Posted On February 10, 2014 by Print This Post

Deepening Motivation and Plot in Historical Fiction with Marci Jefferson

Welcome debut author Marci Jefferson! She’s going to give us a few hints about plotting and deepening motivation in a historical – read on!

mainauthorphotoAs an avid reader, I enjoy almost any historical novel. And who doesn’t love a good historical romance? Have you ever noticed how history tends to be incorporated into novels in various ways? Sometimes history features as backdrop to a character-driven story. Always enjoyable! But sometimes historical facts and events shape the plot and impact the characters. All characters need goals, but isn’t it interesting when their goals are tied into historical events? Today I’m going to talk about how to layer history into the different elements of good fiction. SPOILER WARNINGS.

Let’s start with a simple example from the timeless romance, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. In Jane Austen’s classic, the Bennet sisters seek husbands. They don’t do this because they’re bored (though they might have been a bit) or seek adventure. They do it because, in the early nineteenth century, marriage was a woman’s only means to secure her future or better herself. Many historical heroines desire marriage as their character goal. But this historically-based ideal explains the character motivations behind the goals, and it is made clear from the opening lines.

How can you use historical events to build your plot? In Madeline Hunter’s New York Times bestseller THE SINS OF LORD EASTERBROOK, the hero is a brooding, troubled alpha in need of a woman’s soft touch. As the story unfolds, you learn that Lord Easterbrook spent his youth in Macao where he was entangled in the Chinese opium trade raging in the early nineteenth century. He isn’t just brooding, he struggles with opium addiction. When a woman from his past re-enters his life, he helps her seek justice for real crimes committed in opium trade back in Macao. These connections to historical events not only shape the characters, they connect them to the world’s larger-scale problems and consequently add depth to the plot.

Regardless whether a story is plot or character driven, authors can build this simple concept to into every scene. Take an example from one of my scenes in GIRL ON THE GOLDEN COIN in which a nervous Frances Stuart grips her rosary so hard and so long it creates deep indents in her palm. Did that ever happen? I have no idea. Could it have happened? Well, she was a Catholic in possession of a rosary during the religious turmoil of the seventeenth century, so it’s possible. The use of this sensory detail was included because it drew the reader into her emotions.

But take it a step further and look at why Frances was squeezing the daylights out of her rosary in that scene. Powerful King Louis XIV has just given her a necklace and asked her to be his official mistress, and she’s terrified of how he’ll respond when she refuses. Now, did King Louis XIV ask Frances Stuart to be his mistress? I have no idea. Could it have happened? Well, a famous diarist did record that Louis XIV gave Frances Stuart a jewel and loved her even more than a man loves a mistress, so it’s possible! The use of the historical diarist’s entry was turned into a major plot point in the novel, adding tension and aligning my heroine with a history-making king.

gcoinAll it takes to incorporate history in your novel is a little time to consider all the different ways the world impacts human life. And yep – you guessed it – this principle works with contemporary fiction, too. But I’d love to see tips and tricks from other writers here at Romance University. How do you add layers to your plot? Do your derive your character’s motivations from the world around them?

GIRL ON THE GOLDEN COIN will be released by St. Martin’s Press on February 11th. Synopsis:

Impoverished and exiled to the French countryside after the overthrow of the English Crown, Frances Stuart survives merely by her blood-relation to the Stuart Royals. But in 1660, the Restoration of Stuart Monarchy in England returns her family to favor. Frances discards threadbare gowns and springs to gilded Fontainebleau Palace, where she soon catches King Louis XIV’s eye. But Frances is no ordinary court beauty, she has Stuart secrets to keep and people to protect. The king turns vengeful when she rejects his offer to become his Official Mistress. He banishes her to England with orders to seduce King Charles II and stop a war.

Armed in pearls and silk, Frances maneuvers through the political turbulence of Whitehall Palace, but still can’t afford to stir a scandal. Her tactic to inspire King Charles to greatness captivates him. He believes her love can make him an honest man and even chooses Frances to pose as Britannia for England’s coins. Frances survives the Great Fire, the Great Plague, and the debauchery of the Restoration Court, yet loses her heart to the very king she must control. Until she is forced to choose between love or war.


How do you add layers to your plot? Do your derive your character’s motivations from the world around them?

Join us on Wednesday for Harlequin Editor Patience Bloom. Patience has an event February 11th at the Barnes & Noble in the Upper West Side in New York if you’re in the area!


Bio: Years after graduating from Virginia Commonwealth University, immersing herself in a Quality Assurance nursing career, and then having children, Marci realized she’d neglected her passion for history and writing. She began traveling, writing along the way, delving into various bits of history that caught her fancy. The plot for GIRL ON THE GOLDEN COIN evolved slowly after a trip to London, where she first learned about the Stuart royals. Marci is a member of the Historical Novel Society. She resides in the Midwest with her husband, making hair-bows for their daughter, trying not to step on their son’s Legos, and teaching a tiny Pacific Parrotlet to talk.

@marcijefferson on twitter

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8 Responses to “Deepening Motivation and Plot in Historical Fiction with Marci Jefferson”

  1. Great post, Marci.

    Another way I layer authentic detailing is to consider whose view point it is and what their life experiences have been and paint the scene through this character’s lens. For example, when Josephine arrives to France, I emphasize how gray the sky and landscape is, how it appears as if all color has been leeched out of the world. As a young girl from a jungle home, this is the first thing that strikes her. This immediately depresses her mood and makes her ill at ease.

    Posted by Heather Webb | February 10, 2014, 8:02 am
  2. Morning Marci!

    If you can get inside your character’s head, then the world you’re in is theirs, not yours. That’s true in any genre. I’ve never written historical, but I read it a LOT..and I like how they can tie certain events in the book to historical events. Bonnie Prince Charlie has appeared in many books….=) But it makes the reader feel a bit grounded to know that someone they “know” is in their historical.

    Or maybe that’s just…

    Thanks for a great post!


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | February 10, 2014, 9:44 am
  3. I think historical fiction has a lot to teach us about the elegance a story can achieve through successfully interweaving a character’s motivations with their historical place and time. This is something that is really difficult to do well with books having a modern setting, because we simply lack the perspective on our own era that seems so evident to us when we examine the past. But our decisions, too, are informed by the world around us, and the details we incorporate into the books we write today, whether historically set or not, must have the same power to draw readers from future generations into our time as those that came before us. Your example of the rosary is a perfect illustration – it’s a simple act that conveys a world of connotation, and, small detail though it is, does much to explain the character’s motivations.

    Posted by Lori Schafer | February 10, 2014, 9:56 am
  4. Lori that is an excellent point! I’ve never attempted a novel with a contemporary setting but can imagine how it might be difficult to get a handle on perspective!

    Posted by Marci Jefferson | February 10, 2014, 9:26 pm
  5. Great examples, Marci! I’m fairly new to historical romance. I used to think it would be stuffy and dry (I know – how wrong could I be??)but now I realize the strictures of society help drive the conflict in many historicals. Instead of making the stories feel old fashioned, the reality of a woman’s lack of freedom in the past is really driven home in these novels. I’m a big fan of historicals now, and I look forward to reading your new release, too.

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | February 10, 2014, 9:49 pm
  6. One of my “stories-in-progress” relates to the daughter of a bastard child of Prince George’s uncle. The uncles’ children out of wedlock is/was common knowledge, so I used that to flavor and ground the setting and characters and provide motivation for some of the MC’s reserved behavior in society. I hope I do as well as you’ve done. 🙂

    Posted by Robyn LaRue | February 12, 2014, 9:44 am

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