Thursday, June 4, 2009

Can I Take You Back?

To me one of the hardest things to do in creating historical fiction is to get the reader to identify with the problems of the characters at that time in history. In the last fifteen years, the ability to communicate instantly has increased beyond the wildest dreams of Edison and Bell, or anyone else, for that matter. Our modern environment, air pollution not withstanding, is squeaky clean compared to earlier centuries.

Can today's middle-grader place herself in a time where there are no cell phones, text messaging, i-pods and other forms of electronic communication and entertainment? Can she imagine itchy woolen stockings, vermin-filled rush floors, and no refrigeration? What about the smell of manure, woodsmoke, fresh-mown hay?

And if my heroine's caught up to her ankles in pig muck while her father has gone off in their only conveyance, the horse and buggy, and she smells...oh no, it's not woodsmoke. The cabin is burning! Will my reader think I am just making this up? Will she sweat through the challenge the heroine faces and cheer her on to saving her home alone? Without dialing 911?


  1. Absolutely. All good fiction will draw a reader in. I think what's most important is that a reader can somehow identify with the protaganist - and that doesn't come down to character traits but emotions.

    I once heard Paula Danziger speak at a conference and she said she was writing a book about a character in a wheelchair and her editor said to her "just make sure she has a pimple so the kids can relate". As long as your character has something the reader can identify with, I'm sure they'll stick with her through all the pig muck and fires you throw her way.

  2. Historical fiction is a lot like fantasy, transporting kids to another world. If they can buy into fairylands, underworlds, and graveyards where kids are raised by ghosts, why not a land before Facebook and Twitter? It's like a parallel universe--same as ours only different.

  3. I absolutely agree!

    It has to do with connecting with the character. The pimple-factor. The rest is about good writing. If it's written well, the reader will believe anything, even a time without cell phones.

  4. No matter the genre, it all boils down to character and voice.

    I come from a family of four girls. We were all hooked on Little Women.

  5. Even if they can't identify, those who read a historical novel will learn something.

    I grew up in the tropics, I didn't know a thing about covered wagons or winter storms. But I loved stories that took place in the west, in the Yukon and far away lands.