Monday, March 4, 2013

The Historical Novel

How does a writer make a historical novel sound as if it is of the period, not about the period? I have found several recent historical novels written for children filled with what I call "forced facts," just to remind the reader that it's 1890 or 1960. The Gibson Girl herione mounts a "new fangled" bicycle and rides off, or a young boy turns on a 14 inch Dumont TV to watch Howdy Doody.

Some writers, however, get it just right, as does Carol Wallace in "Leaving Van Gogh," published in 2011.

Certainly appropriate for YA readers, this well-researched story about Van Gogh and  Gachet, the doctor who treated him, plants the reader directly in late 19th century France. Dialogue and sentence structure reflect the formality of French; very few French phrases are used. Scenery and ambience are delicately sketched, in contrast with the vivid descriptions of Van Gogh's paintings and his technique. Most interesting is Dr. Gachet's attempt to penetrate the dark world of the mentally ill at a time when the medical profession was first attempting to define the various psychological behaviors of the afflicted. Here too, description is restrained, but in no way is the horror of the suffering the doctor witnesses diminished.

Writing requires constant learning. For anyone working on a historical novel, I recommend studying this book.


  1. I love your term "forced facts." And they drive me crazy too! I will definitely add "Leaving Van Gogh" to my TBR pile.

  2. I just started researching for a historical novel and I'm up to my eyeballs in facts!

  3. "Forced facts" is definitely a great term! I love when the facts are integrated naturally. I am sure this is super-challenging to do!

  4. I also like your comment about the dialogue and sentence structure reflecting the formality of French without actually being French. Sounds like a good voice technique. I will keep that in mind when I get back to my historical piece. Thanks Linda. I'l have to read "Leaving Van Gogh."