Two Stories In One?

Dear Readers,

I’m hoping you can help.

I’m in the initial stages of writing a new book proposal. Or more accurately, I’m in the initial stages of writing three book proposals springing from the same big topic in an effort to decide which one works best.* The structure of two of the proposals is straightforward, but the third is problematic: parallel events that occurred in very different times and places.

I’m looking for models of historical works that have successfully used two stories, either combining them in a single narrative or linking two separate narratives.

The first example I looked at is Simon Schama’s Dead Certainties (Unwarranted Speculations). The book is beautifully written, but I found it perplexing until the end–not necessarily a condition I want to inflict on readers. The first section, “The Many Deaths of General Wolfe” looks at the death of General Wolfe on the Plains of Abraham in 1759 from several different vantage points, including that of nineteenth century historian Francis Parkman. The second section, “Death of a Harvard Man” tells the story of the murder of Dr. George Parkman in Boston in 1849. For most of the book, the two are linked by a single reference in the first section to “Uncle George Parkman” and the general theme of death. Schama finally shares the element that joins the two stories together on page 320 of the 327 page book: “Both the stories offered here play with the teasing gap separating a lived event and its subsequent narration…These are stories, then, of broken bodies, uncertain ends, indeterminate consequences.” It’s all very clever,** but the connection comes so late in the book that it’s not very satisfying as narrative. Kind of like a murder mystery where the author holds back a vital clue so the reader has no hope of solving the puzzle.

Eric Larsen’s Devil In The White City is the obvious next choice, but it seems to be in one of the boxes we have not yet unpacked.

Any suggestions of other possible models I could read while I dig through the boxes?

Many thanks.

*Not very efficient, but sometimes the only way I can find out what I think/know/believe is to write my way through.
**Just for the record, I’m not being sarcastic. It’s a lovely and illuminating piece of deconstruction.


  1. KHC on September 12, 2014 at 1:09 pm

    Have wrestled with this issue in my own historical novel, not published yet. Mine is set as a story within a story, but it may
    not end up being that in the end. Still a WIP and the structure
    is the main issue.

    ORPHAN TRAIN by Christine Baker Kline does a great job of weaving two narratives in a compelling way.

    My readers say that whatever structure you use be sure that the thread of tension pulls through every chapter.

    Good luck!

    • pamela on September 12, 2014 at 2:42 pm

      Good suggestion! I’ll add that one to the pile.

      And good luck with your own WIP–even with a straight narrative structure can be a beast.

  2. Jack El-Hai on September 12, 2014 at 3:03 pm

    Pamela, three other nf books that follow this structure are Deborah Blum’s The Poisoner’s Handbook, Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and Erik Larson’s Thunderstruck.

    A couple of months ago, in the MFA program in which I teach, I heard Deborah Blum give a talk about narrative structures. The structure of parallel narratives is difficult to pull off and won’t always work, but Deborah described several other structural approaches that can be used to link separate narratives. Let me know by email if you’re interested in hearing more — I can dig out my notes and describe them to you.

    Good luck with the proposal.

    • pamela on September 12, 2014 at 4:27 pm

      Many thanks, Jack. Those three have been on my to-be-read list for a while now. Time to move them to the top.

  3. Bart Ingraldi on September 13, 2014 at 12:18 pm

    You may find James Mauro’s Twilight at the World of Tomorrow of interest. Good luck and keep up posted.

    • pamela on September 13, 2014 at 12:31 pm

      Bart: That one is totally new to me and looks fascinating. I’m going to spend a happy weekend reading and pretending it’s work.

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