HFCN #02: Framing the Central ‘What’ Question


In historical fiction, a central ‘what’ question can help us find a story’s beating heart. Let’s consider how two historical novels—one relatively new and the other a classic now—framed their “what” questions.

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For me, writing fiction has always been a way to further explore something that I don’t understand well enough. This means that a story often begins as a question.

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A Personal Example

For example, my latest published short story, ‘Lili’s Song’, in the crime and noir forward anthology, The Dark Waves of Winter, is about a young Indian American woman vacationing in India with some family members. They are on what should be a fun road trip from Mumbai to Goa along the beautiful and historic Konkan coast when a terrible thing happens.

historical fiction central question

In an earlier version in 2017, the plot had meandered along that coast giving glimpses of the scenic coastline and the protagonist’s stormy interior but not doing much else. In 2022, when I revisited this story, the question came to me: “What would a young woman, who has always shaped her life around other people’s wants and whims, do to take her control back when faced with an unprecedented situation?” And then ‘Lili’s Song’ took a more definite—and, for me, surprisingly darker than my usual stories—shape and route.

[Note: I should clarify that the above short story is not technically historical fiction but it uses a lot of historical references and tropes.]

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Lauren Groff’s Central ‘What’ Question in the Novel, Matrix

I had used this questioning approach with most of the stories in my 2020 collection, Each of Us Killers, too. But not with careful, deliberate design.

It was only after I read Lauren Groff’s Matrix, a historical novel about a twelfth-century nun, that I thought more deeply about this approach. In interviews, Groff mentioned this question as one of the reasons that she was drawn to write about this woman. Within the novel itself, she embedded the question as follows:

[Marie’s] actions always in reaction to the question of what she could have done in the world, if she had only been given her freedom.

– Lauren Groff, Matrix

And this is the beating heart of Groff’s novel. Everything Marie does, everything she fights for, everything she desires—all of it is driven by the question of what she could have done if she had not been consigned to spend most of her life in a nunnery in medieval England.

The genius of this ‘what’ (actually, it’s a ‘what if’ but we’ll stick with the single word here) question is that it sets up many possible dramas and conflicts where Marie herself is the key instigator, whether by choice or not. And they are all held together by the question itself.

Groff goes beyond asking “How did Marie accomplish XYZ?” Because, well, we don’t really know all of what Marie may have done due to poor records about the women of those times, especially marginalized women like her. We don’t even know her real name. We do know about her fascinating poetry—or what survived of it.

To fill in the gaps in time, space, and our understanding/knowledge, Groff chooses that central question carefully. She frames it around a deeply personal desire so that it opens up more narrative possibilities through Marie’s actions, decisions, and emotions.

On the other hand, a ‘how’ question contains a presupposition, which can be limiting. In the example above, asking “How did Marie accomplish XYZ?” presupposes—and limits us—to consider the accomplishments we know about: the poems. But the ‘what’ question allows us to consider what a woman like Marie could have accomplished (or, at least, desired and worked to accomplish) if only . . .

The Importance of the Central ‘What’ Question in Historical Fiction

I’ll give you my top three reasons though, of course, there are more.

1) As I’ve mentioned before, historical fiction is an imaginative mode that allows us to explore and interrogate the past so that we may creatively reconstruct what we perceive as gaps and omissions. But, unless we have a definitive central question guiding our storytelling, we’re likely to go down far too many rabbit holes with researching all the gaps, omissions, and unknowns.

2) Of course, this doesn’t mean that we cannot have multiple threads and tangents in our story. But we do look for more correlation and causality in our fiction than in real life. And much more so with this particular genre. A central ‘what’ question will not only lead to more interesting story threads but will also allow us to connect those threads in cohesive, meaningful, and interesting patterns.

3) Sometimes, during one of my historical fiction workshops, a writer will give their character the kind of agency or behavior that is inexplicably anachronistic. This is because the writer’s contemporary sensibilities are taking over. Framing the right kind of central ‘what’ question that accounts for the historical time, setting(s), and character can help avoid this problem.

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Many years ago, I had come across Warner’s The Corner That Held Them, which is also set in a medieval convent like Groff’s novel. At the time, I remember puzzling over how there didn’t seem to be much of a story.

There is a detailed, well-researched, well-told view of life in that convent. Warner was the daughter of a historian, after all. Yet, Warner herself wrote about it to a friend thus: “It has no conversations and no pictures, it has no plot, and the characters are innumerable and insignificant.” In the introduction to that NYRB Classics edition, Claire Harman writes that it is not so much a historical novel as it is “poised ambiguously between a novel and a fiction.”

Still, I revisited this book after reading Groff’s because I wanted to explore the similarities and differences. And I found myself approaching the Warner differently after having read the Groff.

This time, the question called out specifically in the publisher’s description of Warner’s novel resonated from every scene: “What is the life of a community and how does it support, or constrain, a real humanity?” The protagonist here isn’t a single character but an entire community. As Harman writes, “five prioresses and four bishops come and go; novices arrive, grow up, die . . .” So the ‘what’ question at the heart of this novel is about this community’s humanity itself. And Warner’s concluding thesis after creatively, thoroughly, and entertainingly exploring this question is, as she wrote to another friend, that “the course of time has not made vast differences in the development of human nature.”

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Subversive as ever, Warner’s question snuck in both a ‘what’ and a ‘how’ there (or, at least, the editor who wrote that description did so on Warner’s behalf.)

Do It Yourself?

Alright, Pixar Storytelling doesn’t have much at all to do with historical fiction. But it’s a terrific craft book for storytellers everywhere. A breezy, short read with these “Do It Yourself” sections at the end of most chapters. I’m stealing one of those here with a couple of minor edits.

What is the main dramatic question in your script story? What is the answer the audience reader must stick around to see? Does this question have an emotional component? Have you found an original, organic way of expressing this inner struggle in the physical world of your story? Is there a force capable of destroying your characters? Is there a force in your story capable of pushing the characters to construct something new and stronger? Do your characters change in a clear, discernible way because of the conflicts they face?

– Dean Movshovitz, Pixar Storytelling: Rules for Effective Storytelling Based on Pixar’s Greatest Films

I share the above because it reinforces how the central ‘what’ question has to earn its keep throughout the novel. Actually, it has to be the raison d’être of the entire novel. Even though it might seem deceptively simple—like the questions from the Groff and Warner novels might sound if you haven’t read them.

I’d go so far as to say that a historical novel without such a question propelling its entire trajectory isn’t worth the time investment. We may as well read a history textbook or some other kind of novel.

Your Take?

Have you come across a similar central, defining question in a historical novel recently? Are you thinking through one for your own? Please share in the discussion area below and, as always, I will respond.

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Jenny Bhatt is an author, a literary translator, and a book critic. Currently, she is a Ph.D. student of literature at the University of Texas at Dallas. She has taught creative writing at Writing Workshops Dallas and the PEN America Emerging Voices Fellowship Program. Sign up for her free newsletters, We Are All Translators and/or Historical Fiction Craft Notes. Jenny lives in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, Texas.

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