Author’s Intent, History

While a strong sense of history may not be a hard and fast requirement for being a writer, understanding how history affects a story is an important consideration for any work of fiction. Just as people are affected by the twists and turns of historical events, the characters in a story are informed by their past and decisions made, sometimes even before they were born. Incorporating history into a work means having a clear sense of the events being referenced.

All stories have a history. Characters start at one point and end at another, changing as they go. If it’s handled properly, the journey the characters take will lead to many surprises for the reader, with milestones, so to speak, to keep the reader’s interest. Another way to incorporate history is to use, as a backdrop, events from recent history, or, if the story is set in the past, well-known individuals or events.

My work is sometimes informed by my outside activities and interests, in particular, my work researching my family’s genealogy and history. I found that establishing a timeline for my ancestors, recording every known and documented event in their past, helped me in sorting out who belonged to which family. Timelines also come in handy when writing about fictional characters and in my original novel, The Long-Timers, a timeline was crucial for establishing and maintaining the history of the characters, given the vast amount of time the story covered.

Those who write historical fiction encounter these matters on a regular basis, but even those who set their stories in the present day benefit from an understanding of how the history behind the narrative affects the existence of the characters. Stories don’t simply appear out of thin air, not even a devised story created by an author. Readers encounter the characters at a given point in time, regardless of whether they’re reading an origin story or meeting them later in their fictional existence. After the introductory section of Slaughterhouse Five Kurt Vonnegut opens the story with: “Listen. Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.” From there, he begins the history of how this situation has come about leading to many fascinating revelations about the protagonist.

Opening lines are often used as teasers, luring the reader into the story, providing just enough clues to garner interest before turning to the world building necessary to craft the fictional universe. In an early version of the story that evolved into “Bad Days Work”, I had the main character climb to the top of a building scheduled for demolition. I then flashed back to the beginning to relate how and why he was there. The story eventually evolved away from my original premise, leaving me with the beginning that I may use again at some point.

Whether a story is set in ancient Rome or modern day Cleveland, history plays a crucial role in supplying the details necessary to establish the world of the tale. A person arrives in a given location and sets in motion a chain of events that become that person’s story, just as the arrival of an character in a story sets off a series of actions and consequences. In my work, I find that establishing the historical context of a story provides a richness to the interactions of the characters and centers them, not just in the fictional reality but in the world at large. Just as everyone has a story, everyone has a history unique to the individual.

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