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A SUBJECT OF MIGHTY INTEREST

By H. P. Oliver

Herman Melville said,

"To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme."

Aside from being the sort of quote you'd expect from the guy who wrote a whale of a tale like Moby Dick, Mister Melville's observation points a finger directly at the most important decisions you make as a writer of fiction: Choosing subjects for your projects that interest readers and hold their attention.

For writers of historical fiction the choice of a subject is even more critical because the era in which you set your tale impacts so many of its elements, including characters, dialogue, locations, color, and to some degree, the plot. Tossing these factors into the mix means the writer of a mystery in history, for example, not only has to come up with an intriguing story, but also a period in time a substantial number of readers find interesting. It also helps if you know a little something about the era in which you set your story.

This last point is one that sometimes gets us into trouble. Just because you are totally obsessed with, and have become an expert in, Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican civilizations doesn't necessarily mean anyone else shares your enthusiasm for what the Teotihuacanos were up to. True, a really riveting story by a writer with an established following might generate interest, but choosing such an obscure era means you have another obstacle to overcome in order to make your novel a success.

I'm fortunate in that the years between World War I and World War II--the historical period I find most interesting--was an eventful time in American's past, full of colorful characters and fascinating events that to a large degree shaped the society in which we live today. It also helps that the era is recent enough for most people to know a little something about it.

By way of example, I set my recent novel, SILENTS!, in the Roaring '20s--a romantic time most Americans associate with gangsters, flappers, and bootleg gin. I was able to expand on the inherent and long-standing interest in this exciting period by inserting my plot into the silent film industry. Vintage motion pictures and the glamorous people who made them have always held a fascination for us. One needn't look any further than the success of celebrity periodicals from Photoplay to its modern counterpart, People, for confirmation of that.

My point is simply this: You greatly improve your novel's chances for success by incorporating a time (past, present or future), a location, and/or an event your potential readers already find interesting. In other words, make the where and when of your story as mighty as your plot and you'll end up with a mightier book.