Historical Fiction


Several months ago, I was lucky enough to get an ARC of Kathryn Fitzmaurice’s newest novel, A Diamond in the Desert.

Thanks, Kathryn!

You know those moments, when someone sends you a copy of their book, and you know you want to read it, but you’re thinking…what if? What if you don’t like it? What if it doesn’t grab you? What if it’s not your kind of book?

Believe me, all those bits of worry were a complete waste of time. A Diamond in the Desert is brilliant. I’ve been reading a LOT of historical fiction lately, and while much of the YA genre dispenses with most of the heavy detail and dense historical context that I’m not fond of, Kathryn goes beyond that. The book’s chapters are short, some less than a page, and the voice is light and tight, all at once. She has worked magic–created a world in which the hero is pretty much closing in on himself, with good reason, and pulling back from sharing his thoughts and feelings, and yet…it’s a world in which we fall in love with that character and his story. We know him by his reluctance to let us in. Believe me, this book will challenge all your ideas about what historical fiction is and excite you about what it can be.

And one of you will get challenged right away, because Kathryn’s book launches today, and I’m giving away a copy of A Diamond in the Desert to a commenter on this post. Just leave a comment by Monday, February 20th, and I’ll put your name in the hat. Make sure to leave contact info in the comment!

And now, read on, to see what Kathryn has to say.

BL: What made you decide to write about the Japanese internment camps and the baseball played there?

KF: The idea to write this story came when I visited my oldest son’s middle school National History Day competition. One of his friends, a girl, had built a model of the Zenimura baseball field as it sat outside the camp. I couldn’t stop looking at it. I asked her if I could interview her grandfather, who played outfield for the team. After that interview, I wanted to know everything I could about Gila River, so I contacted two other players and interviewed them, also. I thought I would write a short article about the big game, where they beat the Arizona state champions, because, honestly, the idea of a novel was overwhelming. There was so much I didn’t know, and I wasn’t Japanese. It took a long time before I came up with the courage to start writing the novel. Those months of researching everything and talking with Mr. Furukawa, who was the pitcher for the team, helped tremendously.

Mr. Tetsuo Furukawa, at age 13, after baseball practice in Gila River, Arizona

BL: Please describe your research process. Do you research and write at the same time? Is your research complete before you get to the revision stage?

KF: After I completed the interviews with the three gentlemen who were on the team, I visited the Laguna Niguel National Archives Building and asked them to order the Gila River newspaper so I could read it. Because I am not Japanese, I felt like I really needed to read all three and half years of the newspaper before writing even one word of the story. It was very intimidating to write about a culture I was not a part of. I was constantly calling Mr. Furukawa to ask him things. I would read about something in the newspaper, an event, (for example, the young girl almost drowning in the dirt canal), and call him to see if he remembered it and what it was like from his point of view. When I got through the newspapers on microfiche, I then bought many books about baseball in the 1940’s, and several about the war. I made a timeline for all three things, one for baseball, one for the war, and one for everything that had happened in Gila River that I wanted to write about. I put the most important events on sticky notes and taped them on the wall of my home office, so that the timeline stretched over four walls. I also taped up a map of the camp and photos of the main character. This took many months, but I felt like it was necessary in order to make me understand, as best as an outsider could, the time period. The only thing I really understood was the setting because I grew up outside of Phoenix. I knew the desert, I knew the way the sun looked when it set, the Gila monsters and snakes, the roadrunners. I knew how it felt to live in the climate. When I started writing the story, with each draft, I would send it to Mr. Furukawa and he would read it and make suggestions. When I was finished writing, I put everything in a folder, in order, so I could go back to it whenever I needed to see it.

BL: All of your chapters are short, many of them less than a page. I love the tightness of this structure, the feeling of scenes that are almost snapshots. Did you know right away you wanted to use this structure, or was it something you developed as you wrote and revised?

KF: This probably happened for two reasons. First, the events I was writing about were all on sticky notes, and so when I was writing, each thing felt, to me, as if it was done, as if there was nothing else to say about it. Also, the first draft was written in poems, with haiku chapter titles, but then when Jennifer Rofe (my agent) and I looked more closely at the entire manuscript, we decided this would not be what young boys would want to read, a book of poems about baseball, so I rewrote the whole manuscript into regular verse.

BL: Why did this structure feel right to you, for Tetsu’s story?

KF: I think, because I can only write from my own point of view, even after interviewing people and reading about what happened, I was not actually there, and so, writing in short snippets made it feel easier for me to understand.

BL: The history of the 1940s causes what happens to Tetsu, but you use few actual instances of outside-the-camp history in the book, and you don’t spend a lot of words on those you include. I’m thinking, for example, of Franklin Roosevelt’s death. For me, the sparseness of these “big” historical moments really brought home the camp’s isolation. How did you pick which historic events you wanted to let inside Tetsu’s immediate story?

KF: For the baseball events, I picked the ones that I thought would have mattered to a young boy who loved baseball, the World Series games, when a new baseball was invented that would travel farther, when Joe DiMaggio was drafted, things like that. For the war, I chose the things that were somehow related to the camp, Eleanor Roosevelt’s visit to the camp, what they did at the camp to celebrate the president’s birthday, things that affected them specifically. I also added a few major war events which were in the Gila River newspaper. I figured if the editors there wrote about them, they were important to the Japanese people at the camp, so I tried to include them in the story.

BL: Can you tell us a little bit about new projects you’re working on now?

KF: I just completed a contemporary fiction MG novel about a girl who tries to change her destiny. She’s named after a poet and is expected to become one, though she doesn’t like poetry at all. Molly O’Neill at HarperCollins is editing it. Our current title is Tied Up in Destiny, due out winter 2013, though that may change. I’ve started another contemporary fiction MG novel, only five pages in at the moment, which is changing everyday as I figure it out!

Thank you very much for interviewing me, Becky. I know you’re working on a YA historical fiction novel also!

I’m writing my historical YA in first person, present tense. I made a conscious choice to do this, way back when, because I am not fond of the dense, slow voice and pacing that can  be one of the markers of historical fiction. I hoped present tense might let me get to more immediacy in the writing. At the time, I hadn’t read any other YA historical written in present tense, so I told myself I was just experimenting, seeing how it all fell onto the page. But, really, I wanted to make it permanent, decisive.

And I was thrilled when, right after that, I read several YA historicals that used present tense. And worked.

Small dance of joy.

Still, it’s been a struggle. I find myself writing drafts where the language comes out stilted and formal, acres away from any way of thinking that a 16-year-old today would recognize and, I believe, pretty far away from how a 16-year-old in 1911 would think or speak. The language takes over, and the characters and action lose out–they’re given short-change by my attention. When I reread my scenes, it feels like stepping into a sticky mire, a hedge of brambles, and I’m trying to push  my way through and find the story.

So, as I work through the Maass workbook, I’m backing off from the language. I’m trying to get closer to Caro’s thinking, her way of viewing the world, and I’m letting myself write it in modern language. I’m even allowing slang to slip in, because I need to get in touch with her anger, her contempt, her determination and push–and I can’t quite get there when I’m stepping out of the sentence to find out how someone in 1912 would think “kick in the ass.” I know I’m going to have to change this, at least some of it, but I’m letting myself put that off for later. Until I know Caro.

I admit, I’m carrying a bit of hope through this process, hope that maybe I won’t have to change as much as I fear. Has anyone else noticed the lightning of prose, the shortening of sentences, the lessening of time-specific vocabulary in recent YA historicals? I just finished Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s Jefferson’s Sons, and while the events and circumstances and details left no doubt that the story took place in the past, I was never bogged down in language or pacing. Similarly, Sherri Smith’s Flygirl, Kristin O’Donnell Tubb’s Selling Hope, Kathryn Fitsmaurice’s A Diamond in the Desert, and Ruta Sepetys’ Between Shades of Gray all beautifully capture and evoke the power of a specific time in the past, without having their characters speak in a long-winded, formal structure, without making the reader lose sight of the story behind the language. And I know there are others that aren’t popping into my mind right at the moment.

Yes, I’m setting my standards high. :)

Is it just me and wishful thinking? Or, if you read historical YA, are you seeing the change, too? And what do you think of it?

I think I’ve told the story here of how I started writing historical fiction. I was reading a nonfiction book about the 1913 Suffrage March in Washington, D.C. I read a scene about the march and knew, instantly, that I wanted to write a hero who was part of that scene. Of course, that turned out, eventually, to be the other book I still have to write, but still…that was my entry into a genre I never thought I’d be part of.

I was, honestly, never a big fan of history. Maybe it started with the high-school history class where we were given copies of a page in the text, on which certain words had been whited-out, and our job was to read the page, then fill in the blanks. Yes, really. Anyway, when I decided to write this book, I had to face reading a lot of stuff I thought I wouldn’t really enjoy. What I found out, though, is that (duh!) there are good writers of history* and not-so-good writers of history, just like in any genre. (Side note: For one of the best examples I know of one of these good writers, go pick up a copy of Amy Butler Greenfield’s A Perfect Red. You will not be able to put it down.)

And I learned something else. For me, history is people. Not wars, not political parties, not socio-economic statistics. People. Individuals. Yes, sure, I’ll read about the impact those people had on their times, and the impact their times had on those people. But if you don’t catch me with how the person actually ticked, how they thought and how they behaved…well, you won’t catch me.

Which, hey!, fits pretty well into writing historical fiction. Because, again, fiction for me is about people. Aka characters. How they act, why they act, and how they interact with/off each other.

This weekend, I wrote a scene, in which the people of history and the people of my story finally came together. There is really one reason why the book I thought I was working on has been put in second place on the writing shelf. That reason is Jane Addams.

When I started reading about Chicago in the early 1900s, I was so blown away by how Addams was everywhere, doing everything, and by the person everybody and their great-nephew’s-cousin’s-sister-in-law described her to be, that I was lost. Or maybe found. But I haven’t been sure whether I would really write Jane Addams into my book. It’s the story of a teenage girl, the daughter of an immigrant mother who lives her live in a too-narrow world of fear. The girl finds Hull-House, finds the world that the settlement residents move in every day, and has to break out of her mother’s shell to become part of the settlement life.

Anyhoo…Like I was saying, I knew that Hull-House would play a big part in the story. Huge. But by 1910, Jane Addams wasn’t always around Hull-House. She traveled, she spoke, she had a finger in just about every pie inside and outside the United States, let alone Chicago. And I didn’t want to force her in, just to give her the cameo.

But Saturday, she stopped by. Just like she did so many times in real life, dropping into a class that was being taught for a few immigrant girls, in one of the many Hull-House rooms that were always full and busy. She talked to the girls, she stayed to help, and then she was drawn away by another resident with another demand on her time. All with grace, warmth, and ease.

I think I got close. I think I may have painted a TRUE picture of who this woman was, who I see her to have been. A woman who always had time for her neighbors, for the people who were the reason she built a Settlement House, the reason she settled onto Halsted Street in Chicago, in 1897. A woman whom people not only respected and admired, but truly loved.

And I think, after all, she may very well stay in this story.

I have a thing about flashbacks. Actually, I have a thing about not liking them. Usually. In most cases. I blogged a bit here about making sure they have a function, that they aren’t simply a fallback safety-net when we can’t figure out a better way to weave stuff in. As a reader, though, I don’t typically like being pulled that far out of the story to get background details, whether they’re in a flashback or an info dump.

Except, apparently, when Jacqueline Davies does it.

This is going to be an impossible review to write without at least one spoiler, but I’ll do my best not to give away anything you wouldn’t realize in the first few chapters. And I won’t tell you how anything turns out. Promise

When the story starts, Essie is knee-deep in her daily routine of turning out enough work in her job at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. (Yes, that Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, but Lost is anything but yet another story about the fire.) She has to train a new girl who acts as though she’s never touched a sewing machine before, all while getting enough of her own sewing done that she isn’t fired. And then she has to avoid her best friend who wants to walk home together, so she can spend the evening shopping for silk for her little sister’s new hat.

Except…and here’s the SPOILER. Essie’s little sister, Zelda, is dead.

Essie is in major denial. She moves forward during the day as though everything is fine at home, as though it’s her friend Freyda who’s talking crazy, every time she tries to talk to Essie about Zelda. In the evenings, she shops for the silk for hours, coming home after Zelda “is” already asleep and leaving in the mornings before she can find Zelda, who “is” in the middle of her favorite hiding game. Davies writes these moments beautifully and subtly, letting the reader grasp in their own time (and, yes, much more slowly than I’ve let you) what’s going on. Which makes it hurt all the more.

Maybe Davies could have written the book without the flashbacks. Maybe she could have woven in Essie & Zelda’s past in bits and pieces mixed into in-the-moment scenes. Maybe she could have built the tension across the book to the crisis and kept us with her the whole time. She’s a fantastic writer, so those maybes are actually, I’d say, probablys.

But…the flashbacks add things that even Davies would have been hard put to manage without them. We get to know Zelda. Oh, how we get to know Zelda. The child jumps off the page at us as immediately and energetically as she jumps around the family’s tenement apartment. She is a wonder, a ball of fire whom Essie adores so much that we think Mama may actually be right when she accuses Essie of spoiling her too much. She is bright and beautiful, she can sing and dance, she charms everyone who meets her, except perhaps the mothers whose children Zelda tends to roll over like a tiny steamroller. And Essie loves her. Essie loves her more than anything, which we also get to see–with crystal clarity. The flashbacks let us see the depth of Essie’s denial and worry, really worry, about if she’s going to come out of that denial and what will happen if she does.

The flashbacks give a reason, a substantial, specific reason–for why Essie lets go of her old friendship with Freyda (or tries to) and why she needs to build her new friendship with Harriet, the new girl that first day at the factory. Freyda knows about Zelda; Harriet does not. Harriet becomes the only person to whom Essie can speak of Zelda in the present tense; Harriet’s apartment is the only place Essie can relax into the belief that her sister is still with her. Again, I am blown away by the way Davies manages the dialogue between Essie & Harriet when they’re talking about Zelda. Amazing. Yes, Essie’s friendship with Harriet is more than a crutch, much more, but the roots of their relationship are firmly grounded in Essie’s need. Which, again, we wouldn’t understand nearly as well without the flashbacks.

There is so much more to this story than I have touched on. The grimness of work in the factories–of which the Triangle is only the most famous. The risks for children every day–especially for those growing up poor in the tenements. The layers and layers of different kinds of love, different ways of showing that love, and the cruelty and pain tangled between those who withhold it and those who wish for it. Yes, the famous fire is here, but I love that Davies makes sure to use the event as a single, if devastating, plot point, not as the emotional crux of the story.

Because, for me at least, that emotional crux is Essie and Zelda, their dynamic, their love. And I truly believe that, without the flashbacks, that crux would have had much, much, less power.

I’m thinking, not even too optimistically, that I’m going to be ready to start the second draft of my WIP somewhere on or about 1/1/11. Sounds auspicious, right? I feel like I’ve got a handle on most of the characters–on what they want and, a bit, about how that’s going to weave into, conflict with my hero’s path. The mother has become MUCH meaner and nastier (which will make Terri Thayer VERY happy), and she’s on the way to really messing with my MC’s life. I want to spend a bit more time on the father (who obviously has to be more than just a sweet, gentle do-nothing of a guy) and then get some notes down on the scene ideas.

For this draft, though, I want to weave more of the history. Yes, some details will wait for later revisions, but–for the first draft–I felt like I was writing in a desert (which Chicago is NOT) and, by the end, that was driving me nuts. In not a good way. So I want to be able to feel myself and Caro truly in the place and time as I write forward. Which means I’ll also be doing a LOT of reading in the next few weeks. And, as I’ve said before, that reading is not just about facts; it’s about story.

I thought I’d show you one bit of the path I took yesterday, as I read books about model electric trains, specifically those made & sold by Lionel in the early 1900s. Here are the basic steps.

1. A couple of weeks ago, I revisited Caro’s younger brother, Abe, who had done pretty much nothing in the first draft, other than whine and demand an expensive violin. I decided I didn’t want to go with the violin, partly because I wasn’t looking forward to researching music (yes, I think you do need to have some interest in the stuff you’re going to have to read about). Also, though, the violin thread was putting a lot of focus on Abe & money, and there’s already another money thread going on and, really, that was just too much money. So I played and rambled around the Internet and my mind and realized–Toy Trains. I want this kid to be younger, to be pretty happy at home the way it is (of course that will change) and to be the kind of puttering little boy who likes to lay out the track and run the trains.

2. I did some research and found out that, yes, Virginia, there were model electric trains on the market by 1910 (close to my story’s year).

3. I checked my library and found plenty of books about model trains, specifically some cool-looking ones about the Lionel company. I put a couple of those books on hold.

4. The books came and I started reading about the company and the trains, for the relevant years.

5. I found out that 1) Electric toy trains were BIG. 2) Electric toy trains were EXPENSIVE. 3) Although Lionel mostly always did trains, they also came out with a Racing Automobile set in 1912.

6. I pretty much had these reactions: 1) Cool! 2) Hmm…maybe even Blech. 3) Aha!

7. I went back to my story with this information and made the following adjustments. 1) Abe does not have an electric train (the family is not THAT comfortably off), but he SO wants one. 2) He’s going to have some other train toys–probably clockwork ones that have been around, marketwise, for a while and (I think) were not as expensive. (Obviously, more research needed, and-yes-another book is on hold at the library). 3) Abe’s older brother Daniel has bought (unknown to the rest of the family) the Racing Automobile set for Abe’s birthday present. Which complicates things wonderfully, because Daniel bought the set BEFORE getting in a bad car accident himself and with money he really shouldn’t have, as far as his parents are concerned (also tied to cars and racing and gambling–ooh!). And how bad is Abe going to feel, do you think, playing with a toy race car when his brother is barely walking and may never get to drive an automobile again? Hmm? Hmm? :)

8. Made a note to myself to figure out the small plot problem this has created, which is that I have been planning that MC has a new camera that she received for HER birthday and, really, two birthdays as the cause in cause-and-effect is too many.

Threads and layers and twists. THIS is how research ties into story.

Last week, Joyce Moyer Hostetter at The Three R’s—Reading, ‘Riting and Research posted about the 2011 YA Historical Fiction Challenge. Sab Horande at YA Bliss is hosting the challenge, and you can read all about it here and sign up to participate.

Basically, the challenge is to read 5, 10, or 15 historical fiction novels (depending on the level of challenge you pick), and they  have to be either middle-grade or young-adult. Then you blog about them–with a few basic thoughts or a full review–and each post enters you for all sorts of fun giveaways. The books do not have to be published in 2011, and Sab has thoughtfully included a few book lists to help us get started.

I’m going in at Level 1, which means I will read and blog about 5 books. Honestly, I’m going to use her list to totally stock my to-read pile, but I don’t want to commit to more than 5 review posts. I like to talk about books that really excite me as a story or that show me a wonderful example of some piece of writing craft, so I want to save the review slots for books I really want to share with you. Plus, I’m going to try and focus my search on books with protagonists who are at least 16 years old, at the older end of the YA spectrum. Don’t worry. If I fall in love more than 5 times, you’ll most likely hear about it–if not here, on Facebook & Twitter.

I’m a big believer in reading what you’re writing, so I’m excited and grateful to Sab for setting this up. I can’t wait to see the reviews that everyone else in the challenge comes up with. 2011 is going to be a great year for reading!

Thought I’d just give you a (not-too-scary) glimpse into my favorite research technique these days. And not just favorite because it involves a comfy couch and books. Remember, this is the research I’m doing to help figure out my characters, what they want (which means figuring out what is possible, probable, and/or dream-worthy in 1911), and what they might usefully do to further my plot. This is not the research for filling in details about how many hospital beds were in a ward or what kind of fruit you could buy at a market. That stuff I’ll find out while I’m writing. This is instead the research I really feel like I have to do before I dig deeply into the 2nd draft.

To proceed:

Step 1. Pick a topic, based either on character-development, setting for a scene, or a virtual dart toss, because I could pick any one of a dozen paths to follow.

Step 2. Start to browse the web for articles and books.

Step 3. Realize I probably HAVE some of that information already in my research stacks.

Step 4. Gather a small pile of books & take them away from the computer. Take myself away from the computer, too.

Step 5. Curl up on the couch with the books and my Blackberry. Yes, my Blackberry. This is important. The cat is also welcome.

Step 6. Start reading.

Step 7. Gather data and details, while waiting for burst of inspiration for the story.

Step 8. Repeat Steps 6 & 7. Perhaps ad nauseam.

Step 9. Get an idea.

Step 10. Gasp with excitement.

Step 11. Email it to myself via my Blackberry. (Told you it was important. This system actually keeps me doing research, without losing my place in the book, while the ideas simmer away and grow, hence creating more emails to my self via my…okay, you got it. So it is not just laziness.)

Step 12. When the BIG lightbulb in the sky blazes with THE idea and enough emails have been sent, I drop the books (being careful to not, of course, drop my Blackberry with them) and run to the computer. Or skip. Or dance. Depending on how bright that lightbulb really is.

(Artistic interpretation by my son.)

Step 13. Open Scrivener and start putting all those emails into character and scene notes.

Step 14. Rinse and repeat.

Step 15. Get closer and closer to shoving all character and plot and research into a paper bag and just start writing.

So many times, as I sit down with a history book these days, one I’m reading for WIP research, I get this mixed feeling of…

  • Wow, things were really different back then.
  • Wow, has anything changed?

Okay, maybe this is because I’m reading a lot about things like women’s roles in society, working women getting less money than men, poverty and crime, anti-immigrant sentiment.

See what I mean?

Sure, I could get depressed. Sure, I could get frustrated, and impatient, and–oh, yeah–just a bit angry. And, sometimes, I do.

But…I think this sameness, actually, is what’s at the heart of good historical fiction and is the extra element in a well-written story that really hooks a reader. Especially, maybe, a teen reader. (Yes, that’s the sound of fingers crossing that you hear.)

It’s pretty hard, I think, to have our emotions triggered by things that are truly in the past, completely over and done. I think we do, at least, respond in a milder degree about injustices or tragedies that are finished, taken care of, “fixed.” When we read about something, though, that was wrong in 1913 and is still pretty much happening in 2010, then we get pissed. The reaction that says, “This is horrible,” is doubled, maybe even tripled, by the recognition of its continuity, its sameness nearly 100 years later.

One of the things I hope to have resonate for my MC is some of that feeling–that the world her mother lived in when she first came to America still exists–the tenement slums, the work conditions, the fear–even if her mother has escaped from it. I want my readers to see this sameness. I also want, though, for them to see the continuity between my MC’s problems and choices, and their own. The narrow world she grows up in–the choices she must make about building her own life and separating herself from those who would stop her from doing that–I want this to “click” with the teens I’m writing for.

Because when I think about having no control of your life, about being pushed in a direction that is not right for you, about constantly hearing you “shouldn’t” and  you “can’t”–I don’t think these things were specific only to the teens of the early 20th century. I think they’ve pretty much stuck around for our kids today, obviously to varying degrees of force and wrongness. And I think the choices teens faced in the past, the times when the pushing went too far, are very, very close to the choices they face today.

So, I guess, for me, this is what young-adult historical is about. The goal…somehow…is to layer in the history, tell the specific story, and make that connection.

Here’s what I’ve decided it’s like to write historical fiction.

You go along, sort of researching and writing together, at slightly more than a snail’s pace–or so it feels. So you put the researching aside for a while, because you want to just GO for that flow-of-words feeling, even when you know the flow is a bit muddy and cluttered. Or really muddy and cluttered. So you take a stab at a few things, concentrate on the story elements of your scenes, versus the true-to-history stuff, and you write. And it feels great–you’re getting to know your characters a bit more, finding a few gems among  the garbage, and you’re watching the pages pile up in the old binder.

And then, all of a sudden, you get to a choice. A choice the hero needs to make to take the story in the next direction. And you realize you just do not know enough about what was possible and probably in 1913 Chicago’s public schools for a smart, active lower-middle-class Jewish teenage girl your world. And you feel like if you keep writing, it’s going to be a lot like this:

 

or this:

So you backpedal really fast and save all those scenes you have written on the flash drive, and you hit the books. And you find everything on your shelves that might have the tiniest tidbit of information about 1913 Chicago’s public schools for a smart, active lower-middle-class Jewish teenage girl your world, and you browse the internet for articles and more books, and you probably take a trip down to the big library with access to lots of databases, and you read. And it’s a lot like the writing–much of it muddy and unclear but, hopefully, with a few gems.

And you make a decision (for now) about what your hero could do and what she (for now) will do, and there you are again, back to the writing. So now, it’s more like this:

Although probably not with that much grace and style.

 If you need me for the next few days, you know when to find me.

I just thought of two historical novels I need to go back and reread, and they’re both by Rita Mae Brown. The first is High Hearts–a Civil War Novel, and the second is Dolley–novel about Dolley Madison. I read both these books while I was living in Charlottesville, Virginia, and both–especially High Hearts–blew me away. This was decades before I ever thought I’d be writing historical fiction myself.

And now here I am, thinking about how I want to play with/work with this genre and guessing that if I want to see some of the best possible example of how to do it right, I should open these books again. (Oh, darn. Such a chore!)

Because guess what I remember about those books? The stories.

Not the history.

Yes, of course, I read about battles in High Hearts, and I “saw” the White House burn in Dolley. Real people walked through all the pages of Dolley, and there is one scene from High Hearts that I feel pretty sure was based on a true event, because I’m not sure anyone, even Brown, could imagine that horror. (No spoilers, go read the books!)
 
Overall, though, I’m pretty sure (it’s been a couple of decades since I turned those pages) Brown placed the history of the time into the background of the books. The wars and the government officials and the soldiers and the ladies are part of the setting. And, in a way, they all weave together to create a single character you could just call Era. Or The Times. Of course those elements interact with the primary characters, of course they affect the plot. But they are not the story. The story is what Brown’s main characters–one fiction and one fictionalized–do.
 
I’m reminding myself of this as I plot. I’m focusing on my hero again, looking at her actions and her problems. I’m not shedding all the history she moves through, but I’m trying to think of her as an individual. Yes, some of her conflict is because of the times in which she lives, but it’s important that I could pick her up from those times and put her down in some other, and she’d still be who she is, down in her bones.
 
Luckily, I still have High Hearts on the shelf. Time to get another copy of Dolley. And time for you guys, whether or not you’re writing historical fiction, to check out both novels for yourself!

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