Ask A Wench: Building Books Around Real Events

Cat 243 Doverby Mary Jo

Word Wenches reader Anne Hoile asked this question:

"Do any of you pick up an historical event and build a plot and characters around it?"

We all thought the question really interesting, so here are our answers.  And as always, we all have different takes on the topic!

LomhsmxJo Beverley:

I can't remember ever beginning a book with an event in mind, probably because I begin with imaginary characters, but I often end up with a real event being a major part.

My first medieval romance is set after the Norman Conquest, and my hero, Aimery, is a Norman knight with an English mother and strong connections to English society. Hereward, leader of the resistance to William of Normandy, is his uncle. So I could say the whole book is based on the Conquest, but my main impetus was contrarian. I'd read too many "Norman Knight and Saxon lady" romances. So Lord of My Heart has a Norman lady and a half-English hero with very conflicted allegiances.

My storyline includes a true journey north. In 1068 the queen, Matilda, was expecting a child, and William wanted it born in York to assert his power over the unruly north. I found a possible account of that difficult journey in an historical text and followed it, with Aimery appointed marshal of the trip.

It's not certain where the child Henry was born, but it certainly wasn't in York. One account has Matilda giving birth in a hut, which made a good scene, especially with Hereward launching at attack. Henry later became king and based much of his claim on being a true-born Englishman, unlike his Norman brother.

Pat here:

I tend to write in historical eras that I want to explore—the French Revolution, Rice_FormidableLordQuinton_800American west cattle wars, American Revolution, and of course, Georgian and Regency England. Right now I’m looking at the Industrial Revolution (the Irish in me apparently requires rebellion!) and social reform era of the 1830s. Digging into all this rich source material produces nuggets of history that provide the foundations of my plots. Really, truth is stranger than fiction and there’s always something fascinating to be found in history books!

In my new release, Formidable Lord Quentin, I look at class issues and the laws of primogeniture, among other things.  Quent is a wealthy tradesman not welcome in most of society–until his father belatedly inherits a title and life turns upside-down. And the 6-year-old Irish earl who now owns an estate and people crawl out of the woodwork to claim guardianship.  I spend a lot of time digging through legal stuff and like to use it. <G>

Tallie_usAnne here:

I rarely structure my books around any particular historical event. Mostly when plotting I start with the characters and their individual personal situations. I usually take in the historical details of the time, but mostly they are more or less in the background — as greater-world events often are in our own lives — influential, but not central.

Only once have I set a book around a particular historical event: in Tallie's Knight, I wanted my characters to go on the Grand Tour through Europe.  Napoleon pretty much blocked me from setting it in my preferred period (mid Regency), but in March 1802 the Peace of Amiens was signed. English people flocked to Paris (which had been inaccessible since the French Revolution began) and the continent. The peace only lasted a year. Napoleon invaded the Piedmonte in 1803 and a whole lot of English travellers were caught in what had overnight become enemy territory. They had to flee or become hostages or prisoners. As this was exactly what I wanted for my hero and heroine, I set the book during the Peace of Amiens.

Nicola here:

I’ve never structured a book entirely around a particular historical event. Usually I start MistressbyMidnight-USwith the characters and the situation they find themselves in. What I do frequently though is include real historic events in my books if they fit the story, whether they are general events or specific ones. So in my first book, True Colours, I had my characters take part in the Somerset cider wassails, which were a regional tradition during the Regency period like the fairs and carnivals you still find in Somerset today. Another example was in Mistress by Midnight, where I had my hero and heroine marooned together during the London Beer Flood, which suited the story extremely well as they were enemies who were then obliged to trust each other and work together to escape. If there’s an interesting historical event that is relevant to the plot and the characters then I am always keen to draw on it as background and colour.

Cara/Andrea now:

I find that I’m more apt to use specific historical objects or facts as inspiration for my TheStorybookHerostories, rather than actual events. In my Hellions of High Street trilogy, which releases in paperback at the end of the month, I modeled my heroines on the smart, articulate women of the era who defied  convention by engaging in activities deemed to be off limits for the fairer sex—like writing political essays and agitating for social change. One of my favorite “ah-ha” moments was seeing an amazing “automaton,” an elaborate mechanical pocket pistol crafted of precious metal and jewels—when the trigger was pulled, a little bird, exquisitely crafted of real feathers, popped out of barrel and flapped its wings and twittered. I immediately knew I had to have that appear in a scene where the villain is about to triumph . . .  So I had the hero in Sinfully Yours be an outwardly wastrel aristocrat who secretly crafts amazing automata in order to rebuild his family fortune.

That said, I did use Napoleon’s invasion of Russia as the core event in The Storybook Hero, one of my early traditional Regencies, written under my Andrea Pickens nom de plume. I’d always wanted to write an exotic setting, and this specific event provided a perfect plot for a English governess and an English adventurer to have to join forces in order to rescue two children from the chaos of war back to England.

SusanKing_TheStoneMaiden800Susan here:

Oh, absolutely, I base novels on historical events and situations! I'll be reading nonfiction history, and some tantalizing tidbit will begin to conjure characters, plot situations, what-ifs, and a story starts to take shape. History is fascinating because of the people involved–their experiences, their environment, their actions and personalities, their portraits, the homes and things they owned, and I can't help but imagine and elaborate on what I learn.

My first novel, The Black Thorne's Rose, grew from a medieval document mentioning a woman who defended her right to her father's property against a powerful baron. Even her unusual name–Emlyn–came from the document. A minor event, but it happened!

Nearly all of my books are based on specific events or broader situations–Laird of the Wind, set in 14th century Scotland, was based on little-known events surrounding the betrayal of William Wallace; Raven's Moon, set in 16th century Scotland, was inspired by an English plot to kidnap the infant Queen of Scots; while Stone Maiden was based on a historical situation surrounding a few Norman knights in Scotland who married Highland women and took the clan's name. For each story, I wondered what would happen if . . . ?  

I've also written historical novels about actual people, including Lady Macbeth and Queen Margaret of Scotland. For these books, historical events closely determine the story's longer chronology, plot twists spring from actual events, and major characters are based on what is known of real people whose deeds, motivations, often their character traits, too, are part of the historical record.   

Forbiddenroseat70kbFrom Joanna:

And here 'tis:  I settle my fiction down in a nest of real history in as much as I possibly can. I’m not writing straight historical fiction, of course. But I do use real events as the framework that lets me stretch the story out in the sun.

Best example is, I scrunched a good bit of Forbidden Rose into a particular week of the French Revolution. Robespierre was at the height of his power and influence, sending unlucky folk to the guillotine in their hundreds. Then, suddenly, he was overthrown. Arrested. Tried. Convicted. Executed. He climbed the scaffold to the guillotine in the wake of his many victims.

Exciting stuff. I shoehorn my characters into these great events. They undertake some wholly fictitious actions which I hope seem plausible. I know, hour by hour, what the genuine historical folks were up to and I try to make my folks fit in.

al HIGH REZMary Jo again:

My books vary, but some are absolutely built around specific historical events.  Waterloo was one of the great events of the Regency period, and Shattered Rainbows is my tribute to that history changing battle.  I had a wonderful time with the research, and felt proud of myself for keeping the actual fighting to one chapter.  <G>

I also used the Peace of Amiens–its abrupt ending was so useful for causing trouble for unwary Britons abroad!  Grey Sommers, the hero of No Longer a Gentleman, was trapped that way, and spent ten years in a dungeon because of the carelessness.

But no historical event compelled me more than the WWII evacuation of Dunkirk.  I've always been fascinated by the event itself–evacuating over 330,000 soldiers over ten days at a time of year when the usually rough seas of the English Channel were miraculously less rough than usual. Not to mention the story of the small boats, as the people of a seagoing nation volunteered their ships and lives to bring their men home.  

In fact, the chance to write about Dunkirk had a lot to do with writing my YA Dark Mirror trilogy.  The Weather Channel does documentaries called When Weather Changed History, and Dunkirk was the very first episode.  I taped it from the air and watched it three times, taking notes on every bit of historical weather so my young weather mages could use it in Dark Mirror,first book in the trilogy.  Is this a great job or what?!!

Anne Hoile, because you provided this question, you win one of my books.  I'll contact you to find out what you'd like. 

As a reader, how much history do you like to see in a book?  Do you like stories that bring historical events alive, or do you prefer that the history remain part of the background texture?  Or either, depending on the book and reading mood of the moment? 

Mary Jo