History. Does that word make you smile or make you cringe? If you are like me, you perk up and sit a little straighter in your chair. History is cool. History is fun. History is… exciting?
Absolutely! Who doesn’t want to learn more about how the west was won or how the fire started that burnt down the first White House? And if you can experience it through the eyes of great middle grade characters, that’s even better.
That’s where historical fiction books come in. They show us what it was like to live in the past wrapped inside the excitement and drama of a fictional story.
Do you like historical fiction books? Do you comb through the shelves of your local library looking for them? If you’re like me, you do.
I gobble up historical fiction books with pleasure. If it talks about the past, to me, it’s exciting. The good news is that historical fiction books seem to be on the rise. They are winning awards – big ones like the Newberry- and are getting a lot of attention.
But what exactly IS a historical fiction book?
I asked my good friend and awesome author, Clara Gillow Clark to shed some light on the exciting world of historical fiction.
Clara’s best known series is named for her main character, Hattie, an adventurous and scrappy 11-year-old girl growing up in the 1800s in Delaware and New York. Clara’s been writing historical fiction books for middle grade authors for over 15 years. In addition to being an author, she also teaches college level writing in her home state of Pennsylvania. She’s a great person to ask about historical fiction.
So, Clara, let’s start with an easy one. How is historical fiction different from other genres?
The obvious answer is that it takes place in the past. Otherwise, like any genre, it must have a layered plot and character development and good writing.
How important is it to do research on your topic?
Absolutely essential, and that’s true even though you might be writing historical fiction about your own childhood if it occurred before 1970. Of course that year will change as time moves on. Who can remember exactly a sequence of events in history? Maybe a savant, but certainly not me or anyone I know. Even for the present day, it’s important to have accurate details.
Do you try to visit the area that you are writing about?
Always! There is something powerful about seeing the actual setting of where you’re writing about. You can look at photos or movies with the same setting, but visiting gives you a holistic experience from a sensory standpoint. Certainly, the tactile experience alone is invaluable. You may not be able to strip away all of the present, but you can come close. Imagination along with additional research of the time and place will fill in the rest of the picture. If you can’t see, smell, taste, touch and hear it, you can’t write it.
How do you make your characters authentic?
Authenticity comes from knowing yourself and understanding who you are not. You can’t fake it. It also means that you must connect emotionally to your character, and mine your wounds in order to write with honesty about your character’s struggles.
How do you weave the fact in among the fiction while still keeping it accurate?
Actually, I think it’s the other way around. The research gives you the building blocks to create the story. At least that’s been my experience. Many details of research will deepen the story, while others that you love won’t do the job. That’s what it means to have a novelist’s eye for detail, and those details must be accurate.
What do you think about books that use time travel or some other fantastical device as a way to access the past? Would those be called historical fiction books?
Good question, but a tough one. Off the cuff, I would say that the marketing department of a publisher could give a better answer. Time travel does use some elements of fantasy, but for historical time travel, the setting is an actual place and the plot will more than likely involve an actual event in history, one that readers may have knowledge of, and the story will give some new (but fictionalized) perspective. On one level, the emotional story will be about the time traveler and his or her personal need. Nevertheless, I would call it historical fiction.
What advice would you give writers who are thinking about tackling historical fiction?
Read and study what’s being written in the genre. Study the craft of writing. If you are passionate about a time and place in history or a specific event, figure out why and how you connect emotionally. If you can’t, move on.
Who do you find is your main audience for the books? Teachers? Librarians? Or the kids themselves?
All three, I hope! A well-written children’s book has no borders for a reading audience. It’s really a matter of taste.
2012 Newberry Award Winner Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos
So what do you think? Are you ready to crack open a book and dive into the past? Maybe share some adventures with Hattie from Hattie on Her Way, or Jack Gantos from Dead End in Norvelt, or maybe Abilene Tucker in Moon over Manifest.
There are many other historical fiction books out there, just waiting to be read. Simply search our website for new releases or go to your local bookstore or library and look them up. Whichever historical fiction book you choose, be ready to be transported to a different time and place. Open your senses to soak up the life experiences of the past – and most importantly – feel the excitement as history comes alive.
Do you have a favorite historical fiction book? Tell us about it below. And be entered to win an autographed copy of one of Clara’s books. You can choose from Hill Hawk Hattie, Hattie on her Way, or (my very favorite) The Secrets of Greymoor.
Jennifer Swanson is a self-professed science geek who also loves a great historical fiction book. Does that make her a double geek? In any case, you can learn more about her at her website www.JenniferSwansonBooks.com.