How do you decide what historical events to use in the plot of a novel?

Adeline's Dream, a 1910 prairie immigration story, by Linda Aksomitis.
Adeline’s Dream, a 1910 prairie immigration story, by Linda Aksomitis.

History provides an exciting backdrop for a novel. There is built-in excitement, tension, high points and low points. So, the trick to deciding what to include in a novel means looking at the shape of a book and considering how history can propel the story’s plot, rather than just trying to include all the historical events that actually happened.

In Adeline’s Dream I had a whole summer of community activities to choose from, plus the fall school and harvest events.

I wanted to make sure the conflict in the book–that wondering what will happen–was strong right from the beginning, so I focused on events that would build conflict when examining the history book for the real events of 1910.

I had several key conflicts to develop in the novel, with the main one also showing us one of Adeline’s character flaws. She’s stubborn, in fact she’s so stubborn that she just can’t forgive her father for embroidering the truth about the home they were coming to in Canada.

Another key conflict is between Adeline and the story’s antagonist, Sarah. Sarah’s an antagonist because it seems that if she would just be nice to Adeline and accept her, that all of Adeline’s problems would be over.

Sarah also represents the town kids, who aren’t terribly accepting of the German kids from the soddy community called Germantown. In order to introduce this early, Sarah appears in the very first chapter of the book, snubbing Adeline when she arrives in Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan at the train station and calling her a “squatter.”

So, my challenge was to look at the community events and decide what historical events could set the reader firmly in 1910, plus build tension in the conflicts. First, I choose the 1/2 day holiday for Dominion Day, and the horse race. While a lot of the day is fun for Adeline and a good introduction to the town (also important since immigration is one of the main subject areas the story deals with), a confrontation with Sarah certainly dampens her spirits.

During the day Adeline’s thoughts wander, and we learn quite a bit about Germany and the long-distance relationship she’s had with her father in the four years that he’s been in Canada, getting things ready to send for them. In fact the reader hopes Adeline is ready to forgive her father.

Tension going up and down through the plot events is what pulls the reader through the story, so every time it goes up as it does when we think Adeline may forgive her father, it must also come down a little further ahead.

Some readers have asked me why Adeline doesn’t just forgive him, and there are two reasons for that: the first is that the story needs tension (once the problem is solved the excitement is over), and the second is that her inability to just say “I’m sorry Papa, I’m so glad to see you,” shows the reader that she’s stubborn.

Since at this point in the story we think she just might do that, the next historical event I include has to put Adeline on the outs again with her father.

For that event I chose Sunday after church, going to the slide show with the piano music. This particular event tied many of the threads of the plot together, so it was an important scene.

First of all, Adeline’s dream to become an opera singer is shown in both her singing in church and her longing to stand and sing Ruth’s story from the bible at the show.

Second, Adeline has a run-in with Sarah as they’re leaving the event, so it develops that conflict. The scene also shows us, quite subtly, how Sarah’s mother is a perfectionist, so we get a peek into what it’s like to actually be Sarah.

Finally, when Papa talks and laughs with Sarah’s mother, and doesn’t even introduce his family to the well-to-do lady from town, Sarah feels that while Papa might belong in the community, none of the rest of his family do, and their relationship is strained once again.

So, the historical events I chose to include must always develop conflict and character in the fictional world, showing us the realities of the character’s lives and why they respond to life the way they do.

Read an Article by Linda

Leave a Reply

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

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s