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

Book Lists


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.



  1. Clara Gillow Clark  •  Jul 13, 2012 @8:40 am

    Thanks for the feature, Jennifer! Write on!

  2. Joyce  •  Jul 13, 2012 @8:54 am

    Great interview. I would love to win “Hattie on Her Way” because I recently read “Hill Hawk Haddie” and want to know what happens next.

    Honestly, I didn’t like “Moon Over Manifest.” It may have won the Newbery, but it wasn’t “Bud, Not Buddy” or “When You Reach Me.” For a great historical read, check out the Crystal Kite winner, “Between Shades of Gray” by Ruta Sepetys. Now that’s good historical fiction!


  3. Jen Swanson  •  Jul 13, 2012 @8:56 am

    Thanks for the tip, Joyce. I will be sure to add “Between Shades of Gray” to my TBR list!

  4. Diane Davis  •  Jul 13, 2012 @8:57 am

    My favorite is “Out of the Dust”. Each scene is a single poem, and each so concise and powerful that it draws you through the story at break neck speed.

    Love to see you here Clara. Hope life is treating you well. Write on!

  5. Donna Volkenannt  •  Jul 13, 2012 @9:06 am

    Hi Jennifer and Clara,

    Thanks for a great interview–questions and answers.

    This line from Clara is such an eye-opener: “Authenticity comes from knowing yourself and understanding who you are not.”

    I also didn’t realize that anything that occurred before 1970 is considered historical fiction. That’t entire childhood and teen years. Good to know.

    Oh, I have read and enjoyed both The Secrets of Greymoor and Dead End in Norvelt.

    Donna Volkenannt

  6. Donna Volkenannt  •  Jul 13, 2012 @9:08 am

    Correction to my previous comment. It should read: That’s my entire childhood and teen years.

  7. Laura  •  Jul 13, 2012 @10:26 am

    Loved this interview and the insight that she gives to writing Historical Fiction. It is one of my favorite genres. Thank you for some other books to add to this list!

  8. Joyce Moyer Hostetter  •  Jul 13, 2012 @11:06 am

    Historical Fiction is almost the only thing I read. Unless you count all the straight history I read to research for my HF. Can’t get enough of history!

    I also think traveling to the story setting is essential. I want to feel oriented, experience the seasons, and really get the lay of the land I am writing about.

    A few favorite historicals for me include: The Book Thief, The Night of the Burning, The Berlin Boxing Club, Annexed, and Then. Sorry – got started and couldn’t stop.

    Enjoyed Hill Hawk Hattie too! Would love to win Hattie on Her Way.

  9. Sarah  •  Jul 13, 2012 @11:38 am

    Great interview!

    I’m tacking this on my desk:

    Authenticity comes from knowing yourself and understanding who you are not.


  10. Bobby Waybright  •  Jul 13, 2012 @12:58 pm

    Jennifer and Clara thank you so much for the interview. Clara brings alive a time that, compared to today’s world, was a simplistic yet difficult life. However, her stories illustrate that wherever we are on our historical journey, we all are confronted with similar daily interruptions, decision making, and growing up.

    Having read the Hattie books, Clara, will we hear more about her story?

    Thanks for sharing.

  11. Christie Wright Wild  •  Jul 13, 2012 @1:48 pm

    Yea, Clara! Thanks for the contest. Great interview.

  12. Jen Swanson  •  Jul 13, 2012 @2:36 pm

    Thanks for the comments everyone. Yes, I agree, Clara’s statement about authenticity is really awesome! I have also tacked that one over my computer. Words to live by for sure!

  13. Jill of The O.W.L.  •  Jul 13, 2012 @3:30 pm

    I loved May B! Not only is it in verse but very historical!!

  14. Clara Gillow Clark  •  Jul 13, 2012 @4:33 pm

    Thank you everyone for stopping by to make my Friday the 13th extra lucky! Life is good, right? :o)

    Jen, thanks again for making it happen!

  15. Cindy  •  Jul 13, 2012 @5:51 pm

    Interesting interview… I absolutely loved Jacqueline Kelly’s The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate (set in 1899.)

  16. Stacey Hicklin  •  Jul 13, 2012 @5:55 pm

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

  17. Liz  •  Jul 13, 2012 @6:11 pm

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

  18. Linda Andersen  •  Jul 13, 2012 @6:16 pm

    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!

  19. Llehn  •  Jul 13, 2012 @9:00 pm

    I love the Little House on the Prarie books!

  20. Jennifer Rumberger  •  Jul 13, 2012 @10:19 pm

    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.

  21. Elaine Ayre  •  Jul 14, 2012 @1:49 am

    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.

  22. Jen Swanson  •  Jul 14, 2012 @7:51 am

    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!!

    Jennifer Rumberger Reply:

    @Jen Swanson, The small world of writers! :)

  23. PragmaticMom  •  Jul 14, 2012 @7:54 am

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

  24. Marilyn  •  Jul 14, 2012 @9:53 am

    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.

  25. Cindy  •  Jul 14, 2012 @11:18 am

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

  26. Kathy Cannon Wiechman  •  Jul 14, 2012 @12:39 pm

    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.

  27. Jewell Parker Rhodes  •  Jul 14, 2012 @1:51 pm

    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.

  28. Cathy Mealey  •  Jul 14, 2012 @2:20 pm

    “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!

  29. Beth MacKinney  •  Jul 14, 2012 @6:00 pm

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

  30. Margo Dill  •  Jul 14, 2012 @10:59 pm

    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!

  31. Clara Gillow Clark  •  Jul 15, 2012 @6:34 am

    Well, it’s been wonderful! Your thoughtfulness is appreciated.

  32. Kristin Gray  •  Jul 15, 2012 @8:52 am

    Loved the Little House books as a kid, and have enjoyed rereading some with my children. If only I’d had Hattie back then, she would have been a sure favorite! Clara writes such engaging historical fiction. Cannot sing her praises enough.

    As for other titles, I’m looking fwd to reading MAY B by Caroline Rose and WITH A NAME LIKE LOVE by Tess Hilmo. J