That One Big Fat Historical Moment

It is my humble observation that most historical novels revolve around one or two historical events. Sometimes, the characters actually existed. Sometimes, there are fictional characters mixing with real-life people. So here’s my question: does a historical novel have to revolve around a particular event or can it just be about people living in that time, with the plot being about the characters rather than an event or a war or something else historically-major?

I mean, think about this for a second:

  • An Infamous Army is about the lead up to and the battle of Waterloo
  • The Widow of the South is about the Battle of Franklin during the Civil War and the aftermath of it, especially the Confederate cemetery on the grounds of the Carnton Plantation
  • The Queen’s Dollmaker is about Versailles and, eventually, the French Revolution

And if the book is not focused around a specific incident or event, but a person, real or fictional, living through ye olden times, there are weighty events that happen, such as:  
  • The Pirate Queen is about Grace O’Malley, who lived in late sixteenth century western Ireland, at a time when the Tudor conquest of Ireland and the stamping out of Gaelic culture was taking place.
  • The Other Boleyn Girl is about Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn (and her execution) through the eyes of a real-life witness to those events, Mary Boleyn
  • The Greatest Knight traces the rise of William Marshal, who eventually became Regent of England. Greatest Knight covers his life in the court of Henry II. The Scarlet Lion, the sequel, covers the events leading up to the Magna Carta. 
My current mess-in-progress didn’t begin with me going, “Ah-ha! Big battle/incident/diplomatic nightmare, I want to write about you!”

This story is shaping up to be a tiny little bit about the ongoing war with France (the one that began soon after the French Republic was declared in 1793 and the one that didn’t end until Napoleon’s defeat in 1815). It’s about the rampant racism of the period–slavery was the norm in almost the whole world–and the efforts of a few to eradicate it through abolition movements. It’s about the society that upper class British people lived in then.

But there’s no overarching Historical Incident and though it’ll illustrate its time period, 1800-1801 wasn’t exactly as rollicking as some years. There was a war, but not many battles. Nothing really got done on the abolition front. The industrial revolution was on its way, but the Luddites hadn’t started wrecking machinery yet. 
I had come across some references to harvest troubles in 1800 and I found a pamphlet by John, Lord Sheffield, written on October 30, 1800, mostly about what was the simply awful harvest of 1799 and the still-pretty-bad harvest of 1800. The grain didn’t grow. I’d read conflicting ideas on whether 1800 was a very rainy year or a very dry year. According to Sheffield, it was dry over the summer, and then became very wet. 
It’s not exactly a Big Historical Moment, but it’s a challenge for my characters, and it happened. 
I suppose I’m writing more of a slice-of-life, dare I say, Jane Austen-ish type of story, more about the society of this long-past period than any of its big (or small) events. It’s a character piece. 

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