Please welcome back Yona Zeldis McDonough, the award-winning author of seven novels, twenty-seven books for children and numerous essays, articles, and short stories; her latest novel is The House on Primrose Pond. Yona is also the editor of two anthologies and the Fiction Editor of Lilith Magazine. She makes her home in Brooklyn, New York.
I’ve always been intrigued by the novel-within-the-novel format but had never attempted it in one of my own books. The idea gnawed at me though and when I found an opportunity where I thought it would work, I jumped at it.
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Juggling Act: Writing a Novel Within a Novel
In my latest novel, my protagonist Susannah is a writer of historical fiction. The other central character is her neighbor, a widow in her seventies—yet this story line and conflict between characters did not feel like enough to me. So I turned to New Hampshire history for inspiration—the story is set in a lakeside cabin in that state–and after some digging around, I came upon the story of Ruth Blay, who, in 1768, was the last woman hanged in the state. Her crime? Concealing the birth of an illegitimate child. As soon as I read this, I knew I had to incorporate it into the novel, and I “gave” my protagonist Ruth’s story to tell.
As I wrote, I soon found that Susannah and I were embarked on the same journey: how to bring this story to life, and what would be the best way to tell it. I had several concerns as I dealt with this historical material: where to place it within the larger novel, how much to use at any one time, how closely I should stick to the actual facts, and how much poetic license I could allow myself. I also wanted to establish a thematic connection between the two story lines.
At first, I found the juggling of the two stories overwhelming. How to achieve that balance between past and present was a constant concern and since I had never attempted anything of this kind before and wasn’t sure I could make it work.
I struggled with the question of who the narrator should be: Ruth Blay herself, or Betsey Pettingill, a little girl who was central to the events leading to Blay’s tragic end. I also had to curb my desire to write more and more of this secondary tale—I wanted to fill in so many details about those lives lived long ago, but I reluctantly had to accept that if I indulged too freely, I would weight the story too heavily in the past and lose momentum in the present. Yet I found the story-within-the-story so compelling that I simply would not give it up.
Here are some of things I learned along the way that helped me tame the material:
- Pay close attention to pacing and rhythm. Make sure that each section of the sub-story ends on a note of suspense or tension, to keep the reader interested.
- Stick to the facts, at least as they are known. Where there is no information, feel free to speculate, imagine, and fabricate.
- Do all the research you can. For me, this meant visiting key sites, studying historic documents preserved in the state archive, and immersing myself in the period by visiting museums to study clothing, dishes, paintings and furniture of the time.
- Consider changing the POV for the story-within-the-story. For instance, if your main story is in the third person, use the first, second or first person plural for the secondary novel.
- Keep ratio in mind. The secondary novel should not overwhelm the main story.
- When you have a completed draft, pull out all the secondary material and read it in sequence. See how it flows and how successfully it conveys the story you want to tell.
Writing a novel-within-a-novel creates a set of formal problems and challenges that may seem daunting at first. But if you feel your novel’s themes and characters would be enhanced by the dual story lines, it is worth making the effort to synthesize and unite the two. Many readers love to slip back and forth between different places and times; it allows them, like us, to fully experience the richness that the fictional world can provide.
Have you written–or thought about writing–a novel within a novel? What advice or thoughts can you offer?