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On Writing Historical Fiction

The contract: You have two paragraphs to define your universe

by Steven B. Yates
Assistant Director/Marketing Director, University Press of Mississippi

April 2010

Steven B. Yates is a guest columnist for Authorlink.


In preparing to return home and talk about Morkan’s Quarry to people in Springfield, Missouri, the toughest set of lectures to prepare for oddly ought to be the easiest set. I’m having difficulty conceiving what to say in two workshop settings slated to be “On the writing of historical fiction.” By the definitions of most within the reading public, I’m not sure Morkan’s Quarry qualifies. And those definitions have been so muddied and blurred by Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, father and son Shaara, even Newt Gingrich, that many readers encountering a novel set during the Civil War can no longer discern what fiction does, how it works, or why it exists.

Fiction has four rules and two purposes. The four rules (from Barry Hannah) are: Beginning, Middle, End, and Thrill Us. The two purposes are: 1) Entertainment (as in Thrill Us); and 2) Empathy, especially if the fiction aspires to one day be considered literature, that is fiction still read and recommended as worthy long after the author is dead. None of these rules and purposes encroach on the realm of the professional historian; and never should a work of fiction be deemed a book of history or used in place of a book of history.

Fellow fiction writers have argued with me long and hard about purpose number two, saying that art is for art’s sake, and so on. We can flesh that argument out later. But I have trouble calling something literature that does not bring me as reader into commune with another’s heart, does not show me how another feels about the universe.

The contract, clearly violated in this blog post, is a concept John Williams taught us in workshop at the University of Arkansas. And it is especially critical to writing a novel set in the past. Here’s the concept: the writer has one or at most two paragraphs to establish for the reader the rules of the universe. What are the limits, the boundaries of this fictional world? Who is telling me about it? When and why is all this about to happen? And where are we going?

This is especially critical for any novel set in the distant past. We are asking our readers to step out of present day and into something that happened long ago, possibly before they were even born. The contract, a helping hand to the reader and a kind agreement with the reader, is necessary in any good fiction. John Williams (author of Stoner, Butcher’s Crossing, and National Book Award-winner Augustus) emphasized the opening first pages of Gustav Flaubert’s A Simple Heart and Madame Bovary and James Joyce’s The Dead as examples.

Try this at home, then. Open any book of fiction you consider great. Within the first or at least by the second paragraph has it answered the questions: What are the limits? Who is telling our story? When and why is all this about to happen? Where are we going?

In class at Missouri State and later at the Creamery (see signings), I think I’ll read four opening paragraphs from novels set in the past, novels that I consider great. These, from the Ozarks, Donald Harington’s The Choiring of the Trees and Daniel Woodrell’s Woe to Live On; and then two openings from Jospeh Roth, the first paragraph of The Radetzky March, and the first two paragraphs of The Emperor’s Tomb.

For my own book, this is the contract I give:

When the war was finally won and the Morkans reclaimed their quarry after a fashion, they did their best to forget the armies, the battles, and occupations. Still every limestone monument cut from their cliffs near downtown Springfield, Missouri—the markers for General Nathaniel Lyon, for the unknown Confederate dead—became more than memento moris set in meadows before the red mounds of graves. To the Morkans, each stone hardened the gray promise that the town they had known was gone, and the new city rising there would remain divided by the dead, by bleary memories, and by the fabulous inscriptions of the bereaved.

Latin pedants, come out and play. Yes, I know the plural for memento mori would be mementote mori. But, unitalicized and thus Anglicized, the Ozarkization of the Latin should tell us something about the narrator. The narrator is cultured enough to have been exposed to the concept of a memento mori, but has never seen the plural written out, has never heard it pronounced. I wanted this narrator to be as sharp though not as book smart as Henry Rowe Schoolcraft (without being as condescending), and as humanely curious as S. C. Turnbo. I hope the first paragraph stands true to John Williams’s credo of contract, and that it answers, What are the limits? Who is telling our story? When and why is all this about to happen? Where are we going?

But of course, that test is now in the hands of readers.