Opening the Past

Beth Schmelzer and I had a back-and-forth on this one. On December 22, 2018, she wrote, I am very interested in Ms Levine’s newest WIP.

I am writing (and re-writing) a historical fiction story which takes place in Indiana in 1959 and 1960. My main character is unhappy to find out her parents and grandmother have been keeping a “Family Secret” from her. The mystery involves her deceased grandfather. Any adult reading the book will guess the secret early, but readers in middle grade will not recognize the name of an obscure author named Leon David Hirsch. So you can see why I am interested in your research and your final book with such an intriguing plot. Solving the mystery for my MC is difficult because there is no Internet available to her. The clues to the family secret are discovered by listening to family conversations and reading hidden letters Deborah finds. Any suggestions will be gratefully accepted.

Me: I do see books by Leon David Hirsch on a Google search, but I’m sorry to say I don’t know who he was. And I’m not sure what your question (or questions) is. Can you say more?

Me again: Since Beth Schmelzer didn’t write back, I’m adding her question to my list as a general one about writing and researching a historical novel.

Then she did write back.

Beth Schmelzer: Leon David Hirsch was my grandfather. He wrote one long political novel in 1918 and a short mystery paperback published in 1946. That’s why I said he was obscure. The mystery in my novel is: Why does no one talk about the grandfather? I thought you might recognize that his name is Jewish. The MC in my novel is growing up in Indiana in the 1950’s; she only knows Christians (Protestants and some Catholics). My real question, which can only be answered as fiction: Why would family hide the fact that the grandfather was Jewish? I thought you would be interested in this question. Sorry to be so obtuse with dropping my grandfather ‘s name. Deborah thinks it sounds important, but she doesn’t know why!

I researched my first historical novel, Dave at Night, which takes place in 1926, before the internet–or before I was aware of it. That was in the late 1990s. But I had an advantage, which Beth Schmelzer’s MC also has: I knew people who were alive in 1926, and one in particular, the late, wonderful Irv Aschheim, had an encyclopedic memory. Of course, I didn’t just talk to Irv. I visited the New York Historical Society, looked at the photo collection at the New York Public Library. I read books about the period, especially about the Harlem Renaissance, which comes into the story. I also read poems and one novel written at the time. I looked at old newspapers on microfiche. I visited the New York City Subway Museum and the Tenement House Museum. I even talked to an expert in classic cars.

Our MC for the purposes of this post, let’s call her Susan, a popular name at the time, has family who remember the grandfather. and she must know other people who were around then, too. Since the novel takes place in 1959 and 1960 and the grandfather died in the 1940s, Susan is researching recent history. If she can’t ask her parents and her grandmother direct questions, she can ask her friends’ parents, her teachers, the kindly owner of the local candy store.

She can do many of the same things I did, and she can visit the local newspaper office itself, talk to reporters. She doesn’t know the internet will ever exist, so she doesn’t realize how handicapped she is. People in those days relied on snail mail much more than we do today. She could write to people, or she can apply for records. Tension can build while she waits for answers.

Naturally, she’ll read the two books her grandfather wrote if she knows about them. If the family has kept his things, she’ll go through them on the sly.

I’d also wonder how the grandfather died and if he lived nearby. Naturally, I don’t know if Susan remembers him.

Being a detective here, myself, I deduce that Susan and her parents aren’t Jewish, and Hirsch isn’t their surname, for which there could be more than one reason. For one, Susan’s grandfather may have been the only Jew in the family. Or they all may have converted, for faith reasons, or to be more like everybody else, or even out of fear of stigma. Their reason, however, would have to be something that caused them discomfort, or it wouldn’t be a secret–nice for conflict!

On to historical fiction in general.

Beth Schmelzer is drawn to her subject because it’s connected to her family history. Same for me. Dave at Night is loosely based on my dad’s childhood in an orphanage, and my ancestors were expelled from Spain in 1492, as were my characters. I wanted to explore what that may have been like.

It’s not a bad idea to think about what connects you to a possible historical period. Maybe you love to read about the Civil War, or you live near a battlefield, or your ancestors were slaves or slave holders. Maybe you’re into medieval reenactments–which will give you a leg up on research. Or maybe you’re just drawn to certain historical moments.

You can ask yourself questions to find your topic and see which you’re most drawn to: What was it like to be a woman in the court of King Henry VIII? From the vantage point of a descendant of Europeans or of Asians when the continents were connected, what was it like to come upon the Grand Canyon? What characters were involved in turning ancient Greece into a democracy? How did their democracy fail? What happened in the first encounters between ancient Romans and ancient Britons? What did they deduce and what did they assume about one another?

You could reimagine any of these as fantasy, but you want to try your hand at actual history and shape your story around what really happened.

The next step is broad reading. My go-to starting spot is Wikipedia. Read the article about your topic, and check out the footnotes and bibliography, where you’ll often strike gold. Sometimes there are links to scholarly articles that you can just click on, that you may even be able to download. Or you may find a general book that covers your period.

You can also google “books on…” whatever. Then look the book up and check out the reader reviews. Your local library may be able to get the book for you. Even better, if you’re attending a university, its library will be able to.

While you’re reading this general book, think about conflict and what your story may be. As that takes shape, start jotting down notes or a rough outline. Look for where the story might end. (Also, this book will have footnotes and a bibliography that may include books that focus more narrowly on your subject.) If you can find material that was written during your period, you’ll get more than facts; you’ll get attitude, perspective, language.

I found out in researching the expulsion book that historians and experts are nice! And kind! When I had questions, I first looked for the answers myself, but if I came up empty, I checked the copyright date of my book. If it was published within the last twenty years or so, I googled the author for some way to contact her or him. Usually I found something, and usually the person I reached out to was willing to help.

It’s amazing what’s available online, a lot for free. I’ve read doctoral theses. I read an undergraduate thesis about caravels, a kind of sailing ship in the fifteenth century. I had questions, but I couldn’t find the author on Facebook or anywhere. I finally used an online White Pages and saw several people with the author’s name. He’d dedicated the thesis to his then fiancee, and one of the White Pages listings had her name associated with his. If they’d broken up, I’d never have managed to contact him! I wrote to him via snail mail and started out by assuring him I wasn’t a stalker!

I’ve spoken to some experts by phone, and three have been willing to read my manuscript and tell me where I went wrong. A naval historian answered many detailed questions. Of course I’ll acknowledge their help in the book.

What we do in writing historical fiction uses what historians give us and goes beyond, by which I don’t mean at all that fiction is better, just different. We’re not tracking down archives that haven’t been looked at in years, even centuries. We’re taking those hard-won discoveries and, like Sleeping Beauty’s prince, waking them up. The historian deals in events and facts. We do, too, but we also deal in texture. How did a rural fifteenth century village smell? What sounds would you hear if you walked down the street? Who would be on the street? Doing what?

We have to know those details or our story won’t come to life, but they’re hard to track down if we’re researching a period that isn’t recent. I once wrote a question to Ask-a-Historian on Reddit and said I needed the information for a novel. My question had to do with harbor life. The historians-in-charge said that Reddit historians don’t like questions from novelists, because they tend to be frivolous!

Google images of houses and furniture are great for finding detail, likewise images of paintings from the period. Museum websites are marvelous places to noodle around in. I found and bought a modern copy of one of the oldest books on fashion in the world.

Research is so fascinating that it’s dangerous. We have to keep our purpose in mind: to write a novel, not to know more than anyone on earth about, say, Napoleon’s childhood!

Having said that, though, I’m so glad to have made the discoveries that I did, like that gambling was considered a major crime in the Middle Ages–yet everybody did it. Sailors and passengers often played cards for money on ships, because life on board was boring when there wasn’t a storm or pirates weren’t attacking. Playing cards were new and expensive, then, and few people owned them, so the ones who did would rent them out. Really!

But the owner of the deck wouldn’t charge until someone won a hand. The winner would be expected to be in a good mood then, and willing to pay. Also, sailors and passengers would gather to watch games, and winners would be expected to tip them for watching (I don’t know why) out of their winnings. (None of this comes into my book, but I’m delighted just to know it.)

These are the pleasures of researching historical fiction. Of course, our story has to work as a story, too, and we have to deal as usual with plot, character, setting, pacing, POV–everything.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Read a Wikipedia article about a historical event or a figure that interests you. Think about what the conflict was at the time, or a major challenge in your person’s life. Consider how you might build a story around that. Jot down a few notes. Without doing further research, write a scene. If you decide to continue, embark on more research.

∙ Interview an old person! Like me! My memories of the world-shaking events during my life are pretty vague, but I do remember–as few seem to–that Richard Nixon (aside from the other thing) imposed wage-and-price controls when inflation got out of hand. Prices were zooming so much that I often observed supermarket cashiers making mistakes because they couldn’t believe the escalations. (There were no bar codes then. Everything was manual.) The price controls stopped the inflation, but my salary was also frozen, so it was a wash for me. Anyway, think about what the old person you interviewed said. Can you find a story there? Do a little research. Write a scene.

∙ Pick one of these: the Korean War; the Dust Bowl; the French Revolution; Mayan civilization when the Spanish explorers showed up; ancient Somalia. Go to Wikipedia again. If conflict isn’t obvious, look for it. What can by your angle? Who will your characters be? Write a scene.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. I have a lot of problems with the story Snow White. In thinking about it lately, I’ve come across a few answers to my frustrations that please me (for example, in one of my ideas, the huntsman and Snow White fell in love. In another, he’s the one who was a fatherly figure in her life after her father). I can’t choose between them, however. I want to write all of them!
    So my question is, would it be a problem to write multiple versions of Snow White? Would it confuse readers?

  2. Another thing that might be useful for historical research, or just fun: The BBC has a series of shows made by a team of historians and archaeologist who recreate what it was like to live in various times (and in one case, help build a medieval castle.) They’re fascinating.

    I loved the garden shows this link mentions under “Spiritual successor,” too. And all these shows have great books to go with them:

  3. Oh! And if you can get to a living history museum, like Plimoth Plantation or Olde Sturbridge Village. do! My 50th birthday present was a trip to Plimoth Plantation to meet my “ancestor,” and it was amazing!

  4. Writing Ballerina says:

    This question is sort of related to the last post, The Rewrite.

    I’m thinking of entering a short story contest, but I’m plagued with having too many words. How do you trim your word count?

    Also, the story I’m thinking of entering is a shortened, less complex version than my current novella/novelette WIP. The full WIP has a two-part plot, while the short story version uses only the first part, but I’ve concluded it and taken out any foreshadowing of the second part so they’re basically unrelated, but it’s much of the same writing.
    Would it be okay to send in the shortened part to the contest, then still publish the longer version when I’m done if I wanted to?

    • How much over the wordcount limit are you? If it’s not a lot (say, under 1000 words), then your best bet is to do a careful line edit. Go through the story line by line and see if you really need every single word, phrase, and line, and see if there are any you can combine or reword to be shorter without losing the meaning. One thing I’ve found helpful is to figure out what the main “draw” of your story is–is it funny? Do you write great descriptions? Great dialogue between characters?–and focus on keeping that, while marking the rest of the stuff as “expendable” and cutting as needed. You might also want to analyze your own writing to see where you tend to overwrite. For me, this is usually emotional descriptions (I find myself repeating the general point in different words) and humor/banter (I often let a joke run on for too long). Once you know where your weaknesses lie, you can spot them and fix them a lot more easily.

      If your story is significantly longer (more than 1000 words), you might have to rethink the plot and structure and whether this story is really meant to be written in a short story format. If your short story is adapted from your novel, are there maybe subplots/characters/plot points that are great in the novel, but don’t actually need to be in the short story? Are you trying to tell too much? For every plot/character/whatever, ask yourself a) whether the story makes sense without it and b) whether the story would change drastically without it. If the answer to both is no, take it out, no matter how much you love it or think it “adds” to the story. The best short stories tend to be independent vignettes that show a small slice of life, not an elaborate plot.

      As for whether you can publish it later in your novel, it really depends on the rules of the contest, so make sure you read the terms and conditions carefully. See who the ownership/copyright belongs to (pro tip: if a contest makes you give ownership of your writing to them, think very carefully about entering), whether there are any terms about republishing the work, and if so, if there are any time limits involved. I don’t usually enter contests, but from the few I’ve seen, you usually retain ownership over your story and are allowed to republish it later, but they ask that you give the sponsor a period of exclusivity (a couple months to a year) in which you don’t publish it anywhere else.

  5. Beth Schmelzer says:

    Thank you to Gail for addressing my questions about a family secret that my main character finds a mystery in 1959. As a researcher and an author, Gail has deduced that there was a stigma attached to Judiasm in the family, at least with the older generation of grandmother and Deborah ‘s parents. I am glad to see the conflict is obvious even if the resolution isn’t until the end of my MG mystery novel. Cannot wait to read the Spanish novel you are writing, Gail. Thank you again!

  6. Writing Ballerina says:

    Funny thing about Mrs. Levine’s Spanish novel is I just learned about the Spanish Inquisition and the expulsion of Jews from Spain in Social Studies recently!

    • Song4myKing says:

      I remember learning about the Spanish Inquisition in school, but if I learned about the expulsion of Jews, I must have forgotten it. I think I heard about it first (that I remember) on here, but the funny thing was, just a few months later I came across it in the new Social Studies curriculum I was teaching.

  7. One suggestion I have about research is that if you’re writing historical fantasy/a high fantasy loosely based on a historical era (and thus are more concerned about texture and aesthetics than factual accuracy), visual media like images, TV shows, and movies can be SO helpful. They allow you to get a quick overview of the era, and I’ve found it so much more easy to imagine a setting when I have an image in front of me for reference, as opposed to just text documents (although those are helpful for getting into more details, like Gail mentioned with the playing cards). Modern TV shows and movies tend not to be perfectly accurate, but they really immerse you in the world and lets you see everything in motion. Visual primary sources (paintings, photographs, maps, etc) from that era are super helpful too, and really lets you see a “snapshot” of life in that time. Especially paintings from the Early Modern Era, which are typically gorgeous, lavish, and painted with much more detail than the art of the Medieval period. For example, if you look up some portraits of Marie Antoinette, you can quickly get a sense of the style and fashion of the era, as well as the general air of lavishness of the French monarchy. Finally, looking at the architecture (a lot of which is still preserved in the modern day) is also helpful. For one of my projects, I looked up a youtube video of a tour of Versailles, and was stunned by how beautiful and well-preserved the palace was. I could almost imagine walking through the halls in the 17th century.

    Oh, and speaking of primary sources, the Agas Map of Early Modern London is one of the coolest things I discovered this year. It’s a digitalized, annotated version of the original 1633 map of London, complete with citations, labels, and information about each area.

  8. I was recently thinking about the part in one of your books about writing where you said that your goal is two and a quarter hours a day, so I decided to try writing down how much I was writing in a day. I probably won’t get more than about an hour but, who knows?

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      I find it helpful to keep track of my writing time. I don’t look back to see what I’ve done in the past, but for each day, I know what I’ve done.

  9. I am seriously overthinking my story ending here. Can I get some fresh opinions?
    I have the main character who is searching for her brother-in-law in the middle of a war. Her best friend is the sister of the villain who started the war and is searching for her sister to redeem her. The MC is trying to prove her strength but will find out that empathy is a more important strength than might. At about the three quarter mark, they find the brother-in-law but the MC has new motivation to help her friend with her sister. I don’t know whether the villain is exiled (her sister chooses to accompany her) or killed. I’ve been making a list of pros and cons and I’m just getting more stuck.
    Exile is still a serious punishment (it removes their abilities), proves that empathy can save lives, gives the broken family a second chance, and provides open-ended hope that anyone can change. On the other hand, this villain is terrible, including killing off her male family members. I might have the girls offer her an out, but she doesn’t take it.
    Complicating the issue is that this is part of a series. The other villains, one female and three males, are killed. So would leaving her alive be an interesting twist, changing things up, or am I showing prejudice by having only a single villainess die?

  10. Made of Stardust says:

    I think it would be better to leave the villainess alive especially if the MC is empathetic at the time. Empathy would probably make her lean more towards exiling the villainess instead of killing her.
    I’m not really sure though, but I think it would be interesting to leave her alive.

  11. Made of Stardust says:

    I was thinking about how interesting it would be to write a book where the villain wins and the hero gives up but I’m not quite sure how I’d go about that. I’ve also only read like on book where this happens. Would anyone have any pointers on how to write something like that?

    • The first thing coming to mind is Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn. The hero loses and the villain takes over–but that’s the backstory, expressed mostly in chapter headings. The main story is about some unconventional heroes trying to fight back, since the more conventional “chosen one” failed.

    • Writing Ballerina says:

      I’d say third person omniscient would be the best POV, at least for me. Or maybe you can do first person and switch perspectives. You just have to be able to get into the villain’s head and have insight into their motivations so the reader doesn’t feel cheated that the “bad guy” won.

      OOH! Maybe you could, over the course of the story, reveal that the “good guy” is actually really selfish and wants to win for his own gain while the “villain” is actually the good guy in some way. (I’d try to avoid the “bad things for good reasons” (e.g. I have to rob the bank so I can pay my mom’s health bills) cliche if you do this.) The story could resolve with the “good guy” being defeated (maybe by his ego or something) and the “villain” winning and going home happy with whatever they needed. That way the reader doesn’t feel like it’s a “sad” ending.

      Good luck! This sounds like a really fun thing to write.

      • I’m wondering if the need for happy endings is an American thing? I’ve read a couple of books without them, including an Italian children’s book with dragons and a quest, and the heroine trying to get back to someone she loves before they die- and she DOESN’T. She’s too late. No softening the blow at all.

        And I was just “But…but…that’s not how this kind of story WORKS!” Only it did. Just not the way I “wanted” it to.

    • I think the reason the vast majority of books end with the MC winning/getting what they want is because of why we read books. Primarily, people read stories for entertainment, to escape from their own lives for a little while, to experience something new and different for the fun of it. We read for pleasure, and it’s not pleasant to get caught up in an adventure, only to have it end up badly. If we want that, we can stay in the real world.

      But though that may be the main reason most people read, it’s not the only reason. Sometimes we read to be challenged. Sometimes we want to dig deeper, and understand things that aren’t so pleasant to think about. Books can guide us through difficult territory. Sometimes we read to find kinship, to know that we aren’t alone in the universe, that someone else has faced some of the same hard things we have.

      Happy endings and satisfying endings can be two different things. Hope makes a big difference for me. The worst may have happened, but if there’s hope, it’s going to be ok.

      As for a story with the hero giving up and the villain winning, I can think of several ways it could be done. It could be a sort of tragedy. Or not. The hero’s values/goals may have changed, to the point that whatever he was fighting for is no longer as important as he once thought. (Something like this happens in one of my stories. The MC comes to value something else higher than her original goal. When it finally comes down to a choice between to two, she gives up her first goal, although it’s hard.) Or the hero may realize that the price of giving up is less than the price of continuing. This could especially work if the story is about a war. The hero could realize that his side has no chance, and could decide that the lives of his people are more important than winning or fighting to the bitter end. And you could end with a grain of hope at the end if you wished. The hero could envision being able to set things right in the future. Or in a tragedy, the hero might die, but it goads others to step up and see to it that nothing like that shall ever happen again, world without end, amen.

  12. What was the name of the book and what kind of story was it? For example, many myths and fairy tales don’t end happily in order to tell a lesson, although those are also known as cautionary tales. For example, a fairy tale I read from Andrew Lang, “The Wonderful Sheep” starts off as sort-of Beauty and the Beast but ends SPOILERS with the sheep dying. The last line of the story is clearly trying to send a message that life isn’t always happy, even for Princesses.
    I have noticed a tendency among Foreign animated films to be more daring with their subject matter.
    The Tale of The Princess Kaguya from Studio Ghibli is based on a traditional Japanese myth. Both end on a very sad note, not the way the audience wanted it to end.
    Personally, as an American, I love a happy ending as long as it isn’t saccharine, but I also love a bittersweet ending. MESSENGER by Lowis Lowry SPOILER ends with the main character dead, but his sacrifice is worth it because his village is saved. I liked the ending because it was daring and yes, different from the way American books and movies tend to end. I don’t like depressing endings, where things go badly for everyone and there’s no mention/hope of even an Afterlife where they could be happy. This is especially distressing if the ending comes out of nowhere.
    Just some thoughts. I’m interested to hear what others have to say about the subject.

    • I don’t remember offhand- it’s on my desk at work. The Dragon something.

      I don’t mind bittersweet. This was OUCH!, at least to my happy-ending loving mind. Everything unsaid was going to stay that way.

      And in the original Pinocchio, the Talking Cricket stays smooshed, although at least he gets to be a ghost.
      I think with fairy tales, we’re not expected to get attached to the characters like we do in novels.

      • Gail Carson Levine says:

        Just saying, my next post comes from a question about crafting bittersweet endings, related to this discussion.

  13. future_famous_author says:

    My latest WIP is about a girl with superpowers, and it goes something like this:

    Catrina has falcon wings, a chetah tail, and cheetah ears, which she has always kept secret. Both her parents are both gone, and she has been moving from relative to relative, but no one wants her. Finally an uncle is found, and he is the cook for a rich family. The family, the Stuarts, say they’ll take Catrina in as a kitchen maid, and so she moves there. In a period of four years (I skipped a bunch of time by writing “four years later”) she becomes really good friends with the Stuarts’ son, Andrew. Catrina ends up having to save some kids from a burning barn, and Andrew finds out about her animal features.

    All of this happens on the first five pages, and I’m not sure if that’s too soon to introduce her “powers.” Should I include another day to really show more of the character’s characters (hah!), or should I leave it how it is? Also, even though Catrina is telling the story, the reader doesn’t know about her animal features until Andrew does.

    • Writing Ballerina says:

      What I like to do is write the story first and worry about fleshing things out later. Another author whose blog I’ve been turning to for tips says he writes a chapter (or whatever)with his “writing hat” on, then the next day goes over it with his “perfectionist hat” on. The first day leaves him in peace to write, while the second day is just mostly fun (I find revising fun — is that weird?). Some of my stories I share with my friends and I put a disclaimer on the top that usually goes something like this: “I’m going to get the plot down first, then revise later. Suggestions appreciated.” I do this mostly for myself–to remind myself that it’s not the time for major rewrites, just focus on writing the story.

    • I tend to agree with Writing Ballerina about getting the story down first, but in general I like to know about things like powers early so they don’t seem to come out of left field later.

      • BTW, related to this and Gail’s “Save what you write!” advice, today I stumbled across a copy of the third (I think) version of the book that eventually became Between Worlds. It’s dated 1990 (the published version came out in 2007). Looking at it now, it reads like a totally different book. One of my favorite characters, Juliar, isn’t even in there.

        So yes, go ahead and write it first, because the final draft may turn out totally different. And save the earlier versions so you can have fun with them 30 years later. 🙂

  14. future_famous_author says:

    Thank you so much! I have been wanting to write this story for about a year already, so it has evolved a lot! I like thinking about how much it could change by the time I get it published!

  15. Made of Stardust says:

    What’s your opinion on prologues? I’m thinking about writing one for my story just to give some backstory and was wondering what all of you think of them. I’ve heard a lot of people say that you shouldn’t write them and am trying to figure out if I should. (I couldn’t quite figure out how to phrase this so… sorry if it’s a little off I guess.)

    • future_famous_author says:

      I see why people would say not to write them. While I always read prologues because I know they are usually very important to my story, I have learned that my siblings do not. I guess they think it’s like an author’s note or something, like it doesn’t actually need to be read to understand the story.
      I, though, write prologues a lot. In one of my stories, there was actually an introduction and then a prologue, because I was giving background info on why the family kept a mermaid in their backyard, and then I wanted to really set the scene for when the story was really going to start.
      Sorry if this wasn’t helpful at all, I can see both sides of the argument for this one, though. So I guess if you do include a prologue, don’t include crucial information, just set the stage for Chapter One.

      • Most of the advice I’ve gotten says not to do prologues, but after my current book on sub got agent rejections saying “I just couldn’t relate to the MC,” I went back and started with a prologue where he’s just a baby demon facing a big, cruel world- and the first agent I sent that version to signed me on. So I guess I’d say “Don’t do it UNLESS it serves a specific purpose and you can’t think of a more effective way to do it.

        • Thinking about it some more…I wouldn’t do it just to give backstory, because until a reader cares about who the character is and what’s happening to them NOW, they won’t care about their backstory either. Start with something that makes the reader pay attention and say “Ok, I care about this, and I want to know how we got into this situation.” Then give them the backstory, when they’re looking for it.

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