Chris Eboch on The Stories in History
Hot trends may come and go, but for some readers, nothing takes the place of great historical fiction. So in honor of Black History Month (February) and Women’s History Month (March) let’s look at this enduring genre. It can explore any period, from ancient – even prehistoric – times, to recent decades (that’s right, your childhood is now historical). The best books let readers explore a fascinating time in the past, through a character who appeals to modern tastes.
Bringing History to Life
Regardless of the time period, historical fiction requires heavy research, in books, online, at museums and through interviews. D. Anne Love has published seven historical novels for young people, including The Puppeteer’s Apprentice and Semiprecious. “Although the former is set in medieval
and the latter in Oklahoma
and Texas in
1960, my research process for both books was similar. I read as many primary
sources (diaries, letters, journals) as possible, and followed up with other
books on the topic. I conducted much of my research online, but I also used
libraries for hard to find materials. For Three
against the Tide, a Civil War novel set in Charleston, South Carolina, I
visited the area five times, taking photos, notes, and visiting local libraries
and historical societies.”
With all this research, authors must be organized. Albuquerque author Lois Ruby (Shanghai Shadows, Swindletop, The Secret of Laurel Oaks), says, “I take extensive notes, each fact on a separate index card, all arranged by detailed subject. I do about two years of research before I even begin writing, then re-check for details after the writing is underway.”
By nature, historical fiction writers love research and the minutia of the past. Patricia Curtis Pfitsch, author of Riding the Flume, says, “I read my work aloud and I tune my ear to anything that sounds too ‘teacherly.’ I keep reminding myself that it’s not nonfiction. It’s okay if the readers don’t learn everything I learned.”
Mary Ann Rodman, author of Yankee Girl, agrees. “Sometimes it’s hard to keep from showing off all that research you did! For me, a detail only works if it adds to the story in some significant way. If I am unsure, I ask myself ‘Would I include a comparable detail, if this were a contemporary story?’”
The People of the Past
Character is key in bringing stories to life, and in making the past appeal to today’s readers. Love notes that, “I try to show young readers that although we may be separated by hundreds of years from the characters in books, their emotions, goals, struggles, and dreams are very much like our own.”
In my Arabian-Nights-inspired fantasy The Genie’s Gift, the heroine has led a sheltered life in the 15th-century Ottoman Empire. She wants to find the Genie who can give her “the gift of sweet speech” so people will listen to her, and so she can determine her own future. What modern preteen doesn’t think her parents are overprotective? Who doesn’t want a say in their future?
Historical characters must be appealing, yet believable for their time. “I have to watch myself carefully for ‘thought anachronisms,’” Rodman says. “I like strong, feisty female characters, but if you are going to have one in a book that takes place in the pre-feminist world, you better have a good reason for her behavior.”
Changing social standards produce another challenge. Rodman adds, “It is really hard to write characters who have what are today considered racist or sexist beliefs (but were widely accepted in their time) and make them likable... or at least not villains. I hope that my books show the complexity of events that shaped the way we live in twenty-first-century
I ran into this problem with my historical Mayan drama, The Well of Sacrifice. The Maya practiced human sacrifice and bloodletting. It was an important part of their culture, so not something I should simply ignore. I tried to show the devout religious beliefs that led to that behavior, while also showing the dangers and horror so as not to glamorize it. I wasn’t sure if this would make the book too mature for middle grade readers. However, the publisher tagged the book as “for ages nine and up,” and it’s been used in many schools in the fourth grade. (As an aside, I’ve had teachers say, “Girls love the strong heroine, and boys love the gory stuff.” Kids can often handle things better than adults expect.)
Character authenticity is one of the big challenges of historical fiction, but authors risk confusing readers if the language is too authentic. Doris Gwaltney suggests, “In some instances, as in my Elizabethan novel, Shakespeare’s Sister, the language had to be altered a bit for today’s readers.” She kept the basic language clear, and then “I threw in a few words of the period to create the flavor of the time.”
I avoided this problem in The Well of Sacrifice, The Genie’s Gift, and my Egyptian mystery The Eyes of Pharaoh. Since those characters would not have been speaking English, I didn’t have to worry about when specific English words came into use. I assumed I was “translating” from ancient Egyptian into modern English. I still avoided slang or other words that would jar the story out of its historical time period. However, in the past, people usually spoke in a way that seemed natural to them at the time, not in stiff, formal language. (Read some Egyptian love poems if you don’t believe me.)
On the Shelves
Like the authors who write it, the editors who publish historical fiction tend to love the genre. However, editors also must consider what will sell. If you are one of the many teachers, librarians, parents, or authors who believe that We Need Diverse Books, then vote with your budgets.
So what makes great historical fiction? A spark of inspiration, months of research, carefully chosen details to bring the setting to life, and a dynamic character who appeals to today’s readers, while expressing the differences of her time. With a little luck, the end result is a book that will last long beyond modern trends.
Chris Eboch writes fiction and nonfiction for all ages, with several novels for ages nine and up. The Eyes of Pharaoh is an action-packed mystery set in ancient Egypt. The Genie’s Gift is an Arabian Nights-inspired fantasy adventure. In The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan girl in ninth-century Guatemala rebels against the High Priest who sacrifices anyone challenging his power. In Bandits Peak, a teenage boy meets strangers hiding on the mountains and gets drawn into their crimes, until he risks his life to expose them.
Visit www.chriseboch.com for samples, advice on writing historical fiction, and a list of favorite historical novels.