[This is adapted from an excerpt of my book You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers.]
It's tempting for authors of historical fiction to go on at length about the time and place where their book is set. After all, it's fascinating to them, and they did all that research! But for readers, especially children who may not have a particular interest in the era portrayed, daily life should be shown in action instead of pausing the story to explain the history.
Life has gotten more fast-paced, from TV shows and movies to daily activities, which may be why some older historical novels don't hold up as well. They're too much about the history, and not enough about a great story. In general, readers don't care as much about setting as they care as plot and characters. Still, a strong setting can provide an interesting backdrop for a story and teach young readers about a different part of the world or the different way some people live (or lived).
Young readers will typically enjoy books best if the setting serves as a backdrop rather than being described in enormous detail. For my Egyptian mystery, The Eyes of Pharaoh, I tried to weave in details without stopping the plot. The book opens like this:
Seshta ran. Her feet pounded the hard-packed dirt street. She lengthened her stride and raised her face to Ra, the sun god. Her ba, the spirit of her soul, sang at the feel of her legs straining, her chest thumping, her breath racing.
She sped along the edge of the market, dodging shoppers. A noblewoman in a transparent white dress skipped out of the way and glared.
In just a few lines, readers learn the setting (dirt street, market), cultural details (noblewoman), and religious references (Ra, the ba). But they are all conveyed within the action, as the main character races toward her goal.
On occasion, historical fiction writers may want to show an unfamiliar attitude. This can require a bit more explanation. For example, in my Mayan historical drama, The Well Sacrifice, the narrator describes her sister like this: “Feather was beautiful even as a child.... Her dark, slanting eyes were crossed, and her high forehead was flattened back in a straight line from her long nose.” This shows the different Mayan interpretation of beauty. Otherwise, a physical description of Feather might have convinced young readers that she was ugly, rather than beautiful by the standards of her time.
Still, to be true to the time and the characters, historical fiction writers have to trust their readers to notice and interpret shown details. In The Well Sacrifice, I couldn’t explain that the Maya didn’t have wheeled vehicles, since the Mayan narrator wouldn’t be aware of what her culture did not have. I could only show them traveling by foot or canoe. (An author’s note at the end of the book also pointed out this details. Teachers also may be able to find supplemental material posted on the author’s website, such as I have here. Finally, pairing historical fiction and nonfiction can be a great way to get readers interested in the culture because of the story, while learning facts through the nonfiction.)
My philosophy is that people in the past were much the same as people today in most ways – they were motivated by fear, love, pride, faith, and so forth. Readers can connect to these motivations and emotions even if the specific situations are different. That's why young readers can fall in love with books set during the Civil War, such as Jennifer Bohnhoff’s The Bent Reed, or on Java when Krakatoa erupts, such as Sara K Joiner’s After the Ashes. To them, Suzanne Morgan Williams’ novel Bull Rider, set only a few years ago, is as historical as Robert Lee Murphy’s The Iron Horse Chronicles, set during the westward expansion of the US, or my novels set in the ancient past. Kids can enjoy time travel novels such as Louise Spiegler’s The Jewel and the Key, set in Seattle both in contemporary times and at the beginning of World War I. Depending on the child, both settings may be equally exotic.
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 draws on the mythology of 1001 Arabian Nights to take readers on a 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. The Haunted series, which starts with The Ghost on the Stairs, follows a brother and sister who travel with their parents’ ghost hunter TV show and try to help the ghosts while keeping their activities secret from meddling grownups.