Write and Wrong: Combining all HFFs into Your Scene
Over the past nine Historical Fiction Fridays (HFFs), we’ve taken a whirlwind tour of the basics. So let’s put it all together!
Before sitting down to write, you’ve listed all the essential aspects of life in the past era you need to know (HFF #1: Building Your Lost World). You’ve done your research (HFF #2: Research), and as you write you will check every detail to avoid anachronisms (HFF #4: Anachronisms).
Let’s imagine a scene where several topics we’ve covered converge. On a stormy night in eighteenth century London, a girl sits by the bed of her dying sister, hoping against hope the girl’s fiancé can make it in time. The doctor finishes bleeding her (#8: Medicine) and says there is nothing else he can do.
The sister has a powerful flashback of a past scene with the dying girl and then imagines the future without her. Suddenly, she feels she is going to be sick, and the smell of sweat, waste, and approaching death don’t help (HFF #6: Dirt and Dung). She throws open the casement windows and shower of icy raindrops cascades into the room on a blast of cold air, blowing out all the candles, and nicely foreshadowing the death. The sister closes the casements and relights the candles in the hearth (HFF #7: Lighting and Heating).
The sick girl’s breathing is ragged. She can’t last much longer. Her sister keeps asking herself, Where is the boy? Is it the roads? Did his horse go lame? (HFF #9: Travel.)
Finally, a horse pulls up in a lather; the boy, his cloak drenched, takes the steps three at a time and bounds into the bedroom. There’s conversation, confessions, explanations (HFF #5: Dialog.) The boy asks the doctor and sister to leave. He wants, for just a few minutes, to hold his beloved in his arms. The sister agrees. Even though it’s not proper—and she has worried about the dying girl’s flirtatious ways in the past—no harm can come from it now (HFF #3: Dating.)
This can all work together beautifully and seamlessly, bringing the reader right into that smelly, flickering death chamber on a stormy night. Or it could be awkward and irritating. Because the historical details should never overpower your plot, character development, pacing and conflict. They are merely the garnish of the story—fascinating garnish that plunges your readers into a lost world, to be sure—but the historical details are the parsley on the plate, not the meat and potatoes themselves.
If you went off on a tangent about eighteenth century medicine, or how hard it was to travel, or the difference between beeswax and tallow candles, you would make the scene annoying instead of poignant.
Never write a scene to flaunt your historical knowledge. Don’t info-dump or wax too poetic about the details of a gown or a carriage. I have a habit of doing this in first drafts because as a historian I’m just too fascinated for my own good. (Luckily, I have good editors!) But too much information bogs down the action, and loses the pace as well as your readers.
That being said, you can still lovingly paint our scene with a few vivid historical images. The dying girl’s blood in a bowl. The crack of logs in the fire as they fall in a shower of sparks. The boy, mud-splattered, rain-soaked, and sweaty, holding his beloved’s pale hand. But these elements should be elegantly woven in between the dialog, the characters’ thoughts and feelings, and the action, even if the most important action in the scene is quite tiny: a human heart ceasing to beat.
Review all the Historical Fiction Fridays, and make your historical novel the best it could possibly be!
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