Guest Post by A.B. Westrick, Author of BROTHERHOOD

When History Isn’t the Point
by A.B. Westrick

brotherhoodHello to readers of Corsets, Cutlasses & Candlesticks, and thank you for the invitation to guest-post here! It’s great to write for a site devoted to historical fiction for teen and tween readers.

I’m the author of Brotherhood, set during Reconstruction, but not exactly about Reconstruction. Well, yes, it is, but it’s not. Or let’s put it this way: when I set out to write Brotherhood, I didn’t set out to write historical fiction. The history was one of many elements of the story, and for me, was not the primary one. Not being a big reader of historical fiction, myself, I’ve been surprised (and thrilled) by the number of people who’ve emailed to say they’ve read it and want me to know how much they enjoyed learning about Reconstruction.

Brotherhood is the story of fourteen-year-old Shadrach Weaver, a tailor’s apprentice by day and Ku Klux Klan brother by night. When I set out to write Shad’s story, I wanted to capture the feeling of being stuck in a tough situation. The earliest scenes that I wrote were of Shad pledging allegiance to a gang (the Klan), and fairly soon thereafter, wishing he hadn’t. The history was the setting… the time… the place, not the point of the story, but the backdrop.

When you study the period of Reconstruction, you read the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the constitution. You learn about the end of the Civil War, the political debates going on in Washington, and the rise of the Klan. You memorize facts. Maybe that focus on facts is the reason I always struggled to enjoy history classes, or at least, history the way it was taught to me. It was heady and fact-filled and distant from matters that felt important. For history to come alive for me, I have to connect with the people who lived during the time. I need stories.

In Brotherhood, I focused on the story—on the protagonist’s emotional journey. I wanted readers to cringe when the characters did things they shouldn’t. I hoped readers would shout at them. Engage with them. Turn pages not to learn facts but because they cared about the characters. Along the way, sure, readers would absorb the history. They’d smell it. They’d taste it. The history would come alive. But the compelling reason to read it would be the characters—their desires, their sorrows and the challenges confronting them.

I did a ton of research to get the historical details right in Brotherhood. Then I introduced the details as they became necessary for the protagonist to know or think about them, not as the reader needed to learn them. The distinction is important. When writers try to educate a reader, the story usually suffers. The pace slows. But when writers incorporate details because they matter to a character, the story gets top priority.

My goal in writing Brotherhood was never to educate. Now I hear that teachers are adding Brotherhood to U.S. History reading lists, and if that means they’ll use it to educate, well, great! I hope the book gives students a sense for what it might have felt like to live in the defeated South after the Civil War. But if students run into me somewhere along the way (or send me an email), I hope it will be to tell me that first and foremost, they found the story compelling.

I loved writing this story. I loved learning about the hearts and minds of good Southerners, even those who made bad decisions. I loved glimpsing their regret, and imagining what they’d say if given a chance to apologize for their wrongs. I loved the fact that the genre of historical fiction allowed me to dig so deeply into Shad’s story that a complex era in American history came alive for me. I loved that I fell in love with historical fiction.

A.B.WestrickA. B. (Anne Bryan) Westrick grew up in Pennsylvania and later moved with her husband to Virginia where she spent hours walking Richmond’s brick streets, wondering how her Southern ancestors had fared during and after the Civil War. Her first novel, Brotherhood (Viking 2013), a Junior Library Guild selection, grew from those wonderings. She has been a teacher, paralegal, literacy volunteer, administrator, and coach for teams from Odyssey of the Mind to the Reading Olympics. A graduate of Stanford University and Yale Divinity School, she received an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2011. She and her family live near Richmond, VA.

A.B Westrick’s Website TwitterFacebook Goodreads

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Guest Post: “A World Lit Only by Flame” by Kit Grindstaff

flame-in-the-mist-shadow-225Joining us today is special guest Kit Grindstaff, whose middle-grade historical fantasy, The Flame in the Mist, debuts April 9, 2013.

“A World Lit Only by Flame”
by Kit Grindstaff

I’ve always loved to immerse my imagination in the past, particularly medieval through Tudor times. Being English, I grew up absorbing the evidence of lives gone by: castles, manor houses, half-timbered cottages, churches, museums displaying everything from jewels to pots and pans, letters and books. Ancient bones are buried everywhere—even those of kings, ’neath parking lots.* On the darker side, any tourist can visit places like the Tower of London with its stocks, rack, ax, and other delightful remnants of bygone justice.

01.Uses for rotten food

So when it came to writing The Flame in the Mist, the setting of a parallel version of Olde Englande was a no-brainer. True to history, there’s a castle, thatched cottages, and a general sense of the muddy unwashedness of jerkins, boots and breeches that the huddled masses wore back then. Tapestries adorn the walls of the evil rulers’ castle. People travel in carts and carriages, or on horseback. And casting its glow over everything is their one source of heat and light: fire.

This, to me, is probably the most evocative feature of medieval life. How did flame light affect mood and tempers? Get up on a dark winter’s morning and light a candle or lamp rather than flicking a switch; there’s a stillness, a beauty, that the hard glare of a lightbulb snatches away. The glow of flame hazes a face in a beautiful way, adding warmth and softness, instilling calm and commanding patience—something you’d need for the slower pace of pre-electric life. Imagine, for example, having to wait for water to boil on a fire or stove – bucketsful of it, if you wanted a bath – and the time it would take to light every torch of a dark corridor, every candle of a chandelier.

02.Medieval Bathtub
But while flame imbues the world with an air of tranquil, magical mystery, paradoxically—and wonderfully for the historical author—it also ramps up drama and intrigue. Shadows and light dance off walls; dark corners hide lurking dangers; silhouetted figures wait in ambush. The mysterious becomes a threat, sparking deep, primal fears in our beleaguered characters. There’s no phone for them to call for help, no alarm button, no battery-powered torch, even, to search out and reveal a would-be assailant.

03.Silhouetted figures...

As readers and writers, we can always close the book on our heroes and heroines, abandoning them to their dark ages while we scurry back to the 21st century in a blaze of fluorescence. But what if we couldn’t? What would it really have been like to live such a life, with only one’s wits to depend on, and only a lamp to light one’s way? I’m back to square one, immersing my imagination in The Flame in the Mist’s sequel. But much as I enjoy rambling through Olde Englande, I’m glad I’m not actually there, huddled in the cold and scratching away with my quill in flickering candlelight. That, I’ll leave to my characters.

04.Skull in waiting

* The remains of King Richard III were recently found under a parking lot in Leicester, England.

kit-225Kit Grindstaff is the author of The Flame in the Mist, a medieval-flavored middle grade fantasy about a 13-year-old girl destined to save her beleaguered country from its evil rulers and the sinister mist they create (Delacorte Press, April 9th). You can find out more about Kit and her book on her website, and connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads. (Photo by Laura Pedrick.)