What Is Historical?

The year I started writing for young people, I attended my first international SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) conference in Los Angeles.  Four days of writing craft, page critiques, networking and an overwhelming amount of information.  So I almost missed it when an agent, talking about her client’s work, mentioned that it was a novel of historical fiction, set in the 1970s.

Most of the audience gasped, because most of us had lived through the 70s, making it difficult to believe it could be considered history.  As an aspiring author of historical fiction, I had to reset my understanding.  And I continue to do so as I read new books and think about future projects.


The first thing I did was put myself back in the shoes of my younger self.  As a teen, I considered the Vietnam War to be history.  When I was Platoon, it was as a work of historical fiction.  And yet, I was six years old when Saigon fell.  By that calculation, a novel published today about the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 could be considered historical by modern teenagers.

Imagine that.

As writers of historical fiction, we are so incredibly fortunate in the richness and scope of our source material.  We can immerse ourselves in ancient Egypt, imagine life amongst the princes of Renaissance Europe or, possibly, write an autobiographically-based novel of our own childhood.  (That is, if your childhood was more interesting than mine.  I had a spectacularly bland and uneventful childhood, full of love and well-being.  Great to live through, but not so interesting to read!)

However, part of me still balks at the thought of writing (or reading) something historical that is set during my own lifetime.  I have a nagging feeling that there are agents and editors out there who might feel the same way.  While I was writing Gilt, I attended a workshop where an agent mentioned that she never wanted to see another query about a book set in the 1980s, because it usually meant that the author wanted to reference her favorite music and was too lazy to figure out how to put cell phones into the narrative.

I bet no one said that to Rainbow Rowell about Eleanor & Park.

Which brings me to my second point–that great historical fiction reads like a contemporary story.  I don’t mean that an author should use anachronistic language and dialogue, or that the story itself should be applicable to any time period (you can’t write a story like Number the Stars set in modern-day California).  What I mean is that characters and their interactions are timeless.  People fought with their siblings and fell in love during the American Civil War in much the same way we do now–which is one of the reasons Little Women is so endlessly beloved.  You can’t take the war out of the story, but we can see ourselves within the people who inhabit it.

One final example:  my favorite book when I was in the third grade was a novel called Amy Moves In, by Marilyn Sachs.  It’s about a short, skinny girl with super curly/frizzy hair, whose older sister is smarter, taller, braver and has (holiest of holies) straight hair.


I could totally relate.

Amy moved to the Bronx, had adventures, fought with her sister, made friends.  That book made me desperate to go to New York.  I read it–and its companions–more times than I could count. Many thanks to the Scholastic Book Club for putting them in my hands.

What I didn’t realize until much later was that the books were originally published before I was born and set in the 1940s.  They were–by all accounts–historical.  They never felt that way.  I always imagined that I could go to the Bronx, find Indian Rock in Crotona Park, and share a chocolate egg cream with Amy or someone just like her.

Readers want to be able to relate to fictional characters, even if they can’t always relate to the setting–be it medieval Wales or post-apocalyptic Chicago.  So we, as writers, have to make our characters believable as people and not just as people from the past.

Think about some of your favorite fictional characters from historical fiction.  What is it that makes you feel like you know them?  And does that work today as well as it works in their own era?


About Katherine Longshore

Katherine Longshore is the author of GILT (Viking/Penguin May 2012), a story of friendship and betrayal set in the court of Henry VIII, and TARNISH (June 2013), the story of a young Anne Boleyn. You can learn more about her www.katherinelongshore.com

9 thoughts on “What Is Historical?

  1. kathleea says:

    This is interesting because I’m in the middle of writing a Victorian gothic horror for YA. I hope that teens would relate to my main character, to her conflicts with societal rules, her identify as a daughter and her relationship with her sister along with questioning her scientist father’s methods of experimentation in the name of science.

  2. Girlfriend, try living through the 80s with that “holiest of holies”, straight hair.” You would not believe the hideous perms I tried in an effort to get that all-desirable 80s poof! Sure, my hair is silky-smooth and hat-hair impervious, but it laughs at curlers and scoffs at hairspray. My wedding ‘do was a French braid I did myself, because at the “trial run” at the beauty parlor, it took two hairdressers (four hands, a box of pinching pins, LOTS of complaining – them, not me) and the darn thing just drooped an hour later. The grass is waaaaay greener on the other side, my friend!

    But I agree with everything else you said. 🙂

  3. Oh, and I hope by now you’ve had a chocolate egg cream. There’s so yummy!

  4. Abby Murphy says:

    I feel such a kinship with Betsy Ray from Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy- Tacy series (the high school books and beyond). Even though the books were written in the 1940s, about Lovelace’s experiences growing up in the early 1900s, they feel incredibly fresh because of Betsy’s palpable emotions, concerns about friendship and boys, and her drive to see the world and become a writer. That makes the historical stuff–the dance cards, taking a steamer across the Atlantic, singing around the piano–even more fun. Thanks for getting me to think more deeply about it!

    • You make a great point here, Abby! Being emotionally in-tune with a character helps the reader experience the story world more closely. I’ve never read the Betsy-Tacy books, but have heard such good things about them. Time to add to my TBR list!

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