Monthly Archives: July 2011

HISTORICAL FICTION: It’s as easy as 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7…

You’ve heard the old joke: I was a perfect parent…until I had kids. Before raising children of my own, my idea of parenting was simplistic – a few rules, an occasional band-aid, lots of love and my children would turn out fine. (Feel free to snicker, chortle or faint in amazement at my stupidity, here.) Of course, I eventually found out the truth – that raising children is harder than juggling knives – flaming knives – while on a tightrope, blindfolded, and singing the Star Spangled Banner, backwards, in Chinese.

Funnily enough, I had an equally simplistic view of how to write historical fiction: write a basic story, sprinkle in a few historical facts – maybe a famous person or two – and voila! Instant historical fiction!

Ummmm……no.

I found out the hard way (which seems to be the only way I learn) that writing historical fiction is almost as hard as parenting. It’s layered. And complex. And fascinating. And definitely not for people in a hurry. I’ve decided to share some of what I’ve learned here.  And whether you write or just enjoy reading historical fiction, I hope you will gain a deeper appreciation for the genre.

No Sprinkling Allowed – Contrary to my original viewpoint, I’ve found that a few historical facts does not a historical fiction book make! Historic facts have to be an integral part of the story – there must be a reason for them to be included. Books that use the sprinkling method read like a novel that had a history text leak onto a few of its pages. And, yes, they’re that compelling.

A calendar is your friend – If you chose to use dates in your story, check an online day-of-the-week calendar to make sure you don’t send your main character off to church services on a Thursday instead of a Sunday. Believe me, SOMEONE WILL LOOK IT UP AND WRITE TO YOU/YOUR EDITOR ABOUT YOUR GAFF.

Say WHAT? Have you ever read a book where a character uses a phrase or term that doesn’t fit the time period? Sometimes it’s not even a certain word but just the manner of speaking that doesn’t match the times. To avoid this, many authors read other novels set in the same time period, or, even better, read anything written during that era – newspapers, magazines, diaries, bills of sale, letters etc. Getting an ‘ear’ for the way people communicated is invaluable. The next step is reading it out loud, which, for some reason, makes these errors stand out. Another great source are the many ‘slang’ websites available, such as http://www.alphadictionary.com/slang/ on which you can research all the slang of a certain era or even all slang used for one word throughout the ages.

You’re wearing that? This is a question I often get from my teen daughters, but here I mean it to emphasize the importance of knowing the types, names and operations of clothes in your time period/setting. Though I am not one for describing a character’s outfit, a la Carolyn Keane (“Nancy looked smart in her powder blue, tweed car coat and leather driving gloves…”), I do like working clothing into a character’s actions to keep not only the feel of the time period but the vividness and believability of a scene. I could have a character “look up from putting on her shoes,” or she could “look up halfway through buttoning her shoes and wave the silver buttonhook as she spoke…” Details make all the difference. When your characters go outside, do they don a frock coat? Duster? Traveling jacket? Pea coat? It makes a difference.

Technology and Daily Life – Some things are so much a part of our daily lives that they are almost invisible to us, (think buttons, zippers, mailboxes, window screens) and it’s easy to overlook their presence in historical fiction. But zippers, for example, were not manufactured for public use until 1917 so if you read about a character zipping up his coat in the late 1800s, you know the writer did not do his/her research!

Also, keep in mind that what was common in one part of the country might not have been in another. For instance, in my WWII era novel, my main character (who lived in Seattle) goes to “Lincoln Junior High school” because where I grew up in Chicago, we had junior highs. My editor asked me to check to make sure Seattle had junior highs (and not ‘middle schools’ or something else) which had never occurred to me. Turns out, they did have Junior Highs but I learned a valuable lesson in the meantime.

These small, seemingly innocuous details can make a reader stop reading and maybe even start laughing. And you don’t want to turn your historical fiction into hysterical fiction.

Oh yes! Then there’s the small business of writing a compelling story, with great characters, a fascinating plot line…

But that’s another post all together.

VANISHED GIVEAWAY WINNER!

We have a winner for the VANISHED release giveaway! Congratulations to:

LORRAINE THOMAS

Lorraine, please email us to let us know where your copy should be mailed. Thanks to everyone who stopped by for the interview. We hope you check out VANISHED sometime this summer at your local bookstore or library.

 

COMPANION NOVELS

If you’re looking for similar mystery novels, you might consider the following titles (descriptions and links taken from IndieBound):

 CHASING VERMEER – Blue Balliett. When a book of unexplainable occurrences brings Petra Andalee and Calder Pillay together, strange things start to happen–seemingly unrelated events connect, an eccentric old woman seeks their company, and an invaluable Vermeer painting disappears.

SHAKESPEARE’S SECRET – Elise Broach. Starting sixth grade at a new school is never easy, especially when your name is Hero. Named after a character in a Shakespeare play, Hero isn’t at all interested in this literary connection. But when she’s told by an eccentric neighbor that there might be a million dollar diamond hidden in her new house and that it could reveal something about Shakespeare’s true identity, Hero is determined to live up to her name and uncover the mystery.

RED BLAZER GIRLS: THE VANISHING VIOLIN – Michael D. Beil. When there are mysteries to be solved, the Red Blazer Girls are on the case! The discovery of the Ring of Rocamadour has secured the girls’ reputation as Upper East Side super-sleuths, bringing many sundry job requests (no mystery too small, right?) and some unwanted attention from crooks. This time the girls must follow a trail of cryptic clues, involving everything from logic to literature, to trace a rare violin gone missing. But nothing is as it appears, and just as a solution seems imminent, the girls find themselves scrambling to save the man who was once their prime suspect. Bowstrings and betrayal, crushes and codes abound in this suspenseful companion to the Red Blazer Girls’ 2009 debut. Recent clues indicate that there’ll be more mystery and mayhem to come!

WALLS WITHIN WALLS – Maureen Sherry. After their father, a video-game inventor, strikes it rich, the Smithfork kids find they hate their new life. They move from their cozy Brooklyn neighborhood to a swanky apartment on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue. They have no friends, a nanny who takes the place of their parents, and a school year looming ahead that promises to be miserable. And then, one day, Brid, CJ, and Patrick discover an astonishing secret about their apartment: The original owner, the deceased multimillionaire Mr. Post, long ago turned the apartment itself into a giant puzzle containing a mysterious book and hidden panels—a puzzle that, with some luck, courage, and brainpower, will lead to discovering the Post family fortune. Unraveling the mystery causes them to race through today’s New York City—and to uncover some long-hidden secrets of the past.

Understanding the Middle Grade Reluctant Reader

As an author who has written early chapter books and middle grade novels that appeal to reluctant readers, I’ve naturally been curious about these so-called reluctant readers of middle grade fiction. Additionally, my 11 year-old son is definitely a reluctant reader and, as a parent, I’m always on the lookout for books that appeal to physically active boys with a short attention span.

Who are the reluctant readers? Well, I think I know because of my experiences with my middle son. But it’s a very big question. Do all reluctant readers really find books boring and the bottom-of-the-list activity after, let’s say, Youtube, television and getting their teeth cleaned? Well, maybe and maybe not.

It turns out that there’s no such thing as one agreed upon definition of a reluctant reader. That’s because there’s a whole host of very different reasons that children turn away from reading. That’s right. Not all reluctant readers are the same and it’s important to know the difference in order to select books for this sort of middle grade reader.

In her article “Choosing Not To Reader” Kylene Beers, Professor of Reading at the University of Houston breaks reluctant readers into four distinct groups: Dormant Readers, Uncommitted Readers, Unmotivated Readers and Unskilled Readers and contrasts them with the Avid Reader.  Let’s take a look at these five groups of readers.

The Avid Reader—This is someone like myself. At breakfast if you put a camera on me, you’d see this: spoon midway through the air, forgetting to land into my mouth. Why? Because I’m avidly reading the back of the cereal box. Who knew that lists of ingredients: corn flour, honey and riboflavin could be so fascinating? There is no stopping the Avid Reader. Just point their nose and they’ll bump into some writing.

The Dormant Reader—This is a reader who might enjoy reading but doesn’t have time because they are often over-scheduled or it’s not their highest priority. They might have even heard about a certain book as being cool and they actually do want to read it.

The Uncommitted Reader—This kid feels ambivalent towards reading in general. They might want to like reading, but they can’t commit. Like Annie, they are always thinking about tomorrow.

Unmotivated Reader—This reader never reads for pleasure and finds reading a big, fat ugly chore. Getting their braces tightened is probably more fun.

Unskilled Reader—This sort of reader doesn’t possess the skills to decode text.

So, if reluctant readers can’t be lumped together, what does that mean for those of us who are dedicated to attracting these readers? I would say decide which group your reluctant reader falls into before suggesting books that will attract their attention. For example, the Dormant Reader experiencing time restrictions may do well with a novel that they can easily finish such as The Night Fairy by Laura Amy Schlitz or a middle grade novel with chapters that read almost like a short story. A collection of short stories such as In the Land of the Land Weenies and Other Misadventures by David Lubar can work very well for this sort of reader. The Unmotivated Reader might enjoy a high concept story such as the Danger Boy series by Mark London Williams or a graphic novel series with bold visuals such as the Bone series by Jeff Smith. While an entire book can be dedicated to this topic, I hope looking at the different categories of reluctant readers will be helpful. Bring on your ideas, because I could sure use them!

Hillary Homzie would even eat cottage cheese if she could figure out how to get reluctant readers to pick up more books. To find out more about Hillary, go to hillaryhomzie.com