About half way through writing The Water Castle, my upcoming book from Walker-Bloomsbury, I realized that the present-day narrative needed to be balanced by and bounced off a historical narrative. Set in 1908 while Robert Peary and Matthew Henson searched for the North Pole, it told the story of the inhabitants of the castle a century before the main narrative. I loved researching the time period. For me history classes had been primarily about major events and figures, but now I was finding out how people lived. I was discovering things like what kind of clothes people wore, how they got from place to place, and where they shopped. My husband, a friend, and I took a trip to the Thomas Edison National Historical Park so that I could see what a chemistry lab of the time looked like. This type of research energized me.
As I completed a draft of a current WIP I once again found myself looking to the past. As I had written the draft, I found myself forcing in references to modern technology such as computers and cell phones. When I read back over it, those references felt jarring and out of place. This is a historical novel I finally admitted. But, since I had not gone into it with that intent, I needed to go back and decide what time period it fell into. I knew that it was somewhere between my mother’s childhood (1950s) and mine (1980s), and I settled on the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Then I read Countdown by Deborah Wiles.
And I despaired. No book ever again in the future of writing for children could be written about that time period. Her multigenre approach and interweaving of details into the next — not to mention the story itself — was just perfect. The interplay of narrative and history was devastating. How could I even think of trying to write a book aimed at the same age group and set in the same time?
I eventually got over myself and then thought more critically about the right time period for the book. Now I’m leaning toward a slightly earlier era, but still in the ball park. Rather than intimidate me, now Wiles’ book serves as an inspiration of historical fiction done right.
Here’s a list of some other historical fiction titles that I find to be of merit.
When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead: It’s easy to forget that this book his historical fiction since it has a timeless quality. Plus there’s the, well, I don’t want to give anything away. The touches of history are both subtle and natural, such as the device that her mother is preparing to be on “The $20,000 Pyramid”. The history never overwhelms the story, which I think is a danger of writing historical fiction. You do so much research that you want to get every. last. detail. into the story. Stead nicely avoids falling into that trap.
The Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt: Hopefully with its new cover this one will be getting even more love from students. Set in 1967, it’s about a boy who spends his Wednesday afternoons studying Shakespeare with his teacher while all the other students are at Catechism or Hebrew School. Sounds like a laugh riot, right? Well, it really, really is. Holling has a witty way of looking at things that keeps the story engaging even as historical events — the peace movement and the Vietnam War — barge into his life. Cameos by historical figures are a lot of fun in this one.
Haunting Violet by Alyxandra Harvey: This is one that my agent sent me and I found myself quite drawn in. Set in the Regency era, it is the story of Violet, whose mother is a fake medium. Violet, to her horror, discovers that she herself actually has the gift. What I like about this is that if you were to ask me to assign it a genre that genre would be paranormal, not historical fiction which shows that history can work anywhere. Also, while there have been a number of books set in this time period, I haven’t seen one that delves into the Spiritualist movement, something I personally find very interesting.