By Jason Monaghan
One challenge of writing a thriller set in a historic period is that we know what happened. Even if most of your readers are not history experts, they will be aware of the big picture and can quickly dive into Wikipedia to flesh out the facts. We know which US Presidents were assassinated, who won WW2 and are sure the Titanic sank. A reader can anticipate what is going to happen.
Even if we know our history, tension can be created against a historic backdrop that is fixed, for example in the Phillip Kerr books set in 1930s and 1940s Germany. Innumerable crimes and misdemeanours and cunning plots can be fitted into this ‘Golden Age’ with only passing nods to the historic timeline. Much happened that is not in the history books. Even if writing a thriller faithful to a well-known event such as Robert Harris’ Munich a great deal of the dialogue, plot and behind-the-scenes action needs to be made up.
Crucially, although modern readers know how it all turned out, the characters don’t. The writer needs to convey their hopes and fears and plans when the future is unknown. To them the end is not inevitable, and even the historic outcome need not pre-determine their fate as individuals. Characters should not be granted too much foreknowledge and so take actions that in hindsight we know are mistakes; they may invest in the stock market in 1928 because it seemed like a good idea at the time. Even if the reader is not surprised by the outcome of events, they are rewarded by how the protagonists react.
Historic thriller plots are made easier if the lead characters are minor players in the great game; a soldier not a general, a highwayman not a king. Major historical figures are given only walk-on parts, perhaps spouting lines they actually used. Only a little license is needed for our hero to be one of Columbus’ crewman or a Lady-in-waiting to Anne Boleyn. Take a little more license and one of our characters can play a pivotal role, such as being one of the senators who sticks a dagger into Julius Caesar.
Writing alternative history such as Phillip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle is a bolder step still. It opens up possibilities but requires a suspension of disbelief by the reader. The altered timeline needs to be explained and the bigger the departure from reality, the more thought the writer must put into world-building. Fantastic elements need to be minimised so that once over the initial hurdle everything about this changed world feels logical. The more recognisable elements of the real historic period that are included, the less of a jump it will be for the reader. The history is ‘wrong’, but it should feel plausible.
We are not writing history books so much of the research that underpins a thriller must be set aside, keeping only the nuggets that add richness to the story and provide the context. However, some facts can prove to be inconvenient and box the plot in if not derailing it entirely. Changing just a few of those inconvenient facts raises the reader’s doubts whether we will see history unfold as it should. Perhaps Hitler will be assassinated by our hero, or perhaps JFK will be saved. The character’s uncertainty about what could happen becomes more real if the reader also becomes uncertain. It’s a thriller, and we expect the unexpected.
Jason Monaghan is an author and archaeologist. Blackshirt Masquerade by is set in 1935 in a Britain under the rising threat of fascism. The fascist bid for power accelerates during the ‘Abdication Crisis’ of 1936 in Blackshirt Conspiracy. Both are published by the Historia Imprint of Level Best Books.