Welcome back! I’m delighted that you’re here for the second (and last) part of the historical fiction pitfall discussion. There’s no quiz today, because I’m certain that when you read the next selection, you’ll know immediately what’s wrong. This is the more than slightly modified opening scene of Paper Roses, the first of my Texas Dreams books.
“It’ll be all right.” Sarah Dobbs wrapped her arms around the child, wishing with all her heart that she could believe the words she’d uttered so often. The truth was, it didn’t matter what she believed. All that mattered was keeping Thea safe. And so Sarah knelt on the hard-packed dirt of San Antonio’s main street to wipe the tears from her sister’s cheeks. The child was hot, tired and excited by the unusual sights, a combination that turned normally sweet-tempered Thea querulous.
Thea was too young to appreciate San Antonio’s rich history. The original Spanish settlement of San Antonio de Valero, named for the Viceroy, was founded in the same year as the French began New Orleans. Located just below the Balcones Escarpment, it had the advantage of a mild, dry, healthful climate; plentiful water and an abundance of limestone for building. In 1721 Valero himself sent a force of 54 soldiers to build a strong fort, what many would call a presidio, nearby. They named the fort San Antonio de Bejar, in memory of Valero’s brother, and by 1726 more than 200 men, women and children inhabited the area. Indians, of course, were not included in that count, although by the middle of the century, each of the five missions in the San Antonio region had more than 200 Indians.
The dominant tribes in Texas were the Apaches and the Comanches. The Spaniards were never able to conquer the first, and the second gave them the greatest defeat they ever suffered at the hands of natives in the New World. But all that had occurred over a hundred years ago. Now the city was part of the great state of Texas, the state that would soon be her home and Thea’s.
Are you yawning? Or did you decide that this was what a friend calls a wallbanger, a book that’s so bad that you hurl it against the wall rather than read it? I’ll admit that I’ve exaggerated the problem, but I’ve judged enough contests to know that including too much history is a common problem.
It’s easy to understand why it happens. We do extensive research and we find so many fascinating details that we want to share them with readers. Unfortunately, heavy-handed infusion of history has the effect of boring readers, including those critical first readers: agents and editors.
So, how do you know what details to include and when? There are undoubtedly other ways to make that decision, but I suggest following three rules.
1. Remember that less is more. When you include historical facts, select the ones that are most critical. In many cases, these will be little-known facts that you’ve chosen to weave into your plot. If one of Sarah’s ancestors was one of the 54 soldiers who’d built the original fort, that would be the fact that I would have included, but rather than simply inserting the fact, I would have followed rule #2.
2. Ensure that each piece of history affects the character in some way. One of the problems with the passage above is that the paragraphs of historical facts have no tie to either Sarah or Thea. Consider the difference if I’d said, “Thea was too young to appreciate San Antonio’s rich history, but Sarah couldn’t dismiss the thrill that ran up her spine at the realization that she was only yards away from the fort her great-grandfather had helped build. Mother had raised her with tales of how Great Grandpa was one of the 54 soldiers the Viceroy had sent to build the presidio.” In this case, there was a reason to have included that particular detail, and so the reader doesn’t feel as if she’s being force-fed history.
3. And, most importantly, remember that you’re writing a novel. Your primary goal is to entertain. Readers do not expect a history lesson. As you edit your manuscript, look at each piece of research you’ve included and ask yourself, “Will the story make sense without this?” If the answer is “yes,” delete it.
There’s no doubt that there are challenges involved in writing historical fiction and pitfalls to be avoided, but from my perspective there’s nothing quite so enjoyable as being transported to a different time and place.
If you’ve always dreamt of telling stories about times gone by, I encourage you to make that dream come true. I’m looking forward to seeing your books on the shelves!