Book Recipes: How to Write a Historical Epic

Time for another book recipe! This time we’ll be looking at historical epics. Bring tissues, because three-quarters of the characters are definitely going to die.

 

Ingredients:

  • A thousand different characters
  • Significant landmarks
  • Buckets full of research
  • Weather that matches the events of the plot
  • Duh-RAMA
  • Speeches
  • Enough backstory to fill a lake
  • A significant historical event you can use as a backdrop
  • More research

 

Method:

  1. Research literally everything you can about your historical event. YOU MUST KNOW EVERYTHING.
  2. Introduce your thousand characters in the build-up to the historical event. Pick about twenty of them as your leads, but just bear in mind that only three of them are going to survive to the end of the book.
  3. Deliver some backstory in front of a famous landmark.
  4. Oh no, some plot is happening that sets up the big historical event! Never mind. I’m sure it won’t be important later.
shrug
It’s probably fine. (image: andrewstoeten.com)
  1. Kill off a character. It’s fine, we’ve got loads.
  2. Set up a confrontation between two of your characters in front of a famous landmark. Don’t resolve it yet, we’ve got like twelve thousand pages to go.
  3. Uh-oh, some important history is going on! Looks like we’ve got to pay attention this time, so make sure to slap some of your characters in there.
  4. Do a speech! Readers love speeches.
  5. Two (or more) of your characters have fallen in love! Yaaaaaayyyyy. They can’t be together, because of reasons. Angst about it in the rain, so the readers know that it’s sad.
  6. Hmm, what’s this? Looks like…foreshadowing…
giphy chipmunk
Dun dun DUUUNNNNN. (image: giphy.com)
  1. Have another confrontation between those two characters that hate each other, but in front of a different landmark. Don’t resolve it, just use the opportunity to deliver more backstory instead.
  2. THE HISTORICAL EVENT IS HAPPENING ALL STATIONS GO
  3. Your lovers are separated by all this history lying around. Time for one of them to go and angst about it while the over tries to get all the history out of their clothes.
  4. Let’s see how the characters you put right in the middle of things are getting on. They seem OK so far…
  5. HAHA JK THEY’RE ALL DEAD. The foreshadowing was right…
  6. Fighting! Drama! History all over the floor! It’s very exciting, and factually accurate.
  7. Kill off some more characters, just for kicks.
  8. Time to resolve that confrontation you’ve been building up to! Make sure to make it as dramatic as possible – if you’re not doing it in a storm, you’re doing it wrong.
  9. The dust has settled. History has finished its tantrum and is putting away its toys. Have your characters do some speeches about how significant and important this is.
  10. End on a wedding, to distract your readers from the fact that ninety percent of your characters are dead.

THE END. Serve in a thousand pages.

 

Tips:

  • Don’t get attached to any of your characters.
  • Word count coming up a bit short? That’s where your backstory comes in. It’s not just for one character – it’s for their entire family and goes back centuries. That ought to give you at least another chapter.
  • Every character must have either a corset, a sword, or a historical hat.
  • You can have antagonists, but don’t include an out-and-out villain. The real villain is society.
giphy woah
That’s deep, man. (image: giphy.com)
  • Choose your historical event carefully. You want to pick something that has a nice decisive fight right at the end and has lots of stuff to fill out your characters’ speeches with. No-one’s going to want to read a novel about humanity gradually discovering the uses of metal.
  • Make sure to pack your novel full of historical facts, no matter how irrelevant. That way, your reader can suffer too – just like when you were doing your research.
  • Start weightlifting. You’re going to need some serious guns to lift the finished book.

 

And here’s one I prepared earlier…

 

Hood pulled up to hide his face, Brother Girolamo slipped silently along the streets of Bologna. Vespers had been rung hours ago; if he was lucky, he would make it back to the abbey before Compline. If not…well. The abbot might notice his absence, but some things were more important.

Tonight, di Luca would confess.

He had to be careful. The city was tense since the theft of the bucket. Soon, there would be war. Holding the edges of his habit out of the mud, he passed by the church of San Domenico and headed for the Asinelli. In the shadows between the great tower and the smaller Garisenda tower, he would be unseen. That was where di Luca would be waiting.

He was right. There, at the base of the vast towers, stood Niccolo di Luca.

Hatred rushed through him. Di Luca was just standing there, one hand on his stupid shiny sword, a big feathered hat covering his stupid floppy hair. Rings glittered on his stupid fingers, his hose were too tight and he’d grown a stupid, stupid pointy beard. The only good thing about him was the sparkly brooch fastening his cloak, and he’d stolen that from Brother Girolamo before he’d taken holy orders. Jerk.

Well, this time he’d gone too far. Brother Girolamo stepped into the shadows, heart beating very fast. He’d thought about this moment for fifteen years. He’d composed his speech in his head all through Matins, and dropped his prayer book because of it. He’d locked himself in the latrines and practiced it out loud, just to make sure. He’d even practiced the right faces when he’d drawn water from the well. Now, he put on his determined-yet-vengeful face and cleared his throat. He had to get the voice right.

“Niccolo di Luca,” he intoned, majestically. He allowed himself a brief smile – he was doing so well – and stepped out of the shadows.

Di Luca flinched and whirled around, already drawing his sword. “Who’s there? Who are you?”

“You mean you don’t recognise me?” said Brother Girolamo, still doing the voice.

“I…I don’t…take off your hood and face me like a man!”

Brother Girolamo did a sinister laugh. He was very proud of it. He’d practiced for hours, and in the end he’d had to get Brother Paolo to help him get it right. He was going to tell Brother Paolo everything when he got back to the abbey.

“Well,” Brother Girolamo said, putting on his determined-yet-vengeful face again, “I suppose it has been fifteen years. Maybe this will help you remember.”

He lowered his hood. This was the moment he’d been waiting for. This was the moment his whole life had been building up to. This was it, this was it

Di Luca blinked at him. “I’m sorry, have we met?”

“Yes! It is – what do you mean, have we met?”

“It’s just that you don’t look very familiar. I don’t owe you money, do I?”

“I’m a monk!”

Di Luca lowered his sword. “Oh, yes! Sorry, it’s a bit dark, couldn’t see your habit. This is something of a bad time, Brother, so perhaps you could just…”

Brother Girolamo put his hands on his hips. “You really don’t recognise me?”

Di Luca squinted at him. “Er…no, not really. Could be the haircut’s throwing me off. Cover up your tonsure for a moment, would you?”

Brother Girolamo put his hands over his bald spot, fuming.

“No, you’re not ringing any bells, I’m afraid.” He smirked. “Heh. Ringing any bells…”

Brother Girolamo stamped his foot. “It’s me! Girolamo Vitelli! You ruined my life fifteen years ago and destroyed my whole family!”

Di Luca stroked his beard, thoughtfully. “Vitelli…that does sound a little familiar…”

“How could you forget what you did to my family?” Brother Girolamo declaimed. “Fifteen years ago, you seduced my sister Maria on the eve of her wedding and ran away with her! Without the help of the powerful signore she was supposed to marry, my family was ruined! We had to sell everything we owned just to pay our debts and I was forced to become a monk! I’ve laboured fifteen years, tracking you down and plotting my revenge, and you don’t even have the courtesy to remember me? You destroyed my whole family!”

Di Luca shrugged. “Hey, I’m a busy man.”

“I never heard from my sister again! What did you do to her, you monster? Did you cast her aside, leaving her friendless and alone in the world? Is she living in a pit of iniquity? Is she dead in a ditch somewhere?”

“What? No!” said Di Luca. “I married her. She’s at home with the kids.”

“…oh. Well. You should’ve told us that –”

“It’s not my fault that you didn’t write to your sister.”

“Yes it is!”

“Oh, come on! How is it my fault?”

Brother Girolamo straightened his habit. He was getting off-topic. Time to focus on the matter at hand: sweet, sweet revenge.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said, putting his vengeful face back on. “I know what you did. It was you who let the Modenese soldiers into the city, wasn’t it? It’s because of you they stole our bucket!”

“What? Listen, man, I think you’ve –”

“I’ve got proof,” said Brother Girolamo. “Brother Alessandro saw you. Now we’re going to go to war, and it’s all your fault! Well, you won’t live to enjoy the spoils of your bucket-theft. I’m going to tell the Archbishop of you and you’re going to be in so much trouble…”

There was a brief flicker of panic on Di Luca’s face, a flash of silver, and then a terrible pain in Brother Girolamo’s stomach. Then, everything went dark.

Di Luca wiped the blood off his sword. “Goddammit,” he muttered, “Maria is going to be so mad at me.”

 

My full book-cookbook can be found here. Let me know what you’d like me to look at next – and as always, take this recipe with a pinch of salt.

Alice-In-Wonderland-I-See-What-You-Did-There
Heh heh heh. (image: replycandy.com)

Side note: there was actually a war between the city-states of Bologna and Modena in the fourteenth century fought over the theft of a bucket. I honestly could not have asked for more.

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4 thoughts on “Book Recipes: How to Write a Historical Epic”

  1. You should do, like, a kids novel next. There are a lot of trends in those I’d like to see roasted.

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