A Session with James LePore and Carlos Davis
HOW TO USE FANTASY, FABLE & FAITH IN A HISTORICAL THRILLER
You’re thinking of writing a historical thriller. What are some of the tools that can help you maximize your story and its impact on the reader?
For a way to truly distinguish yourself, considering using elements of fantasy, fable and faith in a historical thriller. Some examples:
One of the main forms of fantasy storytelling has a hero who ventures forth from his safe home into an unknown world. After having adventures with hermits and/or fantastical beasts, he invariably comes across a forbidding castle. An evil lord rules the castle. The castle could be an actual castle or it could be the Death Star. Or anything in between. It’s up to your imagination. In story form, all serve the same purpose.
In No Dawn For Men, we used Herman Goring as our dark lord, and his real castle, Carinhall, as his evil lair. Of course, Goring was an actual historical figure and in 1938 he was the second most powerful man after Hitler in the Third Reich. Carinhall, which is in the woods 150 miles outside of Berlin, was a real place. It was elaborate – a hybrid German Cinderella’s fairy tale castle and Pentagon War Headquarters all built into one.
Several nights a week, Goring would entertain up to 100 people in his lavish dining hall. Afterward, he would provide bizarre entertainments to his guests. One of his favorites was having two bisons copulating at one end of the dining room, followed by a troop of dwarves doing circus routines. This is all absolutely true, although it certainly seems like something out of a lurid fantasy. And we wrote it as such. It feels real because it is real, yet it’s Goring’s fantasy world. We took it a step further – the dwarves help one of our heroes (in this case, J.R.R. Tolkien) escape the dark lord and the thriller is off to its next adventure.
Exercise 1 Exercise: Have your hero come upon an “evil castle” and introduce us to its ruler. Show us what makes him evil; show us his powers and why they are intimidating to your hero. Your hero is only as worthy as his antagonist so make your villain as overwhelmingly menacing as possible.
In a historical thriller, where you choose to set the scene of an action set piece is important. You want a place that makes thematic sense and yet is original – a place the reader has not experienced before.
Tolkien and the dwarves are on the run trying to elude an elite Nazi special operations team. They hide in a dwarf settlement. But it’s just not a town somewhere in the German countryside. It is located under the Oder River. Again, we intertwined actual history and fantasy. Underwater caves existed and were used for hiding in World War Two. By making it a sanctuary for the dwarf world, it has the feeling of Tolkien mythology for the reader.
Often it is best to culminate your chase sequence with a hero making a final stand. In our chase, Tolkien and the dwarves make a stand against the relentless Nazi troop. Since our hero is Tolkien, we decided to mirror it to the climatic moment in the Battle of Helm’s Deep where the rising sun blinds the Orcs as Gandalf leads a charge down the mountainside and destroys them.
“Wait,” Tolkien whispered, his hand up.
Turning, Tolkien watched the first sliver of the sun breach the horizon. He waited until its bright rays shone through the triangle behind them, directly into the faces of the five German soldiers opposite. They all shielded their eyes with their hands.
This was the last human gesture they would ever make. Tolkien said, “Now,” and Korumak, Gyl”, and Dagna leaped out from behind the boulder and with blinding speed hurled their axes at the men. Gyl” and Korumak each swung a second ax. All of this took no more than one second. Tolkien, watching over the boulder, never saw the axes fly, but the result was plain to see.
Five tall, black-clad men, each with an ax buried in his chest.
Exercise 2 Create a list of the various beats of a chase sequence. Make sure your choices of where it is set is original. They should be locations we have not read about before. Give it a memorable last stand as the final beat.
Ultimately, a fable teaches a moral lesson. As Joseph Campbell has noted in in his seminal work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, fables can be found in the literature of almost every country. They can also be an excellent and unexpected tool to use in historical fiction. A good example of the fable/moral lesson idea can be found in our novel “God’s Formula” set in 1940 France.
In the latter half of the book, Tolkien and our other hero, Ian Fleming, are after a formula that can super-expedite the creation of the atom bomb. They encounter a resistance group descended from the medieval Cathars. The historical Cathar tribes ruled areas at the base of the Pyrenees in the 13th Century. They were an interesting group. They believed that women could be priests, judges, and warriors. Indeed, their greatest hero was a woman, Esclarmonde de Foix who was all three of these, a precursor to Joan d’Arc.
The Pope saw the Cathars as heretics and a threat to Rome’s power. He sent a vast multitude of armies – Crusaders and Inquisition followers – to destroy the Cathars. A classic David versus Goliath tale. For a hundred years, the Papal armies failed despite overwhelming odds. Why? The Cathars had an extraordinary weapon. A super weapon, made from a mineral that they mined from caves under their fortress. It was what we now call uranium. Clumps of it, when set on fire and launched by catapults into the Papal armies would spread terror and destruction unprecedented in that time. Think of them as mini atom bombs.
What finally killed most of the Cathars wasn’t the Papal armies, it was the radiation that spread once the uranium was ignited. The moral of the fable for Tolkien and Fleming? The power of the greatest weapon in the world can destroy your enemy but it can also destroy you.
Exercise 3 Exercise: Decide on a fable you can interlace into your narrative. What moral conclusion does it express?
The strength of your beliefs has always made for powerful storytelling. It’s what makes Sir Thomas More in A Man for all Seasons so enthralling. When the strength of that faith is threatened by temptation or doubt, you have the makings of great, indeed almost cosmic conflict.
The historical Tolkien was such a man. Pious. A true believer of the Catholic Church. He went to mass every day of his life. Every single day. Except in 1943, when he began to have doubts about his faith. Indeed, Tolkien had doubts about the very existence of God, which is why he stopped going to mass. With these internal doubts as a back story, we gave Tolkien and Ian Fleming the mission of finding an ossuary that legend had it contained the bones of Christ. Hitler had gotten wind that the legend might be real and had sent elite troops to find it.
Here was a great faith-based dilemma we could dramatically exploit. If Tolkien gets to the bones first, his faith in the Resurrection is destroyed. If he doesn’t get there first, Hitler destroys civilization by exploiting the bones and undermining the basic tenet of Catholicism: that Christ rose bodily into heaven.
What we wanted to do was to turn Tolkien’s finding of the bones into a return of faith for our hero. Like an alchemist who turns lead into gold, we wanted to have our hero experience redemption in finding the bones of The Savior and have the reader experience that redemption. It makes for a very satisfying catharsis for our readers.
Exercise 4 Exercise: What does your hero deeply believe in? Next, tell us what shakes his faith to the core? How is this deeply personal dilemma resolved?
Ultimately, you as a writer get to ask the fundamental question that all novelists ask themselves – why write? We have Tolkien and Fleming provide an answer in this passage from The Bone Keepers:
“You’re still writing I take it,” said Fleming, concentrating on the raised and skewed surface of the ancient road. “This would be a story to tell.”
“Frodo and the gang?”
“What are they up to?”
“Frodo and his best friend are trying to save the world.”
“Like you and me.”
“Do they have help?”
“A wizard, an elf, a dwarf.”
“Where do you get these crazy ideas?”
“I’ve been writing about wizards and elves and dwarfs for twenty years.”
“Yes, but why?”
“At first it was to entertain my children.”
“To get to know myself, to find out what I believe.”
John Tolkien had never asked himself the question posed by his young colleague. Why else, indeed, he asked himself now, would a person write fiction? And then he asked himself another question, out of the blue: why else indeed would a person adhere to a certain faith? Or was it out of he blue? He would not have been comfortable in any theatrical costume, but his priest garb was particularly unnerving in light of the doubts he had been having about his faith over the last few months. He blamed the war, all the unnecessary death and suffering, but he knew that was facile, cowardly actually. Perhaps it was God himself who had decided recently to put black cloth on his back and now Fleming’s seemingly innocent question in his mouth.
“I say,” said Fleming. “That would never have occurred to me.”
“I suppose you could put it to the test,” said the professor.”
“By writing, you mean?”
“I may not like what I see.”
“It will be the real you, though, that’s worth a lot.”
“You can change, you know.”
“You mean it’s never too late to become a decent sort of fellow? Unselfish and all that?”
“Yes. You’d need an agent of course.” That was a leap, Tolkien said to himself. Save yourself first.
“You mean to peddle my books?” Fleming asked.
“No, to change,” Tolkien replied. “I don’t see you doing it on your own.”
As you develop your historical thriller remember the universal themes powered by fantasy, fable and faith. They can help you make a great historical thriller that a global audience can relate to.
Now hit those keys.
About the Author…
New York Times bestselling author William Landay said, “Jim LePore is a great discovery.” Blogcritics called his first novel, A World I Never Made, “An outstanding first novel, and a wonderful thriller.” Of his most recent novel, The Fifth Man, Tome Tender said, “This is another great read from James LePore, who seems to have a knack for writing dark, gritty and gripping scenes with characters that can make your skin crawl and will have you looking over your shoulder.” LePore’s brilliance is his ability to create complex, relatable characters and place them in tense situations where their very humanity comes into question. The result is stirring fiction that hits you in the gut and the heart at the same time. http://jamesleporefiction.com