My wife, who recently completed a historical novel of her own, has been looking at what agents and publishers have to say about the form. One opinion she has come across goes like this: If you want to convince potential readers to leave their own present century and take a journey with you into the past, you ought to choose for a subject someone who is already familiar to those readers, somebody about whom they might have built-in curiosity. Readers will be much more likely, these commentators say, to grab for a novel featuring George Washington, let's say, than a heretofore unheard of organ grinder working the Jersey shore. This makes a good deal of sense, as do most generalizations, but as with most generalizations it must also be accompanied by several caveats. On reading the above idea, my wife thought it meant good news for my Van Gogh novel. Nowadays who hasn't heard of Vincent Van Gogh? And who isn't at least a little bit curious about him? I certainly was curious enough to begin the whole process of researching his life, and then imagining it in fictional form. Why shouldn't readers be equally curious? In fact, I hope they are and expect they will be. And I think anyone who reads my novel will enjoy it on its own terms, whether they care much about Van Gogh or not.
But there is at least one potential drawback in Going Big. Your subject, because he/she is so well known, may have been explored in fiction before. (As Van Gogh has.) Does this mean your subject is out of bounds? In literature studies students are typically advised against researching familiar subjects. Because in carrying out your research survey you will inevitably, or at least possibly, find that someone has taken up your idea already. And at that point, you are morally and professionally obliged to stand down. This is the reason why literary scholars always seem to be discovering "lost greats" from the past. They need fertile territory for the books and articles required by their jobs and their professions. They need untrammeled ground. They need to find someone about whom they can be the first to say something. But this same law doesn't seem to--and shouldn't--apply to novels. How one novelist envisions a historical character might be entirely different from how another novelist does, thus making their two novels entirely different reading experiences. Besides, in a creative work it's not so much the idea behind it that moves the reader, but how the writer gives lungs and tissue to that idea. How engrossing is the flesh of the story. So while there surely isn't an inexhaustible market for novels about any particular historical person, there is certainly room for several.
That said, you certainly don't want to seem redundant. One way of avoiding that while at the same time "going big" is by narrowing your focus to a single, specific, perhaps lesser known, aspect of your subject's life. Hemingway's childhood. D. H. Lawrence's time in New Mexico. Lincoln's years as a young lawyer. By doing this, you avoid rehashing overly familiar aspects of your character's life. (I suppose this instinct was behind one agent's advice that I limit my novel to Van Gogh's later years in Saint-Remy.) Another way to reenvision a Big Subject is to present him or her from the point of view of someone else. This is the strategy Sena Jeter Naslund employed very successfully in Ahab's Wife. But, in the end, I think, you need to tell the story you are moved to tell. And in my case this meant, more or less, Van Gogh's life from his time in London as a art dealer to his release from St. Paul's hospital. (I never had a lot of interest in the few months he spent at Auvers-sur-Oise or the fact of his suicide. Perhaps because my book is more about triumph than about ruin.) While I have trimmed my book considerably over the past year or two, its span remains the same. I'm telling the story I want to tell.
But what if, I hear someone asking, the story you want to tell doesn't involve anyone famous, and yet it's still a good story? (This is the case with my wife's novel.) Does that mean there's no hope for my book? Can't my book in fact shine light on a little known story that needs to be heard? Clearly the answer here is yes. And, besides, I like to believe that any book written well enough will, once it's published, win an audience for itself. (Getting published is, admittedly, the tricky part in the equation.) Plenty of nonfiction books are first imagined, then written, then published just because they do take on under known or virtually unknown subject matter. That appears to be their whole raison d'etre. But, again, that is the realm of nonfiction, in which the originality of one's facts and ideas carry a greater importance than in fiction, the final effect of which is so dependent on structure and style. Even so, if a great story needs telling, it can't not make an audience for itself, as long as it is told superbly. How else to explain the success of Katharine Weber's Triangle, a novel about an event (an early 20th century factory fire) that had been almost entirely forgotten by the time she wrote her book, the major players in its story practically and in some cases literally lost from history?
I feel like I'm talking around my subject with this post. Perhaps a reader would like to share his or her opinion on Going Big. Does this explain your choice for the subject of your historical novel? Or, conversely, are you instead trying to bring a hidden story to light? And what has been the reaction so far to your attempt?