Finding the Real Story in Your Historical Novel

Guest Post by Sam Osherson –

Writing teacher Bonnie Freidman has discussed the problem of writers being “transfixed” by their material in a way that drains the story of its dramatic tension. Many writers face a reckoning, consciously or unconsciously, in the course of their novel when the original conception needs to be changed in order to capture the deeper meaning of the story they are writing. When we are too “transfixed” by our original conception, we may not be able to make the literary shift to an engrossing historical novel.

The literary shift, it seems to me, often needs to begin with an internal shift in the self of the writer and their relationship to their characters. We can become engrossed in a historical figure or period because they represent an unresolved conflict within ourselves. If that conflict is truly unresolved, then the world we build in our novel suffers.

For example, Hannibal of Carthage is considered one of the greatest military commanders in history. He’s mostly known for his daring invasion of Italy—crossing the Alps with an army of 40,000 men and all those elephants—almost bringing mighty Rome to its knees. He was also a companion of my adolescent years, a person I idealized because of his real-life courage, audacity, and military brilliance. This was a father figure many a male adolescent has yearned for! So when I spent several years researching and writing a novel set during the wars between Rome and Carthage, my story revolved around a “heroic”—and idealized—image of Hannibal, the military leader.

Early drafts were driven—well, actually there wasn’t much of a driver amidst all that idealizing—by the story of Hannibal’s epic military victories over the Romans. The early drafts were hagiography dressed up as fiction. As a writer, I was still transfixed by my own teenage imaginings about Hannibal.

I sensed that readers from my writing group found the drafts lacking, but despite their suggestions it wasn’t clear to me how to deepen the tension and raise the ante as to what was at stake in my novel.

So I put the whole project aside for several years. Things happened in my life. My children grew into and out of adolescence, my parents aged and died, and I aged into my fifties and beyond. I came to understand more about the fragility of life and about civilization itself. The urgency of valuing and protecting what we most cherish became much clearer. I became less preoccupied with stories of warfare and battles and more with the tension between violence and learning and between destruction and generativity and caring for what we love.

When I returned to writing my “Hannibal novel,” I plunged deeper into the inner lives of my protagonists and the struggles they may have experienced during a time of endless war. 

Hannibal’s struggles became clearer: he was a warrior who spent over a decade in unforgiving combat away from his home and family, a man who conquered the world but lost touch with his own son. There was a shift in myself as I worked through successive drafts. Hannibal became more of a tragic figure, and my military fascination deepened into an awareness of the costs of the naïve worship of famous battles and generals. The human story of combat, as any veteran can tell us, is not one of glory, but of pain and sacrifice.

How can we become less “transfixed” by our story lines so that we can  write the most compelling historical fiction? It can help to step back from the details of the story and broaden your awareness. What are the human tensions most at play in your story? What are the tensions most at play in you at this point in your life? How are your characters most different from you, and how can you sharpen those differences? How are they similar, and how can you raise the stakes around those similarities in the novel? Doing this may involve pushing yourself deeper into uncomfortable places— exploring beliefs and behaviors and experiences different from your comfort zone. Listen carefully to what readers see in the story that you don’t. And what they don’t see in the story that you do. 

The Hannibal of my published novel is a very different Hannibal from the one I knew in early drafts.

Somehow in the writing of the novel, we both grew up. An author creates a protagonist; the protagonist creates the author. A two-way Pygmalion.

There’s a novel in that.

Sam Osherson is an educator and the author of two historical novels, The Wolf Boy, set during Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps and invasion of Italy in 218 BC, and The Stethoscope Cure, about a psychiatrist working with wounded vets during the Vietnam War.

2 thoughts on “Finding the Real Story in Your Historical Novel”

  1. Pingback: Finding the Real Story in Your Historical Novel – Historical Novel Society – North America – Sharon E. Cathcart

  2. Catrin O'Hara

    Hi, Sam, Thanks for this which really hit a nerve for me and helped me see one of the difficulties I am facing with my book. It’s a Regency era mystery set in London and Italy. I am trying, slowly and painfully, to get a balance between plot and people. Now half way into draft two I’m seeing that you have to go beyond ‘stuff happening’ to people to people struggling with the stuff that’s happening to them. Then the magic happens. But you have to look into your own soul much more thoroughly to get at the struggles… And let go of some of the story elements you thought were the best bits! Very inspiring blog, thank you.

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