“Short rations” of history

Screen Shot 2017-10-28 at 10.47.20 AMI sometimes find myself going down the rabbit hole of historical research. The fact I’m looking for leads to another interesting tidbit and that leads to something else that fouls up my assumptions that tangles up my story that then finds me looking at an unfinished sentence, thinking “Now what?”

My dear critique partners are good at leading me away from these historical traps. They remind me that the story is what I must focus on: the characters and the conflicts they encounter are what’s important.

So I found it comforting when I found this sentence in Geraldine Brook’s remarkable Year of Wonders. And she was quoting William Styron–

William Styron once wrote that the historical novelist works best if fed on “short rations” by the factual record.

At the same time, she writes about all the sources for her story: the Plague Village of Eyam, medical texts, journals, sermons and social histories. She even owns a copy of A History of Lead Mining in the Pennines. (P.S.–I looked for the William Styron quote and although I found other authors quoting the same quote—like this one—I couldn’t find Styron’s actual words.)

How much of a story is a history lesson? How much of it is a story about people and how they face the complications of their lives?

I keep asking these questions as I write my own historical fiction. Now I’ll be thinking about Ms. Brooks’ quote and her beautiful creation, the character Anna.

Year of Wonders tells the story of a young woman who loses everyone she loves as the plague ravages her small lead-mining village. But I remember most Anna, a character full of love, determination, loyalty and strength. Ms. Brooks brought her to life through her rich language, vivid story-telling and “short rations” of history.  I can’t wait to crack open another of her historical wonders.


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