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.