Thursday, June 25, 2015

Writing Great Historical Fiction for Children, with Chris Eboch

The author at Coba, Mexico
Our goal at this blog is to target teachers, librarians, and readers of historical fiction rather than other writers. But since teachers, librarians, and readers may also be writers – and summer vacation is a great time to pursue your writing – I thought I’d share some insight into writing historical fiction.

What makes good historical fiction?

·         You need to find a way to communicate your passion. Find something interesting about the time, place, and characters you’ve chosen, and let your enthusiasm shine through.

·         Put away your teacher hat and put on your storyteller’s hat. The story comes first. It’s about interesting people doing challenging things in an exciting time and place. The action shouldn’t stop for facts. Details of setting, daily life, attitudes, etc., should be relevant and fit naturally into the story. No matter how interesting a piece of information is, don’t include it unless it moves the action forward. Historical fiction should not be an excuse to lecture within a fictional framework.

·         Be especially careful with technical information, such as how machines work. This can get tedious. You can always include extra facts as supplemental information on your web site or provide teaching guides for use in the classroom.

·         Except with omniscient viewpoint, all information must be from the point of view character’s POV. You can’t point out what they don’t have. Portray life as it was, and trust your readers to note the differences.

·         Make history live by appealing to all five senses. Try to include smells, tastes, and textures, as well as sights and sounds.

Tikal, Guatemala
Methods of historical research

·         Traveling to a site is especially helpful for inspiration and for noting surrounding details. However, buildings, vegetation, animals and even the climate may change over the years. Don’t assume things looked the same “way back when.” Sometimes this is obvious – visiting Mayan ruins, clearly the buildings have fallen into disrepair and the jungle has closed in. But it’s easy to underestimate how much things have changed. What now looks like a small cluster of large buildings in the midst of jungle might once have been a city center surrounded by miles of smaller homes and farm fields. Even the distant jungle might have been more open, with people clearing away undergrowth and vines to forage for fruit and tap trees for rubber. In more modern cities, the historical buildings may have been there, but the stone might have been light, not darkened by centuries of pollution.

·         Children’s books often have a concise overview of a subject, plus colored pictures of clothing, tools, weapons, etc. Pictorial encyclopedias for kids can be the best place to start to give you a quick overview of a culture.

·         Museums, such as natural history museums and local historical societies, often have old photos, historical artifacts and even recreations of buildings or towns from previous eras. You may need to make an appointment in advance to get into back rooms or archives. Fortunately, today many organizations are putting photos and documents on their websites!

·         History, anthropology, and archeology texts can provide specific details of the culture. Again, the Internet is a boon – when researching a recent nonfiction book about battlefield medicine in World War I, I could access Masters degree theses from Britain on subjects such as the British ambulance corps.

Jaguar, Belize Zoo
·         Travel books/websites may discuss the climate, vegetation, animals, and scenery. They may mention which plants and animals are native versus later introductions, but double-check if you’re not sure.

·         Encyclopedias are a good source of further information about birds, animals, etc. You can get specific details of how they look, sound, and behave. Online dictionaries and encyclopedias may even have recordings of animal sounds.

·         The Library of Congress Online Catalog contains over 18 million catalog records for books, serials, manuscripts, maps, music, recordings, images, and electronic resources in the Library of Congress collections,” according to the site.

Making tamales with friends in Mexico
·         Experts such as college professors, historians, tourist bureaus, and even avid amateurs can provide information and may be willing to fact-check your work. You can find many of them through the Internet, but check their references before you trust their information. If you are writing about another culture, ask people from that culture to review your manuscript for accuracy and sensitivity.

·         To some extent, you can also rely on human nature through the ages. Although the specifics of religious practice, social structure, and politics often differ, people throughout history have been motivated by the same basic emotions: love, fear, greed, insecurity, pride, piety, etc.

To learn more about writing well, grab a copy of You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers:

In this book, you will learn:

How to explore the wide variety of age ranges, genres, and styles in writing stories, articles and books for young people.
How to find ideas.
How to develop an idea into a story, article, or book.
The basics of character development, plot, setting, and theme.
How to use point of view, dialogue, and thoughts.
How to edit your work and get critiques.
Where to learn more on various subjects.

Whether you’re just starting out or have some experience, this book will make you a better writer – and encourage you to have fun! Order for Kindle, in paperback, or in Large Print paperback.

Chris Eboch is the author of over 30 books for young people, including The Well of Sacrifice, an adventure for ages nine and up set in Mayan Guatemala. Kirkus Reviews called The Well of Sacrifice, “[An] engrossing first novel…. The novel shines not only for a faithful recreation of an unfamiliar, ancient world, but also for the introduction of a brave, likable and determined heroine.” Visit for more advice on writing historical fiction, and a list of great books for young people.

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