World-Building in Historical Fiction

I’m up against a very tight deadline to get A Storm Hits Valparaíso off to the editor so posting will be minimal over the next week or so – apologies.

By way of introduction to the last excerpt I posted, I spoke a little about the challenges facing historical fiction authors in terms of authenticity and how demanding its readers are in that regard. That point was illustrated perfectly in a comment by Hannah Renier, who pointed out that my character would not have traveled in a stage-coach, but more likely in a post-chaise (thank you, Hannah).

Today, I want to talk briefly about world-building and PoV. I’ve chosen to write A Storm Hits Valparaíso in third-person omniscient, essentially meaning that I (or rather the narrator) can share information that the viewpoint characters may not be strictly aware of.

It’s a relatively common choice for historical fiction, especially one with multiple narrative strands, and it makes world-building a lot easier as you can stray outside the limited information your characters may hold and give a little background and historical context to the scenes you are presenting.

However, this choice is not without its downsides and writers can often lapse into “history teacher” mode, subjecting readers to long info-dumps which the author thinks are crucial, but do nothing to advance the story (only serving to bore the reader and create emotional distance).

On each successive draft (of which there have been many), I identified huge tracts where I was doing exactly this, and either turned them into “action” scenes or dialogue (which must be handled carefully so that you don’t have a character artificially spouting history lessons), or, what was more common, simply cut them altogether.

Most historical fiction writers find the research so inherently exciting that we are at pains to include as much of it as possible. It’s a temptation we must avoid: the research must serve the story, not the other way around.

Science fiction and fantasy authors face similar challenges – the only difference being that the “world” they are building is one they have constructed themselves, rather than reconstructed from the historical record.

I try and force myself to start each chapter in media res – that usually cuts out most of my research-driven historical waffling. It’s harder to lapse back into that once you begin with action.

In the excerpt below, I broke this rule after advice from a beta reader. The first couple of paragraphs were originally further along in the chapter, but he advised bringing them up top, and I think it works better.

There is a lot of historical background (i.e. world-building) in this chapter – a lot more than usual – but I’ve tried to weave it into the narrative as much as possible. I think the transition between the second and third paragraphs still jars a little, and needs some work.

Aside from that, as always, none of the below has been edited or proofed. This chapter changed more in the last draft than others I have posted, and is probably riddled with all sorts of errors that will be caught before publication. But it’s exciting to share. I’m really looking forward to getting this book out there.

This chapter introduces (yet) another main character. If you would like to read the other excerpts I’ve posted, they are listed here (along with some general background on the book).

Chapter Six—The Mountain That Eats Men

Once, Potosí was the centre of the world—the merchant capital of América. The wealth generated by its silver mine was so vast that the rich had trouble spending it. The wealthy competed by dressing their slaves in Florentine satin. Bodyguards sported swords from Spain and daggers from Turkey. Scriveners scribbled on parchment from Genoa. Markets filled with the competing scents of spices from the Malay Peninsula as jewelers, masons, and weavers tempted the newly-minted nobles with storied wares from faraway lands.

But by August 1811, Potosí was cowering in the shadow of its past. No longer was it the richest and largest city in América. The city’s fortunes, like those of the miners, were tied to the dwindling mine. The Cerro Rico still yielded its precious metals, but grudgingly. More enterprising merchants had long left for Rio or Panama and more ambitious nobles had departed to Lima or Santiago. Potosí no longer provided a quarter of the Crown’s revenue, but it provided enough, and the Spanish guarded it jealously. The Indians hadn’t left; they couldn’t. They were the fuel that powered the mine. Plucked from their villages to work as slaves, their families followed, and waited and hoped, encamped on the southern base of the mountain in a series of ramshackle huts that had sprung up to supply the mine.

Deep in the bowels of the Cerro Rico, there was a loud bang, then a deep rolling rumble. For the miners of Potosí, that meant only one thing. Pacha dropped his hammer and looked up. The low ceiling seemed to be shaking free from the gnarled wooden struts. Dust streamed into his eyes and choked the already-thin air, but the roof was holding, for now. Chikan was on all fours spitting incantations and blessings. Pacha grabbed him by the neck. “We have to get out of here. Pachamama is awakening.”

Moving as quickly as they could, they tried to keep to the rotted wooden slats of the track, all the while listening for the distant thunder of the ore-cart that could crush them without losing momentum. They scrambled up the first ladder, knowing that their only chance of surviving a roof collapse was to get as high as possible.

Pacha had been working in one of the most dangerous parts of the mine, the deepest tunnels. Three hundred years of intensive mining had bled most of the silver from Upper Perú, thousands dying each year to feed the rapacious Spanish throne. Slaves imported from Africa couldn’t cope with the extreme altitude; they died in huge numbers before Spain turned to the natives. Pacha, like most Indians of his age, was taken from his village and forced to work in this pit of tears for six straight months. Six months without seeing his family, without breathing clean air. Six months without seeing the sun. The Spaniards’ relentless thirst for precious metals pushed the Indian slaves deeper and deeper into the mine. Those who survived the meager diet, the grim conditions, and the sadistic guards, were plagued with the fear that keeps all miners awake at night: a cave-in.

The few lucky enough to survive these six months were haunted for the rest of their lives, knowing it wasn’t skill or perseverance or faith which spared them, but the whims of fortune. However, these men suffered the cruelest fate of all: the slow, coughing death that claimed all the miners of Potosí. Before the silver ran out altogether, Potosí, along with the rest of América’s mines, would claim eight million lives.

As he made his way upwards, Pacha knew something was afoot. The guards had disappeared; miners were streaming from adjacent tunnels. They had all heard the noise, but there were was no word of a cave-in. As they approached the mouth of the mine, the group slowed, making the painful transition to the light they hadn’t seen for many months.

Pacha shielded his eyes, waiting for them to adjust, kneeling down to pat the earth. The city of Potosí spread out beneath him, in the shadow of the Cerro Rico, into which the mines had burrowed deep.

“Look!” Chikan grabbed his elbow and pointed southwest. A large army was camped on the outskirts of the city.

Just below him, creeping up one side of the mountain, Pacha could make out the edges of the maze-like town that was home to the families of the miners. His wife and only son were there. Pacha made his way down towards them, along with the other miners. As they approached, an anxious crowd intercepted them.

Pacha saw the bright faces of the children playing in street, happy at all the commotion. They ran towards the miners, tugging at their tattered clothing. Behind them were the hardened faces of the women: mothers calling the names of dead sons and wives searching the crowd for dead husbands. And the old men sat in their doorways, nodding greetings as he passed, adding Pacha to their short list of survivors. As he fought his way through the crowd, he saw his wife. Alone. No child at her hand. His chest tightened. He called her name and she turned. “Pacha! You are alive!” She pressed her face against his, blackening herself with soot from the mountain that eats men. He kissed her and held her tighter. He felt his worry drain away, only to rise again.

“Where is my son?”

“He’s with my mother. He’s safe. And he has gotten big. Big like his father.”

***

The party that night was more like a wake. Each embrace was followed with furtive glances towards the widowed, the bereaved, and the orphaned. Pacha’s head was spinning, and not just from the amount of aguardiente in his stomach. Yesterday he was a prisoner of the mine and today he had his wife on his knee and his son at his feet. The bottle reached him again; he took another swig and passed it to his right. Everyone was talking about the army from the south that had run the Spanish from Potosí. Pacha went looking for Chikan, finding him in the middle of an argument with two of the older villagers.

“You want to turn your back on your people and go and fight for the Kastillas?”

“We should go and hear what they have to say. After all, we wouldn’t have escaped the mine if it wasn’t for them.”

“We wouldn’t be in the mine if it wasn’t for them.”

“Let’s see what they have to say. It can’t do any harm.”

The argument continued in circles for most of the night.

The following day, Pacha stood with the others in the Plaza Antigua. They were all feeling the effects from the night before, all except for Chikan who was snoring in the shadow of the fountain. Many had come out of curiosity. Everyone wanted to see the Indian who was fighting the Kastillas’ war. Stories of the short-haired Quechua man in a strange uniform had brought a large, if somewhat bawdy crowd.

There was a gasp as he entered the square on a large black stallion with a misshapen saddle, and stirrups polished brighter than any Potosí silver. The man leapt from his horse and gave the reins to a young boy, pressing a coin into his hand. A table was brought out from an adjoining building and the man climbed up, held both his hands aloft, and waited for the crowd to settle. Chikan woke with a start when the horse leaned over him to drink from the fountain.

The man spoke with a strange accent. At first, most of those gathered weren’t paying much attention to what he was saying. Instead, debate raged about how he might have received the long curved scar which started under his right eye and stopped just short of the edge of his mouth. Then he smiled and the scar and his mouth became one, giving him the lop-sided grin of a lunatic. Everyone stopped talking amongst themselves.

He was from the mountains far to the south—past the Salt Plains—and he told them that his army had come to fight the Kastillas. He told them of the battles they had already fought and of the many more they were yet to win. And he warned them that the Spanish would be back, with more men and more guns. He pointed at the Cerro Rico and asked the crowd if they wanted to die in there. Then he asked them if they wanted to kill the men that put them there. “Are you willing to fight? Are you willing to stop the Spanish dragging us into the mines while they rape our wives and daughters? Will you join me and fight for our freedom?”

The crowd roared its assent.

***

Pacha and Chikan were given three days to say goodbye to the families and friends they had just been reunited with. It was a difficult time. Some understood their decision, many more did not, but Pacha knew that the only way he could stop his son from going down that mine was to free him from the slavery which had destroyed his people.

EDIT: Read more about the history of Potosí and the Indian miners in this companion piece on my other blog SouthAmericana.com: Potosí: The Lost City of Silver