In Requiem for a Nun, Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” a quote that’s well known, often used, and has even been the subject of a lawsuit (bit.ly/faulknerlawsuit).
As I don’t seek to make money from this blog post, I risk offering this quote because it speaks to me as a historical fiction writer who wants to highlight a time in the past.
Surely, all historical fiction writers want, among other goals, to encourage readers to remember an event, an era, something large or small, and want them to re-examine and re-think what that past means, and to do so through story. Which leads me to this quote: Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it (George Santayana). Of course, those who do learn history often repeat it, too, but we struggle on in optimism.
Lately, I’ve wondered about what “triggers” a writer’s interest in a particular period or incident. As I work on my current novel, I know exactly what triggered it: a story I learned from my mother, who met the original of my heroine during the London Blitz. The original story is sketchy, but gives me much scope for fiction. It’s where I started, but, over time, my trigger has grown. I also want to honor my parents’ generation’s experiences by adapting a few of their stories into my novel as well. My story is now personal, engaging my passion, which I hope will make my story resonate with my eventual reader.
Regardless of the source of the trigger, the story has to become personal and passionate to the writer or it won’t be personal and passionate to the reader. Perhaps a personal connection begins the story, as in my case. Perhaps a writer experiences something directly in his/her/eir own life that provides the trigger. Perhaps a writer reads an article or a book that contains a triggering moment. The trigger can come from anywhere.
Back in the 1980s, Richard Hugo wrote a book called The Triggering Town, lectures and essays related to poetry and writing. Recently, I re-read his book with renewed respect. One of Hugo’s main points was that, when you begin writing, you think it’s about the topic you have in mind, but, as you write more deeply, you learn that you’re writing something quite different from your original triggering idea.
While Hugo focused on poetry, his point is worth thinking about in all writing. I journal about my writing as a form of “metadata” about my work. As I look back through my entries, I learn that my theme has evolved and that I am now much clearer about the true purpose of my novel. I now use my theme to review each scene and choose between include or scrap, so that every scene serves not only the story, but also the theme, and the past I want readers to find.