Using real history as a plot. Not as easy as it sounds?

posted in: On writing | 10

It’s time to start a new writing adventure, face the cold, blank screen and begin. For me, it’s the hardest part of the whole process – the empty page. Once something – anything – is down, words are written, then you can read them back and change them, because the thought is there, translated into words.

In a way, this book should be easy, because I know the whole plot. It’s based on historical fact, a real life drama translated into a whole new setting. But is it really so easy?

Sure, I know what happens, but the essence of a good story is not the dry-as-dust facts, it’s the WHY. Why did the characters do that? What was their motivation? It’s the difference between learning a bunch of dates in history class, and learning the story of what happened.

It’s not as easy as it sounds. My first published novel was historical fiction, a dramatisation, if you will, of real events, acts carried out by real people. You can find out more about the book here. The point, though, is that working out why something happened at a particular time isn’t always easy. In a history book you can write that the bad guys delayed their attack for a month. It’s a fact. It happened. But fiction isn’t like that. You’re in your character’s head. You have to have a very good reason why he would delay his attack. Your readers will demand it. As the saying goes, truth is stranger than fiction. And it’s true. Your plot must be plausible, you must write the events so they make sense in every way – in how your characters speak and react, what they wear, what they believe or fear.

I had to take all those things into consideration when I wrote “To Die a Dry Death” and believe me, at times it wasn’t easy. This time, I’m not going to be writing a dramatisation, using the real people in the real setting. I’m grabbing a story from history and setting it in a Galaxy Far, Far Away, a Long, Long Time in the Future. In that respect, the journey will be a little easier. But I know it won’t be as easy as join the dots or colour by numbers.

Have any of you done something like this? What was hard? What was easy?

10 Responses

  1. Paul Trembling

    It’s always fascinating (to me, at least!) to see how another writer’s mind works. Taking a real story and setting it in the far future – that’s not an approach that would occur to me.

    I like a blank screen. I like the sense of potential, of possibilities, inherent in it. Once you start putting words down, the choices narrow! But then I like to pursue those choices, to follow a character and see where they go, what they do! For me to know in advance how it would work out and where it would end would take some of the fun out of it!

    • Greta van der Rol

      Fair point, Paul, and sometimes I agree. Writing Morgan’s Return was very much like that. But (as I’ve pointed out) knowing the plot doesn’t always make it easy. And since I’m NOT writing an historical, I have the luxury of making changes if I wish.

  2. carver22

    By the way, I do know the real title is To Die a Dry Death. Grrr, why doesn’t WordPress give us an option to edit?

    • Greta van der Rol

      And of course, I didn’t notice the mistake until you pointed it out. I did, for a long time, consider writing the story as an historical, but it’s not (for me) what people want to read.

  3. Bill Kirton

    In a way, I was sneakingly sorry when you said you’d be transposing the events into the future. I know it’s what you do, and what you do better than most, but I enjoyed To Die and Dry Death so much that the thought of a repeat was very enticing. Couldn’t agree more, by the way, about the primary importance of why? What? and How? make for interesting plot changes but Why? is what gives it all substance. Good luck with the new one. I know you’ll enjoy writing it once you get going.

  4. juliabarrett

    I do love back to the future type stories because there are the facts and then there are the facts. Now I must read To Die A Dry Death. Love the title.

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