We writers are clever. We take the 26 letters of the alphabet and spin them into fascinating tales that run the gamut from science fiction to romance and everything in between. If we do it well, we grab readers with such force they go without sleep, are late to work, and miss subway stops to keep turning those pages.
When placing history into your fiction, that cleverness is taken to another level because you want to do it seamlessly. Research can send me down the rabbit hole, and, like Alice, I might not come up for air for hours as I wander and ponder and fill my basket with the historical jewels I want to use. However, too much bling can blind a reader or make their eyes glaze over. And to quote the late, great Elmore Leonard, we writers want to leave out the parts readers skip.
So what to do? Granted, sometimes an information dump is necessary, and if it’s penned in an interesting way, readers may forgive one, two, or even three instances as long as they’re spread out over the body of the work. For me, though, the first rule of thumb is brevity. Case in point: In my second published novel, Vivid, there’s a big lacrosse game essential to the plot. The history and legends behind Little Brother of War, as it’s traditionally called by Native Americans, is fascinating, so much so that by the time I finished shoehorning everything I wanted to include into the narrative, I had a page and a half of details. No one wants to read all that, even if it did include wars and cute little animals like flying squirrels. Rather than include passages I knew would be skipped, I did a ruthless edit and ended up with three tight sentences that conveyed all that was necessary. Some of the leftovers were sprinkled into sections leading up to the big match, and others were saved for another book.
Not everything can be fixed with a simple edit, so another way I try to seamlessly marry fiction and history is to have my characters “wear” the history via their ancestral memories, dialogue, backstory, and occupation.
Deputy Marshal Dixon Wildhorse, the hero in my 1880s western, Topaz, is of Black Seminole descent. Through his backstory and memories of his parents and grandparents, readers learn about the Seminole Wars, the removal to Indian Territory, and the great Seminole Chiefs Wild Cat and John Horse. Wildhorse’s occupation comes into play, too, because as a lawman, he interacts with the territory’s outlaws: the Light Horse police of the Five Civilized Tribes, Hanging Judge Isaac Parker, Parker’s African-American bailiff, George Winston, and much more. All the history is relayed briefly yet effectively enough to give Topaz the edutainment “wow factor” I strive for when writing. Throw in a crusading female journalist who “wears” the history of the 19th century African-American newspapers and add a plot thread based on the Greek play Lysistrata, and you have a sometimes-laugh-out-loud story filled with research jewels that’s been continuously in print since 1997. Not bad for a paperback that has kissing in it, too.
So, there you have it – a brief look at my process. Take what you need and pass on what you don’t. Remember, there are many clever ways to weave history into your fiction – just leave out the parts readers skip.
Beverly Jenkins is the nation’s premier writer of African-American historical romance fiction and specializes in 19th century African-American life. She’s a USA Today best-selling author, an NAACP Image Award nominee, and has more than 30 published novels to date.
Beverly Jenkins: How I Write
Look back with historical fiction
How to conduct, manage, & cull research in fiction
Want more writing how-to articles like this one?
Sign up for our newsletter to receive FREE articles, publishing tips, writing advice, and more delivered to your inbox once a week.