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.

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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.

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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?

A Moment of Silence

Has anybody else noticed how noisy the world is these days? Cars and trains and voices. Video feeds and electronic games. Even at home, alone, with the sound off, we are bombarded with the voices of others–social media, blog posts, an endless ticker tape of news.

And what news it is. Troops sent to Iraq. Murder in Palestine. Flare ups on the borders of countries long suffering animosity.

Today is Veterans Day. A day to celebrate the men and women who have served for their countries. A day to thank them all for stepping forward and being willing to risk their lives.

It is also a day to remember the fallen. The hundreds of thousands of men and women who have died in service to their countries. Today marks the anniversary of the cessation of hostilities of World War I–the armistice signed on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month–still less than a hundred years ago.

In Britain, the holiday is called Remembrance Day and on Sunday, my husband–an English veteran of the first Gulf War, as well as the conflict in Northern Ireland–attended the Remembrance Sunday parade and services in his home town. He didn’t wear his medals and no one thanked him for his service. He was there in remembrance of his grandmother’s four brothers who died during World War I.

Let us honor the men and women who live. Buy them coffee. Give up your first class seat on a plane. Shake a hand and be grateful.

But also, let’s take a moment of silence in this noisy, noisy world to remember. History matters because it is not so far out of reach–one generation, two–and because the men and women who serve in 2014 deserve not just to be remembered today, but by the contemporaries of their children and grandchildren.  Today, we are creating history, so let’s make our actions worth remembering.

The Horror

The month of October invites a lot of conversation about what scares us. Halloween is the ultimate culprit—people do horror movie marathons and theme parks create haunted houses that you have to sign a waiver to enter. Front yards are full of lynched skeletons and open graves, not to mention the sugar-crazed kids who mob the streets every October 31st.

I tend to avoid scary things. I’m not a fan of slasher movies or rollercoasters and though someone may one day entice me to try skydiving, I feel like I take my life into my hands every time I drive I-80, so parachutes aren’t high on my priority list.

As a writer, however, our fears tend not to be death-defying or phobia-provoking. Generally, we are not Navy Seals or Bear Grylls wannabes. As riveting as Naked and Afraid can be, I’ll never apply just to research a book. To the outside eye, the things that really set a writer’s heart racing may seem mundane. But I’m sure many of you will recognize—and relate with—some of the things on my list.

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The Scream, Edvard Munch, 1893.

What scares me most?

  1. Waiting.  Anyone with an active imagination can make the very act of waiting—whether it be for five minutes or five months—an exercise in terror. Waiting to hear back from anyone. Agent, editor, critique partner, reviewer. The horrors that arise can be stifling (they hate it, I’ll never write again, this is the end of my career, they love it but want me to change the main character, they’ll want me to write a book exactly like this next time, etc. etc. etc.) I pity the families and friends of waiting writers.
  1. Failure.  This can be failure on a microscopic level (oh, hell, I got that word wrong) to failure on a global scale (I think I may have made a mistake admitting on a national newspaper website that I totally stalked a book blogger). Usually, the failure is something in between—I won’t get this character to appear on the page as he appears in my mind. I won’t be able to finish this book. I won’t be able to do this topic justice. I won’t sell this book. If this book sells, no one will read it. If people read it, they will hate it. I only have one book in me and it was a fluke and I actually have no idea what I’m doing and my career has ended before it began. Even in the situation where you’ve sold three books to a publisher, a writer can spend the entire time until the third book actually shows up on shelves thinking, “they’re going to cancel my contract.” We can fear every kind of failure, writers.
  1. Success.  You’d think fearing failure and fearing success would be mutually exclusive, but no. If a book gets a lot of buzz before it hits shelves, we can be afraid it won’t live up to the hype. If a book does really well, we can fear that it was a fluke and we’ll never write another (see above). If a book does really, incredibly, amazingly well, what if that paralyzes me and I just can’t write again? (see below). If someone loves (or hates) my book, what if they stalk me?
  1. Anachronism.  This is the term for writers of historical fiction, anyway. For others, it’s the fear of “getting it wrong”. Putting buttons on a Roman tunic or having a 12th century character use the word focus or allowing a Tudor to drink tea. One tiny slip up can feel like the entire world is crashing down upon your head. I’m sure other writers have the same issue—changing a character’s hair color halfway through the book or having someone say, “I know a shortcut from Wandsworth to Heathrow.” (something my husband comments on every single time we watch Love Actually—it totally destroys his suspension of disbelief).
  1. Public speaking. See that leap I made there? From the utterly internal, psychological fears of the writer in the writing process to the external world? That right there is the fear. I can’t tell you how many debut authors I’ve spoken with who are terrified that when their book comes out they will have to get up in front of a group of friends at a launch party and open their mouths to speak. Fear includes public readings and impromptu Q&As. We are not only afraid of being observed by a group of people, we are terrified of saying the wrong thing, offending someone, looking stupid, stuttering and not remembering the title of the book or any of the characters in it. The even bigger fear is that no one will come to hear us speak and we will spend an hour talking to a row of empty chairs and the bookstore maintenance person who sat down on his break and now is too embarrassed to get back up again.
  1. Never writing again. This is my biggest fear. Before Gilt came out, I voiced this (and several other) fears to a writer friend who had published the year before. The fear that if my book didn’t do well, my contract would be cancelled and I’d never write another. She said, “Even if you knew you wouldn’t be published, would you still write?” And my answer was yes. So now I’m afraid that the pain in my wrists will lead to acute neuropathy that will turn into some rare form of disease that no one will be able to diagnose but will render my hands useless. Or I will go blind. Or my brain will be attacked by a flesh-eating virus. And I will never write again. I love it that much, that the worst case scenario for me would be to still be living, but unable to play with words.

We are riddled with fears. Any one of them can be crippling to creativity and several can be crippling psychologically or socially. But we keep doing it. Writing. Querying. Publishing. Public speaking. Because we love it.

This is why I think writers are some of the bravest people I know. We face our fears. And keep going.

What fears have you overcome recently?

What We’re Reading Now

This month’s installment of our regular blog feature!  An interesting mix of history and fiction, it’s definitely inspired me to seek out some of these titles!

Susan Hill Long— I’m reading the delightful, funny, action-packed HOOK’S REVENGE, by Heidi Schulz. Captain Hook’s 13-year-old daughter runs away from finishing school and sets out to avenge her famous father’s death. This book is so much fun!!

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Jessica Spotswood— I’m reading Tiffany Schmidt’s HOLD ME LIKE A BREATH, which comes out next May from Bloomsbury. It’s about the daughter of a crime family that deals in black-market organs. Penny has a blood disorder that results in her bruising very easily, so she’s been raised as a delicate princess – but that all changes when tragedy strikes and she’s forced to fend for herself for the first time. As with all of Tiffany’s books, the characterization is brilliant; Penny’s journey toward independence is so compelling.

J. Anderson Coats— I’m reading DEATH BY TOILET PAPER, a charming middle-grade contemporary by Donna Gephart about a boy trying to save himself and his mother from eviction by winning contests – particularly a toilet-paper jingle contest. I’m also reading CUSTOMS IN COMMON by E.P. Thompson, about traditions and rituals occurring in the English countryside before the Industrial Revolution.

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Cat Winters— I’m reading Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You the Sun–one of the big-buzz books of YA this fall. It’s the story of two twins, a brother and a sister, who have a falling out in their early teens because of circumstances that become clearer as the book progresses. Both twins narrate the novel in alternating sections, and I’m especially enjoying the chapters narrated by Noah, a character who bursts straight out of the pages in a kaleidoscope of colors. The novel also involves ghosts, which was a pleasant surprise for me.

Sharon Biggs Waller— I’m in the throes of researching the Victorian era for my work-in-progreess, and so I’m reading THE INVISIBLE WOMAN by Claire Tomalin.  It’s about Charles Dickens ad his 13-year love affair with an actress named Nelly Ternan.  It’s fascinating to read about how Victorian dalliances could ruin people, and the steps Dickens went to cover his up.  I saw the film based on the book in the spring and really loved it.

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Katherine Longshore–I’m reading Donna Tartt’s THE GOLDFINCH.  It’s fascinating to read a book intended for adults, but so far (I’m about a third of the way through) written from the perspective of a teenager.  It’s beautifully written with startling images and evocative prose.

What are you reading?

Tactile Research

We writers spend a lot of our time in our heads.  Replaying scenes, conducting character interviews, thinking of words and phrases, daydreaming.  And, of course, we spend a lot of time at our desks.  Typing, deleting, bleeding red pen all over manuscripts.  Daydreaming.

I’m here to advocate getting up and trying something different, because part of creating a believable story world is writing settings, events and actions that feel real, even when they happened hundreds of years ago.

Because our characters lived in a different time period, they also, truly, lived in a different culture.  They had different belief systems and different ways of expressing them.  They wore different clothes, ate different foods, engaged in different pastimes, were restrained by different social structures.  How can we, as modern writers, even begin to imagine what all of that was like?

One way is to try it out.

I spent much of my young adult life on stage in various different school and community theaters.  I also worked in the costume shop and studied costume design, so I already had a feel for the construction of period clothing.  I’ve worn a 17th Century bodice and stomacher, laced so tight up the back that I couldn’t bend in the middle or breathe.  But I loved it because of the extra support to the diaphragm that gave me that much more oomph to project.  (And because I finally–finally–had a cleavage.)

I knew that our costumes weren’t entirely accurate–they just had to be made to look that way.  But it wasn’t until I started writing about historical dress that I realized how complicated the actual act of dressing was for women in the 16th Century.  Several separate skirts, underskirts, shifts, bodices.  Even sleeves had to be tied on with laces.  I borrowed muslin mock-up pieces from Kristen Held, my costume designer friend, and kitted myself out in skirts and even a bum roll.  But damn, I wish I had taken pictures!

I didn’t want to go into great detail in any of my books about the act of getting dressed–it’s not a scene that would truly move the story forward, nor would most contemporary teens find pages of fabrics and lacings fascinating reading.  But the process helped me to write packing scenes in GILT, sewing scenes in BRAZEN and a (brief!) undressing in TARNISH.  I could have written these scenes without the in-person practice, but something about taking the time to put the pieces on, feel the pressure of the stomacher, the drape and heft of the skirts, gave me a better appreciation of my characters and how they engaged in their world.

You don’t have to find your friendly local costume designer to get deeply into your character’s tactile world.  You can take any common, every-day action and attempt it yourself.  Write with a quill.  Visit a tapestry-making class.  Take the kids to a blacksmith shop.  Learn how to roll your hair into a chignon.

And go beyond the historical to the events and actions that pervade the daily lives not only of your characters, but your readers, too.  For my current WIP, I’ve started taking a jujitsu class–not because my character does, but because she has to learn something that takes her way beyond her comfort zone and jujitsu does that for me.  My friend Stasia Kehoe talks about how she practices before writing kissing scenes.  I’ve been known to get up from my chair and back myself up against a closed door just to feel what my characters might.

What do you do to help yourself write believable sensory details in your historical fiction?