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How To Write Family Sagas and Epics
by Maria Z.
Family sagas are a literary genre that follows the lives of one or more families which are inter-related in a certain time frame.
These stories usually depict certain historical events, changes in the society of a particular era or even the changes in current life as a result of fluctuating affluence. Susan Howatch, Frank Herbert and John Jakes are all popular writers of this genre.
The ‘Aga Saga’ is a subgenre of family saga. The name ‘Aga’ is derived from the AGA cooker, a cooking oven popular in UK country houses in the early 1930’s, and recently revived with some nonsense about it providing green heating. It is an allusion to British middle-class families and their households in which the AGA cookers were to be found, glowering in the corner.
The thriller writer Len Deighton wrote Winter: A Novel of a Berlin Family( 1987), a saga that starts in 1900 and goes through several generation of German families up to the end of the Second World War (WW2) in 1945. This is a very violent period in history, with Germany even being very violent in between the two world wars. This is also a historical drama due to the large amount of factual content.
Pulp / airport novel
Sexy family dramas with lots of showdowns, back stabbings and perhaps a bit of crime are very popular. A bit of true grit and overcoming of bad luck or a bad background are essential. Joan Collins is a master of this genre.
Real life drama
Writing a family saga can be a challenging task as it will require extensive research and well-developed characters, but these are highly achievable.
Some modern writers only write this type of fiction as they basically fictionalize their own life. The successful literary writer Hanif Kureishi is a specialist in this and has got into hot water with his family many times for presenting them in not particularly flattering light.
Even Martin Amis has done it recently in the novel The Pregnant Widow, which contains many parallels with his sister’s life.
So if you secretly hate your family, put them in a novel.
Planning Your Story
• Why do you want to write a family saga?
Writing with a clear purpose will help you plan your story better.
• Researching your family tree can stimulate your saga creativity, as long as you don’t stray into biography – unless that is the path you want. If you go back 110 years, you can include all the major world events: wars, famines, political upheaval, strikes, assassinations, the list is endless.
• Will you base it on your own family members?
Basing the characters on your own family members will speed up the process of creating characters. However, don’t forget to add and deduct personality traits as suitable for each character to keep them interesting and relevant to the plot.
• What events coincide with the time setting of your story?
Conduct some research on the historical events that occur in the period you’ve chosen.
• Pick a suitable location.
Choose a setting which you are either familiar with, or can adapt to easily so that you have a clear vision of what it should look like. Avoid obscure locations like remote Borneo jungle villages if you aren’t sure what’s in there. Of course, families travel so anywhere can be included as long as it makes sense. Colonies were major world structures only 50 years ago, and led to huge migrations of people in both directions, Empire to colony. This was a more popular topic back in the 50s and 60s for English literature (George Orwell, Nevil Shute etc), but is now popular in developing countries.
• Choose an appropriate time setting.
If you plan to write about the happenings in a family from the beginning of an era to its end, make sure you have your facts right; e.g. using the World Wars as points of reference – WW1 (1914-1918) and WW2 (1939-1945). The Cold War is an interesting period but has produced mainly spy thrillers due to the lack of overt ‘hot’ action.
Perhaps that is a way into a new approach to the family saga – choose an unpopular period. There is an odd little subgenre that is autobiographies of music fans who like 60s,70s, and 80s popular music – this ranges from the Beatles to Black Sabbath. (That is not much of a range, so there is a bit of scope).
These picaresque tales have the author at school, forming or accidentally joining his first band, humorously failing, a bit of life’s ups and down, marriage, divorce, etc., until he realizes all along he was just a middle-aged music collecting nerd (even when in short trousers) and achieves zen-like repose in his vinyl collection. This means he gets his psychic sustenance from Ebay…
• Arrange your characters according to importance.
If you are writing beyond one generation of a family, this will help you keep track of the main family members in each generation.
• Diversify your characters.
Draw inspiration from movie characters, historical figures and the people around you.
• Draw a timeline.
It is important that you keep track of the chronology of events in your story. Break the timeline up into smaller ones and group according to chapter. From this, you can list down the characters involved and what their next actions are supposed to be.
• Have a clear idea of what your best ending will be like.
Use this vision to develop your plot. Use a few key themes to work around (family relations, sibling rivalry, inter-family love, etc.).