Readers seek to understand your story (and love it more)
Remember the fairy tales? Once upon a time, there was a princess who lived in a castle, and every day she went about her princess business until…
From the first line, the tale reveals the context. The “once upon a time” is a period usually far away in the past, in our imaginary past, a mythologic time, as opposed to the real, present time. The castle she lived in placed her in a geographical space. Although restricted, we do know where she is at the time when the story begins. If we close our eyes, we can almost imagine it. Sometimes the story tells us she may have been the princess of a certain country, who her parents were, and if they had friends and enemies.
Next, we find out what happens around her when the story takes place and what conditions she lives in. Because of these conditions, the story must rise, sometimes changing them or, other times, freeing herself.
The hero operates within the context of the time, place, and existing conditions. Sometimes they move through space (and time) and sometimes change the world, but the reader won’t know it if the author fails to tell them. A patient reader may guess, but an impatient one may give up the book altogether. After all, a fiction piece is meant to entertain. The historical context is the starting point.
Readers want to relate to the story
Most readers carry with them the past of their ancestors. We all came from something, and most of us know our grandparents very well. We may even know our grand grandparents and their origin. Some of us come from families with long traditions, some with shorter ones. Few of us don’t know or don’t care about our family’s past.
But imagine knowing that your family immigrated from where the story takes place. Imagine that the story was set in your grandma’s birthplace, the streets she used to walk, the pictures you’ve seen, and maybe you’ve even visited that place. And now you read a book about it. It could have been your family in that story or some relatives. Oh yeah, these are fictional characters, but they have a stark resemblance with the real ones.
The goal of a novel is to make readers identify with a character and find an entertaining escape. Give the context, and they won’t forget your book. Maybe spread the word.
Readers are looking to learn from your story
How often have you read or heard something and said, “wow, I didn’t know that!” A well-researched and written historical novel could be an endless string of wows. A great way to pass a piece of information, a nugget of wisdom, or a grain of understanding onto your readers. But they won’t see it unless you set the stage for it.
Sometimes a fact doesn’t make sense unless you explain the back story. For historical fiction writers, the back story is called context. Readers will easily get confused if they do not know where they are (like navigating a new city without a map) or if their knowledge is not according to what they read or is incomplete. This is why we must set the stage with places, dates, important landmarks and events.
Readers love a good researched subject
Each era has its peculiarities. Some people like regency romance because of the opulence of the upper class. Some people would instead read World War II to learn how ordinary people overcame its hardship, or if it is a battle novel, for the weapons and combat tactics. Or both.
Every era has its charm that appeals to readers, and the job of a historical fiction writer is to dig that charm and make it shine through the pages of the book. Like a magical object, the charm would transport the reader to a time and place where they can escape reality and, if the writer is very skilled, identify with the story’s heroes.
Readers avoid confusion
Context is essential for accurately portraying people, places, and events. Imagine writing a novel set in Egypt during the Ptolemaic Dynasty under Cleopatra’s rule. Then imagine every reader thinking that Cleopatra was the most famous Egyptian native! Wouldn’t it be wrong? Cleopatra may have had no Egyptian blood, as her family came from Macedonia. Readers will be confused if the book doesn’t explain the ruling family, where did they come from, how they got the power, and how did they pass it on.
Or imagine writing a piece where the action spans two continents, and our hero made the journey in a year. What took them so long? But explaining the means of transportation in that particular time and place may not only explain it but teach them what we today take for granted.
Ultimately, the context makes for a much more interesting story and a much better book.
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