My new novel (which is – fingers crossed- nearly done) is an epic love story set in set in California, starting in the early 1800s and working its way up to modern day. I decided when I started that I would tell it in parts, dropping in on my characters at specific times over the years, but I struggled with which eras to include. When writing historical fiction, do we needle drop on our character’s lives during times of historical interest, or do we avoid events that happened on the world stage in favor of the more intimate stories of our characters?
Big Historical Events
I’ve lived in California all my life and am fascinated by its history, so when I first started outlining my story, certain years came to mind: 1848 (gold rush), 1906 (the great San Francisco earthquake), 1933 (construction of the Gold Gate Bridge). In mulling over my options, I came to see a few of the pros and cons that stretched out before me when it came to organizing my story around one of these big historical events:
- If you have a longer story (like mine) that could potentially touch on several historic events, you run the risk of edging into Forest Gump territory, writing a story that is all about how your characters (or family of characters) were there when these important things happened. The trouble with that is a potential lack of underlying value. The reason Forest Gump works is that it’s actually a love story, otherwise the whole “wow, can you believe he was there for that!” thing would have felt boring and repetitive. Setting your historical fiction in an interesting time does not make it interesting.
- When you’re dealing in the realm of a well-documented event you will have a daunting amount of research to sift through. It will take time to learn the key words and resources that get you to precisely the information you need for your story.
- Once you get a handle on how much research you have to sift through, you will no doubt find sources to give you a glimpse into life in those times. For instance, the Great San Francisco earthquake in 1906 was written about and photographed from all angels. There are numerous first-person accounts from which to draw details to build a rich and interesting world.
- There will be a market for your work and it will be easy to reach. There are people who love reading about things like the California gold rush or the great San Francisco earthquake. Those people will buy your book pretty much as soon as they hear it’s set in that period of history, if for no other reason.
Finding Your Structure
I decided to be intentional with my structure. The narrative of my story follows the same two people through many decades (there’s some magic involved) and I knew that if I dropped into their lives randomly the story might feel like it was all over the place. I didn’t want that. I wanted to choose a format for my historical fiction that meant something to the story, that echoed its themes and gave it a rhythm.
I thought more about the story as a whole. My characters live a long time. Having lived only 44 years myself, I have already noticed that time seems to be speeding up. Extrapolating out, it made sense that, for someone who has lived more than a couple hundred years, time would fly by quickly, so I decided that each time I jumped from one part to the next, I wanted more time to have passed. I also knew I had to end in present day and start in the California mission system. Playing with the numbers a little I found that, if I jumped an increasing number of decades between each part of the book it worked out like this:
- Part 1: 1812
- Part 2: 1822
- Part 3: 1842
- Part 4: 1872
- Part 5: 1912
- Part 6: 1962
- Part 7: 2022
The elegance of this appealed to me, but all of a sudden I was setting my story in six different times that I knew very little about. So daunting! But you know what? It actually pushed me to dig a little deeper. I learned that women in California had just won the right to vote in 1912, a full decade before the rest of the country. And in 1872 discrimination against the Chinese population in San Francisco was not just rampant, but officially sanctioned. As it turns out, people knew there was gold in California long before it was “discovered” at Sutter’s Mill. These are all details that I never would have learned if I hadn’t gone looking for them, if instead I had just set my story in 1848 and 1906 and called it good.
It’s been a wonderful journey, writing these parts of history that I’ve never really explored before. It took a lot of research – that feels like an understatement – it took about five years of intense research, but it was worth it.
I would love to hear from other writers out there working in historical fiction. Do you choose to embrace big historical events or skirt around them? Did you have a rationale for why, or do you just go with your gut? Feel free to leave us links to your work, if applicable.