“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?