Wednesday, August 21st, 2019

Did That Really Happen? Writing Historical Fiction

Historical fiction is a challenging medium in the children’s book world, but one that can really pay off – especially if it deals with an aspect of history that is curriculum-connected, such as the middle ages, the silk road or the civil war.  Some of the more successful authors who have made names for themselves in this genre are Avi, Katherine Paterson, Laurie Halse Anderson, Linda Sue Park, and Karen Kushman.

My mother’s and my own historical fiction book, Dragon: Hound of Honor, was inspired by an old French legend in which a dog avenges his master’s death by identifying the killer, then besting him in a man-versus-dog battle ordered by the King.  We discovered it as a citation in a Reader’s Encylopedia, but could find only a few other references – an essay by Edmund DeLangley, and another by James Baldwin, published in William Bennett’s The Moral Compass, as well as one very archaic French play. The central characters were given – a knight, his best friend, an enemy cousin, the dog and the king – but we could find no motive for the murder, nor many other historical details.  This left us free to delve into the “fiction.”

We created a love interest – which provided the motive – as well as a young page through whose eyes the story is told, which made the story more accessible for young readers. We invented dialogue, scenes and events, and described scenery, clothing, meals and daily routines, working to render them as truthfully as possible. Given that neither of us is a medieval scholar, we had to bury ourselves in research at every turn. Sometimes we could only write one sentence before getting stuck on a detail or description that would send us back to our history books. We also consulted with two very fine academic specialists, who regularly read installments of the manuscript, then corrected our errors and gave us feedback.

In the end, we learned as much if not more in the writing process as our readers do in the reading of the book – and we had a ball doing it, which is another very good argument for tackling the genre.  Later, while visiting Vienna, my mother went to The Kunsthistorisches Museum and was particularly proud to be able to identify the period and use of every piece of armor on display.

What period, historical figure or event would you most like to write – or read – about?


6 Responses to “Did That Really Happen? Writing Historical Fiction”
  1. Joanna says:

    Thank you for this Emma, and I am hoping that maybe we can go into more detail about this genre in the Childrens Book Hub one day? 🙂 This is a genre that I have enjoyed as both adult and child. Around 8 years ago I decided that I would spend part of my summer doing a two week Italian course down in Ostia Antica (the old Roman port). Inevitably I used all my free time to visit as many historical sites in the area as I could. I was a librarian at the time and I was leafing through an ALA journal after the summer when I came across Caroline Lawrence’s “The Thieves of Ostia”. I ordered it, devoured it, picturing with ease the four children in the remains I had so recently visited. I was then very happy to see how it, and the couple of others she had published at that time, became really popular amongst many kids at school. I proceeded to invite her to our school during a Book Week and she proved a very entertaining and effective educator for this time period. The kids loved her. I possibly have a preference for the Medieval period and enjoyed “Dragon, Hound of Honor” enormously (maybe my favourite of your books). Knowing France very well I had no difficulty immersing msyelf into the scene of a medieval château near Orléans or 14th century Paris….. it is packed with great historical detail and I enjoyed using the glossary of Medieval terms, so I think children would too. The careful addition of French vocabulary, often period specific, really adds something for me. It is a genre I would like to have a go at one day.

  2. Patricia says:

    Thank you Emma for touching on historical fiction. Like Joamma, “Dragon, Hound of Honor,” was among my favorites and I found it appeals to both girls/boys. Glad you shared about your research and all that was involved with Dragon, because many research questions ran through my mind as I read your story. I hope at some point you address historical fiction in the Hub. While at the library earlier this week , I found myself remembering some of my favorite books as a child and tried to locate them. Many were about successful women like Madame Curie, Queen Victoria, and Abigal Adams. I also was fascinated with any story I could find about the underground railroad, and stories about the every day lives of Native Americans. Wish they had the “American Dolls” series when I was a child — Addie and Samantha were my daughter’s favorites. Believe my favorite periods would be the 18th and 19th century and related to the founding fathers and to that same period in English history. Not sure it is a medium I’d choose to pursue, even though I enjoy it as an adult. Never say never.

    Joanna enjoyed your entry and how you used your own curiosity about a hisitorical site, discovered a story about the subject, and subsequently shared it with students. Inviting the author to school was a wonderful idea.

  3. Suzie says:

    I’d love to both read and write about mid-to-late 19th Century America. Perhaps this is because I am focusing on this time period with family history research. I enjoy reading stories of people who emigrated from Ireland and other countries to come to America for a new life. The obstacles they overcame are amazing and humbling. The world was so much different back then . . . it’s hard to imagine at times!

  4. Beth says:

    Once again, one of your blog posts has proved to be timely inspiration for me, Emma.

    I often think of “historical fiction” as being something from long ago — as with Dragon, Hound of Honor (a book I love, by the way). I realized this morning that events I have always heard about, which happened in my father’s lifetime, can also fit into the category of “historical”.

    A friend recently suggested to me that I write something about my Dad’s time in the Air Force during World War II. She used to share some of his story with the preschoolers she taught, and they were fascinated by it (they then made Remembrance Day crafts to send to him, which he loved). Today, as I sat in my “napping chair” hoping in vain for an actual nap to begin to restore me after all the emotion and creative work leading up to my father’s memorial service yesterday, I began weaving a story. It will not be quite the “What did you do in the war, Daddy?” story that my friend had envisioned, but perhaps will be a way of showing a glimpse of that historical period in a way that children can relate to.

    Although I’ll continue to work on the adult novel I’m writing (in memory of someone I admired deeply), I am also going to go back to all you taught me in Just Write for Kids, and write this historical picture book — in memory of my Dad.

  5. Joanna says:

    The Knights Templar is a medieval topic I would quite like to tackle for Middle Graders. Another era I find fascinating, especially as an anthropology major, is pre-history. Jean Auel’s Earth Children Series brought this period to life for me in a way no lecture ever did, even though there is obviously a lot of poetic license in interpreting the data, but I do like her take on the Neanderthals.

  6. Diane says:

    I also am interested in this genre. Growing up on the Little House books, social history is a real interest of mine. Ms. Wilder wrote of the little things one can take for granted today. Talking about how she did laundry in icy weather, details of their meals, getting up early to crack the ice in the water can and get the heat going for the day facinates me. Just imagine what children 50 years from now would think is interesting about things we do today. I already have to explain to youngsters what a record player is! They are shocked to hear we only had one phone, and that it was connected to our house with wires, when I was growing up in the 50s.

    Plus as I have said before: I live to research.

    Thanks for the information, Emma.

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