Historical Fiction: Keeping the Background from Taking Over the Foreground

I just thought of two historical novels I need to go back and reread, and they’re both by Rita Mae Brown. The first is High Hearts–a Civil War Novel, and the second is Dolley–novel about Dolley Madison. I read both these books while I was living in Charlottesville, Virginia, and both–especially High Hearts–blew me away. This was decades before I ever thought I’d be writing historical fiction myself.

And now here I am, thinking about how I want to play with/work with this genre and guessing that if I want to see some of the best possible example of how to do it right, I should open these books again. (Oh, darn. Such a chore!)

Because guess what I remember about those books? The stories.

Not the history.

Yes, of course, I read about battles in High Hearts, and I “saw” the White House burn in Dolley. Real people walked through all the pages of Dolley, and there is one scene from High Hearts that I feel pretty sure was based on a true event, because I’m not sure anyone, even Brown, could imagine that horror. (No spoilers, go read the books!)
 
Overall, though, I’m pretty sure (it’s been a couple of decades since I turned those pages) Brown placed the history of the time into the background of the books. The wars and the government officials and the soldiers and the ladies are part of the setting. And, in a way, they all weave together to create a single character you could just call Era. Or The Times. Of course those elements interact with the primary characters, of course they affect the plot. But they are not the story. The story is what Brown’s main characters–one fiction and one fictionalized–do.
 
I’m reminding myself of this as I plot. I’m focusing on my hero again, looking at her actions and her problems. I’m not shedding all the history she moves through, but I’m trying to think of her as an individual. Yes, some of her conflict is because of the times in which she lives, but it’s important that I could pick her up from those times and put her down in some other, and she’d still be who she is, down in her bones.
 
Luckily, I still have High Hearts on the shelf. Time to get another copy of Dolley. And time for you guys, whether or not you’re writing historical fiction, to check out both novels for yourself!
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6 thoughts on “Historical Fiction: Keeping the Background from Taking Over the Foreground

  1. If you want to try something new, would love to hear what you think of Shades of Gray: A Novel of the Civil War in Virginia. It’s been well received by historians and professors – but also by romance lovers – who say they feel like they’ve read a great love story, not a Civil War story.
    Full disclosure: I’m the author. 🙂

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  2. Holly Shulman says:

    As a historian, and former teacher (I have taught students from middle school through college and graduate school) I would like to make a request here that the background not be seen simply as a kind of backdrop or scrim. They are part of a context that the historical novelist needs to understand if she/he is to comprehend the character they have plucked from the past. When they don’t do that, these writers continue to make history, and our national past, unintelligible to our citizens, and that is a serious missed opportunity, and indeed a mis-service. As a Dolley scholar, Brown may have created a compelling character, but whoever she was, she was NOT Dolley Madison.

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    • beckylevine says:

      Holly, request noted! 🙂 I don’t mean to imply that the history is not an important part, but–as a writer–I’m working to make my MC a strong individual, not JUST a product or piece of her times. I’m not qualified to debate on Dolley, but for me–novelists often open up a history to me that I wouldn’t have looked at otherwise.

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