Thursday, August 6, 2015

Ingredients of Good Multicultural Historical Fiction: Psychology

One of the hardest things to get right in historical fiction is period psychology. How did people at a particular time and place think about their world? What were the underlying assumptions? What color were their glasses?

What Color Are Your Glasses?

This is hard to get right because we live and breathe the constructs of our day, with assumptions so deep we don’t often recognize them unless we are lucky enough to have an international friend who asks, “Why are you so achievement oriented? Can’t you just be for a while, and what’s with all the extreme sports and conflict? (If you are from outside the United States, please fill in whatever your cultural tendencies may be.)

Johnny in a Toga

Detectives in Togas by Henry Winterfeld
For middle-grade historical fiction, parents, teachers, and librarians can be on the alert for what I like to term Johnny in a Toga, that is, contemporary personalities dressed up in historical costume. Characters in historical fiction, multicultural or otherwise, must be authentic--a true Marcellus or a Marcella, or as close as one can get.  
Our modern day Johnny would have a deep sense that slavery was wrong, might even advocate the abolition of slavery. Roman Marcellus, however, assumes slavery is just part of the social order; everyone has a place. It is the way things are, even should be. This does not mean he lacks empathy or that he may want to stop abuse, but he sees slavery as part of his world.

Original Sources

Very rarely, you’ll find a story that quotes the original words of a character.

"Dave belongs to Mr. Miles/
Wher the oven bakes & the pot biles///
July 13,1840"

Andrea Cheng does this in her outstanding novel in verse, Etched in Clay: The Life of Dave, Enslaved Potter and Poet (Lee & Low, 2013).

"I wonder where is all my relation
Friendship to all – and every nation
August 16, 1857"

In addition to Dave’s own words, Cheng employs multiple voices from the period. The following quote is from the point of view of Dave’s first wife, who is being sold to another owner in Alabama.

 "I ask if I can say
Good-bye to Dave,
But Master Drake just laughs,
'No need, Eliza.
They’ll find you another man
Real quick.'
He winks—
And I cry." (p. 23)

In this short verse, Cheng portrays the belief of the slave owner that black slaves do not have feelings like the white people do, that they can be quickly satisfied with another mate. Within the same stanza she shows that this is the furthest thing from the truth.  

The Period Creates the Conflict

The Witch of Blackbird Pond, by Elizabeth George Speare
The wonderful result of getting cultural psychology right is that it often creates the main conflict in the story. It is also a great jumping off point for discussion for comparing and contrasting our times with the past. Many authors, for example, place a female character in a proactive role. Yet often in history their lives were circumscribed. They could still act, be brave and heroic, but they had to do so within certain bounds, or they would be ostracized, perhaps even endangered in, say, a culture where witches were burned at the stake.

May B, one of my favorite fictional heroines, by Caroline Starr Rose, (Yearling, 2012) is another example of the period creating the conflict. May dreams of becoming a teacher, but she also has dyslexia, a condition not yet understood or diagnosed in her day. This issue remains unresolved, but her identity shifts from a focus on what she can not do, to what she can—survive alone on the wide prairie in a dugout.

Finally, as recommended in my last post, pairing historical fiction with biography, wherever possible, is a good way to reinforce psychological accuracy. When I am writing, I always try to read a biography at the same time to keep me living in the period.

In the end, it is impossible for us to see the past with one-hundred percent clarity, but I believe we can get close, close enough to barely see the tint in our glasses. I wouldn’t be a fan of anthropology if I didn’t believe that.

Michele Hathaway is a writer and freelance editor. She has an M. A. in Social Anthropology and has worked in libraries in California, New Mexico, and Pennsylvania. She writes stories set in culturally diverse, historical and contemporary periods.


  1. What an excellent post! You're exactly right. Interestingly, I've had a few Blue Birds readers concerned with the ending. I have a female character who has pushed to far...and becomes ostracized.

    Thank you for mentioning May B. She's very dear to me. Looking forward to reading Dave's story.

  2. Thanks for your comments, Caroline. Yes, I was thinking of Blue Birds as I wrote this, as well. It is a good point that pushing beyond the norms creates great story as well, as long as the protagonist can survive it! I loved the poignant twist at the end of "Blue Birds."