A Moment in Time: Focusing the Historical Novel

On Saturday, 19 July, 4:00-5:30 pm I’ll be facilitating a workshop at the annual summer conference of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association. Details of the location are on the events page on my website (emmacampion.com).

A workshop is a workshop, not a lecture. I do talk a bit, moving from general ideas about writing to the topic at hand, in order to give everyone a chance to arrive, physically and mentally. And then we begin. In this workshop, “A Moment in Time: focusing the historical novel,” I’ll introduce the prompts, giving some examples, and then invite each person in the room to formulate a story concept using the prompts. We’ll then workshop them, talking about what works, what doesn’t, and why.

So here’s the “handout”. I begin with a bit of background information:

current reality of what publishers want in historical novels

  • tight focus
  • an emotional experience
  • a clear protagonist
  • 100-110 k words

The panoramic historical novels of, say, Michener and Renault, are out except for authors who have track records of high sales.

Knowing that, here’s a way to narrow down your concept:


  • involve your protagonist in a transitional moment in history
  • show your protagonist swept up in it
  • show your protagonist profoundly challenged by it
  • the story is about how your protagonist changes, grows in dealing with it
  • no matter how exciting or famous a fact or event, if it moves the story away from your protagonist’s struggle, take it out

Try it:

prompts for this workshop

  • think of an event or a character in history you find fascinating or puzzling
  • choose a protagonist—can be the historical character or a fictional character caught up in the historical event
  • find a transitional moment leading up to the event or in the protagonist’s life that will result in entangling them in a momentous event

Not going to be at the workshop, but trying this out? Feel free to share your concept in the comments.


Here’s some general background that might help:

Some key ideas from Lisa Cron (Wired for Story) in a TEDxFurmanU talk this year, The Power of Story:

Brain science has revealed that we use story to make sense of our experience; it’s a cooperative effort of left and right brain.

We turn to story to navigate reality. The brain learns by feeling something subjectively.

Hence the “power” of story: You can’t change how people think about something until you change how they feel about it.

All stories are a call to action.

I highly recommend, Wired for Story by Lisa Cron (10 Speed Press 2012)


2 Comments on “A Moment in Time: Focusing the Historical Novel

  1. Candace – Thank you for this workshop at PNWA on Saturday. Very helpful. And I’ve given myself quiet morning hours since (with coffee!) to luxuriate to read A Triple Knot. Look forward to following your blog & the benefit of more insights. What impresses me greatly is your ease with all the names and titles of all the players. A great model, especially for non-historians. Appreciatively – the tea lady


    • Thank you for this lovely note, Jennifer, and for the much-needed and appreciated tea on Saturday! What a chilly conference center. More thanks–for your enthusiastic participation, and reading A Triple Knot. I hope you find this blog helpful and inspiring.

      I just checked out your webpage and I’m intrigued about you and the semi-colon!


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