Writing Historical Fiction, or, Notes from a Time Traveler

Welcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we continued our series with an introductory post on research. This week, we’ll share our thoughts on digging into historical research.

For years I was haunted by a dream of a young woman walking through long grass. I couldn’t see her face, but I could hear her breathing hard, because she wore a corset and the hem of her brocade dress was damp and heavy. She carried a letter in her hand as she made her way toward a small building, a kind of folly, to read in private. The Belvedere, VersaillesThis person didn’t fit into the book I was working on at the time. At all! But then last fall, I happened to read about the invention of hot-air balloons and a real-life event in which a Parisian girl saved a balloon pilot from injury. This happened right before the French Revolution, which made me think about Versailles and its gardens and court dresses and then I knew: my protagonist would be the tough city girl who stopped the balloon from crashing—and fell in love with its pilot—and  she would be the girl with the letter, ruining her expensive dress as she strode through the gardens of Versailles.

My current project, Enchantée, is a YA historical fantasy, which means (at least to me) that it’s rooted in historical fact and touched by magic. The magic I get to invent, but the details of life in the 1780s—the settings, historical events, clothes, food, economy, transportation and more—I need to research. And all of that research is in pursuit of one thing: to make my readers feel that they are THERE, that they’ve traveled back in time and space.

But HOW?

When I started, I knew a bit about the eighteenth century from my grad school days, but not much. I’d listened to Antonia Fraser’s biography of Marie Antoinette. I’d visited Paris, a long time ago. I’d seen period films set in the 1780s. For me, this was enough to begin, to rough out a story arc. Then I starting researching. Then I wrote. Then I researched again, this time with more focus because I had a better idea of what I needed to know. And then I wrote more. And so on and so on.

Research, I’ve discovered, is a spiral process: you can’t possibly know what you need to know at the beginning, so inevitably you’ll go back to the source many times. Knowing this has helped me deal with the inevitable overwhelm that comes with trying to get a grasp on a historical moment.

I’ve read more about the period than will fit in my book; in fact, what shows up in the novel is only the tip of the iceberg. Will readers care about the difficulty of producing hydrogen gas for balloons? I highly doubt it! But understanding it added another layer of authenticity to the story and helped me see the challenges my balloonist would face, which in turn sparked changes in the plot. This wasn’t something I’d expected to happen, but I was thrilled when it did.

Yet as K.M. Weiland stresses in her great post on writing historical fiction, even more than getting the facts right (which you need to do), what counts is creating a feeling of authenticity.

But how do you do that? Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

Tiny details can be time machines. Learning that the pomade used in hairstyles in the 1780s reeked after a week gave me a powerful sensory detail. Learning that Versailles crawled with rats and that anyone could wander its halls helped me see the glittering palace with fresh eyes—and devise a way in for my heroine.

Read what interests you. Try biographies, social and political histories. You don’t have to start with the most complex one, either, unless it speaks to you. Know that you’ll probably come back to whatever you read, so be sure to take notes and save links to websites. (I do this by importing links into Scrivener.)

Use historians’ bibliographies to track down Books to Read, September 2015documents from the period, many of which are available online or included in books. These primary sources are what historians use to write their accounts; they include letters and diaries, or things like a first-hand account of a balloon flight in 1783, and they are gold. Not only because they contain the priceless details you want, but they will be written in the language of a person from your period.

Which brings me to voice. Reading eighteenth-century letters as well as novels, histories, and poems helped me shape my protagonist’s voice. I wanted her voice and thoughts to feel contemporary enough for YA readers of today, but also to feel authentic to the time. I’ll admit that for me, balancing these two issues is an ongoing struggle.

If your chosen period isn’t too far in the past, you may find maps, old guidebooks, or travel writing useful. Even present-day guidebooks can contain helpful information, especially if aspects of your setting still exist—as they did for me in Paris and at Versailles.

Indulge in period films, your pen at the ready (next to the popcorn, of course). Surround yourself with photos of the places you’re writing about. Follow pinners on Pinterest who are fascinated by your setting and your time period and pin like crazy. Track down museums that feature objects important to your book—in my case, the Bata shoe museum and the Murtog D. Guiness Collection of Automata.

Seek out passionate experts of your period. They’re not all academics. I follow people on Pinterest who pin eighteenth-century clothes; their pins function as a virtual wardrobe when I’m dressing my characters. If, for example, you want to set your novel during the American Civil War, you might find a re-enactor’s blog useful. I was captivated by the work of a Finnish blogger who sews 18th century dresses. I also stumbled across an online agency that rents weapons to acting companies; one of its owners provided the best description I’d found of how to fight with a French small sword. Many of these experts will welcome questions—they love to share their passion.

The most important thing I’ve learned is both humbling and inspiring. As Newberry winner Karen Hesse, author of Out of the Dust wrote, “Even after researching for a full year, after reading thousands of pages of material, both primary and secondary sources, I could never recreate an historical period with absolute confidence. I needed to make so many leaps of faith and asked the reader to leap with me.”

So yes, you need to research, but time travel happens through imagination—something you already have. Happy writing!

Looking to read some MG and YA historical fiction? Here are a few of my favorites:

Elizabeth Wein, Code Name Verity
Lois Lowry, Number the Stars
Laurie Halse Anderson, Chains
MT Anderson, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing
Elizabeth George Speare, The Witch of Blackbird Pond

You can read interviews with MT Anderson here and Laurie Halse Anderson here; Emma Darwin takes you through the process in her book.

Do you have any tips on writing historical fiction? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

Next week, Halli will be here to talk about setting as a character.

GITA TRELEASE writes YA fantasy. She was born in Sweden and has lived in France, Italy, and the United States. In her former life as a college professor, she taught classes on fairy tales, monsters, and Victorian criminals. Along with her artist husband, teenage son, and Maine Coon, Gita divides her time between a boarding school in Massachusetts and the wild Maine coast. Her current project takes place during the French Revolution: hot-air balloons and gambling, decadence and dark magic. Connect with her on Twitter and Instagram.

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Book Recommendation: Willow Born

Willow Born, by Shanna Miles, is a young adult story filled with magic, witches, angels, and demons. Add in a girl who comes back from the dead, attempts to navigate contemporary society, and a murder mystery, and you have the recipe for a great adventure.

Goodreads

Years ago, witch hunters came to Carolina and devoured the Willows. Sixteen-year-old Collette, a powerful empath, was one of them. A part of a long line of witches that stretches back as far as the slave auctions of Charleston, she was especially gifted.

Decades later, a series of strange kidnappings prompts a member of her secret coven to make a plea for help and Collette is chosen to answer the call. But things have changed. Angels have come out of the divine closet and everyone is on the lookout for the supernatural.

Snatched from the Void, she has to choose between a normal life and following the warrior path of the Willows, a coven she didn’t know she belonged to. Soon, problems pile sky-high as she struggles to keep the boy who could blow her cover at arm’s length and her sanity as family secrets come to light in the midst of a serial killer.

In the end it all comes down to destiny, death and the grey places between good and evil. But then again, when you’re Willow Born death can be just the beginning. (Goodreads)

I was hooked from the beginning when we learned Collette died and came back to life. I wanted to know what happened as much as she did and was thrilled to follow her on the journey. As well as learning about her past, we struggle along with Collette as she navigates high school, friends, and her crush.

Miles’s strengths are clearly in writing and descriptions, such as her use of color and movement to describe the emotions Collette sees in others. For example: “a milky-green anxiety is buzzing around him.” In addition, each character was fully developed with their own strengths, weaknesses, motivations, and unique voices. And she did not disappoint when it came to secondary characters.

If you love stories about witches, magic, and the past and present clashing, this is definitely the one for you!

Shanna Miles lives in Georgia and works as a librarian. She reads and writes young adult fiction and has a passion for paranormal romance. Check out her website for more of her work including flash fiction and short stories.

Willow Born will be available June 1st at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

HALLI GOMEZ teaches martial arts and writes for children and young adults because those voices flow through her brain. She enjoys family, outdoors, reading, and is addicted to superhero movies. You can find her on Twitter.

 

Recommended: SONG OF THE CURRENT by Sarah Tolcser

I requested an advanced reader copy of Song of the Current in exchange for an unbiased review.

An immersive fantasy debut set along the waterways of a magical world. Caroline Oresteia is destined for the river. Her father is a wherryman, as was her grandmother. All Caro needs is for the river god to whisper her name, and her fate is sealed. But at seventeen, Caro may be too late.

So when pirates burn ships and her father is arrested, Caro volunteers to transport mysterious cargo in exchange for his release. Secretly, Caro hopes that by piloting her own wherry, the river god will finally speak her name.

But when the cargo becomes more than Caro expected, she finds herself caught in a web of politics and lies. With much more than her father’s life at stake, Caro must choose between the future she knows, and the one she could have never imagined.
From Netgalley.com

I loved this watery world! The reader slips easily onto Caro’s small boat, feeling the wind in the sails and the current of the water carry them through the story. Caro’s careful listening for the voice of the river god, a voice her father says she will hear in the language of small things, the quiet whispers of animals and plants along the river, and the motion of the water itself, makes the world feel real.

The story moves quickly and the plot has plenty of twists.  Romance and pirates, sword fights and quick escapes. Even a sea monster. It took me some time to get pulled into the characters, but sticking with them pays off. I’d recommend this for action-adventure and fantasy lovers.

Song of the Current will be released on June 6th. You can pre-order or find out more on the sites below.
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
Indiebound
Goodreads

Need more book suggestions? If Song of the Current sounds good to you, you might also like these recent young adult contemporary, mystery and fantasy releases:

Follow Me Back by A.V. Geiger
The Hundred Lies of Lizzie Lovett by Chelsea Sedoti
The Disappearances by Emily Bain Murphy
Caraval by Stephanie Garber

Photo by Pam Vaughan

REBECCA J. ALLEN writes middle grade stories that blend mystery and adventure and young adult science fiction with heroines much braver than she is. She’s on Twitter and her website is here.

EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING Movie vs. Book (no spoilers!)

My 13yo daughter and I arrived at a movie theatre Tuesday night as excited as two people could possibly be about getting a sneak preview of the EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING movie based on Nicola Yoon’s book by the same name. But excitement wasn’t the only thing coursing through my veins as I stood in line to take my seat…

Anyone who knows me well, knows that EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING is one of my all-time favorite books. I mean, it’s got EVERYTHING going for it. It’s a love story (swoon) about a mixed-race relationship, but it also has a dramatic twist. It’s full of feels, yet light on words making it a quick read, perfect for reluctant readers. The illustrations in the book were drawn by Nicola Yoon’s very talented husband, David Yoon, making it a love story mixed into a love story.  So yeah, I LOVE THIS BOOK!

AND I had the pleasure of riding next to Nicola Yoon on an airplane on my way to a writing workshop she was co-teaching about Writing Cross-Culturally back in March. Like me, she’s a scientist and a writer, and the word “worship” comes closest to describing my feelings for her.

BUT here’s the problem.

I normally dislike movies based on books I adore. That something else coursing through my veins was ANXIETY. I didn’t want to hate this movie.😧

 

 

 

 

BUT THE MOVIE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I LOVED it! ❤️😍❤️😍❤️😍❤️😍❤️😍❤️😍❤️

 

 

Unlike many adaptions, the movie is very close to the book. The acting is top-notch. Amandla Stenberg play the lead-role of Maddy, and she is STUNNING to watch. Her smile is like sunshine. She melted me over and over and over… The chemistry between Amandla and her co-star Nick Robinson (Olly) was excellent. The sweet, sweet love story plays out well on the big screen, and the twist is handled well. (There were many gasps in the audience!) Some of David Yoon’s illustrations were included in the movie too, which was definitely like a cherry on top. And the soundtrack is as swoon-worthy as the movie!

My Daughter’s Verdict: “I’m going to go see this with each of my friends individually so I can see it a bunch more times.” She’s talked about this movie nearly every day for months, and she was not disappointed. She loved the movie and book equally. Her favorite thing about the movie: “I really enjoyed seeing Rue (from Hunger Games) playing Maddy’s role.” Her least favorite thing: “I wish they had done the scene when Maddy and Olly first touch in the movie the same way it was in the book.”

My Verdict: I still love the book more, but I love the movie too. The only negative I have to report is the movie is too short. (I wanted MORE!) EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING is a great movie to see with your daughters and a great date movie for teens! (Yes, all romance should be this sweet!)

If you haven’t read the book and you like love stories, you will probably enjoy the movie. (I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that you will want to read the book too).

If you have read the book and loved it, you will be PLEASED!

Select showings begin on May 18th and the full release is May 19th! Go see it! Here’s a handy link to Fandango so you can find it in a theatre near you! Want to know more? Here’s the EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING movie website and Twitter.

What are your favorite movie/TV adaptions of favorite books? Feel free to share in the comments!

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MICHELLE LEONARD is a math and science nerd, a chocolate biscotti baker, and a SCBWI member who writes middle-grade and young adult fiction. Her young adult sci-fi short story IN A WHOLE NEW LIGHT will be published in the BRAVE NEW GIRLS ANTHOLOGY: STORIES OF GIRLS WHO SCIENCE AND SCHEME releasing August 2017. Connect with her on Twitter.

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Book Recommendation: THE TAKEDOWN by Corrie Wang

I received a free advanced reader copy of The Takedown in exchange for an unbiased review.

Kyla Cheng doesn’t expect you to like her. For the record, she doesn’t need you to. On track to be valedictorian, she’s president of her community club, a debate team champ, plus the yummy Mackenzie Rodriguez has firmly attached himself to her hip. She and her three high-powered best friends don’t just own their senior year at their exclusive Park Slope, Brooklyn high school, they practically define the hated species Popular. Kyla’s even managed to make it through high school completely unscathed.

Until someone takes issue with this arrangement.

A week before college applications are due, a video of Kyla “doing it” with her crush-worthy English teacher is uploaded to her school’s website. It instantly goes viral, but here’s the thing: it’s not Kyla in the video. With time running out, Kyla delves into a world of hackers, haters and creepy stalkers in an attempt to do the impossible-take something off the internet-all while dealing with the fallout from her own karmic footprint. Set in near-future Brooklyn, where privacy is a bygone luxury and every perfect profile masks damning secrets, The Takedown is a stylish, propulsive, and provocative whodunit, asking who would you rely on if your tech turned against you?
Excerpt taken from Netgalley.com

As someone who spends too much time blogging and on social media, I was drawn to issues raised in this book: lack of privacy in a connected world and what could go wrong as tech advances make it difficult to tell reality from forgery. The story’s main character, Kyla, is the kind of girl you want to hate, the popular girl that struts down the corridor at the start of school arm in arm with her besties ignoring all around her. But when a forged sex video turns everyone against her, you can’t help but sympathize, and want her to catch her hater.

The feminist story raises several  important issues. Why does no one, even her best friends, believe Kyla when she says the video is a fake? Why is the hottest guy in school not called a slut for his serial romances and that thing he can do with his thumb while the Kyla is universally shunned after the video is posted? What are the consequences of not reading those long, tedious disclosure clauses when we sign up on social media sites? Would we be able to take down a video that showed us in an unflattering light from a social media website?

Teens are warned to be careful in their use of social media every day, but the possible consequences of weak, infrequently changed passwords are portrayed credibly in this story. A must-read for those wary of identity theft and social media attacks, and those who should be. Also a reminder of the golden rule because what goes around, comes around.

The Takedown will be released tomorrow, April 11th. You can order it on the sites below.
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
Indiebound

Need more book suggestions? Here are some other recent young adult contemporary and science fiction releases:
The Hundred Lies of Lizzie Lovett by Chelsea Sedoti
Scythe by Neal Shusterman

Photo by Pam Vaughan

REBECCA J. ALLEN writes middle grade stories that blend mystery and adventure and young adult science fiction with heroines much braver than she is. She’s on Twitter and her website is here.