I am loving the process!

  5. Actually, I should say that I am loving what I’m discovering about my character. The process is still a bit arduous.

  6. That makes perfect sense. I love the layering of stories in good historical fiction. The drama of making choices and growing up, along with a fascination of different challenges of a different time. And yes, that is always the challenge about putting too much in: we’ve all read those books — the Moby Dick syndrome — where we can skim or skip chapters, and as writers, we’ve got to try to stay clear!

  7. With verse, it’s even a bigger challenge. To let those spaces and line breaks and rhythms do the work of a tome.

  8. Good! There are the moments when we use information, and the moments when we tread water and find out something in that process, too.

  9. Joyce, thanks for the truth caveat! It made me laugh. I, too, can say –oh I love this job — but, um, not every moment. You can often find me slamming down a pile of papers or sighing dramatically or mumbling too loudly at the cat.
    But I’m glad you are discovering in between!

  10. You just said a mouthful. That’s also the key – to remember that less can be more.

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