Today, I'll finish the third edit of a historical novel I've written set in the Middle Ages, and this has me looking back. I started research on this rather obscure subject and personality some 20 years ago, and then came compiling and synthesizing the data. The story involves a man who rose from the French peasantry to the Catholic Church's papacy in a time of great social upheaval – not unlike the world-wide era we now live in.
But to begin answering my question…
This quest began, rather obviously, with an adult dose of curiosity about this man, and the era he helped shape. This was a time in which singular personalities – rather than the masses – affected an era's progress – or its missteps. Fascinating to consider that from the viewpoint of life in the 21st century, isn't it?
Compiling data in such a quest – even ragarding an era in which few records were kept, and much of what is there holds conflicting perspectives, dates, accounts, etc. – is an exercise in organization, and this skill is planted firmly in my wheelhouse.
But how to tell the story?
I'm discovering, especially with historical fiction, that this is a separate talent, and it concerns many challenges. First, the temptation is to make a historical treatise of it, but this isn't what fiction is all about. And for such a story to be readable and relevant, the characters must be there, must bring the history, which can seem overarching and distant, down to the personal level.
So I've taken a page from Scott Fitzgerald and created a second character to complement the historical one. Still there was a problem. Even these two characters couldn't make the story come full circle. The limitations of these two characters' experience was unable to close the deal, since both had to die, and so my structure required yet a third character. This one, of course, couldn't be simply a "throw-in;" he had to be an integral part of the story.
This called for much finagling and restructuring even before I began to write. I ended up then with a chancy structure,the story being told in the form of a book. A book within a book. Shades of J.M Coetzee!
I think I've done a decent job of telling this story, but is it too odd structurally? Will the casual reader be confused? Will readers of any stripe be informed and entertained by it?
It absolutely begs for another set of eyes, and so a writing colleague will see it next. Then, depending on her reaction, I may submit it to an indie editor for opinion and advice.
So what's to learn in telling such a story? You'll learn that creativity goes far beyond wordsmithing. It involves proper use of history. Characterization that does justice to the history. An underlying structure to support all of that. And perhaps most importantly: the reader – have you made your story accessible? Story is the thing, as always, but there must be readers for the story to complete itself.