What to leave in . . . and what to leave out:
crafting a story from history
Writing any novel involves a great deal of editing and revision: mostly of the "taking it out" variety. As the arc of the story emerges, the cut pile gets bigger and bigger. I think of the "fall line" in skiing: that direct line down the hill. I think of the "fall line" as the direct line to the story I'm telling, its arc. The hard part is finding it — and harder yet, simply allowing it to be.
The cut files for each of my novels are longer than the novel. There are many good scenes in those files — scenes carefully worked over and polished, scenes deeply researched and lovingly honed. It's painful to let them go, and yet, were they to stay in the novel, they would crowd the story, distort it, blur its lines. They're like a beautiful, romantic moss, killing the host tree. They have to go. (I believe it was Hemingway who said something to the effect that it was what was not said that gave a scene power.)
I know the exact moment I felt I had become a "true" writer. I had been writing for almost a decade. I was under contract to write the Josephine B. Trilogy. The Many Lives & Secret Sorrows of Josephine B., the first of the trilogy, had been accepted for publication and I was working on a final draft. Reading it through, yet again, I realized that one scene — my favorite — distracted from the narrative movement of the story, and so, boldly, I cut it. Stunned, I walked into the living room to announce to my husband: "I've just cut my best scene." I said this with a mixture of horror and pride. "Kill your darlings" is a familiar writer rule-of-thumb. In this moment, I understood.
With each draft, the story begins to emerge; an author must allow this to happen. The question of what to cut and what to leave in is always a tricky one — a decision that is more often intuitive than logical. But the guidelines get even murkier when the fiction is fact-based, historical. "But it happened," I will tell myself, justifying a scene that really should go. "And it’s such a great bit!" I must constantly remind myself that if a scene doesn't support the story in some significant way, it must go. Even a historian writing a non-fiction biography or historical text must pick and choose, and a novelist even more so.
The cut file for my latest novel, Mistress of the Sun, is 842 pages long. The manuscript itself was only 466 pages. The novel was eight years in the making, and in the last year, after it had been accepted for publication, I cut the last third of it. In the month before it went into production, I cut two chapters. This seems to be my pattern. When I sent the final revision of The Many Lives & Secret Sorrows of Josephine B. to my publisher, I printed it out in a larger typeface, hoping she wouldn't notice how much I had cut.
With historical fiction, the important thing is to simplify. There are always too many people for a reader to be expected to keep track of, especially in the realm of the past, where families were bigger, where a house was bustling with staff, where every man who so much as walked into a room had family and servants with him. It's okay to simplify, combine characters (so long as you let readers know in an author's note). There were a number of people who had a profound religious impact on Louise de la Vallière (Petite), the heroine of my last novel, but rather than confusing the reader with a number of characters who would come and go, appear and disappear throughout her life, and all of them giving the same message, I combined them into one memorable character.
As well, actions are rarely made directly and cleanly. Josephine and her first husband split and made-up a number of times before the final break. I didn't want to drag the reader through the tiresome details of their life, but, rather, cut to the chase. Petite, of Mistress of the Sun, ran away to a convent three times, not twice, as shown in the novel.
Devotion to the historical record does not mean that a novelist must document every move. A historical novel, especially a biographical historical novel, is a distillation of the historical record — and in so doing, a historical novelist gets at the heart of a story, its essential truth.
Mistress of the Sun, a Historical Novels Review Editors' Choice title, was published in paperback by Touchstone/Simon & Schuster in April 2009. I have two copies to give away to blog readers.
To enter the drawing, leave a comment on this post in response to the following question: What historical figure do you enjoy reading about the most in fiction? Entries will be accepted through the end of the day on Sunday, April 19th, with the results posted Monday morning. International entrants welcome.