Looking Back – Writing About History

The past is alive with thousands of stories waiting to be told. True stories about historic events and historical fiction are popular with readers of all ages.
“I think they’re both about communicating historical truth,” says Joyce Moyer Hostetter, author of the middle grade historical novels Blue, Healing Water, and Comfort, “but to write about history is to retell or maybe interpret some historical event. Writing historical fiction (which is what I do) is the art of weaving historical truth into a fictional tale. My novels typically center around some noteworthy but relatively unknown event or situation. They usually even have a few real life characters but for the most part, my characters are fictional. I use the facts I find in my research to tell a story that could have taken place. To me, good historical fiction is truth at an emotional level. But it’s also accurate in its probability.”
“Writing about history requires a great deal of research and attention to historical accuracy,” says Christine Schwerin, Associate Editor for Michigan History Magazine. “We rely on old newspaper articles, documents tucked away in various archives, dissertations on microfilm and of course reputable web sites. In writing historical fiction, writers use these references as well, however, with fiction, the writer can take the liberty to develop their characters thoughts, feelings and actions in whatever way works with the story. There is no guessing about what the person thought, or why they did the things they did. The author can make them up. In writing non-fictional history, it is difficult to determine what a person thought unless that person left a diary or we can otherwise find direct quotes. We have to piece together the information that we find to understand that person’s identity.”
“The articles in both magazines that I edit,” says Rosalie F. Baker, Editor, Calliope and Dig magazines, Cobblestone Publishing Company, “are basically non-fiction. We do sometimes include fiction, and, of course, all myth-related articles are fiction. While we qualify that these latter are fiction, we try, as much as possible, to have them follow the historical record, being as historically accurate in their text as possible. For me, historical fiction varies greatly, according to the author and market. I prefer those that are based on the historical and archaeological record, with fiction characters and dialogue inserted to complement that historical and archaeological record.”
Bestselling historical novelist Elizabeth Chadwick adds, “When writing history, you have to study primary sources and stick to the physical facts. You can interpret the facts in certain ways, but your argument has to empirical and rank speculation is out. A novelist on the other hand, has that leeway to speculate. They can explore the emotional lives of the characters and the ‘what ifs’ that writing pure history doesn’t allow. For example, the great William Marshal may or may not have had an affair with the wife of his young lord. There is evidence both for and against such a happening. The historian has to state the facts and may voice an opinion based on those facts. A novelist can take the incident, decide what they believe happened and then craft an imagined scene to portray it to the reader, complete with emotional input. The key words are ‘ historical fiction’ i.e. it’s a story set in the past, and the imagination plays its part to a far greater extent. Both historians and historical fiction writers need insight i think, and both need to do their research. Just because it’s fiction, doesn’t mean that the author should skimp on the background research because even if it doesn’t go into the novel, it will underpin its foundations. The more research a historical novelist does behind the scenes, the better the eventual book written. “
But it’s not enough to just report a true event or plop a modern day character in the old west. “I look for the seamless balance between research and story,” says Carolyn Yoder, Editor, Calkins Creek Books and Senior Editor, History, Highlights. “You’re going to find your story in those rich details in the research. Don’t be afraid. I think a lot of people don’t trust their research. You’ve gone on this journey. Use the research to fuel your story.”
“After accuracy,” says Baker, “I look at the approach an author takes. It needs to have an interesting angle and text that makes you want to keep reading and to learn more by going beyond what you are reading.”
Shana Drehs, Senior Editor at Sourcebooks, Inc. wants to see, “A strong voice and characters I can identify with even through the years. I love reading about some character who only figures in the background in history books, but who gets to shine in a novel. I think it can be hard to write a new story about figures that readers already think that they know. For example, we’ve heard the story of Henry VIII’s life several times. Writers have to contend with the real facts that readers will bring to the table, facts from academic scholarship and works of history. In addition, popular historic time periods often attract crowds of writers, which makes finding a unique untold angle a challenge.”
Writing about historic events brings a many challenges for authors. Megan Records, Assistant Editor at Kensington Publishing Corp. explains,
“One: the details. If you don’t get them right, readers will make sure you know about it. However, at some point you have to stop yourself from obsessing about every tiny thing. Some details are more important than others. For example: once, we got a letter from a fan about a contemporary romance. It informed us that on page such-and-such, the heroine was said to be driving a particular vehicle in the color green. However, apparently that particular make and model of car did not come in green that year.
A detail like this is so minute that most readers would not be aware of the mistake. It is usually not worth the author’s time to go over such a detail. My general rule is this: does the detail affect the believability of the character or situation? Is the detail one that a good portion of readers are familiar with? Are you trying to introduce your readers to a new facet of the time period? Accuracy is very important, but so is sanity.
Two: finding the story. Being successful in the historical market means you have to find a story that hasn’t been told. Sometimes this means finding a new point of view for an old story, sometimes this means finding a completely new story altogether. It’s not easy to spot the compelling stories that are hiding between the dry facts of research.
Three: balancing all that lovely detail with an actual plot. You could be the best researcher in the world, but if all that detail slows down the plot too much, the book will be dead in the water.”
Authors wanting to write for true history magazines often struggle to find enough legitimate facts to piece together the story they want to tell. Schwerin says, “In many cases, the events we cover happened anywhere from a few decades ago to several hundred years ago. Frequently we must rely on information that others left behind as opposed to interviewing someone who witnessed the event. It is difficult to use descriptive language because so many sources do not note what the weather was like, how the air smelled or any of those seemingly insignificant details that give the reader a sense of atmosphere.”
David A. Simmons, Editor of Timeline, agrees. “Finding the right written sources or where the appropriate archives are located is always a challenge. Presentism is a major problem. Too many writers assume that because something is a problem now, it always was.”
Today’s find-it-fast way of thinking sends many writers racing to the Internet for answers but is that really the best place to go when doing historical research?
“The Internet is wonderful for finding where you can do research,” says Elaine Alphin, author of the forthcoming book, An Unspeakable Crime – YA history NF. “For example, when I was working on An Unspeakable Crime, about the 1913 Leo Frank case, I found out which libraries and public records collections had what letters, papers or newspaper archival material, so I could plan my research trip to Atlanta. The Internet may also contain information that isn’t available elsewhere: the identities of the men who lynched Leo Frank were originally posted on an Internet site, before appearing in print in books. But the Internet can also be unreliable because, unlike a published book, Internet articles are not vetted or fact-checked. I found numerous Internet sites that completely misrepresented the facts of the Leo Frank case by only quoting excerpts from archival material, slanted to support the author’s opinion. But I also found very useful sites that posted scanned newspaper articles and scanned documents. For me, the rule is that if it’s scanned archival material, or if it’s contact information for actual archives, I’ll use Internet information and be grateful for it. If it’s anything else, I take it with more than a few grains of salt.”
Schwerin agrees. “The Internet can be a tremendous resource if used wisely. There is much more to researching topics online than simply typing keywords into a search engine and looking at web pages. Dig deeper. Many different libraries and archives around the world are digitizing their collections and putting them online, or at least putting their finding aids online. There are literally thousands of journals online, with articles written by experts in their field. These journals are searchable through libraries and universities and many are available online as full text documents.“
“I think the Internet is a fabulous thing,” says Drehs. “It gives authors a breadth of knowledge that would be hard to get elsewhere. But I think that there’s no substitute for primary research — visiting the areas you’re writing about, reviewing documents, and getting an overall sense of place.”
Yoder, an author of history as well as an editor adds, “It’s really great for locating sources people places and repositories. I Google a particular subject and find the funky museums, special collections and experts. Then I can go to those websites because I know they are respected sources.”
Baker cautions authors to, “be very careful when they use the Internet. It is a great place to begin research and to find the creditable sources for a historical piece, but I think once the creditable sources have been found, they should be heavily consulted and reliance on non-creditable Internet analysis should be at an absolute minimal. It is good to know all that is out there about the topic on which you are working, but for historical non-fiction and fiction, sources that are creditable and accurate lead to the best follow-through.”
Readers of history are passionate about their history books. Authors need to be willing to immerse themselves in their chosen topic so they can bring their passion for the subject to the page.
“History is so much more than names and dates,” says Alphin. “It is the story of individuals and of the constraints and possibilities of the time they lived in. Writers who feel passionate about history can see themselves in print by entering into the times and lives of those individuals, and illuminating them for editors and readers alike.”
“Everything has a history,” adds Schwerin. “Topics do not need to be limited to politics, economics and war. Think outside the realm of traditional history, go beyond the facts and reach the meaning. When you research, let it sink in. Give yourself time. Mull it over. Get it all over you.”
Most all says Yoder, “You need that commitment to the believable past. If you don’t have that I don’t know why you’re writing about history. You have to really love to find the truth.”
—Susan Taylor Brown
NOTE: This article first appeared in the Children’s Writer Newsletter. Editors may have moved to a different publishing house and editorial needs may have changed. Please do your own research before submitting.