See all my books!

Thursday, January 23, 2014

What to exclude in a historical novel? The draperies? Scarlett used them! A few illustrations of my choices!

Inside Church at Benzu-le-Guery, France
Field Hospital No. 1, 2nd Division, June 16, 1918
Note wounded on floor, nurses and doctors tending men
My husband, wise soul that he is, often says he wants to read the essence of the action in a novel. Please, he tells me, do not hang the draperies for me. Nor tell me their color. Tell me about them if they are useful to the plot.
Only Margaret Mitchell used draperies to best fictional purpose: She took them down, altered them and made them into a dress for vain Scarlett so that she might seduce Rhett Butler.
Well, that brings me to the novelists' dilemma: What precisely are the drapes and how do I know?

Here are a few rules of selection from one who has written many hundreds of thousands of words, fiction and non. Yes, non-fiction requires a bit of discretion, too, when writing.

1. Does the fact fit best in this spot, that one...or not at all?

Illustration: I had a few facts about devastation of the French countryside circa 1917-1918 from many primary sources. Where and how to use them?
I did sprinkle them in at various points to show the journey Gwen Spencer was taking from her peaceful life in Pennsylvania, USA, to the war-torn countryside of north eastern France.

I use the scarcity of population to shade in desertion of the land far back of the line.

Many pages later, I use the ruins of a village to show how war destroyed homes and entire towns.

Much later, as Gwen disembarks on a train at Gare d'lest in Paris, I have her see how hundreds crowd into the cars, their arms full carrying their clothes, a dog or a chicken, their eyes glossy with despair as they flee bombs and advancing armies.

2. Does the particular detail add any color or drama that I don't already have? Or is its addition overload?

Illustration: I have a few sources that describe how British destroyers came out at Portsmouth to accompany US warships on route to St. Nazaire and/or Bordeaux.

Man being carried into Dressing Station in French hillside
April 26, 1918
I showed how intimidating it was to someone like Gwen who had never seen a warship so huge and I had already painted in a tragic event on that warship.  My conclusion was that if I added this fact of British destroyers, I would minimize the "lesson" learned at the end of that tragic chapter.

I decided to forgo the British convoy and instead open the next chapter on the docks in St. Nazaire. Here, Gwen sees an unusual sight that is more intriguing and raises more questions for her to answer than to have put her out to sea, literally, with the British escorts.

3. In a women's historical, just how realistic should I be when describing wounds, surgery and death?

This is the BIG Question which I see so many authors (romance, mystery, fantasy—yes, fantasy!) dealing with as they use war as backdrop to their fiction.

Illustration: In my research, I read numerous first hand accounts by nurses who hated the smell of unwashed bodies, urine and feces. One nurse unwraps a man's bandages and his brains fall out. She is horrified and shoves them back in, not knowing what to do, realizing years later, that he must have been dead already. Another recounts the men who crawled in to her tent, clutching their own entrails in their hands. These things happened. They are a part of any war. They were a part of this war.

Trust me, to have included all of that in raw detail would have raised a ruckus among women readers (my main target audience), even among many who read historical fiction and praise accuracy. I have one review already from a woman who has roundly criticized me for

Triage station, 42nd Division, Suippes, France, July 17, 1918

how "gory" my descriptions are. THAT surprises me. But many will pick up a book, expecting one thing and becoming angry at the author who does not provide precisely that. I personally thought I went out of my way to make the book as useful to set the scene as possible. I knew I was not writing an apologia, and I was definitely not writing a blood and guts battle guide for those, especially men who like to read stories of battles.

An author's choices are myriad. The ones that become a part of a novel are the most useful "translations" of fact to the devices of the plot and nuances of character growth.
Dressing station, motorized ambulance, Ambulance Company No. 137,
Alsace, August 31, 1918