Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Stories in History, by Chris Eboch

Hot trends may come and go, but for some readers, nothing takes the place of great historical fiction. 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 (The Secret of Laurel Oaks, Shanghai Shadows), 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, set in 1894 California, 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.”

I agree. 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 her 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, or visit her Amazon page.

Chris is also the author of You Can Write for Children: A Guide to Writing Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers. Remember the magic of bedtime stories? When you write for children, you have the most appreciative audience in the world. But to reach that audience, you need to write fresh, dynamic stories, whether you’re writing rhymed picture books, middle grade mysteries, edgy teen novels, nonfiction, or something else. 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.

Sign up for Chris’s Workshop Newsletter for classes and critique offers

The Puppeteer’s Apprentice, by D. Anne Love: A scullery maid in medieval England must face danger and mystery to follow her dream of making the puppets dance.

Riding the Flume, by Patricia Curtis Pfitsch: In 1894 the giant sequoia trees are being felled for lumber in northern California. Should fifteen-year-old Francie risk her life to reveal secret activities?

Yankee Girl, by Mary Ann Rodman: In 1964, Alice Ann Moxley's family moves to Mississippi to protect black people registering to vote, and Alice must make terrible choices in order to have friends.

Shakespeare’s Sister, by Doris Gwaltney: What if Shakespeare had a sister who followed him to London to join the theater and write plays? Doris is also the author of Homefront: The story of Margaret Anne Motley, a teenage girl living on a peanut farm in Isle of Wight County, Virginia, and the ways in which World War II changed her life.

The Secret of Laurel Oaks, by Lois Ruby: A novel based on a real slave girl whose ghost haunts the plantation until a murder mystery is solved with the help of Timberlarken, a most strange tree. Lois is also the author of Shanghai Shadows: When the Nazis invade Austria in 1939, 12-year-old Ilse Shpann and her family flee to Japanese-occupied Shanghai.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Lazy Summer Reading

By Suzanne Morgan Williams

So it’s summer and I’ve been doing everything but writing this post. I’ve been reading The Wright Brothers by David McCullough (fabulous by the way), writing, gardening, entertaining. Summer has a way of racing by, and yet some of my best memories are of staying up most of the night, windows open, cooling off from the heat of the day with a book. One marathon read was Gone With the Wind when I was about sixteen. Talk about hooked on historical fiction!

My personal summer reading program started with my father, who from the time I can remember, brought all of us kids a book for our birthday. It was never wrapped but we knew it was coming. He’d stop by Stacey’s Bookstore in San Francisco on his way home from work and choose a book for us. My birthday is in the summer. Ones I remember – Date Bait – a cookbook for girls (okay, it was the ‘50s), Our Wonderful Earth, or some such title, which told the story of the earth in geologic time, Jane Eyre, Heidi, All About the Insect World, Black Beauty. I treasure those times, reading late on August nights with my new birthday book that my dad picked out, just for me.

So I’ll be lazy with this blog post and ask you to remember. What books did you read late into the night? What books were given to you that you still think of? Books are connections to the author, the reader, the giver, the receiver. Those connections are powerful and not soon forgotten. Here’s to summer, and the people we love who love books.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Mary Louise Sanchez: "Less is More"

A few years ago, when I was substituting in a high school library, I noticed the kids were asking for Ellen Hopkins' books. The majority of the time I read middle grade books, so I wasn't familiar with the author's works. I soon realized the subject matter she writes about is appealing to young adults. The large sized volume I found on the shelf seemed  imposing until I opened it. Then I discovered another reason her books resonate with young adults. They are novels in verse with lots of white space!  It occurred to me that reluctant readers, especially, would be attracted to this type of book because verse novels combine poetry with a story and are brief. As Sarah Tregay, an author of verse novels says, "With fewer words on each page, these books are perfect for reluctant readers and busy teens." Wouldn't you agree that busy people do appreciate brevity in their reading material at times?

In a few hours this summer, I read an interesting novel in verse about the Charles Lindbergh baby kidnapping trial written by Jen Bryant.
It inspired me to look into other verse novels which are historical in nature. I believe introducing historical novels in verse would be an excellent way to start meeting curricular standards at the start of the school year. Students (and even teachers) may still be in a summer mode with laid back attitudes. Everyone could be eased into the rigors of school by starting the year with these brief novels which have much substance. 

Teachers, you still have a few weeks before school starts and you could easily read many of these books in a few days.
Hopefully you'll find some short historical fiction books that match your students' needs, which would give you more time to incorporate additional and outstanding historical novels into your busy school year.

One good site which lists novels in verse is Goodreads novels in verse. I have posted some of their historical fiction books-in-verse-for kids, but please follow this link to Goodreads to find even more titles. On the Goodreads' site you can also read a synopsis of each book.

Here are some historical novels in verse which prove "Less Is More." The pictures are courtesy of Goodreads.


1812 Indiana Territory
WWII Holocaust
WWII Germans dealing with handicapped
WWII Holocaust

1960s Civil Rights

Vietnam War
Women's Rights

Karen Hesse, a Newbery Award medalist for Out of the Dust, which is about the Great Depression, has written these other novels in verse too.

Great Depression
WWII Japanese invading Aleutian Islands

Ku Klux Klan 1924

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Robert Lee Murphy--Museums Provide Hands-On Research Material

In writing The Iron Horse Chronicles I frequently visit museums where I can walk among the exhibits and sometimes even touch them. This provides a stronger sense of what life was like decades ago rather than simply reading about the items or looking at pictures in books. I want to share with you how I do this by looking at three museums in Lubbock, Texas, that I had the privilege of visiting recently while attending the 2015 annual convention of the Western Writers of America.

The American Wind Power Center exhibits a collection of windmills used in the western settlement of our country. In my book Eagle Talons I describe the huge windmills that the railroads erected along their right-of-ways every ten to twelve miles. Water was essential to the production of steam in wood-burning and coal-fired locomotives. In many places, the only way to obtain that precious commodity was to drill a well and pump the water to the surface with a windmill. The Center has a huge windmill actually used by the steam railroads. There are no more working windmills along the tracks today.

The Bayer Museum of Agriculture presents hundreds of farming and industrial implements used by farmers over the past couple hundred years. Of particular interest was a reconstruction of a blacksmith shop. It is the threat of having to spend years as an apprentice working in such a place that drives Will Braddock, the young protagonist of Eagle Talons, to run away on his quest to determine his own destiny and wind up helping build the first transcontinental railroad. Blacksmiths were indispensable to the settlement of America. Blacksmithing was, and still is, hard work.

The National Ranching Heritage Center contains dozens of structures relocated from sites in Texas and New Mexico. They range from dugouts to two-story frame houses and numerous barns and outbuildings. A railroad depot provides a close-up look at a typical waiting room with its pot-bellied stove. Will Braddock visits many of these depots throughout The Iron Horse Chronicles. The Center has a nice collection of firearms, some of which Will uses in his struggles with Paddy O'Hannigan and his other enemies. There are also examples of horse-drawn vehicles. The Conestoga wagon is the type in which Jenny McNabb, Will's young lady friend, is traveling west when her family is ambushed by Cheyenne Indians in Eagle Talons.

Folks who live in the Texas Panhandle have easy access to these museums. Others who may be traveling across the country should make time to stop and visit them. If you are not going to be in Texas anytime soon, visit similar museums in your area. Young people, and old, will be impressed with these wonderful institutions. Everybody will come away better educated.