The fourth volume of Winston Churchill’s award-winning memoir of World War II concerns the D-Day landings and is entitled The Hinge of Fate. Historical events can lend themselves to great storytelling for novelists. We need not use events as momentous as famous battles. Even little recognized events can provide opportunity for writers to apply the oil of plot complexity and character interaction.
Discovering a real event, plan, or even a rumor can serve as a pivotal hinge for research, for character motivation, and for developing relationships between characters within an author’s chosen historical setting. When such a story involves real history, finding a hinge around which your story can revolve and oiling it as much as needed are important considerations in completing research, focusing the plot, and writing an entertaining historical novel.
Likewise, readers’ investment in the resulting story is enhanced when an author uses real or plausible new information that contributes to that “willing suspension of disbelief” that all novelists seek. Mark Twain said, “Always be sure you get your facts straight. Then you can twist ’em any way you want.” So I’ve put words in the mouths of such historical figures as Twain himself, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses Grant, Jefferson Davis, Yellowstone explorer Ferdinand Hayden, famous landscape painter Thomas Moran, Russian Grand Duke Alexis, Buffalo Bill Cody, George Armstrong Custer, and even Crazy Horse, though he spoke no English.
When I was writing my first novel, Murder for Greenhorns, my heroine recalls that Sam Clemens (Twain) told her “Nowadays, Truth goes out in public so seldom, most folks wouldn’t recognize her if they saw her.” My wife complimented me on finding such a good quote. I admitted that I hadn’t been able to find a good enough quotation, so I made that one up.
“How dare you do that? Mark Twain is a beloved American icon.”
“Dear, there isn’t anyone who believes that Julius Caesar and Richard III actually said the words that Shakespeare put in their mouths.” If Shakespeare can do it, every author can.
My 2013 Civil War spy thriller Saving Lincoln, a finalist for the 2014 Sue Feder Memorial Award for Best Historical Mystery and winner of a 2014 Tony Hillerman Award for Fiction, relates the story of a fictional female Union spy working in Richmond who stumbles across a Confederate Secret Service plot to send a wagon bomb filled with explosives to Washington and set it off close beside the White House while Lincoln is meeting with his generals. There were no fences around the executive mansion in those days and honor guards encamped on the South Lawn carried unloaded rifles.
According to the definitive 500-page study of the Confederate Secret Service, Come Retribution, written by a trio of former CIA officers, Richmond really did consider such a plot. And on April 10th, 1865, an important member of the South’s Torpedo Bureau (explosive devices of all kinds) was captured on Munson Hill, overlooking Arlington, Virginia and the city of Washington. There is no record that Federal soldiers found a wagon bomb, and no record of such a device was found in Richmond, where most documents had been burned or carried off by fleeing Confederate officials as the city was falling to Federal troops. The idea of such a device and the Munson Hill arrest served as the hinges I used to plot my 352-page novel.
My 1870s Wyoming mysteries, set in the first place in world where women could vote, includes other hinges I found. My female protagonist, schoolteacher Kate Shaw, is drawn to that place when her application letter is accepted by the fictional small town of Warbonnet, population 130, on the edge of Indian territory. Hinges for plots in this series involve Lincoln’s 1863 Land Grant Proclamation, the 1871 Hayden expedition to Yellowstone, Russian Grand Duke Alexis’ 1872 buffalo hunting trip with Custer and Cody, the presence of Crazy Horse in Wyoming in 1873, and intensely competitive dinosaur hunters from back East in 1874.
Even if you’re not writing historical fiction, placing a plausible recent event into the context of a contemporary novel can give any author a springboard into a richer plot and maybe inspire an entire novel.
Thanks for being my guest today, Rob! I love to read historicals and am always in awe of the research that goes into producing a fictional but believable novel featuring well-known personalities. Saving Lincoln sounds like a top-notch read.
Readers can learn more about Rob and his books at his website. His newest novel, Unearthing the Bones, is coming soon.