On Historical Boundaries and the Resulting Artistic Bounty (How to Build a Historical Fiction Plot – Pt.2)

(Continued from Part 1)

Some writers are blessed with an abundance of ideas for future stories.

I am not one of those writers, to my great and ongoing dismay.

It takes me a loooong time to come up with a story idea.  Even longer to work it out to the point that I know all the major plot points, how it ends and, really, what the story is going to be about.

I suspect this has to do with the two different genres I’ve chosen to write in over the years (or more so, as I truly believe, the genres that have chosen me).

When I was younger, I was all about the epic high fantasy.  This involved creating whole new worlds whole cloth and devising characters and plots that related to and justified those imagined worlds’ existence.

Now I write historical fiction, which requires choosing a specific event from the past to anchor the story, and then devising a character and plot that are appropriate to the culture, customs, and ethos of that historical moment.

That’s a lot to just come up with, in both genres.  A lot of dots that need to be lined up very close together.

In my previous post on building a historical fiction plot, I offered the first of three tips, namely the importance of choosing the year/set of years when the story takes place as soon as possible while conducting your initial research.

For the next novel I plan to write, which will be set in Ancient Greece, it took me some three years to follow my own advice.

Admittedly, part of this delay was due to my procrastination in starting my research in earnest.

However the reason for this procrastination, again, was because I didn’t have an immediate sense of what this story was all about.  Nothing but it involving the gods having some kind of problem for which they needed mankind’s help.

Virtually every story featuring gods has this exact same premise.

In the case of my medieval WIP, I (eventually) came up with the full premise first and then used the research to revise it, refine it, and make it plausibly fit within its proper historical context.

This time, though, I was going to have to find the story in the research itself.

Given how extensively studied the ancient world is, and how little I already knew coming in, the task felt overwhelming.  I secretly feared that I couldn’t do the job, that it was all going to prove a huge waste of time.

Fast forward to today, I now know substantially more about the story—enough that I’m currently working on both an outline and a synopsis.  I did indeed find what I needed in the research.

In the course of this, I unknowingly did something that has since become the second of my three tips on how to build a historical fiction plot:

Tip #2: Utilize the limitations imposed upon people by their historical society

To be clear, all stories are a study in conflict and limitations to some extent.  Sometimes these are societal limits; other times, especially in Western fiction where society is ostensibly freer, they are limits that only affect protagonists themselves due to specific aspects of their personalities.

But when writing fantasy, any sort of plot you choose to construct is possible.  You literally get to play God in the world of your story.

This is perhaps why I found the genre so intimidating: the tyranny and fatigue of having too many available options.

In historical fiction, however, everything is not possible, and the specific societal barriers that existed during the time period in question can be used as building blocks to construct a plot from the ground up.

For example, for my Ancient Greece WIP, I knew I wanted a female protagonist.

However in much of the ancient world, women were largely absent from public life, confined to the home save for special, male-chaperoned occasions, barred from even such female-seeming tasks as shopping for foodstuffs or visiting female friends or family members.

With a few exceptions, the more highborn a woman was, the greater her isolation from society.

Given this, if I wanted my female protag credibly having adventures in the wider world, my best bet would be to make her either very poor (poor women often worked outside of the home), a slave (they also did work outside of the home for their masters), or a Spartan (the rights of women in Sparta and other parts of the southern Peloponnese were vastly greater than in Athens).

For maximum, build-in conflict, I chose to make her a slave.

From there, the next issue became how this character could have sustained adventures in the wider world that moved beyond the typical doings of an enslaved person.  Some options for this included having her role in her master’s house be special/unusual in some way, or to have her be a slave who had escaped her captivity.

Each story decision that’s made with an eye to historical credibility in turn produces more questions.  The answer to these—used alongside the general plotting method of identifying the main character’s goal, motivation, and conflict—give rise to the story’s plot piece by piece.

This method can be used either forward or backward.  You can follow the path of historical causality to go from the beginning of your plot to the end, or you can start with a story’s ultimate outcome and reverse-engineer its historical plausibility.

Either way, rather than the artistic wasteland one might expect, a profusion of creativity is what results.

Building your plot around real life historical constraints is an application of the well-known phenomenon of creativity limitation.  By whittling down the possibilities available to you, you’re forced to work smarter with what you’ve got—to innovate in order to come up with something that works both structurally and imaginatively.

After that, the rest, as they say, is history.

To be continued in Part 3

(Image source #1 and #2)

3 thoughts on “On Historical Boundaries and the Resulting Artistic Bounty (How to Build a Historical Fiction Plot – Pt.2)

  1. You make it sound so simple!

    The good thing about historical fiction is that it’s over, and those who were present are gone. Though new sources turn up all the time, major history books have already picked over the past and settled it into some kind of gestalt.

    And the farther you go back (Ancient Greece is quite convenient), the more flexibility you have with actual facts, as long as you acknowledge the main events. And don’t create obvious anachronisms.

    Even for contemporary literature, the society is a box, and you have to have good reasons for thinking outside it.

    That said, real life is messy. If you only got the advertising when I was growing up, but in the States, you’d think you had Leave it to Beaver women staying home and doing laundry in a dress, while wearing heels and a soupcon of makeup. If she were white, middle-class, and had a husband who supported her and any children. And he were a professional of some kind.

    Etc., etc. The Help showed some of the other realities (though I found it so extreme that I couldn’t read it), and advertisers ignored probably 98+% of real people. Part of the reason was that women had taken jobs during WWII, and it was important to have jobs for the men coming home. So much wrong with that statement, but we’ll just leave it lying there. In both meanings. Hehe.

    I picked 2000 or early 2001 when I first planned PC, and then it took me so long to learn to write reasonably well that I took three weeks (long story) when I was chaperoning a bunch of our homeschool kids at an internship to reset everything cleanly into a trilogy in 2005/2006, and get things much more organized. The number of background historical details I had to straighten out was staggering. The 9/11 attack happened. Technology advanced at its usual accelerated pace. And the annual awards in the movie industry changed in ways I had to research all over again, as I had picked the movie business as my background.

    Have fun.

    Looking forward to your next post.


    • To an extent I agree with you about having more flexibility the further back you go in history. On the one hand, yes, the actual people from the time period are long gone. On the other, a period like Ancient Greece is heavily researched, with new findings and interpretations still being published. It’s also a period, both for good and for ill, that remains in the public interest. You can only do so much hand-waving in such an environment.

      That said, the history that interests me the most, both to read and to write, is that of the people on the margins – women, servants, slaves, foreigners. People who made possible the smooth running of historical societies yet often barely warrant more than a footnote in canon history texts. Here there is a little more wiggle room, yet it’s correspondingly the area I least want to be wrong, in order to do what I can to give these forgotten people their due in mainstream consciousness. Thankfully more and more historians are focusing away from majority people, providing more sources to help me do my job.


      • I’m glad you’re doing those stories – and you’re right, they must hit the ‘known’ marks right on. I’m sure that you can add so much to what might have happened, the more you know what got recorded for whatever reason, and that was usually by men.

        I remember very fondly ‘Sinuhe, the Egyptian.’ Now knowing enough of fine points, I remember how well it hit the main ones I knew (I was a teen when I read it, so it’s been a while).


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