Thoughts on History and Historical Fiction

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.


  1. Laura Best says:

    Hi Becky. Nice to find another writer interested in history and historical YA fiction. I look forward to reading more of your posts!


  2. I just read this statement by Harold Underdown.

    “Historical fiction that ties into contemporary concerns and issues will always have a place, and I’d say it’s a surprisingly strong part of the market.”

    I think you make an excellent point – that someone somewhere is experiencing certain recurring issues even if we aren’t. We tell these stories for them but apparently for us too. Something in us harkens to these themes.


    • beckylevine says:

      Oh, what a wonderful quote! I needed to hear this. 🙂

      I think we definitely harken to the connection–I’m sure it’s why I’m writing this story. And you, with yours, I know.


  3. Eve Tal says:

    I do like your point about the sameness. I also write historical fiction and have two published YA novels about Jewish immigrants in much the same period you seem to be writing about.
    In my writing I try to focus less on sameness of conditions and more on the sameness of people. By this I don’t mean making my MC sound or act contemporary but rather allowing him/her to act as I sense someone in that period would act and letting my readers make the connection. People lived in different conditions and these conditions caused them to act differently. I want my readers to make the stretch. To identify but at the same time to experience a different world. I wonder if this doesn’t share a lot with fantasy?


    • beckylevine says:

      It is the sameness of the people, I think. Yes, the times and the conditions set up the situations and the problems, but I think limits and wanting to push them are universal. I hope!


  4. I think in writing historical, it’s like writing any other story where that old quote is true, there are no new stories, just new ways of telling them. And that’s what you said, kids today are feeling just as “without a choice” as kids back then.

    What triggers our emotions when looking at events of the past are the same things that trigger our emotions in stories set in contemporary times – how do they relate to US, to our world?


    • beckylevine says:

      Exactly. That’s what triggered my wish to write this story, and I want to pass that on…I THINK it’ll work!


  5. Kelly Fineman says:

    I am with you on this point, Becky. Only I’m essentially sticking with a biography, even though I’m pretty well positive that the final project will be classified as “fiction” because I’ve put words into people’s mouths. Well-researched words that I can back up, but still . . .

    And I have to hope (and believe) that teen readers will latch onto what is the SAME, and to enjoy reading about what is not. Or else the Jane project is completely doomed.


    • beckylevine says:

      Do NOT say the word “doomed.” No way. 🙂 They’re going to LOVE our books!


      • I can’t wait to read them! And I’m sure I’m not alone. What’s not to love about historical fiction (and nonfiction) that makes us see and feel the differences between that time and our own — and also the strong parallels and similarities?


        • beckylevine says:

          I think there’s something about seeing our problems in contrast with those different worlds, maybe, that has extra power.


  6. Lua says:

    Great post Becky! When writing for young adults, I think it is especially important to make that connection for it is that time in their lives when they learn about who they are and find out what they want to do with their lives… And we can learn a lot from history about these struggles.
    I’ve heard the saying ‘there are no new stories’- it’s the story ideas that gets the reader’s attention but how the story’s been told is what makes the difference and that ‘connection’ 🙂


    • beckylevine says:

      I think you’re right–it’s the changes the characters go through, maybe, or the fears and victories they have. Let’s hope!


  7. beckylevine says:

    It is how the story is told–I totally agree with that one. And, especially when I was a teen, that feeling of recognition in a book was huge. Still is, actually. 🙂


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