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Guest Post! – So, You Want to Write History …

08/04/2015

Please welcome, Don Cummer, Ottawa-based author of ‘Brothers at War’ and ‘A Hanging Offence’!

 

Great historical fiction – like any great writing – can transport you to a different world. At its best, it makes you feel as if you can move freely inside a world that stretches beyond the limits of your own knowledge and imagination. You keep exploring and you soak up more understanding of another time and place.

            That’s when it’s done right. But when it’s done wrong, you close the book and move on. It’s not that you’ve no interest in the time or the place. It’s that the story or the characters don’t grab you.

            What makes the difference? One of the big challenges is the way in which the author handles exposition. 

            Exposition is necessary to story telling, and no more than for historical fiction. The author needs to tell us something about the setting in which the story takes place, and it can’t always be done with dialogue or a narrative.

            In fact, one of the biggest mistakes some historical fiction authors make is to use dialogue to try to explain the necessary details of the story. You’ve probably seen this: two characters talk about the politics of the day, but the dialogue just doesn’t sound right. It reads like an essay broken up by quotation marks. And yet, if done right, dialogue can be a very powerful way indeed to set a time or place.

            Another mistake historical fiction writers sometimes make is excessive description of details, which slows down the narrative.  I recently read one novel where, in the middle of a battle scene, the author describes each and every step of loading and firing a musket. The exposition covers nearly two pages; whereas, in real life, the soldier would have loaded and fired his musket in twenty seconds, and without giving it much thought. After all, his mind would be more focused on the enemy approaching through the smoke.

            The author was obviously passionate about the topic of military drills, procedures and tactics.  But rather than write a good, honest non-fiction book about it, he tried to shoehorn his knowledge between the covers of a thin tale about a soldier and his lass.

            As readers, we don’t care much about how to load and fire a Brown Bess musket. We’re more interested in the soldier and his lass.

            A third problem you often find in historical fiction is what my mentor, Tim Wynne-Jones, calls “the push button violation.” The scene is moving along quickly and you want to know what happens next. Then the author stops the narrative, as if he or she has pushed the button to halt a podcast. The author then slips in the exposition required to understand the background, then pushes the button again so the scene can resume. 

            Three rules for exposition in historical fiction: 1) avoid using dialogue for exposition; 2) don’t pile on too much detail; 3) don’t pause the action to explain the context. 

And yet, like most rules, you can break them for good effect.

            Here’s a scene from my novel, Brothers at War, published in 2013 by Scholastic Canada. It’s about two boys – a Canadian and an American – growing up during the War of 1812. I need to provide some background on the American Revolution – which was the event, a generation before my story, that both sets the events in motion and has a powerful impact on the personalities of the characters. 

            Here’s how I did it.  See if you can spot where I follow my own rules, and where I break them.

****

            Father talks about the American Rebellion only when he thinks I’m not within earshot, but when I sit on the landing after dinner, I hear the stories. When he was not much older than me, Father fought at the Battle of Oriskany. Neighbours fought neighbours, and some of the neighbours were Rebels and some were Loyalist and some were Iroquois.

            Late at night, after the port has been passed around and the pipes lit, Father and a few of his friends will remember ambuscades and being ambushed. Sometimes they even talk about the killing, and it was not just the soldiers of the rebel armies they had killed – not just the cows and the horses. Sometimes women and children were killed too.

            “Father?”

            “Yes, Jacob.” His focus has returned to the account book again.

            “You and Henry Ecker’s father were both rangers. During the war. Right?”

            This time, he puts down his quill and looks at me over his spectacles. “That’s right,” he says slowly, tentatively – as if testing ice on the river.

            “Did you know him?”

            “A little.”

            “Was he at Oriskany?”

            “Yes.”

            Outside, the wind grows louder and shakes the door. Winter is staying very long this year. I glance at the windows, and when I look back, Father is still watching me.

            “There was a big difference between Mr. Ecker and me,” he says. “For one he served with Captain Butler – Colonel Butler’s son. I was under Captain Coldwell.”

            A dog barks in the distance. Poor dog to be out on a night like this. Ginger raises her head, then lowers it to her paws once more. She sighs, cocks an ear and looks at Father. He is listening to the barking too. Or at least, I think he is. His mind has gone off to a different place, like it does sometimes.

            Colonel Butler led the rangers from here in Newark. They were Loyalists who used to live along the Mohawk Valley. They wore green uniforms that some men put on every June 4 when we celebrate the King’s birthday. Father no longer has his. I once asked him where it was. He said he had burned it.

            “We’ve done enough tonight,” Father says. “Your mother will be fast asleep.”

            I cap the inkwell and blot the page. He puts his arm around my shoulder and leads me through the doorway into the lobby. Ginger rises and follows and takes her place at the bottom of the stairs.

            “What was the other?” I whisper.

            “I beg your pardon?”

            “You said there were two differences. Between you and Mr. Ecker.”

            “Yes…”

            He guides me up the stairs. We step over the third stair that squeaks so loudly.

            Only at the top of the landing Father says, very softly, “He liked it.”

 

Author photoDON CUMMER was born and raised in Calgary, Alberta, but now makes his home in Ottawa, Ontario, where he is a professional speechwriter. His short story “The Burying Grounds” won The Writers’ Union of Canada Writing for Children Competition in 2012. Brothers at War was his first novel in a planned trilogy.