Posted in Historical fiction, Writing

How to plausibly weave major events into hist-fic

As I’ve written about before, many historical writers are, or have been, guilty of the everything but the kitchen sink syndrome. They work from a checklist, packing in every single historical event, trend, movie, song, social movement, fashion, news story, cultural shift, etc., from that era, as though it’s so believable for everyone in one family or group of friends to take part in them or be impacted by them.

Related to this is forcing instead of naturally weaving in major events that wouldn’t have touched your characters’ lives directly, esp. if there’s no logical reason for them to be in the places where said events began or transpired.

Take Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War (which I plan to do a full review for this year) and War and Remembrance. It’s obvious he really wanted to feature a Shoah storyline, but his leading family, the Henrys, are a very WASPy Naval family. So he puts middle child Byron in Italy in 1939, assisting an older Jewish professor with his non-fiction historical books, and has him fall in love with the professor’s niece Natalie.

Natalie’s boyfriend works for the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw, and Byron accompanies her when she goes to Poland to visit said boyfriend and attend a family wedding in August 1939. Pretty obvious where this is going! Throughout both books, there are so many times Natalie could’ve easily gotten out of harm’s way (and she does safely get back to America at one point), but since Mr. Wouk wanted so badly to feature a Shoah storyline, she keeps making really stupid decisions keeping her in occupied Europe.

More than a negligible amount of American and British citizens were trapped in occupied Europe and ended up in the camps. To this day, they haven’t gotten much of any compensation or even acknowledgment. I included such a storyline in Journey Through a Dark Forest, and would love to see more fictional treatments of this shameful, little-known aspect of WWII.

But the way Mr. Wouk handles it seems so forced and contrived. It would’ve felt more natural had he featured two families whose stories eventually link up, not shoehorned a Jewish love interest and her uncle into the lives of such a WASPy family who otherwise would’ve had no reason to cross paths with them.

If your story or series doesn’t already have characters in a city, country, or area you want to feature (e.g., 1960s San Francisco, 1940s Paris), take them there for a plausible reason. E.g., X moves there for school a few years earlier, instead of conveniently moving there just as things start happening.

I’ve known since 2001 I wanted a future book in my Ballad of Lyuba and Ivan saga to feature 1960s Swinging London, but couldn’t figure out how to do that naturally. Now I know the seventh book, opening in 1966, will feature Lyuba and Ivan’s granddaughter Shura studying abroad there and falling in love with someone who turns out to have a double connection to their family.

Also in that book, I want Lyuba and Ivan to be in Israel when the Six-Day War breaks out. This was influenced by my great-grandparents’ planned tour of Israel in 1967 being rerouted to Turkey due to the outbreak of war.

No matter what the event or setting, it has to feel natural instead of gimmicky. Thoughtful readers can spot an obvious, implausible setup a mile away. There are plenty of solid reasons why your characters might, e.g., be in Paris in 1940 or have their lives intersect with a European Jewish family. Don’t insult readers’ intelligence by shoehorning it in just so you can include everything but the kitchen sink.