Thursday, July 4, 2013

Stephanie Thornton: Writing Historical Fiction Part I - If It Could Have Happened, It's Fair Game

Welcome on this national holiday to July featured author Stephanie Thornton, whose first book , The Secret History: A Novel of Empress Theodora, was published earlier this week.

A few years ago when I was revising my first historical manuscript, I had a very knowledgeable author-friend point out the four key elements of any manuscript: plot, characters, setting, and emotion.

Depending on which genre you write, those four elements can be rearranged in various orders of importance. Young Adult tends to be heavy on emotion, but lighter on setting whereas fantasy often delves deepest into setting. Even within historical fiction, there’s great variation. I’ve read some historicals where the plot was lighter than the setting and others where the only period details included the clothing and the food on the table.

My first drafts are disaster zones not fit for human consumption, but all I care about that first time around is one thing: what happens next.

There’s often one place I turn to for those answers. Fortunately for me, there are extensive historical sources for all the “forgotten” women in history I’ve chosen to write about. Empress Theodora’s reign was painstakingly recorded (albeit with a hefty dose of propaganda) by the Byzantine historian Procopius, Pharaoh Hatshepsut detailed major events of her reign on the walls of her mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri (also exaggerated to make her look good), and the exploits of Genghis Khan’s wife Borte were documented in the Secret History of the Mongols (which goes out of its way to make Genghis look like a rock star). 

The trick then is making the known events (or at least the recorded events) fit my novels’ narratives. For example, Procopius writes that Theodora had a son before becoming empress, and that she hid his existence in order to further her own career, sending him away with a servant as an adult when he sought her out. The boy was never heard from again, which led to the question of what happened to him. Did he return to the countryside to farm apricots? Did he blackmail the mother he never knew, letting her buy his silence? Or did he die some tragic death, possibly at his mother’s command?

Each of those scenarios is possible, but I get to choose which works best for the novel, the one will keep readers flipping the pages until 2AM.

[insert evil laugh]

My plot motto: So long as a plot line could have happened in real history, it’s fair game, at least in my world.

(And of course, if it makes your characters’ lives even harder, all the better. Next week’s motto: Throw your characters under the bus!)

Stephanie Thornton is a writer and history teacher who has been obsessed with infamous women from ancient history since she was twelve. She lives with her husband and daughter in Alaska, where she is at work on her next novel. Her first book, The Secret History: A Novel of Empress Theodora is now available in bookstores and online. Visit her website at


Lynn Lovegreen said...

I found your post comforting. Thanks for giving me permission to have fun filling in the blanks of what we don't know. I also write historical fiction, and I wonder if the history buffs will come after me to complain if I get things wrong. (We'll find out soon--my first book is out this fall.)

Stephanie Thornton said...

Lynn--Congratulations on your upcoming book! While I'm not sure we can ever make everyone happy, I do think it's perfectly acceptable to let our imaginations fill in the gaps of the historical record. After all, it's called historical fiction for a reason!

Lynn Lovegreen said...

Thanks Stephanie! :-)