In the words of Fripsky von Chiggatron, “Do tell!”

I started Wind Age a year ago this month, as near as I can figure. Since it’s being beta-read right now, it’s on my mind a lot even apart from the anniversary, so my posts this month are going to be, with perhaps the usual digressions on the deplorable state of art in this century, mostly about this story.

First, I have a confession to make. I haven’t read a lot of historical fiction, and next to nothing set in this period. Writers are told to read extensively in their genre, to get to know how it’s done and what sells and what readers of that genre like that makes them read it and not something else. I haven’t done that, mainly because I want to avoid writing genre fiction. I’d rather not be influenced by the popular things or the tropes that show up so often. I have heard of people like Rosemary Sutcliff but not read their books (though it sounds like I should because hers are good literature on their own). So I’m not very familiar with what most readers of historical fiction like or think.

This could be a problem. A couple of my beta-readers, who as of this writing now have the fourth chapter, have said my opening is slow. They’ve been quick to say they don’t find it a big problem, though other people might. And I, with my lack of experience with historical fiction, have to stop and think.

Is a slow opening normal in this genre? Does showing the normal pace and details of life in such-and-such a period work for readers who are looking for something set in the past? (It seems safe to assume that they are, since they’re knowingly and willingly reading historical fiction.) And so on.

A good explanation for the slow plot in the beginning might be that I was going to start the story in what is now the middle, and then I found I was having to cram a lot of backstory in, then that the backstory was worth giving a proper place in the story, being quite unusual and hard to summarize without leaving out all kinds of important parts to it. So I moved the beginning back about a decade or a little more.

Another explanation could be that since, when I started it, I didn’t know where it was going to end up, and so I was sort of wandering around putting in everything that might prove later to be important. It is true that I didn’t know how the ending was going to be until I was about three-quarters of the way through. But in writing the story I was far from aimless. Alfhild knew where it was going and went there.

Still, neither of these answers for why the beginning is slow do a whole lot to help tighten it up.

Readers, do tell! What is your favourite work of historical fiction? (Do you know of any good ones set in seventh-century England?) How do slow beginnings make you feel? (Now this is for posterity, so please be honest.)

Quote is one of Oskar’s, from the Wingfeather Saga.

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About Nolie Alcarturiel

Christian, student of Philosophy, writer, SCAdian. Crazy cat lady who likes to keep cats and birds at the same time, and who's too young to be called an old cat lady. Medievalist. Creative Writing major, Philosophy minor.
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4 Responses to In the words of Fripsky von Chiggatron, “Do tell!”

  1. Hope Ann says:

    I’ve read very little historical fiction so I couldn’t say. In my experience, almost all fiction starts pretty quickly to get and then keep the author engaged… especially in this day in age. The exception might possibly be slice-of-life novels, which I’m assuming focus as much, if not more, on their characters than on an overall plot (from what I’ve ready, your stories seem to be a mix of historical fiction and slice-of-life).

    And I think one thing that could help a story that needs to be started earlier than the ‘story’ starts, is the character. If we have a deep reason to care about her, and if we connect with her, and if there is threat of danger and trouble looming and we know something is going to happen, then we are much more likely to stick with her even if it seems a little slow at first.

    Like

    • noliealcarturiel says:

      I asked pretty much the same question last night of the KP panel, and got a pretty helpful answer. It was, in fact, a lot like what you said, especially the second paragraph. So far most of my readers seem to like the main character pretty well, although some of them (who shall remain nameless unless they choose to name themselves) have more to say about their admiration of a couple secondary characters.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. thegermangolux says:

    My favorite work of historical fiction? Hmmm. Perhaps Edith Nesbit’s ‘The Book of Dragons.’

    But seriously, I don’t know how to choose. I’m fond of ‘The White Company’, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. ‘Le Morte d’Arthur’ is an age-old classic. ‘Cry, the Beloved Country’, by Alan Paton, and ‘Jayber Crow’, by Wendell Berry though recent both in subject matter and in date of publication, are two of my favorites. It hardly seems right to just say ‘historical fiction’, and not divide it up into periods. There have been so many ages of Man, and so many good books about each one.

    About beginnings, though. It depends. It really does. When it’s a faraway time, where I have to know a lot about the period to make sense of the story, such as King’s Shadow (I’ve forgotten the author, but you know which book I’m talking about), then it’s helpful to have that, to sink into the story gently, as though it were a very hot bathtub. If it’s a familiar period, or if it’s a book that doesn’t depend much on historical detail, then it’s more like a lukewarm bathtub that I can just jump into without impunity or discomfort.

    This brings up whether you can or should write a historical novel without being detailed. I don’t really know, not being a novelist. It’s normally better to use as little research as possible, I assume, because then you can get away without using slow beginnings and risking info-dumping.

    Liked by 1 person

    • noliealcarturiel says:

      If you’re not detailed, the reader can imagine the story happening now, with no major problems, and in that case, why both going to the work of setting it in the past at all? Most readers of that genre want a story that will take them back in time for a few hours. Henty’s habit of interrupting the narrative to go into a long lecture on, say, boar-hunting in Roman Britain, is not helpful with that, of course; but neither is putting the heading 1066 at the top of your manuscript and then forever after omitting all details of clothing, food, vocabulary, social customs, modes of transportation, methods of reckoning time, and historically accurate worldviews. It just doesn’t work. You avoid the risk of info-dumping by the latter course, but what you gain isn’t worth it. You lose the unmistakable feel of your particular period and replace it with something “medieval” which could work just as well in 12th century France or 15th century England. Also, doing as little research as possible leaves you open to adopting, without knowing it, common misconceptions about the time or place, or glaring historical inaccuracies. The cloying multitude of books in the genre of historical romance are usually a good example of this extreme. Henty, of course, is quintessentially Hentyish.

      Like

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