Here is the second of my attempts to use Lawrence Sterne’s The Life and Opinion of Tristram Shandy as a guide to writing historical novels. See my previous post for an introduction to the book itself.
History: a digression?
Modern editors tell us that diversions are a ‘killer’ to the novel; many declare you should have no backstory at all in the first few chapters. Tristram Shandy, on the other hand, declares, “Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine;—they are the life, the soul of reading;—take them out of this book for instance,–you might as well take the book along with them” (I.xxii). He is quite unable to plot out a linear storyline, a fact he illustrates in his summary in Volume VI, Chapter xl:
These were the four lines I moved in through my first, second, third, and fourth volumes.—in the fifth volume I have been very good,—the precise line I have described in it being thus:
I thought I’d try to avoid a similar Shandyism and concentrate on a type of digression historical authors have to wrestle with: the backstory of history in novels.
|From: Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story|
How and when should an author best inform the reader of the historical background to his/her novel, especially when the main characters are not the makers of textbook history? When you’ve waded your way through a four-feet-high pile of research books and logged up several weeks online to ‘get into’ your historical world, it’s tempting to offer all your wisdom up to the reader, if only to make them realise what you went through. But as I know from writing and critiquing, it’s pretty obvious when you begin to sound like a history book. A few techniques authors have used to avoid their novel looking like the plot line of Tristram Shandy are:
In the beginning - Occasionally an author will fill in the background with a foreword. This avoids having to insert necessary facts in an unnatural way, and eases the reader from history to historical fiction. I favour a brief sub-heading to the opening chapter e.g. “Florence, 1293,” which gives the author at least a baseline of expectation to work from.
The neophyte POV – have your POV character undergo a new experience or travel to a new place, and show the reader the information through his eyes. In Carrie Vaughn’s YA time-travel novel, Steel, her teenage protagonist ends up on an eighteenth century pirate ship where, as a new member of the crew and a landlubber, she gets to explain the workings of a ship without sounding like a sailing manual.
It’s all French to me – use a few words from the original period/culture/language in context so that the reader can easily figure out the meaning. For example, “The roll cost only a few denarii,” immediately conveys the sense this is a coin of low value (and has the bonus of giving the reader the beginnings of a price guide to the period).
On the other hand, it’s best to avoid giving the reader minute details your character wouldn’t notice or draw attention to. “’I’ll be downstairs as soon as I put on my green baize hat with three pheasant feathers’,” sticks out far more than, “The green baize hat would set off her dress to full advantage, and the pheasant feathers she’d sewn on it last week made it look almost good as new.”
What to do with all that other knowledge you gained? This is where the afterword shines. A recent article in the Historical Novel Society's magazine, Solander, revealed that the majority of readers of historical fiction enjoy the afterword, both for contextualizing the story and for a chance to learn about nonfiction sources for further reading; after all, people read historical fiction because they love history. But the bottom line is that details should add to the story, plunging the reader into a world that can know and care about, so that the author can say with Tristram Shandy, “my work is digressive, and it is progressive too,—and at the same time” (I.xxii).