Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Sara K Joiner: Insights from Historical Fiction Writers

In April I attended the Texas Library Association's annual conference in Austin where there were sessions about historical fiction for teens and adults.

The first session was called "The Many Facets of Young Adult Historical Fiction" and featured Andrea Cremer, A.C. Gaughen, Michaela MacColl, Ashley Perez, April Lindner and Stacey Lee.

To kick off the session, each of the authors was asked why they thought historical fiction is important.

Lindner: "Fiction is a lesson in empathy. It's the closest thing we have to a time machine."

Gaughen: "It's exploring the voices of teen girls which have been historically almost universally ignored."

Perez: "It's the voices from the margins."

MacColl:  "I got all my history as a kid through historical novels."

Lee:  "Recovering the historical record of women is difficult, so historical fiction is the place to engage that voice and illuminate ideas in new ways."

Cremer:  "As an historian, you're not allowed to change history, but as an historical fiction writer you can."

Their answers got me thinking. Why do I think historical fiction is important?

One of the reasons I read historical fiction as a child is that it was closer to my life experience. Even though I had a telephone, television and rode in a car, my life was still closer to Anne Shirley's Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery. Neighbors didn't live close, and I knew everyone in my small hometown.

Even though I didn't have any relatives who had died in World War II, I still understood Sally's experiences in Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself by Judy Blume. We had a party line on our phone, and my father worked in the city and came home on weekends.

But that's probably not the main reason I read historical fiction as a child. I loved the stories! It was that simple. I don't think you need to be able to relate to a character's experience to have a connection with the book, but it probably does help.

Why do I write historical fiction?

I think it's interesting to see how people, especially girls, deal with the strictures of the societies in which they live. This is also true in contemporary fiction, but I think historical fiction provides insights into how far we've come as a society and lays the blueprint for how far we still have to go.

In my upcoming novel, After the Ashes, Katrien's life goal is to prove Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection. That's quite a goal for a thirteen-year-old girl living on Java in 1883. She has a supportive father, but her aunt wants her to be more ladylike. Katrien has to navigate the expectations society holds for her, and she finds it easier to navigate the wild jungle surrounding her home.

I hope Katrien's story touches readers. I hope they find connections to their own lives, but most importantly, I hope they enjoy it.

Sara K Joiner is the author of After the Ashes, coming in the fall from Holiday House. She is also the children's coordinator for Brazoria County Library System.

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