Monday, January 3, 2011

Mistakes Writers of Historicals Make

It’s that time of year when the package arrives in the mail and I’m judging novels for an international contest. The last couple of years I’ve been doing historicals. Waiting for the package to arrive got me reflecting on what I’ve learned from what I’ve judged (and critiqued). While I’ve read quite a few good manuscripts, it’s the ones that fall short that teach me the most.
Here are some of the most common mistakes I’ve noticed. I’ve listed them with the most damaging first.

1) Lack of a plot. In too many of the historicals I’ve read, the main character is like a billiard ball, flying this way and that through the historical events of the novel without any direction of his/her own. Living through an historical event does not make a plot. Let me repeat that. Living through an historical event does not make a plot. Even if the historical is the fictionalized biography of a real person. Plots are built on the premise that the protagonist (and the antagonist) has a goal that is meaningful to him/her (in other words, motivation) and is striving to achieve that goal, no matter what else is happening around him or her. Plots have conflict, which arises from the people, things, events and situations that stand in the way of the protagonist achieving his/her goal. The main character cannot be a mere hanger-on, observing the events of the time or even reacting to them. The main character has got to be going somewhere, achieving something that would still be a plausible goal even if set in a different time period. For example, solving a mystery, winning someone’s love, saving one’s home, healing an internal wound, etc.

2) Cardboard characters. OK, they may be real, historic figures, but they still had personalities and idiosyncrasies that make them different from everyone else. Things get even worse if it’s a whole troop of cardboard characters, and except for the name and maybe the job, the reader can’t tell one from the other. Want to know if you’re creating cardboard characters. Take out the names and substitute “he” or “she”, but not both. Use only one gender, even if it’s a mixed cast. Now read the passage to yourself. Or to someone else. Three dimensional characters bring their personality into their actions and speech patterns. If after a paragraph or two you have no idea who is doing/saying what, you know you’ve got cardboard characters.

3) Villains and saints. This is a variation of the cardboard character theme. Everyone, no matter how heroic or despicable, has a little bad and a little good in them. Find the weaknesses and the strengths in your characters and exploit them. (In The Black Crown, one of the smartest things I ever did was to make Guenevere scared of heights.)

4) Not enough research. If you’re going to set your story in a grist mill, for pete’s sake, find out how one works. What kind of maintenance is required? What can go wrong? How is the miller paid? What’s the hierarchy of jobs and how much flexibility is there for one person doing another’s job (under the guild system, none.) Learn the vocabulary (for example, what does “fair to middling” really mean?)

5) Loading down the story with research. Just because you know it doesn’t mean you have to use it. It’s a novel, not a text book. Historical facts inserted into a story merely for the sake a background grind the plot to a halt. Usually, I find, they pull you right out of the POV character’s heads, as well. All of a sudden, the narrative switches to what I call the “professorial voice”. I’m back in Freshman History. Again.) Add just enough historical detail to make the setting come alive and move the story forward. Add it in tiny drips. If in doubt, leave it out.

6) Imposing your culture on the past. Nothing bothers me more than the scene in Braveheart where Mel Gibson, playing a 13th century Scottish knight (who would have been dressed as other knights, not as a 6th century druid), proclaims his desire for “freedom”. The only people in the 13th century who wanted freedom were serfs, and only those brave enough to consider running away and hiding out for the requisite year and a day. The Scots wanted a Scottish king, not freedom. Ditto Russell Crowe in Robin Hood. The concept of freedom, as a political idea, doesn’t appear until the American Revolution (and then only after the colonials finally came to the conclusion that independence from England was the only way they were going to get their rights as Englishmen). Don’t assume that because it’s important to your culture, it was back then.

7) Characters acting inappropriately for their culture. Most cultures of the past were extremely hierarchical. Even though Thomas Jefferson’s mistress, Sally Hemmings, was half-sister of Jefferson’s wife Mary, she was still a slave and would never have dared act familiarly towards her in public. Even in private, any liberties she took would have been those allowed by Mary, not the other way around.

As you can see, poor story-telling techniques, not historical detail, head my list. No matter how well-researched and accurate an historical novel is, if it lacks the essential elements that make all great books, no matter what genre, it will never find its way past the editor’s slush pile.


  1. Great post, Vicki. Hope I didn't give you too much material for it! (Smile.) Love the background on your blog, by the way. The Cliffs of Moher have to be one of my favorite spots on earth.

  2. Is that where my background is? Thanks for identifying it for me!

    No, you didn't provide material. All the ideas actually came from contests I've judged. I started to notice why I liked some manuscripts and didn't care for others.