Four Score and Seven Chapters Ago


Welcome back, loyal listeners! This week, in honor of the Fourth, we tackle how to handle history in fiction. This is more than simply writing a historical novel. Instead, we talk about how history can shape our novels, our characters, and our plots. As always, you may watch and listen below. Show notes are beneath the YouTube embed. Lastly, please take a moment to rate us on iTunes, Stitcher, or whatever other podcast app you use to access us. Thanks for listening, and until next week, good writing!


Four Score and Seven Chapters Ago

  • “First Lines Friday’s” winner: They had taken themselves to whisperin behind his back whenever he come by cause they wasn’t really sure if what they heard he done was true or not and there was no one around willin enough to ask him outright if it was or just rumors that folks made up with misinformation as they was sometimes prone to do. — Molly Jo Realy
  • Publishing term of the week—-‘‘Literary agent.’’
  • History in Al’s books:
    • THROUGH MY EYES uses the Ark of the Covenant as a McGuffin. It’s a contemporary book with references to history.
    • TERMINAL JUSTICE use a flashback to show what elements turned the antagonist into the monster he is. Somalia. Black Hawk Down.
    • SHIP POSSESSED has a contemporary and historical storylines.
    • VANISHED deals with mysterious disappearances in the past but it’s a contemporary story.
    • OUT OF TIME is a contemporary story dealing the impossible return of an old, British Dreadnought class destroyer.
    • CRIME SCENE JERUSALEM starts in the twentieth-first century but most of the action takes place in the first century.
    • 60 PEOPLE WHO SHAPED THE CHURCH is nonfiction history.
    • 30 EVENTS THAT SHAPED THE CHURCH is a nonfiction history.
  • Types of novels that use history:
    • Straighthistoricals. All the action takes place in the past and all the characters are people of that time.
      • Westerns
      • Colonial
      • Prairie romances
      • War/combat
      • Spy novels
      • Coming of age, etc.
    • Alternate history. These novels change an event in the past then tell the story of life in a different world than what we know.
      • The Russians make it to the Moon before the U.S.
      • Hitler wins the war.
      • JFK is never assassinated.
      • Lincoln loses the election and never becomes president.
    • Historical fantasy.
      • Lincoln was a vampire killer before he was president.
      • Dinosaurs develop high intelligence and never go extinct.
      • ‘‘Planet of the Apes.
      • Steampunk
    • Contemporary augmented by history.
      • Clive Cussler begins each book with a history connection that will play a role in the conclusion.
      • VANISHED draws from accounts of individuals or groups of people who disappear without explanation.
      • ‘‘Intertwined,’’ or ‘‘DNA’’ structure. Two timelines intertwine to tell a single, larger story.
        • Michael Crichton did this with TIMELINE.
  • Things to keep in mind when using history:
    • Accuracy. Get something wrong you’re likely to get letters or phone calls. I’ve experienced this a couple of times.
      • For research tips, see
      • Emphasize people, not dates. A novel is not a classroom. It’s all about experience, not lecture.
      • Show don’t tell. The fiction techniques used with historical storylines are the same as those used with contemporary fiction. Set the scene, create interesting people, focus on action.
      • When taking ‘‘liberties’’ be sure to mention that in a ‘‘To the Reader’’ page. Certain liberties were taken for the sake of story. (Jack Cavanaugh used to include at then end of his novels an explanation of things he changed that might not be spot on with the historical record. I did something similar in CRIME SCENE JERUSALEM. (I used endnotes.)
      • Don’t let history frighten you. It’s fun.

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