“When the Scandinavian princess Clare finds herself and her sisters sold into slavery to the ruthless clans inhabiting the unsettled mainland, she meets Delta—a hardened slave girl with a history of her own. Although their morals and perspectives clash initially, each recognizes the other as her chance to escape captivity: for Clare, to rescue her beloved sister; for Delta, to return to her own clan.
In their struggle against predators, prejudice, and their own secrets, each woman must question what is worth living for and what, if anything, is worth dying for.”
When I first sat down to write The Exile I didn’t have a particular setting in mind. In fact, only after completing the first two drafts did I settle on Scandinavia as the geographical stage for the novel.
Why was that?
Even prior to writing the first manuscript, it was evident that the characters themselves would constitute the primary energy source that drove the story forward. In that sense, Delta the slave and Clare the princess could have lived in any medieval civilization, provided that it allowed for clan warfare. All other circumstantial elements (political corruption, denigration of women, and a constant struggle for survival) could characterize almost any culture in medieval Europe.
Other than the Vikings, not much is commonly known about its history—and unless you’re writing alternate history, it’s precisely those gaps that give you room to create a story. That being said, once I delved into Scandinavian history, it inevitably began to reshape and inform elements of The Exile— and let me add, there is still plenty of room for exploration.
At the heart of this process, though, I realized there lies a central question regarding historical fiction.
The truth is, some plots/scenarios can be extracted from their original setting and placed in a different time period or culture. Some characters can receive circumstantial facelifts while still preserving the integrity of their voice and personality. I am often struck by how much of a story’s plot could have unfolded in a different context, whereas other stories draw heavily on the historical setting for their content.
Take Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables: while Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert find themselves caught amidst the French Revolution, the game of chase and the core ethical dilemmas that define the story are not inherently tied to the time period.
On the other hand, Esther Forbes’ Johnny Tremain tells the coming-of-age tale of a boy whose perspectives are largely shaped by the ideas surrounding the American Revolution. In that sense, the history is central to the themes of the story.
And yet both Les Misérables and Johnny Tremain manage to transcend their time periods in meaningful ways.
How does this happen?
From the author’s perspective, how do you know whether to choose the setting or to develop the plot first?
On the reader’s side, how can you tell when a plot was tailor-made for a particular setting?
What other stories could have taken place in a different time period? What are some whose plots/characters seem inextricable from their setting?
In any case, it seems this trend should impact our understanding of what it means to be “timeless.”
I confess I’d never thought much about the particular issues that historical fiction raises. When I read Mary Renault or Taylor Caldwell I was interested mostly in the portrayal of, say, Socrates or Paul, in the same sort of way I’d be if I were reading Xenophon or Acts. As Shiloh Carozza has gently pointed out, there’s (lots) more to think about when it’s historical fiction at issue. Her essay above is very much worth reading—it’s a good introduction to a genre that I, at least, had never reflected on. And just in passing, her book *The Exile* is a _great_ read, particularly for those with an interest in Scandinavian history and culture. Historical fiction at its best!
Thank you for the feedback! Another thing that’s especially fascinating is seeing how someone like Fyodor Dostoevsky (as both a philosopher and novelist) writes in such a way that his characters organically express the philosophical questions and views present during their time– questions and views that still resonate with us today. Maybe that’s a special gift of the philosopher novelist: foreseeing what questions will still be relevant centuries later, and giving them voice through believable, human characters.