Advice for Mormon writers of historical fiction

As I revealed earlier in the year, I was a finalists judge for historical fiction for this year’s Whitney Awards. I’ll reveal my ballot after the awards are presented, but since that doesn’t happen until May, here’s some advice for Mormons who write or are considering writing historical fiction.

Keep in mind that I don’t write historical fiction myself and haven’t read deeply in the genre so my advice may not be worth much. But my exposure to it includes: reading all of the historical fiction nominees this year, reading the historical fiction finalists back in [[insert year]], other reading of Mormon historical fiction, other reading of historical fiction published in the past three decades, other reading of fantasy fiction that draws on historical fiction, reading of quite a few novels from the main eras that authors write historical fiction in (the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries), reading of nonfiction from/about those eras, and reading of several of Sir Walter Scott’s novels. Scott, along with Jane Porter, launched the genre of historical fiction. This is all to say that while it’s not one of my primary genres, I do have some familiarity with its tropes and forms and what it can do well.

Some of this advice is obvious to those who’ve been writing in the genre a long time. But consider this like a conference talk — sometimes we need to be reminded of the basics. What I also do is mention a book in this year’s crop of nominees that I thought handled the particular aspect of writing well. This advice also comes with the caveat, of course, that reader preferences vary, etc. That beings said, I’m also trying to be careful not to project my own preferences onto it. These aspects are universal requirements. You and I may differ on the exact amounts and valences — the kinds of things that take a book from solid to awesome in our eyes. But I think that the first step is for writers to get to solid. The advice below is a reminder of what is required to do that.

PLOT STRUCTURE
Other than the family saga (which is quite difficult to do well), historical fiction doesn’t have a native plot structure. It’s a setting/milieu, which means that most historical fiction uses the structures of romance, mystery, thriller, bildungsroman or picaresque (or a combination of them). That means you need to be able to handle both the historical fiction aspects of plot and the main plot structure well. I sometimes get the sense that authors think that their novel is interesting simply by virtue of the fact that it’s in a historical setting. It’s not. Neither is it interesting just because the events your portraying really happened or had a huge impact on the world or were a dramatic moment in history. Moreover, even if your novel is literary or picaresque or a family saga, there still needs to be a structure to it. It doesn’t have to be a Hollywood standard three-act or hero’s journey structure. And certainly it doesn’t have to be as tight in form as a medical thriller or a cozy mystery. But there needs to be a thought-through structure with a defined arc (or arcs or spiral or whatever) and resonance across the various parts of the novel. And, of course, a good, earned ending.

Good Example From This Year’s Nominees: there were some fine novels with solid plot structures, but none were good enough for me to point to as a model of how to do it.

HISTORICAL DETAIL
Do more research. Too many historical fiction novels read like a copy of copy — every detail is the one that we expect. It’s almost like the detail that’s being used is taken from film rather than actual research. Don’t kitchen sink your work, though. That’s another thing I see and that’s even worse. Just because you did the research doesn’t mean it needs to go into the book. In fact, what separates a great historical fiction writer from the rest of the pack (and, really, from other novelists) is the ability to deftly deploy the right, specific detail to advance plot, reveal character and/or establish setting. This type of world building is something all writers have to do, especially science fiction and fantasy authors, but I’d say it’s most difficult for historical fiction writers since you can’t resort to quite as much hand waving. And there’s a real pleasure for the reader when you can find the right detail or event or historical character and deploy it in a way that’s relevant, surprising and/or interesting.

Good Example From This Year’s Nominees: Softly Falling by Carla Kelly. This surprised me because it’s a historical romance in a western setting, but Kelly did a great job of melding the familiar with the specific and surprising and in bringing in her research in a way that felt natural — that felt novelistic.

PROSE
I admit that I prefer excellent prose and give it more weight than other readers might. And yet, good prose is essential to successful historical fiction. That doesn’t, however, mean that it has to be literary-style prose. What it should be is excellent for the genre of the story. It should have some polish and flow to it. It should be doing work (meaning: revealing character, moving the story forward, deepening setting or some or all of the preceding). Above all it should strive for clarity — even when sentence structures are more complex or poetic (by clarity, I don’t mean that the prose must be transparent) — and specificity. This is especially important since if you’ve done your research what your presenting to us will be unfamiliar. Now, you need to balance the foreign and the familiar. The dialogue and description and vocabulary can’t be wholly of its time otherwise it’s too estranged from the modern reader. Getting the balance right is difficult. The good news is that this is something for most authors that is easier fixed than plot structure in that the more you write in the genre the better you’ll get at it. A good editor and good beta readers can help with it as well.

Good Examples From This Year’s Nominees: For more literary prose — The Rosefields of Zion by Marilyn Brown; for use of dialect and historical discourse — An Ocean atween Us by Angela Morrison.

CHARACTERIZATION
Tagging off of my observation that just because events are historical doesn’t necessarily follow that they make for good structure: just because a character is historical (actually historical or imagined) doesn’t mean that they’re interesting. They need to be interesting because they have desires, weaknesses, things that they are good at and complicated relationships. They need to have character arcs within the novel, and modern readers need to be able to find something to relate to in them. It can be particularly difficult for authors who are writing about historical figures (major world/ regional figures, ancestors, folks who’ve left primary documents behind) because the author develops a relationship with them in the course of doing their research. The act of doing that research makes them more vivid characters in the author’s mind and often it’s hard to translate that to the page. Being able to use historical detail well, craft a plot, and surround them with solid prose all helps, but historical fiction is no different from other fiction in that proper characterization is very much about establishing motivations.

Good Example From This Year’s Nominees: Softly Falling by Carla Kelly. Even the minor characters were interesting.

ROMANCE & SEXUALITY

I wish I didn’t have to add this category, but based on my reading, I feel like I need to. To be blunt:

  • Be careful how you use the threat of rape (or the occurrence of rape). I’m not saying don’t write about it*. But I’d recommend seeking out all the recent online writing about rape in fiction so that you’re able to avoid the most common tropes.   
  • While you should respect the sensibilities of your audience, don’t project the current language of modesty, chastity, sexuality, etc. onto your characters. That doesn’t mean you can’t have perfectly chaste men and women in your novels (or even more chaste than maybe they’d normally be). But do your research into the attitudes towards romance and sexuality of the people of the time you’re writing about, which are, generally, much more complex and interesting than our standard view of them.
  • Get more sensual (not necessarily more explicit) with how you portray budding romance and flirtation and even married relationships. And by sensual I don’t mean just sexual — I mean the use of sensory detail to enhance the feeling that these two characters are into each other.
  • I’m not exactly sure how to say this, but — be less weird and squeamish about sexuality. This is another area where having beta readers, especially those who have a different cultural background than you do, can be helpful.

Good Examples From This Year’s Nominees: Softly Falling by Carla Kelly and Eve: In The Beginning by H.B. Moore. Both made me believe in their romance plots.

MORMON-NESS
I realize that there are market reasons for not including Mormon characters in historical fiction if you are an LDS author. And I also recognize that some of the titles I read are part of a series and that Mormonism played a stronger part earlier in the series or will do so in later books. But I have to say that I was disappointed that this year’s set of nominees didn’t do more with Mormonism. There were several books the featured Mormon characters and/or had very Mormon settings. But I didn’t come away feeling like I had experienced or learned much that spoke to my Mormon-ness.

Maybe that’s too much to ask. But I also feel like it’s this amazing secret weapon that Mormon writers of historical fiction have packed away in their drawer, and I’d like them to retrieve it and fire away (although in a precise way, using all of the aspects of above well). I know that the Mormon market seems to have burned out a bit on historical fiction that screams MORMON. And that trying to pitch overtly Mormon stuff to the national market is difficult. But I find having Mormons or Mormon settings where the Mormonism has very little that’s unique to add to the overall novel maddening. Our history is so rich. Our geographical reach (even our historical reach) is so broad. Our point of view so unique. And our people have done such fascinating things. This experience of reading the Whitney nominees (and remember I read all of the nominees — not just the five finalists) left me wanting more. Suggestions welcome in the comments.

Also: you read it here first — Mormons between WWI and WWII. Fascinating time in our history and the history of the world. There’s some rich ore there to be mined and crafted into story.

Good Examples From This Year’s Nominees: I did like some aspects of the portrayal of Mormon poet and Young Women’s leader Ruth May Fox in Saving Lucie Cole by Lynne Larson, but what I’d recommend most is reading In the Company of Angels by David Farland (which won the Whitney Award for Best Novel in 2009) even though it is in that well-worn path of pioneer fiction.

*Note: The plot of Saving Lucie Cole by Lynne Larson revolves around the threat of rape (a young woman is kidnapped by a strange man who is part of a small group of families who live in isolation in the western Utah dessert). That book actually does an okay job with that part of the book (although other parts didn’t work for me). My observation above isn’t about that novel in particular.

5 thoughts on “Advice for Mormon writers of historical fiction”

  1. I love Carla Kelly. She’s awesome, and she has done some historical fiction with LDS characters–there was one a couple of years ago about Mormons escaping the Mexican civil war, for instance. She does believable, non-cheesy faith as well as anyone I’ve ever read.

    The dialect in Ocean Atween us was authentic but hard for me to keep up with–it felt distracting to the overall narrative, so very authentic that it stood between me and the story instead of enhancing it. Did you have that experience at all?

  2. p.s. amen on your comments re: rape. Also, what do you think of considering a book set in Eden as historical fiction? Given that every single historical detail lacks a primary source beyond scriptures, it’s a harder leap for me to make than some of Moore’s other historical fiction. I’m in the middle of it and enjoying the writing, though.

  3. I didn’t have a problem with the dialect in An Ocean atween Us. In fact, it would have been much less interesting to me without it because I felt like it enhanced my understanding of who the characters were. I don’t know that I would have been able to take the angst and melodrama without it.

    There’s a tradition in Mormon lit of putting Book of Mormon and Biblical narratives in the historical fiction category. I don’t have a problem with it. I mean, it’s not historical in the way that we usually mean historical in relation to historical fiction. But how many primary sources do we have when we go back that far in history? It might have been even stronger if there was a slightly more coherent and definite sense of geography and flora and fauna. Although I don’t know that that would have added that much to the narrative. It’s really a piece of speculative theological narrative or literary interpretation in narrative form, but I still think it fits best in the historical fiction category.

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