By: Aryanne Ferguson
I believe in the importance of learning from reading, so it’s about time I proved that it really works. Yesterday I finished a historical fiction novel called Sutton by J.R. Moehringer. The book blurb promised a journey through the life and love of William Sutton—a bank robber born in Brooklyn in 1901. The author is a journalist, so the research involved in putting this book together was right up his alley.
First lesson: For the most part, the story is chronological. Timeline 1: the title character, Sutton, is released from jail in 1968 and drives to all the significant places in his past. Timeline 2: features Sutton’s life story, starting from childhood up until he was put in jail for the final time, around 1947. The author tried to interweave the two timelines by having Sutton’s conversations in the present trigger the memories that created the past timeline. Keyword tried. To differentiate the present from the past, the author made the present all in italics, which is harder to read, so it pulled me out of the story. Also, the present was boring compared to the past, so by the time I was two thirds into the book, I skipped reading the italics passages. I learned never to use that many italics—try another way to weave two timelines together.
Second lesson: The main character never grew or changed. He became a bank robber, and then he pretty much just stayed a bank robber. Yes, there are limits to historical fiction (i.e. certain events have to happen), but there is also great freedom to writing in the genre. Having to stay within the lines of certain events allows you to experiment with the inner lives of the characters and to really make the story your own. Essentially, the action-based plot is already done for you—it leaves you time to concentrate on the character-driven journeys. I learned not to get so caught up in the action that I forget to continuously develop my main character.
So what do you think of my lessons, Reader? I admit, I may just be a literary snob. I’ve never much liked the fiction writing done by journalists, because I find their writing styles too dry. But let us know what you think!