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The Challenges of Writing Historical Fiction
Photo provided by Nick Glass, 2009
Historical fiction is a complex genre.
It can strive to be as absolutely accurate as the writer can make it [as I attempted in Crispin: The Cross of Lead (Hyperion, 2002)] or create a general sense of time and place [as in my Midnight Magic (Scholastic, 1999)]. The latter is rather like a musical comedy. There is nothing inherently wrong with this approach, and, in fact, there are some real advantages. The primary benefit is that an author can deal with very modern ideas, simply placing them where they are the most fun.
The more accurate form of historical fiction brings many challenges. Foremost is language: how did people speak during that era? Consider Crispin. At the time that story takes place (England, 1377) the common language was Middle English. For a taste of this, read Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales—as he wrote it.
What to do? Before writing Crispin I read the poetry of the period, and tried to learn its diction, and told my story in that fashion. That made the text feel different without making it unreadable.
The other problem is the use of language. For example, a 14th-century character cannot steel himself to meet a challenge. Why? Steel was not yet invented. By the same token I recently looked up the words “old man” (as in “my father”) and was surprised to discover that the term was in use starting from the mid-19th century. Having the complete Oxford Dictionary of the English Language online is a great help.
Another problem lies in coming to understand and place your story in the physical world of the day. Here are some of the questions I’ve had to answer in the course of my writing: When were pockets invented? When did people first use buttons? What did a loaf of bread cost in the 14th century? What was that bread made of? How much would you be paid if you worked as a cabin boy during the Civil War? How do you shift gears in a Model T Ford? If you purchased a copy of the The New York Times on the street in New York City in the year 1889, how much would you pay for it? From whom would you buy it?
All these questions have answers, of course, and the accurate writer needs to get to them. It can be an enormously time-consuming effort, not always a very fruitful one, and sometimes you get it wrong. The upside is that it’s very gratifying to know that you got it right. These details shape a story and give it body.
Then comes the hard part: truly accurate historical fiction requires characters who think the same way the people of that period did. How does a character think about life and death? What is the role of religion in their lives? Ways of thinking and of understanding the way the world works have changed enormously over the ages.
But of course, the most difficult part of historical fiction writing is creating a compelling story with engaging characters. Research is necessary if you’re writing true historical fiction, but in the end, it’s the fiction, not excessive fact that you want to retain. It’s a delicate balance and a particular challenge when writing for young people because you can never assume your readers know anything about the period.
If it’s so hard, why do I do it?
History fascinates me, and if I do it well, it seems to fascinate my readers too.
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Jean Koch says
Thanks for the interesting article. I am a big fan of Avi and his books!!
June Parrilli says
I loved the article and I too love historical fiction and AVI’s works. It really makes one realize how much research goes into these great books. I am passing this article along to our writing coach.
Gerald Hosbach says
Top-notch! Keep up the great work!