Skip to main content

Writing Multigenerational Fiction: Lessons Learned

Award-winning novelist Robin Lee Hatcher shares her thoughts on how to write multigenerational historical fiction by focusing on the truths that remain constant through the ages.

An old adage says, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Another says, “There is nothing new under the sun.”

These are truths I take with me when writing novels that feature characters who lived in a past era and those (often descendants) who live in the present. Different methods may be used to tell dual-time stories (alternating narrative, diaries, letters), but the reason to write about different generations is usually to mirror and/or contrast the choices made by those characters.

(Writing Multiple Timelines and Points of View.)

While circumstances in the past may have been different—perhaps no television or automobiles, different styles of dress, differences in speech, etc.—people remain fundamentally the same. Most want to provide shelter and food and clothes for their families. Most want to love and be loved. Most want a peaceful existence. And all people are flawed and prone to make mistakes.

These are the characters who make up our fiction.

I am often asked if my heroines are based on me. The truth is that there is a piece of me in every character I write, whether a heroine or a villain or a bit-player with a walk-on part. How could it be otherwise? Novelists write from their own experiences and their own observations—their own lessons learned.

Good novelists must also cultivate and employ empathy. Through empathy writers are able to understand how different people feel and act in different circumstances. And because the more things change, the more they stay the same, the writer can utilize characters from both past and present to help reveal a multi-layered story to readers.

When I conceived the story that became I’ll Be Seeing You, my initial focus was on two sisters during WWII. I knew that Daisy and Lillian Abbott were in love with the same young man, and that the situation would bring both of them grief over the course of the story. Eventually I discovered Brianna, the great-granddaughter of Daisy, and I saw the lessons that she needed to learn from her great-grandmother.

Check out Robin Lee Hatcher's I'll Be Seeing You:

I'll Be Seeing You, by Robin Lee Hatcher

IndieBound | Amazon

(Writer's Digest uses affiliate links.)

One thing mirrored in the two storylines was the poor choices Daisy and Brianna made when it came to the men who captured their affections. Young love/first love is fraught with danger and missteps. That’s as true in 2022 as it was in 1941. The contemporary Daisy had wisdom to share with her great-granddaughter about those dangers.

Another thing mirrored in the two stories was the importance of a loving family, and how young adults feel compelled to pull away and be independent, even while needing the support of the people who love them most.

For me, the major contrast in the two storylines in I’ll Be Seeing You was the sense of entitlement revealed in Brianna versus the more sacrificing actions of the young Daisy. Daisy’s generation came through the Great Depression before being plunged into a world war while Brianna’s generation has been mostly one of ease and privilege. The differences between these young women because of those circumstances were telling.

Over the course of my three-book Legacy of Faith series (Who I Am with You, Cross My Heart, and How Sweet It Is), I told the story of the Andrew Henning family. In the first book, the Hennings experience the Great Depression as a young family. In the second book, they live through WWII with two sons headed off to war. And in the final book, the setting is 1969, and Andrew and his wife, Helen, experience “end of life” situations.

Writing Multigenerational Fiction: Lessons Learned

The contemporary storylines in each book of the series feature one of Andrew and Helen’s descendants. It is Andrew’s old Bible, notes made in margins or tucked on pieces of paper into the gutters, that connect the characters of today to the ancestor they never knew. And through those notes in the old Bible, Andrew shares life lessons with his descendants that help them navigate the problems each of them faces today.

(What Is a Fragmented Essay in Writing?)

In real life, it’s easier when we learn from the wisdom of those who have been there and done that, instead of having to learn from the school of hard knocks. Writers can use characters from previous generations to help and guide characters in the present in their stories, and in doing so, readers may find answers to issues in their own lives.

I don’t recommend writing a book with the intent of teaching a reader. A lecture may be educational, but it is rarely entertaining. However, if a novelist creates realistic characters with true-to-life problems and helps them mature and grow and change, the story may indeed help a reader to learn something, perhaps to understand human nature in a way they didn’t understand it before.

Paul Tremblay: On Starting With the Summary

Paul Tremblay: On Starting With the Summary

Award-winning author Paul Tremblay discusses how a school-wide assembly inspired his new horror novel, The Pallbearers Club.

writer's digest wd presents

WD Presents: An Interview with Steven Rowley and Jessica Strawser, 5 WDU Courses, and More!

This week, we're excited to announce our interview with Steven Rowley and Jessica Strawser, 5 WDU courses, and more!

Writer's Digest Best Everything Agent Websites for Writers 2022

Writer's Digest Best Everything Agent Websites for Writers 2022

Here are the top websites by and about agents as identified in the 24th Annual 101 Best Websites from the May/June 2022 issue of Writer's Digest.

Ashley Poston: On Love, Death, and Books

Ashley Poston: On Love, Death, and Books

Author Ashley Poston discusses how she combined her love of ghost stories, romance, and books into her new romance novel, The Dead Romantics.

Choosing Which Movements To Put in Your Fight Scene (FightWrite™)

Choosing Which Movements To Put in Your Fight Scene (FightWrite™)

Trained fighter and author Carla Hoch discusses how much of a fight's details to actually put into a story, and how even with fight scenes sometimes less is more.

5 Research Tips for Writing Historical Fiction, by Piper Huguley

5 Research Tips for Writing Historical Fiction

Author Piper Huguley shares her five research tips for writing historical fiction that readers love and writers love as well.

Announcing 40 More Plot Twist Prompts for Writers!

Announcing 40 More Plot Twist Prompts for Writers!

Learn more about 40 Plot Twist Prompts for Writers, Volume 2: ALL NEW Writing Ideas for Taking Your Stories in New Directions, by Writer's Digest Senior Editor Robert Lee Brewer. Discover fun and interesting ways to move your stories from beginning to end.

Interviewing Tips | Tyler Moss

Interviewing 101: Tips for Writers

Interviewing sources for quotes or research will be part of any writer's job. Here are tips to make the process as smooth and productive as possible.

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Eliminate Threat

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Eliminate Threat

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, have a character work to eliminate a threat.