Okay, so where does this fit in? (Encore)

Imagine you’re going to write some historical fiction. It could be a short story; it could be a novel, or it could be something in between. You’ve got a great idea: wrap the story around a compelling but little-known smidgen of history. Your intent is to rescue that tidbit from obscurity and use it as a fulcrum on which to lever your vision of events to dizzying heights.

The whole enterprise is so tempting, you all but drool in your eagerness to begin. Except for one tiny detail: you don’t have a clue what that historical tidbit might be.

Ahem. Allow me to suggest a few possibilities gleaned from an entirely cursory stint of online browsing.

1) Back in the day — during the Industrial Revolution, but before the invention of the alarm clock — a squad of peculiar markspersons was employed to shoot peas at the windows of factory workers to wake them up in time to report for work. And work like that was hard to pass up, even if you left a finger down at the factory.

I can imagine several scenarios where an interruption in this service might lead to catastrophe or at least some sort of conflict. And let’s not forget, conflict is at the heart of every good story.

2)  In the middle ages, people believed that sperm coming from the left testicle produced girls. Men who wanted only sons had it removed. Keep in mind, that during this time the folks doing the surgery were more commonly employed as barbers.

I can only begin to imagine how many truly awful outcomes such misguided notions could generate, but a story told from almost any viewpoint could be quite interesting.

3) The Law Of Unintended Consequences: While Pope Gregory IX was in power in the 1200s, he declared that cats were linked to devil worship and had countless numbers of them killed. It’s thought by many that the disappearance of those cats caused an explosion in the rat population which in turn aided in the spread of the bubonic plague or Black Death which ultimately killed hundreds of millions of people in the 1300s.

I’m thinking of an “I told ya so” sort of character.

4)  At the beginning of the American Civil War, the commander of the Confederate army, General Robert E. Lee, did not own any slaves. The victor of the conflict, Union General Ulysses S. Grant, did. Furthermore, the constitution of the Confederate States of America banned the trade of slaves while the Union constitution did not. Oh, and just so you know, the first slaves in America were the Irish.

If you can’t find a story in there somewhere, you’re just not trying hard enough!

5)  Red rover, red rover: In WWII the Russians trained dogs with bombs strapped to their backs to run under tanks. At the appropriate time, with German tanks advancing, the dogs were released. Alas, they were only trained to run under Russian tanks and ignored the invader’s armor entirely. Instead, they did as they were taught, running under Russian tanks and blowing them up instead.

For someone who loves dogs, like me, there’s a delicious comeuppance in that. There may not be enough story stuff here for a novel, but it’d sure make for an explosive short story.

6) Though credited with many cultural advances and military victories, Peter the Great had a seriously “less than great” side. Many scholars believe he had his wife’s lover, Willem Mons, beheaded. He then had the head preserved in alcohol and put on display where his wife would always see it. (The head now resides in the Kunstkamera, Russia’s first museum.)

I’m not sure whose point of view I’d employ in the retelling of this, but it could be interesting.

History, it’s way too weird to be made up!


About joshlangston

Grateful and well-loved husband, happy grandparent, novelist, editor, and teacher. My life plate is full, and I couldn't be happier. Anything else I might add would be anticlimactic. Cheers!
This entry was posted in Historical writing, novel writing, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Okay, so where does this fit in? (Encore)

  1. Robin castillo says:

    So interesting!


    Hi, wise Sage, great suggestion. Too bad I already have a topic. Infact, just recently, I have met up witha descendent of one of the minor characters in my story. Blew me away. He used to be my intern, but I just learned that his grandmother used to be married, briefly, to the son ofthe artist Henri Matisse. That and more. May have to bring him into the story. Sorry to be mssing the get-together. Greetings, Erika

    Sent from my iPad


  3. Betty Smith says:

    I have wounded my male protagonist in my wip. A gunshot wound during the Regency era very often led to infection; there is no way I’m going include the historical tidbit that pus was thought to be a sign of healing – how gross!

    • joshlangston says:

      Are you kidding? That’s a fabulous tidbit! Don’t let 21st-century sensibilities keep you from working in details and practices that were relevant in the period you’re writing about. Having a character who is a doctor “verify” that puss is a sign of healing would make for a great little moment. And, an educational one!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.