How Much History is Too Much?

NovelSourcesThere probably are few things as important to a novelist as his or her beta readers. Those are some of the first people to whom we entrust our precious words and fragile egos. They are the ones who hold our hands as we emerge from the deep caverns of the creative process. They remind us that we’ll soon see light—if we haven’t already—and they reassure us our work will, too, even if it requires a little more time and thought.

I’m blessed with some wonderful beta readers in my local writer’s group. We call ourselves the Salonistas. In truth, we’re five suburban moms who cook and clean and shuttle children to their activities in the afternoons. But for the few hours we meet each month, we’re fueling our artistic and intellectual spirits with vibrant conversation. (Not to mention a lot of coffee and tea!)

As I’ve been sharing with them the first draft of my historical novel, an interesting question has arisen: How much history does a reader need in a story? And how much prior knowledge should a writer assume? It’s a fascinating concern, and one certainly appropriate to a literary salon. I’m writing about recent history—primarily World Wars I and II and the post-war period—so I’m expecting readers will be reasonably familiar with the main events and personalities of that time. One of the critiques I received from one of my writing partners was that she wanted more detail about a particular occurrence that I glossed over in a sentence or two. It was a conscious decision on my part. As I was writing, I felt most people knew what happened anyway, and I worried too much explanation would hamper the story’s pace. Also, I think we’ve all read fiction where the author seemed to be performing an encyclopedia dump. Even if your audience is comprised entirely of doctoral candidates in history, they still deserve better. Regardless, she felt readers would benefit not simply from having more detail about the event in question, but also from knowing how it impacted the protagonist. What’s more, in true salon fashion, she argued her point quite effectively. Back to the cave for me.

Could I place my main character at the center of historic events in the case she cited? Absolutely. There is precedent for it, and it would be plausible. However, I don’t want him to become Forrest Gump. There are other occurrences later in the book where he will be very close to the real-life action. I’d prefer those scenes have more credibility, and therefore, a greater impact. One thing that I can and will do is to include more of his interior monologue. There’s a fine balance between art and reality when writing historical fiction. Perhaps I’ve erred in having too light of a hand.

Interestingly, I’ve discovered that our conversations usually lead to more questions, and answering those questions leads to even further discussion. History is so full and rich, and it informs so much of who we are and what we’ve become. In my mind, there never can be too much of it, but of course, I’m limited by time and the page. Luckily, I’m being guided by some ridiculously smart and savvy readers.

One Response to How Much History is Too Much?

  1. RachelB. says:

    To me, the perfect Historical novel is “Paths of Glory” by Jeffrey Archer, where he weaves the story of Mallory’s ascent of Mount Everest within the context of history, where history is the backdrop of his life’s story. If you do too much ‘splaining, people get tired and end up complaining in reviews about getting a “history lesson” instead of a good story. The point is to move the story forward, so if you can add the historical context in the form of dialog or action, that’s fine. And if the narrative reads too much like non-fiction, the next step is to cut, cut, cut. Without mercy. Your story will be better in the end for it.

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