Get Excited About Historical Fiction – An interview with Author Clara Gillow Clark & a Giveaway

 

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.


2011 Newberry Award Winner Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool Historical Fiction

 

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.

Jennifer Swanson on FacebookJennifer Swanson on Twitter
Jennifer Swanson
Science ROCKS! And so do Jennifer Swanson's books. She is the award-winning author of over 35 nonfiction books for kids. Jennifer Swanson’s love of science began when she started a science club in her garage at the age of 7. While no longer working from the garage, you can find Jennifer at her favorite place to explore the world around her. www.JenniferSwansonBooks.com
33 Comments
  1. I completely agree that visiting the historical place you are writing about helps you write your novel, even though you are writing about a place in the past. I did this with the novel that I am about to have coming out at the end of the summer. It takes place in Vicksburg during the Civil War, and there was actually a lot of places to visit that helped me write my book!

  2. : ) History doesn’t make me cringe, and I’m thankful for great writers who make it come alive.

  3. “When Jessie Came Across the Sea” by Amy Hest is one of my favorites!
    I love historical fiction picture books – my complete weakness.

    I’m very interested in the Hattie series and learning more about historical fiction for middle grade. Thanks for bringing them to my attention!

  4. What a wonderful interview! I was especially interested in the question about “time-travel books” and whether or not they could be counted as historical fiction. I tend to say yes, as well, as long as the major conflict is between the character and his or her environment.

    Also, I think it’s beautiful how Clark says that fact and history are the building blocks of her books. It seems like the story grows from place, more often than not, in historical fiction, and it does take “a novelist’s eye for detail” (as Clark put it) to properly harness that place.

  5. Wonderful interview! There would never be enough space to list my favorite HF. I love so many, & the previous comments reminded me of more I’ve read & loved. Avi’s The Adventures (?) of Charlotte Doyle & Joyce’s Blue are right up there. For historical time travel, my favorite was Pam Conrad’s Stone Words.
    Haven’t read Secrets of Greymoor, but would love to.

  6. Another that I loved… Sarah DeFord Williams’ Palace Beautiful set during the flu epidemic of 1918.

  7. I love historical fiction. What is better than getting to read a great story and learning something at the same time? I loved Wasatch Summer by Anola Pickett. She has another one coming out next July called Whisper Island.

  8. Loved Moon Over Manifest. Thanks so much! Also loved Turtle in Paradise and

  9. Thanks again for all the great comments. Clara, it was my pleasure. And to Jennifer and Elaine, Clara was my ICL instructor, too! She rocks!!

  10. I can reiterate what Jennifer R. says except Clara was my instructor for the first course and now I’ve almost completed the advanced course.
    All of Clara’s books I have read so far have been an inspiration to me.
    It’s the Secrets of Greymoor I have not read yet.
    The Book Thief is another book that I found to be very powerful.

  11. Loved the interview! Clara is special for me, as she is my ICL writing instructor. Her writing comments are invaluable! I loved Hill Hawk Hattie, but haven’t read the sequels yet. The two others are on my to-read list. One book I read recently that was a great historical read was Turtle In Paradise.

  12. I love the Little House on the Prarie books!

  13. Joyce Hostetter, pictured earlier, wrote Blue. If you haven’t read it, I suggest you do. It’s about a girl who gets polio during the epidemic and she has to be hospitalized away from her family. I tuned out the world when I read it. It’s super!

  14. I love historical fiction (although I have a hard time believing my childhood is historical :p).

  15. I loved historical fiction when I was s middlegrade reader. Recently I enjoyed Elephant Run, The Red Umbrella, and InsidE Out and Back Again.