Article by Lauren Miller
Historical fiction authors P.A. De Voe and Ed Protzel gave a joint talk at the May workshop for writers sponsored by the St. Louis Writers Guild.
P.A. De VOE
De Voe, whose work centers on Ancient China, opened the discussion with a question for the audience: “What is more important to you when you write your story – being factually accurate or telling an excellent tale?” De Voe thinks you can do both. “Being historically accurate doesn’t undermine creativity, it accentuates it,” she said.
Historical details add the color that brings your story to life. Be careful, however, to be honest with your readers. Your book may be their introduction to that time period, so you want to be accurate. Other readers may be history or technology buffs and will expect you to have done your homework on the period. “You are writing with emotions, and emotion ties to the brain. Be honest with your reader,” De Voe said.
What sort of story are you writing? Are you covering a broad period of time (e.g. WWI, WWII, or the French Revolution) or focusing on a single person’s life? Are you choosing a well-known, historical figure or one of the marginalized people of that time? Or maybe the story’s about someone from your own imagination. De Voe described story construction as a triangle: “[The three sides are] ideological (ex: gender roles, education systems, religious ideas), technology and economic conditions, and the social structure.”
De Voe used an example of life in China in 1380 to show how researching the ideological background of your story helps you craft your story. In the case of her Mei-hua Trilogy, De Voe explored gender roles and morality norms that influenced her characters’ motivation and how they think. Something else she considered was how their gender and social class would have impacted their exposure to education and later opportunities in life.
If your book is focusing on major historical events, read documentaries, history books, etc., to learn more about your chosen period. Footnotes can be a wonderful resource to point you to other sources. To learn more about daily life, reach out to groups with a shared interested in the time period (e.g. historical re-enactors); check out the microfiche newspaper archives and advertisements and catalogues; read the obits; look for books that specialize on an aspect of that period (e.g. clothing, medicine, education).
De Voe cautioned that some records will be “biased and stereotypical … The poor folks weren’t the ones making the records.” Personal correspondence can offer an intimate look at the concerns of daily life. True crime stories may benefit from archived court records.
Your own personal experience can also help enrich your stories. “If you’ve been someplace, it activates the five senses,” De Voe said. Elizabeth Peters, author of the Amelia Peabody series, drew from her background as an Egyptologist and her travel experience to flesh out her books, which are set in 1800s Egypt. Draw from all of your senses and add those details into your story – how do things look, taste, smell, touch, or sound?
Finally, libraries can be a great resource -- especially the Inter-Library Loan option -- to obtain scholarly works or materials not commonly available in general collections. “Talk to the experts,” De Voe said. “New information is coming out all the time.” Keep looking for the most accurate information possible.
Following a short break, Ed Protzel approached the topic of historical fiction from a different angle. Author of the DarkHorse Trilogy, Protzel said, “I am going to be speaking on the fundamentals of storytelling […] and how to best use historical research […], secondary characters, and subplots.” Any time you write historical fiction, you’re taking what you’ve learned of the period and using it to enrich your story. Often, the true events of history are more bizarre than anything you can make up.
For example, while researching the Civil War, Protzel learned Missouri was a brutal place. “Missouri, especially Western Missouri, was like Syria. […],” he said. “Refugees poured into St. Louis from all over. It was nasty stuff. [But] a novel isn’t a history book. You’re writing a drama, not a narrative.”
And like any narrative, you’ll want to focus not only on the research (although, as De Voe mentioned, that’s very important), but also on the emotions you wish to convey. Offer your readers an experience where they are immersed in your historical period. That first paragraph can be what sets your story apart from the rest – how do you arouse the interest and attention of your readers? How can you draw them into the period?
Comparing writing to painting, Protzel encouraged writers to think impressionistically, like Monet. “Find details that establish the character, period, place and mood. The small details matter more than large ones.” Once you’ve established your setting, character is the next major point to consider, Protzel said. Who will you be writing about, what attitudes do they bring to the world, and what are their motivations? As De Voe also mentioned, their station in life and ideological background will influence all facets of your story.
When writing secondary characters, consider their role and purpose in the overall narrative. The romantic interest and the antagonist are commonly discussed characters. Rather than lingering on these, Protzel delved into the lesser-talked-about reflection character, also known as the foil. They serve as the opposite of the hero and are usually a supporting character to your protagonist (i.e., a sidekick, a spouse, etc.). This is your Sanchez to your Don Quixote. Your secondary characters factor into subplots.
“The function of subplots is to parallel but contrast with the main plot by adding depth to your themes (offering them from a different point of view), adding poignancy to a comedy, or humor and irony to a dramatic story,” Protzel said. The power of a secondary character increases dramatically when you consolidate multiple, flat characters, and throw them in the proverbial blender. Out comes a fully fleshed-out character who has an important role/purpose in the life of your protagonist.
Avoid weak linear plots -- “this happened, then this”-- by having your protagonist and antagonist frequently clash with one another. Without conflict, you have no story. You can also add conflict by including multiple characters with differing goals who simultaneously interact with each other. This can be as ordinary as characters trying to reach a decision or as extraordinary as multiple characters in open combat on opposing sides.
With historical fiction, real events will shape the course of your book. Avoid technical terms that force readers out of the drama in order to research them, but do use facts to add color and spice to your story. Finally, when it comes to themes, remember they need to be interpreted from the historical perspective of that time period. Protzel’s last piece of advice, which is certainly worth remembering regardless of what time period you specialize in, is: “You are telling a story, not writing history.”
P.A. De Voe is an anthropologist and Asian specialist who writes historical mysteries and crime stories immersed in the life and times of Ancient China. She’s published short stories, From Judge Lu’s Ming Dynasty Case Files, in anthologies and online. Warned, second in her Chinese YA Mei-hua Trilogy (Hidden, Warned, and Trapped) received a 2016 Silver Falchion award in the Best International category. Trapped was a 2017 Agatha and Silver Falchion finalist. Her most recent novel Deadly Relations, A Ming Dynasty Mystery, came out in 2018. For more information and a free short story go to padevoe.com.
Ed Protzel has completed five original screenplays for feature film. His published novels include his Civil War-era DarkHorse Trilogy—The Lies That Bind, Honor Among Outcasts, and soon, Something in Madness. His futuristic mystery/thriller, The Antiquities Dealer, will be released later this year. Protzel lives in University City and has a master’s in English literature/creative writing from the University of Missouri-St. Louis.