A First Look at Writing Historical Fiction

Your approach to writing historical fiction can go one of two ways, according to the Writer's Relief article, "How to do Research for Historical Fiction: Balancing Fact and Fiction:" Research then write or create your story, then weave in the facts from your research. For Book Two in my mystery/ghost series for 7-11 year olds, I chose the latter approach. And I'm glad I did. Here's why.

Walking a Fine Line
There is a fine line between "historicizing" fiction and "fictionalizing" history. Or simply put, in finding the "truth" in historical fiction. (The Alan Review: this article is geared to teachers, but the discussion is excellent for historical fiction authors on what's at stake.) Other helpful observations for writers of historical fiction from this article include:
  • As we know, careful research is a must.
  • Weigh any bias that might be present in historical accounts.
  • Historians examine the complexities of history.
  • Novelists create clear characterizations and forward-moving plot lines.
  • "A danger for the novelist lies in achieving [resolution often denied to history] at the expense of excluding significant nuances and complexities."
  • Please consult this excellent article for more thought-provoking information.

Ready for a Supreme Balancing Act?
Decide to write historical fiction and you will be launched into one of the most delicate balancing acts of your life. Solution? Find a happy medium. For years, the story of Book Two had taken up occupancy in my head. Curiosity got the better of me a few years ago when I decided to explore the historic event I wanted to illuminate: what the people were like. The times they lived in. More think-time ensued. Recently the muse came knocking: Enough! It's time: get to work! I began to write the book and now it's half done! Now it's time for a breather from the writing and return to the historical facts the book is based on. That changed everything. I realized the story must change.

Children's Writers have Yet a Tougher Line to Tow
Novelists of children's books beware! In children's books, "Events must be more closely winnowed and sifted; characters more clearly delineated, but without condenscension or over-simplification." (The Alan Review article) And there's more. As is true for all historical fiction authors, children's authors must:
  • Find the optimum balance between fiction and history, such as zeroing in on the details: clothing, food, transportation, etc.
  • Be accurate: accuracy is another balancing act. In writing for children, the historical fiction author must weigh the facts describing life "the way it was" while keeping the information appropriate to the age group.
  • Language must be accurate: the vocabulary of the period must ring true.
What I Learned
Upon the second examination of my research for Book Two, I decided to throw out my original idea. The event in history is just too horrifying for young readers. The historical event took place during the Civil War and involved the burning of many farms and mills in northern Virginia. But ghosts die, right? Not in a fire while trying to rescue the ghost's horse as first imagined: way too graphic. No, I've decided my ghost needs to save her horse from a burning fire and dies later of natural causes. Much better. If illumination of the historical event is possible with elementary students, I plan to first speak with teachers of my age group for their opinion on whether a discussion of the event should be addressed in their classrooms. If a teacher agrees, then I will tell the full story of the event in history and how I came up with the idea for the novel.

My toe-dip into historical fiction has been fruitful. This story takes place in the present day, is pure fiction, is loosely based on a true event, and I think works for this particular series. Ideas for a completely different book set in history are popping up in my brain like mushrooms. This is going to be fun!
Image found on Pinterest, saved by: etc.usf.edu. Source: Ethel Traphagen: The Wiley Technical Series Costume Design and Illustration (New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1918.)

Additional Source: Writing Historical Fiction: Create an Authentic and Compelling Story Set in the Past, by Emma Darwin.

Linda Wilson, a former elementary teacher and ICL graduate, has published over 100 articles for adults and children, and six short stories for children. Recently, she has completed her first book, a mystery/ghost story for children 7-11 years old, and is hard at work on Book Two in the series.  Follow Linda at www.lindawilsonauthor.com.


Karen Cioffi said...

Linda, I love writing historical fiction. And, it's interesting how there are two ways to go about writing it. My MG fantasy Walking Through Walls is set in 16th century China, so I had to do lots of research as to the period. As it wasn't based on any event, I created the story then added historical elements to give it an authentic feel. And, I didn't use contractions for the text to further add some time period flavor.

Linda Barnett-Johnson said...

My favorite books are historical fiction. I like Christian authors like: Tracie Peterson, Lauraine Snelling, Beverly Lewis and lots more. Those are the types of books I read. Thank you for sharing this article.

Linda Wilson said...

It's great to hear your experiences with historical fiction. Karen, I read your book and loved it. I appreciate learning your approach. Linda, thank you for sharing some of your favorite authors and for writing. It's good to hear from you.

Carolyn Howard-Johnson said...

I find that much of my fiction is based on my own experiences. Poetry, too. That means I get to enjoy all of the creativity with little research. That's one of the benefits of being a senior! Historical fiction with little research! Imagine!

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