If you're a fan of the thriller genre, you might have noticed a strange trend. Many thrillers have been looking backwards, turning to history, sometimes in the middle of the most high-tech shootouts you'll ever see. Some of these have some interesting viewpoints on history – James Rollins, for example, or David Morrell's The Spy Who Came for Christmas – and some make history into a chaotic, gibbering mass of propaganda (Do I even need to say “Dan Brown”?). As much as I would like to blame certain history-bending hacks, this trend pre-dates any books with Renaissance artists in the title.
Using history is often difficult when writing a thriller. No matter what the author is using, there's always the danger of using too much information. You have to give enough information to establish context, culture, in addition to the personalities involved, the reasoning behind events … and this doesn't even count actions involved. Not only that, it's all too easy to make the history that is relevant to the plot a pedantic, endless lecture.
There are some solutions to this. With James Rollins, he balances it out by interweaving it so closely to the plot (as well as some surprisingly cutting-edge physics) and some tight, well-written action sequences. David Morrell elaborates on the history with a simple, eloquent storyteller feel.
For example, in A Pius Man, the book took place in the 21st century, and centered around the World War II Pope, Pius XII, and how he was labeled “Hitler's Pope” (by about a half-dozen pop-history hacks in the late '90s, and a few thriller authors earlier this century). As a history major, I did my own research, and my inner Bruce Banner got offended.
Unfortunately, while being annoyed is a good way to motivate a book, it's not a great way to write. Sure, my first draft addressed every single inaccuracy and idiocy ever expressed by anybody surrounding the history of Pius XII … and every bit of theology and philosophy they got wrong … and there's more than one reason A Pius Man turned into a trilogy. Granted, a lot of thought went into the books. Perhaps too much thought.
In subsequent rewrites, the history / theology / philosophy (hereby shortened to “the nonfiction”) was spread out over the two primary threads of the story. On the one hand, there was the investigation of “people going to the Vatican archives are being murdered,”and there was an adjoining thread that involved two spies looking at one of the victims … who happened to be a terrorist. The end result not only cut out ten pages of endless prattling of nonfiction (Galileo might be interesting, but connecting his house arrest to the main plot is a bit of a stretch, even for this book), but also spread it across the entire novel that looked more like James Rollins than Certain Authors Who Shall Not Be Named. The monologues became discussions, and they were broken up by, well, attempts by heavily armed men trying to kill them.
See? It's not that hard. Using history in a novel is like using forensics or medicine, or any novel where a specific subset of knowledge is required in order to understand the story. The truly difficult part is making certain you don't love your subject so much you get into your own way. Then it just becomes a matter of “oh, look, I'm over-sharing.” You have to be especially careful when a large part of the history is focused on convincing your characters (and your readers) about a specific historical point. After a while, persuasion becomes preaching, and the reader thinks “to heck with this, I'm going to skip ahead until you get back to the plot.”
Granted, in the case of A Pius Man, it helps when characters have a low tolerance threshold for long discussions, and literally says, “Great, can we skip to the part of why we care?” That helps.