“Historical” Voice: Are We Letting it Go?

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?

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16 thoughts on ““Historical” Voice: Are We Letting it Go?

  1. This is so interesting, Becky. I haven’t had a chance yet to read the books you mention (though several are on my must-read list), but I’ve noticed a similar trend. And I guess I’m part of it myself as I’ve allowed myself a lot more leeway in CHANTRESS than I did in VIRGINIA BOUND. That said, I hugely admire writers like Kit Sturtevant who manage to make their characters live and breathe while keeping much more strictly to period language.

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    • beckylevine says:

      Amy! How did I not know about VIRGINIA BOUND??!!! It’s now officially on my must-read list.

      I’m glad you’re seeing it, too. I can’t wait (although I guess I have to!) to see how you manage voice in CHANTRESS.

      I haven’t read any of Kit Sturtevant’s books. Can you recommend one for me to start with?

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      • You’re too sweet, Becky! And yes, I’m definitely seeing it, sometimes done beautifully, other times somewhat less so (at least for me).

        I can’t recommend Kit’s books strongly enough — try AT THE SIGN OF THE STAR (MG) and A TRUE AND FAITHFUL NARRATIVE (YA). I also love her older YA, THE BROTHERS STORY.

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        • beckylevine says:

          I know what you mean about sometimes great, sometimes not so much–overall, I just don’t think I miss the “old” way. 🙂

          Thanks for the titles–I’ll check them all out!

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  2. Have you read THE SACRIFICE by Kathleen Benner Duble? When you mentioned writing in first person but in the ‘language’ of the time, this was the book that came to mind for me. I thought she captured the puritan speech of the era.

    But I am sure that your writing is spot on. I have not tried writing historical fiction, though I love reading it. Good luck with your work! Perhaps it will be on bookshelves in the near future for me to enjoy!

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    • beckylevine says:

      Louise, I haven’t read this. I’ll put it on my list. But it does bring up a question I run into a lot, in my own head: How do we KNOW what puritan speech was like? Yes, we have writings, but aren’t they mostly a formal structure, rather than what MIGHT be a casual, every-day dialogue and vocabulary? I’ve read a few journal entries from “my” period, and they read very differently than the essays and novels of the time.

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  3. I have used first person, present tense often, both in historical and contemporary short stories. To me, it is the most intimate tense. I don’t think it matters when the story is set.

    I think a voice presents itself to you (the writer) and that’s the key to how to tell the story. That’s more woo-woo than usual for me, but the voice knows.

    Good reading list–thanks.

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  4. Great post. I used first-person, present on CLEOPATRA’S MOON. It’s definitely a challenge to sound authentically from another time or place, but not have your MC sound like a gum-chomping modern teen. One of the things I tried was grounding some physical detail in the moment to remind the reader of the period–whether it’s the hiss of a torch being lit or the scuffing sound of leather sandals on marble. Also, I wouldn’t worry about it too much right now. Your editor will snuff out any anachronisms that may appear. Knowing that may make it easier to let it go and just write!!

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    • beckylevine says:

      Oh, Vicky, thanks for stopping by. I’ve been wanting to read you book, and that want got lost in the past few months with holidays & stupid viruses. It’s back on my list, high up now for that present tense!

      Yeah, I want to avoid the gum-chomping, but I also want to avoid that I’m-at-a-podium-in-a-room-of-academics style. 🙂 I like that bit with the physical details, not too heavy–just enough FOR a reminder. Thanks!

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  5. Interesting thoughts on process. I agree there’s some trend, though you’re better read than me, toward a lighter sort of voice from history; with M.T. Anderson maybe the biggest exception, at least that comes immediately to mind. I think a few well-chosen words from the period can go a long way to give flavor, without readers feeling bogged down.

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  6. Interesting post and comments, Becky. I started out writing in first person present, but when I switched to having 2 protagonists I backed off–afraid that I wouldn’t be able to make them sound distinct enough. But sometimes I miss the immediacy! I agree with how hard it is to get in touch with your character so today i started doing something different. I decided to keep a quasi-journal from each girl’s POV where I free write (in long hand) just letting them tell me what they are feeling/thinking in the scene and not worrying about the words they use. You know, channeling the character. Does that make sense? Thanks for the recommended books. I liked Flygirl, will look for the rest.

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    • beckylevine says:

      I think it does make sense. I’ve tried things like that, but I seem to need scenes and action and events to write around. Which is part of what was frustrating with struggling with voice–I couldn’t seem to get past it to what my MC wanted to do and say. WAY too much time in her head. I hope the journaling works for you!

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