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?


What’s Your Poison?

That is, assuming that poison is your weapon of choice.  This week, I asked the Corsets, Cutlasses and Candlesticks crew what their favorite historical weapon might be, and received a fascinating assortment of responses.

From Jenn McGowan:

Crossbow! Despite its downsides of not being silent (although more quiet than a gun, certainly) and the lack of a quick-loading mechanism, it’s a great weapon for distance shooting, and is suitable for women and children to wield effectively without heavy training.

Of course, in the halls of Windsor Castle, discretion is king (or queen). To kill most effectively there, you’d more likely choose a sturdy, silent knife–or a well-placed cup of poison.

From Sharon Biggs Waller:

A hatpin! Because of the huge Edwardian hats, hatpins became quite long, over a foot! They were basically skewers with a very sharp end. These were decorative items and meant to secure the hat to the hair (through the chignon or bun) and so they weren’t exactly meant to be used as a weapon. But I can’t imagine any woman worth her salt not reaching for the thing if she were approached by a thief or someone who meant to do her bodily harm. I’ve heard tales of suffragettes using the pins to defend themselves, for instance. They certainly needed it as many men and some police officers became quite violent against them.

Laws requiring a set length and protective corks on the ends were discussed in some cities like New York and Berlin, but mainly to protect passersby and innocent bystanders in crowds who might be scratched or lose an eye because a lady turned her head.


Here is a fabulous illustration teaching a woman how to use a hat pin from a website called The Bartiitsu Society. (www.bartitsu.org). It’s from a 1904 self defense article in the San Francisco Sunday Call newspaper. I love this!

From Jessica Spotswood:

I vote for poison! This article over at Slate suggests that “the weapon was a great equalizer. Murder required administering a poison in repeated or large doses, tasks that women could conveniently perform since they were trusted with the preparation of food and the administration of medicines. As a group, women had plenty of reasons to commit murder, too—lack of economic opportunity, limited property rights, and difficulty in escaping the marriage bond. In his recent book Elements of Murder: A History of Poison, John Emsley describes multiple cases of women who killed to gain courtly power, get rid of husbands, collect insurance, cover up swindling and theft during domestic employment, and receive inheritances.” Fascinating, no?

From Cat Winters:

I second the vote for poison! A character needs to be sneaky and smart to do the job just right. For fun, check out musician Jill Tracy’s diabolically delicious, Victorian-inspired video for her song “The Fine Art of Poisoning.”

From J. Anderson Coats:

My favorite historical weapon is the printing press. Fewer things have brought down kings and lords and governments and the encrusted weight of accepted truth quite like regular people reading and writing and thinking for themselves and sharing ideas with other regular people across time and

And I (Katherine Longshore), unsurprisingly, am fond of character assassination.  In a time and situation where appearance is everything, where others must be made to believe you think like them (or even that you simply like them), a good, believable rumor can work wonders.

What about you?  What’s your poison?

A 17th Century Game of Thrones

“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.”

I know this quote is taken from an entirely different context, but it could easily be applied to England in the 17th Century. It was a century of civil war and treasonous plots, rule by a Protector (who ruled like a king), the Restoration, a mostly bloodless coup in the shape of the Glorious Revolution, the rise of numerous religious factions (including our American Pilgrims) and the attempt at one of the world’s first communes. It was violent, bloodthirsty, socially both forward-thinking and obscenely backward, fashionably extravagant and desperately impoverished.

I keep telling myself that one day, when I have read more, when I understand more, when I get my head around all the ins and outs, I would love to write a novel set during this period.

378px-James_I,_VI_by_John_de_Critz,_c.1606.James VI of Scotland inherited the English throne from Queen Elizabeth in 1603, to become James I of England, Scotland and Ireland. Two years later, Guy Fawkes and his cohorts launched the Gunpowder Plot, which would have killed James had it succeeded. I’d love to write a story around the Plot, but could never improve on Equivocation, a play by Bill Cain. Brilliant.

When James’s son Charles inherited the throne, he set in motion the events that became the English Civil Wars and the Protectorate, making a name of a till-then obscure gentleman named Oliver Cromwell (the great, great grandnephew of Thomas Cromwell, one of Henry VIII’s advisers). Cromwell was a tactician, military leader (some say dictator), and the instigator of near-genocidal measures in Ireland. He was one of several who signed Charles I’s death warrant, making poor Charles the first (and only) English king to be executed (though we all know a few queens who have met the same fate).

I would love—dearly love—to set a book during the insanity that was the English Civil Wars. Brother against brother, Parliament against the Royalists, women taking action for both sides. Beheadings, pitched battles, intrigue—it’s all here. Talk about a game of thrones.

473px-Nell_gwyn_peter_lely_c_1675Then there’s the Restoration, when the Stuarts returned triumphant to the throne in the shape of Charles II, who had no legitimate children, but acknowledged a dozen by his many mistresses. I’ve always thought Nell Gwyn (one of those mistresses) would be a fun character to write about, but then again, so have many others.

Charles was succeeded by his brother, James, who had two daughters before he converted to Catholicism, which set the entire country in an uproar. His eldest daughter, Mary, and her husband—a Dutch Protestant—took control of the throne and gave name to the College of William and Mary in Virginia (amongst other things).


My interest of this latter half of the century has always been with James’s younger daughter, Anne. She didn’t inherit the throne until 1702, but her earlier life is what fascinates me the most. She had an intense friendship with Sarah Jennings, who later became Sarah Churchill (sound familiar? Winston Churchill is one of her descendants), the Duchess of Marlborough. I’d love to find a way to explore their teenage friendship, with the hope of casting light on the arguments and reconciliations that would follow for the next several decades.
I’ve never seen the HBO series Game of Thrones, nor have I read Martin’s books. (I think I would need several weeks with no interruptions or distractions!) I understand that the storylines are vastly different, but I like the idea that the 1600s in England were a game of thrones themselves. Fascinating characters, layers upon layers of subplots, tons of angst and more than a little bad behavior.

I just need to get my research on.


Today’s topic was supposed to be a cheerful little roundup of important dates in women’s history. Seneca Falls, probably, and the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment.

I did start a list, but it was kind of obnoxious. It began with 1519 and the arrival of Cortes in the New World. It included 1807, the year it became illegal to import human cargo into the United States. And let’s not forget 1960, when The Pill was approved for contraceptive use. I could also throw in 1964, 1348, 1517, 1972, 1858, 1440, 1798—and I can justify all of them. And tons more.

But I’m not big on dates. Dates traditionally scare most people away from history. They’re nice because they mark the slow–often agonizingly slow–march of human progress. They let us know we’re on track to invent the future because the present sucks pretty hard. And that’s a reassuring thought.

But then I realized my obnoxious list is obnoxious for a reason.

The idea of “Women’s History Month” doesn’t sit right with me. It gives the misleading impression that women’s history is about women and therefore important to women, but Real History is about men* and therefore important to everyone.

All the dates on my obnoxious little list had real and meaningful impact on women, and that makes these events women’s history. The problem is–and always has been–which narratives get recorded, privileged, and shared (or imposed), and consequently develop that shiny patina of legitimacy.

The problem is–and always has been–who gets to decide what counts as history.

This is the one reason I like Women’s History Month. It’s brought up the discussion. It’s shined a nice bright light on omissions, gaps, and outright erasures. It’s made us question received narratives and demand something deeper, something more reflective of human lived experience.

Let’s keep up the good work, shall we? Let’s keep questioning what history is and what it ought to be. Let’s keep making history better.

*Usually (but not necessarily) white European and/or American men, but that’s a-whole-nother post.