Before I start, I want to let you know that I’ll be at an event for Books of Wonder in New York City on September 22nd between 3:00 and 5:00 pm at 10 Columbus Circle, 3rd floor. There will be a fee for this one, but I’ll have lots of time to chat. As always, I’d love to see you there. Click here for details: https://booksofwonder.com/blogs/upcoming/tea-and-tales-at-bluebird-london-nyc.
Here’s the final installment about writing historical fiction. I’ll be jumping around to pick up the bits that weren’t in the last two posts.
Why write fiction rather than nonfiction, in which we can say directly what happened? Nonfiction is worth considering, especially if we’re writing for children. In nonfiction for adults, the author will be expected to be an actual historian specializing in the period, but for children, the expectation will be different though also demanding: that the author be a thorough researcher and a good writer. It’s an interesting challenge, to write an accessible, interesting history. The writer has to make hard decisions about balance and what to include and what to leave out. When I was starting out as a writer wannabe, I attended a lecture by Jean Fritz, notable writer of history and biography for children, who said that we learn best through being surprised. This stuck with me because it rang true. Can we build into our nonfiction account the kind of surprises that will make our narrative memorable? Can we tell the history in a lively way?
If we’re writing fiction, how much latitude do we have to bend the facts? How faithful must we be? In my first historical novel, Dave at Night, I included a painting that was actually painted a year after the events in the book take place–but I revealed the discrepancy in my Afterword. I think that in historical fiction, though not so much in historical fantasy, we need to stick strictly to the truth unless we have an important reason to stray (as I felt I did in Dave at Night), and then we have to let the reader in on our untruths in an Afterword. We kids’ book writers have an obligation to children to get it right.
How do we treat real life historical figures? In Dave at Night, which takes place in 1926, I didn’t give any dialogue to historical figures, who could appear in scenes, but at a distance. I did invent characters who stood in for real people, but I changed their names. Then I felt free to let them talk. But in A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, which takes place near the end of the fifteenth century, I did put words in the mouths of King Ferdinand, Queen Isabella, Princess Isabella, the duke of Medinaceli, and Columbus. My reasoning was that we know a lot of what was said by public figures in 1926 and very little from the late 1400s, so I felt safe in the second case. You may decide differently.
We can’t really know what people were like way back when. There were even differences between almost a hundred years ago and today, but when I wrote Dave at Night, I knew and had known many people who were alive back then, including my father, whose childhood the book is based on. I wasn’t just guessing. But for the fifteenth century, I was. We have another decision to make here. Do we want our characters to be twenty-first century personalities in period costume? Or do we want, as much as we can (because, ultimately, this is impossible to do entirely), to create characters who belong in their temporally distant world? There are arguments on both sides. Characters with current attitudes and understandings will be easier for a reader to enter and relate to. But characters who belong to their time will take the reader on a deeper journey–you can see what I prefer, though both choices are valid. My MCs are generally strong and independent, but in Loma, the MC of Ceiling, I wanted a girl of her time. She’s put in situations that force her to think for herself, but when inspiration strikes, she never takes credit for it; she says God sent it or her dead grandmother or her absent grandfather. Taking credit would be beyond the way she regards herself, beyond what I believe a girl back then would think.
In one way, writing historical fiction may be easier than writing other genres, especially for writers, like me, who are plot challenged. If we choose a time of conflict, events can structure our plot. This worked when I was writing about the expulsion of the Jews but not for my more personal orphan story, Dave at Night. In my expulsion story, events laid out the rising and falling action.
How long ago is our time period? What’s known about these events? The further in the past, the less is likely to be known. Likewise, the less famous the events, the less likely they are to be known in detail. If there are gaps in knowledge, we have some freedom to color in the empty spaces, but our plot still has to be possible in context. This doesn’t come into my book, but, as an example, between six hundred and two thousand of children of the Jews who went to Portugal after the expulsion were enslaved, baptized against their will and the will of their parents, and sent by ship to an island off the African coast to plant and harvest sugar cane. Little is known of what happened to them, so a novelist who wants to take on this saga will have some freedom to invent–but will still have to stay true to the period.
What are the known biases held by historians about a period? I recently read a historian refer to certain other historians of Jewish life in medieval Spain as belonging to the “lachrymose school,” basically the crybaby school, weeping over the tribulations of the Jews. I understood what he meant, having read some of these scholars, but I wondered if he belonged to the stiff-upper-lip, take-it-on-the-chin school. What biases are held by most people?
Whose history does a writer have the right to address? Do you have to be Jewish, for instance, to write fiction about Jewish history? I don’t think so. A wonderful example is the holocaust novel Schindler’s List by Thomas Keneally, an Australian Christian. What are the ethics? (This is just food for thought.)
Is the writer of historical fiction entitled to an opinion? Should we slant it? Can we avoid slanting it? More food for thought.
This has been fun to write about, though a little deeper in the weeds than usual, but I’ve reached the end of my workshop notes, just in time for three prompts:
∙ Back to the Salem witch trials. According to Wikipedia, “Overall, the Puritan belief and prevailing New England culture was that women were inherently sinful and more susceptible to damnation than men were. Throughout their daily lives, Puritans, especially Puritan women, actively attempted to thwart attempts by the Devil to overtake them and their souls. Indeed, Puritans held the belief that men and women were equal in the eyes of God, but not in the eyes of the Devil. Women’s souls were seen as unprotected in their weak and vulnerable bodies.” Your MC, a seventeen-year-old female servant, believes that this is true. When rumors begin to circulate that she’s a witch, she thinks they may be true. Write a scene in which she tries to discover whether or not she’s a witch.
∙ Introduce fantasy into the world of the witch trials. Mischievous imps, who mean no good, do whatever they can to keep the witch accusations going. Your MC discovers them and tries to stop them, which makes her their target. Write what happens–a scene or an entire story.
∙ In ancient Athens, girls and women spent most of their lives at home, going out only for religious festivals. In ancient Sparta, girls were trained to be athletes, just as much as boys were, and they were outside often. Imagine that a girl of Sparta moves with her family to Athens, and that a girl of Athens moves with her family to Sparta. Write a scene in the first week for each of them in their new environment.
Have fun, and save what you write!