Thursday, February 26, 2015

Reenactors Reinforce History Lessons by Robert Lee Murphy

Reenactments of historical events reinforce the lessons studied in school textbooks or enjoyed while reading historical fiction. Whether it's clamoring pirates, jousting knights, or warbling troubadours, the reenactors who participate in these activities are often meticulous about the details of their costumes and accoutrements. Wandering through an encampment of reenactors is an entertaining way for the observer to be able to visualize scenes similar to those an author struggles to describe on the written page. In my case, while researching for my trilogy, The Iron Horse Chronicles, there were three types of reenactments that proved particularly helpful.

Civil War reenactments provided information that I used in book one, Eagle Talons, wherein the protagonist, Will Braddock, has numerous connections with the United States Army. Will's father had been killed in the Civil War, and Will carries with him his father's Army Colt 44-caliber revolver. General Grenville Dodge, Will's mentor, and other senior managers involved in the construction of the first transcontinental railroad served as officers during the Civil War. Will is in close contact with the frontier army that consists of men who fought in the recent war, on both sides, and now protect the tracklayers from the attacks of the displaced and displeased Indians. As a resident of Nevada, it is not easy for me to travel to the eastern states to witness the reenactments of the major battles of the Civil War; although, I did have the privilege several years ago of attending a three-day reenactment of the Battle of Gettysburg. The photo shown here is one I took of a much smaller reenactment in the Las Vegas Valley in 2007, allowing me to get up close and personal with the reenactors, talk with them about their rewarding hobby, and study firsthand the equipment and weapons I describe in my books. Local reenactments, such as this, provide valuable opportunities for students to "rub elbows" with the real thing.

Early in book two, Bear Claws, Will Braddock has a heartrending, personal encounter with a Mountain Man. Later in the book, he leads a hunting expedition that requires the skills used by those early explorers of the American West. Throughout the western states, and the Rocky Mountains in particular, there are numerous large encampments of Mountain Men reenactors. But, like the Civil War reenactments, smaller, local encampments provide excellent opportunities to see how the Mountain Men lived, how they trapped and shot their game, and how they prepared their meager repasts. Las Vegas hosts an annual encampment of Mountain Men at the Spring Mountain Ranch, a Nevada State Park. Admission is open to the public, with a small vehicle admission fee. I enjoyed walking the grounds of the ranch with the Mountain Men in 2006, when I took this photo.

In book three, Golden Spike, Will Braddock struggles to help the Union Pacific in the race against the Central Pacific to see which can be first at the joining of the two halves of the first transcontinental railroad at Promontory Summit, Utah. Visiting the actual site where this historic event took place is always educational, but it is particularly so if you can be fortunate enough to be present on the anniversary of that occasion. I enjoyed doing that on May 10, 2014, when I spent an inspiring day at the Golden Spike National Historic Site. Hundreds of people joined me in blustery weather (which is the way the day commenced in 1869) to witness the reenactment of the driving of the golden spike.

The reenactment at the Golden Spike National Historic Site is particularly unique in that written records exist describing the event and documenting the words spoken by several of the actual participants. Many newspaper reporters were in the audience on May 10, 1869, and wrote down what they heard. Since there was no public address system in existence at that time, and most people were too far away to hear exactly what was said, there are differing versions of the speeches. Some of the more prominent speakers distributed written copies of their speeches, which provide a more accurate basis for the script used during the reenactment program. The words of some of the players, however, have had to be recreated. Overall, the National Park Service produces a close to authentic reenactment in their commemorative ceremony of the driving of the golden spike.

The National Park Service has prepared a short reenactment script for use by grades 4 to 6. It can be found at the following website:

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Sara K Joiner: Medical Historical Fiction

Historical nursing display at a Houston hospital.
Last month my mother underwent shoulder surgery. While the procedure went well, there were some slight complications afterward that were blown out of proportion. As I sat in hospital rooms and listened to a parade of medical professionals ask the same questions over and over, I wondered about the distinctions between her care in the 21st century and the care she would have received 50, 100 or even 200 years ago for the same injury.

The emergency room visit was certainly enlightening. After X-rays and CT scans, we were told her upper humerus was fractured. Although no one told us her shoulder was dislocated, it apparently was. Many shots and sedatives later, the ER doctor worked to set her arm. Except for the drugs, this procedure has probably changed little over the years—pull and push the arm back in place. The doctor even had to climb up in bed and use her foot to help set Mom's arm. I have no doubt that would have been unbearable for anyone without drugs.

But what has changed in medicine?

cover of In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters
Some progress has been and is still being made in eradicating disease. In the novel In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters, readers learn about various and sundry treatments for the Spanish Flu. The main character is living in San Diego in 1918. The city is in crisis because seemingly everyone either has the flu, had the flu or will get the flu. People are dying in the street. Desperation (and a lack of medical knowledge) leads people to try anything—including eating onions multiple times daily or even trying sugar cubes soaked in kerosene.

cover of Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson
With the ease with which diseases travel now, the mere thought of coming in contact with someone who has a highly contagious illness can be terrifying. The recent Ebola scare in Texas and New York demonstrated that. The same panics have happened throughout time. Laurie Halse Anderson's novel Fever 1793 shows how Philadelphia panicked to such a degree that Congress fled the city rather than fall victim to the epidemic.

cover of Deadly by Julie Chibbaro
Throughout history, there have been countless individuals who have risked their lives to relieve the suffering of the dying, treat the symptoms of the sick or discover the causes of contagion. Doctors, nurses, scientists and ordinary people have done all these things. The novel Deadly by Julie Chibbaro creates a mystery surrounding the causes of typhus in several New York homes and the search for the woman called "Typhoid Mary."

These are just some of the books featuring medical history. You can find more at your school or public library.

Sara K Joiner is the author of the upcoming novel After the Ashes published by Holiday House. She is also the children's coordinator for the Brazoria County Library System.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Louise Spiegler on Editing and Historical Fact-Checking

One of my favorite moments in the long process of getting The Jewel and the Key published occurred in my English Composition class at Cascadia Community College.

It was one of my favorite groups of students ever. There were Iraq War vets, an aspiring detective, a boy who worked in an exotic-animal clinic, a bar-tender and a poet and lots of other really interesting students from their late teens to their forties. And everyone was a hard-worker. You can see why I loved them.

 As in all my composition classes, there were opportunities for students to revise their writing (and not incidentally, garner a higher grade). However, for many students, revision is a tough sell. Their understanding of revision is usually proof-reading -- a valuable and under-used skill in itself. But it’s not all there is to revision, as my experience as a writer amply illustrated.

So, to demonstrate that revising is more than just replacing commas, I showed them my manuscript of The Jewel and the Key, which had just come back from the copy-editors in all its marked-up, underlined, question-marked, dog-eared glory.

Some students actually gasped, and I think there may have been a few heartfelt moans.

Here was a manuscript well on its way to publication, and to their horror, it was completely scribbled over by not one but two editors. There were suggestions about word choice, arguments about grammatical usage, alerts to contradictions in the text and occasionally – oh, balm to my tender writer’s soul! – a terse “ha!” to indicate I’d actually been funny or a brief “nice” to let me know a turn of phrase was effective.

“You know what?” I told the students. “Writing really is revision. It’s really the bulk of what we do as writers. Cutting scenes that don’t work. Developing character more. Adding explanations. Checking facts. Shading and shaping and re-imagining. That’s all part of it.” And I think they got it. At any rate, they were a terrific class and I got a lot of good re-writes out of them.

But, of course, in writing a historical novel, there’s even more to revision than that. There’s historical fact checking, which means that sometimes, despite your best efforts, you find historical errors.

Historical errors! Oh, the pain of writing a scene you are totally happy with, and finding a mistake that may blow up the whole premise. Luckily, in The Jewel and the Key things were not usually that dire. More common was what I call ‘the bridge experience’. In one scene, my characters in 1917 are driving across the University Bridge over the Seattle ship canal in a Ford Model T. It felt like a great opportunity to hook my heroine, Addie, into the spookiness and mystery of time, because she is from the 21st century and the cityscape is both achingly familiar and irremediably strange, like a ghost of her familiar modern hometown.

Except that the bridge wasn't built until 1918. So my poor characters would have actually been bobbing around in the chilly waters of the Ship Canal.

I cannot tell you how often this happened.

What I learned is that even if you've checked a hundred times, well – try just one more.

On the other hand, the fact checking could also be the most fun part. At the Arctic Building, a doorman insisted on showing me the ornate stained glass ceiling of the poker-room where Yukon Gold Rush millionaires used to play for high stakes. The walrus heads on the frieze of the building are Seattle landmarks and I’d included them in the novel. What I learned from the doorman was that the tusks were originally actual tusks from actual walruses!

Fake ones were installed in the 1920's because the real tusks kept getting loose and plummeting to the sidewalk below, much to the consternation of passers-by.

Luckily, no one was impaled.

So that was fun. But sometimes the historical footwork can go beyond fun and feel positively magical.

For example, when I took a backstage tour of the Moore Theater, one of the grand old theaters in Seattle, I gathered more information than I could have possibly imagined for The Jewel, the theater I invented for my novel.

But I found something more: a confirmation of my sense of the mystery and power of the past.

I stayed behind after the tour and struck up a conversation with one of the custodians. She was a soft-spoken woman of about thirty, who worked night shift after the shows.

“Do you like working nights?” I asked.

“It’s peaceful.” Then she paused and thought a minute before continuing, “And in a place like this, I can always feel the presence of those who went before.”

I felt a shock of recognition.

It was her own experience she was talking about. But when she explained, I felt how close it was to what I’d imagined and written about – the feeling that was so strong in certain places for me and for other people who connect to the past.

“It’s as though they’re still there somehow. The actors. The tech people. The people who
 came to see the show.” She smiled. “And the people like me who cleaned up afterwards.”

The Jewel and the Key: Amazon 
The Amethyst Road: Amazon Barnes and Noble 

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Louise Spiegler on Editing and Historical Fact-Checking

So I brought in my manuscript of The Jewel and the Key, which had just come back from the copy-editor, and laid it on a table in all its marked-up, dog-eared glory.

One student actually gasped. There were a few heartfelt moans.

Here was a manuscript well on its way to publication, and to my students’ horror, it was completely scribbled over by not one but two editors. There were suggestions about word choice, arguments about grammatical usage, alerts to contradictions in the text and occasionally – oh, balm to my tender writer’s soul! – a terse “ha!” to indicate I’d actually been funny or a brief “nice” to let me know a turn of phrase was effective. And of course, there'd been a lot of more in-depth revision before this.

“You know what?” I told the students. “Writing really is revision. It’s the bulk of what writers do. And it really is “re-envisioning”. Cutting things that don’t work. Adding explanations. Shading and shaping and re-imagining.”

And I think they got it. At any rate, I got a lot of good re-writes out of them afterwards.

Of course, in writing historical fiction there is even more to revision than the many steps I've mentioned here. There’s fact checking, for one thing and that means.... realizing you have made historical errors.

Historical errors! Oh, the pain of writing a scene you are totally happy with, and finding out that one mistake may blow up the whole premise.

Luckily, in The Jewel and the Key things were only that dire once or twice. More common was what I call ‘the bridge experience’. I'd written a scene set in 1917 where my characters are driving a Model T across the University Bridge over the Seattle Ship Canal.

It felt like a great opportunity for me to hook Addie, my contemporary heroine, into the spookiness and mystery of time. For her, this cityscape is achingly familiar, yet irremediably strange, like a ghost of her modern hometown. Or is modern Seattle a ghost of what she's experiencing in the past? I loved this scene. And, as many writers point out, it's the scenes you love that often cause the most problems.

Because that the bridge wasn’t built until 1918 -- a whole year later. And I almost didn't catch it.

So if my poor characters had chosen that route, they would have been bobbing around in the chilly waters linking Puget Sound and Lake Washington.

I cannot tell you how often this happened.

What I learned is that you can’t take anything for granted, and even if you’ve checked already, well – try just one more time.

On the other hand, the fact checking was sometimes the most fun. One day I walked from King Street Station through downtown Seattle to make sure I had my facts straight about landmarks that still survive from the book's time period.

At the Arctic Building, a doorman insisted on showing me the stained-glass ceiling of the card-room where Gold-Rush millionaires met to play poker (high stakes, naturally). He told me about the frieze of the building, which is still decorated with carved walrus heads. Apparently, the carved tusks were once real tusks from real walruses! They were replaced with fake tusks in the 1920s because the real once kept coming loose and plummeting to the sidewalk below, much to the consternation of passers-by. Fortunately, no one was impaled.

So that was fun. But sometimes, getting in touch with the places that inspire your story can be positively magical: a confirmation of the mystery and power of the past.

Since my story pivots around a grand old theater in Seattle, I managed to snag a backstage tour of the Moore Theater, in downtown Seattle and gathered more information than I could have possibly imagined.

tayed behind after the tour was over and struck up a conversation with one of the custodians. She was a gentle woman of about thirty, who told me that she worked the late-night shift after the shows.

I asked her how she liked working nights.

“It’s peaceful,” she told me.

"Not lonely?"

She shook her head. “No. Because even when I'm here by myself, I know I'm not alone.”

I stared and asked her what she meant. With a chill running up my back, assuredly.

“I know it sounds crazy, but late at night, I feel the presence of those who were here before."

"You mean -- who? Ghosts?"

"I don't know what you'd call them. Presences. The actors. The tech people. The people who came to see the show.” She smiled. “And the people like me who cleaned up afterwards.”

Tuesday, February 17, 2015


Rewriting the past.

We all do it. In our own lives, we do it. We all look back and retell stories as we remember them. And sometimes, we remember them in a totally different way than someone else telling the story. Such is the lot of history. It is left in the hands, memories, and imagination of those who are bound to repeat it…to others. I remember, with great ambivalence, seeing that one of my nonfiction history books was used as a Wikipedia reference for an historic figure. I knew I had done the research, putting things together as best as I could, and coming to a conclusion…but was I right? It really worried me, considering that, for now, and as long as there is Wikipedia, my claim is part of history, set down in virtual stone as truth. The question is…was I right? Perhaps a bigger question might be…does that matter?

from digital stamp design
History isn’t necessarily about being right or wrong. There isn’t a right, if we think of positions people take, views and ideas that differ greatly without being right or wrong. Yes, dates and certain events can be factual or not, but the how and the why, the motives and thoughts and emotions involved do not have a right or wrong. Even in our own histories, we reconstrue what happened, we review and reanalyze our own motives and feelings and intentions. These things change, as we do, and our relationship to our own history does, as well.

When we write historic fiction, we take a position and let the story play out from there. We invent as historians must do, to a degree, to put the narrative in order. We give life to characters that lived and give them a place in the story we build around them.

While the Young Inventors Guild books tell a story that is fiction, I discovered a mystery that I solved in my own way. I took events in history and rewrote them, keeping in mind that I was bound to both a moment in time and the events that were happening at that moment. There are elements of history that I tried to make as accurate as possible. I wanted my characters to fit into a history that would have surrounded them. How old would Noah’s mother, Ariana, have been when Célestine Galli-Marié played Carmen in Vienna? How big was the Grand Opera House in Toronto after the 1879 fire? How many times did I have to repeat ‘great’ to make sure that Benjamin Banneker was the properly placed great grandfather to Wallace? (It turns out to be three.) And how was Wallace related to Lewis Latimer? How could Faye’s mother and father have studied together at Harvard if the university didn’t let women until after 1879? Those are facts that need to be accurately portrayed in order to create a bond between fiction and history. The facts give us a sense of the history and get it onto the page. They make the story real. But it is up to the author to create the narrative that opens the story and takes the real off the page. That is what brings the story to life.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Librarian Spotlight: LeeAnn Wilmot

   Librarian Spotlight is a series I plan to run this year. I am pleased to introduce you to my first guest, LeeAnn Wilmot.

     What are your thoughts on the value of historical fiction?

I believe that historical fiction is a nice path into reading NON-FICTION.  I hated non-fiction, did you? But, once I got hooked on some historical fiction, I wanted to know more. 

The value of historical fiction is the same as the value of any literature: a safe place to explore issues—different people, different time, NOT ME but the same issues. Historical fiction also provides a sense of place in space and time—so my “issues” suddenly have some perspective when I am remotely exposed to the suffering and trauma of other times and places.

Do you find it difficult to interest children in historical fiction? Why or Why not?

I’m finding here at the library that children are interested in whatever I present to them with enthusiasm.  I sometimes “forget” to label things as “historical fiction.”  I just say, “Oh! Here’s a story about a boy during the war….” I often will pull out a profound but vague descriptor.

I see lots of children who demand books based on television characters. So, any place to get in the door, right? But then I try to describe or “push” books based on characteristics of those same TV characters without naming them--heroism, determination, strength, “….a kid who had to hide out.” Then, sometimes, this works and the reader returns for more. Then, I let them know about this category called “historical fiction.”

      Do you have any gateway series that you recommend—a series or two that you have found works well as a way to develop a taste for historical fiction in middle-grade aged children?
  • The Royal Diaries (Scholastic)
  • If You Lived in... series (Scholastic) (It’s not fiction! But it reads like fiction.)
  • The American Girl  series (American Girl)
  • And, of course, Little Women and the Little House books
  • Boys of Grit series (Lamplighter) (It’s so difficult to find things which aren't really feminine—boys should read those, too but sometimes they want BOY stuff. And I can’t quite believe that I’m saying that…but I am.)

As a Youth Librarian, are there any library displays or programs that you have done to promote the reading of historical fiction? If so, would you describe one?

I’ve done very little but, oddly, I’m just now thinking of one for MLK Day.  The display will be something like “Champions Now and Then.”  I’ll include both fiction and non-fiction, but of course, Easy Juvenile will be mostly fiction.

I’ve also envisioned doing a reader’s theater of sorts with my Young Adult (YA) Book Group and reading, instead of plays, historical pieces such as letters, speeches, and documents.

     Do you have a resource that you use to recommend further reading or to recommend readings based on interest?

Oh! SLJ!! (School Library Journal). And, I follow loads of blogs by YA librarians.  I also love Goodreads. And, I’m very quick to stalk other public and school libraries for their lists and assignments. Teen Librarian Toolbox is a good place, and that leads to many more blogs by teen librarians. Check out this list:

Teachers and parents often want to link historical fiction with non-fiction text. Do you have a way to pair historical fiction with non-fiction texts in the same subject area?

I’m not really a teacher – so I can only think of the “paired” reading that I’ve done recently. Yes, I do read kid’s literature for fun, and once snagged, I go searching for the “mate” to whatever I’ve just read. Here are a few:

Counting on Grace, by Elizabeth Winthrop (Yearling) v Kid’s on Strike, by Susan Campbell Bartoletti (HMH Books for Young Readers)

King of the Mound: my summer with Satchel Paige, by Wes Tooke (Simon & Shuster) v We Are the Ship: the story of Negro League baseball, by Kadir Nelson (Jump at the Sun)

Code Talker: a novel about the Navajo Marines of World War Two, by Joseph Bruchac (Speak) v Navajo Code Talkers (a number of books with this title!)

Lions of Little Rock, by Kristin Levine (Puffin) v Little Rock Girl 1957: how a photograph changed the fight for integration, by Shelley Tougas (Compass Point Books) (These are going in my MLK Day display.)

As a librarian, I am generally able to invite a reader to either fiction or nonfiction, depending on the child. Once that’s worked its magic, I can entice the reader to the “other” side, the side they would not have chosen.

LeeAnn Wilmot is a youth librarian with the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Library. When she is not at the library, she can be found hanging out with her three Rottweilers, and reading, of course.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Taking A Walloping For Growth: Jennifer Bohnhoff On Shocking Trees - And Students - Into Doing The Unexpected

A number of years ago I bought a peach tree from a reputable mail order plant company.  The object that the mailman delivered didn't look anything like a tree; it looked like a tall, thin cardboard box containing a stick with a few spindly roots on one end.

I took a deep breath, planted the tree, and waited.  Two months later, when the stick remained a stick, I called the customer service number listed on the catalog.

"Do you have a big wooden spoon?" the friendly woman on the other end of the line asked me.
"Yesss," I answered, completely baffled by the question.
"Good," she said.  "I want you to take that spoon outside and wallop the tree but good."

At first I thought this was some kind of hidden camera trick.  Or, perhaps, the customer service lady wasn't so much friendly as crazy.  She quickly explained that sometimes trees that are shipped with their roots bare become dormant and need to be shaken up a little to help them grow.

I felt a little sheepish walloping a little slip of a tree with a wooden spoon, but a week later that tree had leaves on it.  The next summer I was picking peaches.

A similar thing happens in my Civil War novel, The Bent Reed.  As the story opens, the family is debating whether to cut down an apple tree that has yet to produce apples.  After the Battle of Gettysburg rages around it, the tree bursts into bloom.  My little peach tree was not the inspiration for these scenes.  In a case of life imitating art, The Bent Reed was written long before the peach tree was ordered.

Sometimes students become a little complacent, even a little dormant in their reading habits and need a little shock to their systems before they're ready to grow.  I'm not proposing you wallop your students with a spoon, but I am proposing you shock their systems by challenging them to read something outside their comfort level.

Channeling students toward books that are a little above their reading level or are on subjects they've never considered can really shock a reader into growth.  Here are a few ways to do this:

  • Reading out loud to students can whet their appetite for vocabulary and sentence complexity that they might not dare tackle on their own.  Once they're intrigued, they may take up the book on their own.
  • Reading about other subjects, places or historical periods can whet a student's appetite for new concepts.  Follow up with a list of related books, or better yet, a trip to the library so that students can continue their research.
  • "Front load" information with visuals such as maps and timelines, and mini lessons featuring new vocabulary so that students have more prior knowledge with which to tackle difficult or unfamiliar subjects.
  • Be kind when students struggle with new vocabulary and concepts, especially when they mispronounce words that they've never seen before.  The safer students feel in the classroom, the greater the risks they're willing to take.
  • Model inquisitive behavior by reading outside your own interests. Share the experience and what you learn with your students.
  • Get excited about learning new things!  Enthusiasm is contagious.
No use beating around the bush: if you are a teacher, you should bludgeon your students with kindness, with information, and with enthusiasm.  Who knows?  Your action just might bear fruit!  You just might shake them out of their complacency and awaken in them a new love of learning. 

Jennifer Bohnhoff is a 7th grade social studies teacher and the author of several books for middle grade readers.  You can learn more about her and her books at her website.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Stories in History, with Chris Eboch

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 England 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 America.”

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 for samples, advice on writing historical fiction, and a list of favorite historical novels.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

History – It’s All About People, By Elizabeth W C Junner

History is all about people.  So it’s unfortunate that  historians are hampered by word count, yet have the necessity of imparting as many facts as possible about events which occurred at certain periods in certain places, for, as far as they know, whatever  reasons, into school history books.  Which does tend to make the books rather dull, and difficult for a teacher to arouse any enthusiasm in the students.

What reader is interested in, or inspired by, dry, boring facts?  In Scotland of the nineteen fifties, for the final nation-wide exams on history at a certain level, knowledge of ancient history was essential. The student was expected to know the dates of famous battles such as Thermopylae, and the Punic wars,  and what caused them, the Spartans and the Carthaginians, and so on.  As my mother patiently tested me I droned the answers as a fourth grader would the multiplication tables.  At length Mother threw down the book in exasperation. 

“What did the ordinary Spartans, or any of these people, look like?  Were their families looked after while the men were away?  You know nothing about the ordinary lives of these people, yet you have to learn the dates of all these wars and battles. What do you know about the Great War? (that was the first world war,1914-19)  My uncles fought in that, and so did some of your Daddy’s brothers.  These were men I knew.  What do you know about them?   Blind Hughie, the pedlar, you mind (remember) him?  That was shrapnel did that at Mons. Can you tell me the date of that battle?  Passchendaele?  That’s history.  History is all about people, ordinary people.  They count.”

 I reflected my own grandchildren know next to nothing about the Second World War, and its devastating effects on peoples’ lives in town and country in the land of my birth.  Good, decent people, whose stories deserve to be told.  This prompted Alec’s War, a story about the effects of WWll on a schoolboy and his family after the attack on Clydebank in March, 1941.  The Blitz hammered mainly London and the major English industrial cities; in quiet Clydebank, next sizeable town to Scotland’s largest city of Glasgow, they still spoke of the phony war.  Until the Germans decided to attack John Brown’s Shipyards on the River Clyde.  

War stories after 1946 claimed that Hitler issued orders to bomb civilians in order to break the British spirit and demoralise the troops.  It had the opposite effect. Modern historians are charitable regarding the bombing of Clydebank.  The Forth and Clyde Canal runs parallel to the River Clyde at Clydebank;   they suggest the Germans mistook the canal for the river, thus the civilians, not the ships on the Clyde or in John Brown’s yards, took the brunt of the attack.  Not a shop window in the town was left intact, and seventy per cent of the dwellings were destroyed.  The spirit of the people was not; in the midst of the mourning and grim determination to carry on, they exhibited wry, sometimes gallows,  humour.   I glimpsed a fraction of what they had to endure when I first visited Clydebank to stay with my high school friend.  Though it was well into the fifties,  there were still many pock-marked buildings and vacant sites where craters made by bombs had been filled in but were still undeveloped, left overgrown and forlorn.

Rendered homeless, Alec and his siblings were evacuated to live with his aunt in the country.  They had often stayed for summer holidays with her in the rural village where she taught.  This time, he found life there was not going to be as quiet as on previously visits. The tentacles of war snarled lives just as much, if in different ways from the cities.   There was the Black Market, the Fifth Columnists who undermined the government’s war effort, and sundry spies.   Alec, a keen Sherlock Holmes fan, finds a mission of his own.   Young children of those days were as enterprising and innovative as children have always been.  They also had considerably more responsibility than we allow our modern children to enjoy. 

Mother was right – history is all about people; ordinary people doing extraordinary things.