One of the pitfalls to guard against when writing the sweeping historical novel is losing the reader amid a legion of characters.
The author becomes so immersed in the research and details that it becomes virtually impossible to understand what it will be like to read the story for the first time. Character rosters at the start of a novel can be helpful, but why require the reader to constantly turn back to refresh memory?
I like to think of the epic as a long, endurance-challenging horse race. The author is the literary equivalent of a track announcer who calls the race for the crowds in the grandstands. Veteran announcers at Churchill Downs and Hollywood Park know that a critical part of their job is creating and maintaining suspense. They do this by periodically resetting the ranking order of the horses and recasting the race from their omniscient point of view. At every quarter-mile turn, the announcer recaps his two-minute story and heightens the stakes by ratcheting up the excitement in his voice.
Authors of vast historical novels would benefit from applying the techniques of these track announcers. Periodically pull back from a tight point-of-view and provide an omniscient recapping of the story to that point.
There are many clever and subtle ways to do this without breaking the spell. Having your main character reflect upon how he or she has reached this stage of in life is one. Commencing chapters from an omniscient POV and easing into a character’s POV is another.
Sharon Kay Penman is the master of the reset. She’ll often start a chapter from a distance by describing the weather or condition of the country, then move to the city, the street, and finally, almost imperceptibly, the reader is spiraled into the POV of the character who will take us through the rest of the chapter. Consider this passage that commences Chapter 11 of When Christ and His Saints Slept:
For Stephen and Maude both, it was to be a frustrating year, one of advances and retreats, check and mate. Matilda scored a diplomatic coup in those early winter months; sailing to France, she negotiated a marriage for her eldest son, Eustace, with Constance, young sister of the French king. But that good news was soured for Stephen by a rebellion in the English Fenlands, instigated by the Bishop of Ely, who’d been nursing a grudge since the Oxford ambush. Stephen raced north, and the bishop, fled south, taking refuge at Bristol.
More trouble was already flaring for Stephen. . .
In the space of a paragraph, Penman has given us the track’s quarter-turn recap. Now we know the new ordering and condition of the horses in the race.