Geetanjali Mukherjee

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Guest Post: Weaving A Tale: How I Blend History and Fiction

Today we have a guest post by author Robert Krenzel, on his research and writing process for writing historical novels.

When Geetanjali asked me to write a guest post about how I weave facts into narrative, I had to think about it for a moment. How do I do that? In this case, the answer is in the question: the facts are woven in.

A few years ago when I embarked on my writing career, I started with a few basic ideas:

  -I wanted to write a novel.

  -The story would be set in the past…during the American Revolution, mostly because I find that time period fascinating, but wanted to learn more.

  -The story would center on young adults, because my kids would be the target audience.

The next step was to come up with a story; that is when the research started! I started reading up on the American Revolution. I was fortunate at the time to be working on Fort Leavenworth, within a few minutes’ walk from the Combined Arms Research Library, which has a tremendous selection of primary and secondary sources. I learned a great deal, and I realized how poorly understood the American Revolution has come to be.

I also found myself identifying with many of the personalities I learned about on both sides of the war. As an American soldier for over 20 years, and having worked with American soldiers during that time, I felt a natural affinity for the American militia and Continental troops. However I also worked a great deal with British and German troops, and I was a professional soldier who fought in a couple of unpopular wars, against a tenacious enemy, in a place far from home. Thus I found myself sympathizing with the British and Hessian troops who were charged with sorting out the mess in the colonies.

As my list of ideas grew, I quickly realized that a single book would not tell enough of the story, so I decided on a series, with a first novel that started at the beginning. I also thought for a while about what messages I wanted to convey to my readers, and I boiled it down to a handful of themes:

  -A general narrative of the war.

  -This war was fought by ordinary people (often youth) caught in extraordinary circumstances.

  -People on both sides believed wholeheartedly in their cause.

  -War is terrible and has lasting effects of the participants. This was especially important to me as an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran.

Having decided on the themes, I started sketching out a general story. The first and most important step was in creating a protagonist who could plausibly be in most of the decisive battles of the war. I quickly hit upon the Thompson’s Rifle Battalion, aka the First Continental Regiment. This was the first unit formed by the Continental Congress, and Washington relied heavily on it, especially through early 1777, and it fought in most of the major battles of the war. HOWEVER…it was formed in Pennsylvania after the war started. I really wanted to include Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill, all of which occurred prior to the advent of Thompson’s Battalion. The result: I had to create a somewhat plausible plot device that would get my protagonist from the Massachusetts Militia into a Pennsylvania Continental unit. This led me to dive even further into earlier Colonial history, and to build a timeline and backstory that would explain these plot turns. So:

Gideon Hawke was born in Pennsylvania on April 20th, 1759. His mother died in childbirth. His father, Aaron, was born in Massachusetts but ran away at a young age to find adventure on the frontier. He became a frontier rifleman and served in the French and Indian war, fighting valiantly alongside George Washington in the Braddock Expedition. He was badly wounded at Fort Carillon. After Gideon’s birth, Aaron realized he could not care for his son alone for long, so he took the boy back to Lexington, Massachusetts to be near family. Before he died, Aaron did his best to train young Gideon in the ways of the frontier: to hunt, to shoot, to be independent, and to lead. After Aaron’s death in 1774 Gideon felt increasingly alone. In April of 1775 Gideon is struggling with decisions about life and love until one fateful morning: his friend tells him the militia is forming on the Common, because the British are en route through Lexington to Concord. Gideon goes out to watch the excitement, and then the shooting starts. Gideon is assaulted by British troops, his friend is killed, and a war has started. After the fighting at Lexington and Bunker Hill Gideon gets himself in trouble, and finds himself reporting to the new commander-in-chief, George Washington. Washington remembers a debt he owes to Aaron Hawke, and arranges for Gideon to enlist in Thompson’s Rifle battalion.

Whew! Having sorted that out, I applied the same process to flesh out the story. I created a timeline of the events of the Siege of Boston, and then created a few plot lines that covered my major themes: Gideon suffers from what we now would call post-traumatic stress, but his new comrades help him to understand he is not alone. His relationship with Ruth Munroe, his love interest, grows stronger. He earns the respect of his colleagues. The Continental Army outfoxes the British, and they are forced to withdraw from Boston. Once I wove all of those strands together, I would up with a novel entitled This Glorious Cause.

Having published my first book, I applied the same process to create Times That Try Men’s Souls. I applied a somewhat more disciplined process, formally time-lining and sketching out the plot. I even had color-coded plot lines to help visualize the plot development and intersections. That helped, but method aside, in a sense the second book was easier to write because the time frame from July 1776-January 1777 better lends itself to a dramatic story. 

“The British and Hessian juggernaut overwhelms the initially overconfident Americans time and again, and Washington’s army dwindles as it retreats across New Jersey. But then, when all is seems lost, Washington sees and exploits an opportunity and a small but dedicated group of Americans outwit and outfight their enemies twice at Trenton and again at Princeton.” 

What a great story! Into this factual narrative I wove the elements of Gideon’s fictional story: his nightmares, his lack of self-confidence, his desire to protect those he loves, his adversarial relationship with his antagonist, and his developing relationship with Ruth. Ruth was my biggest challenge, because I really wanted to develop her character and increase her relevance to the story, but in This Glorious Cause I had left her in Massachusetts when Gideon marched away! I am very pleased with how I solved that conundrum, but if I told you how I did so, I’d be spoiling one of the best parts of Times!

So that’s how I weave my tales. I start with a compelling historical thread, and I weave it into a fabric composed of familiar themes and characters that help a modern reader relate to times gone by.  Some people say I am good at it, and some would beg to differ. But the bottom line is that for me it’s an awful lot of fun!

Keep an eye out for my next blend of history and fiction: A Nest of Hornets, due out in January 2017.


Robert Krenzel was educated at Rutgers University and Eastern Connecticut State University. He was commissioned as a tank officer in the US Army; in a career spanning more than two decades he served in the US, Europe, and the Middle East, and participated in numerous peacekeeping and combat operations. He most recently served as an Assistant Professor at the US Army Command and General Staff College, where he taught History, Leadership, and Tactics. He retired from the Army in 2015 with the rank of lieutenant colonel. He currently resides in the Kansas City Area with his very understanding wife, two awesome kids, a very energetic dog, and an assortment of cats. 

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