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Wednesday, June 1, 2011

What the heck is historical about it anyway?

Somewhere in the deep dark past.

Okay, let me start over.

A few years ago when I was still a working school librarian, my fellow teachers and I had a lot of fun teaching together. One of my favorite things to do with the third grade was historical fiction. I dutifully taught them what exactly was historical fiction. I had a very erudite definition, gleaned from some college professor. One of the requirements, so it seemed, was that the history surrounding the story happened at least 50 years ago. That was also what I'd learned in my study of children's literature, a few decades earlier. The students loved it. Fun times.

That was then. Fast forward to one of my favorite recent Newbery winners, When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead. Loved the book. Read it twice (at least). But historical fiction? Huh?

Turns out, maybe it is.

In her review on Goodreads, Betsy Bird considered the possibility:
Heck, you could even label this book historical fiction since it takes place in 1978-79. And not the fake 1979 that you sometimes seek invoked in bad television shows and movies either. This is an accurate portrayal of a time period when a person really could spend their days helping their mom prepare for a stint on the $20,000 Pyramid. A time when a girl could be handed books with pictures of spunky-looking girls on the covers... and subsequently reject them because they are not A Wrinkle in Time.

I mused over this very dilemma when I reviewed it for The Christian Science Monitor, pondering what genre the book was. The story had no true historical events tied to it. But it was set in the past. Turns out lots of folks were pondering that very topic, including this blogger about historical fiction. She, like many of us, realizes that perhaps history is in the eye of the beholder. To children, that just isn't that long ago.

And now, from what I'm learning, you can make most anything "historical" if it happened before the reader was alive, or even aware. For kids, that would be anything pre-1990. Wow.

Check out an interesting blog discussion happening over at Caroline Starr Rose's blog on the topic.

Carolyn Yoder, editor of a whole lot of historical fiction and someone I'd consider an expert on the matter says this:

At a recent Illinois writing workshop sponsored by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), Yoder encouraged all historical writers to make their stories real by anchoring them in time and place. Your reader should be able to tell when and where the story is set from the details you give. More than that, your story should not be able to happen anywhere or anytime else.

And here's a bit of what James Alexander Thom, in his book The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction says on the topic of Is My Story Old Enough?

When you have a story in mind, you might ask yourself whether it's old enough to be historical.  Among those of us who write of historical events, there's a joke. "The last eyewitness is dead at last! Now we can tell it the way we know it was."...
You'll decide if you're writing a historical novel if it seems "past" to you... It's history if you say so.

If a book has an "old fashioned" feel to it and is set in the 1950s or the 1970s or even the 1990s, say in a small midwest or southern town where they might still say things like bloomers and what in tarnation-- can we call that historical fiction?

Shall we throw my old definition of historical fiction right out the window?

Related posts: Historical fiction?
and Historical Fiction, Maybe


Caroline Starr Rose said...

More than that, your story should not be able to happen anywhere or anytime else.

Yes! Very good observation. When we spoke of events earlier, I was only focusing on historic moments. The idea that the setting limits and defines everyday moments is perfect and exactly right.

Carol Baldwin said...

Loved this blog and loved hearing Carolyn's definition. Yes, she is someone to trust to give us an accurate definition of historical fiction! I laughed when I reached the end of your blog. Yesterday a woman I work with who lives in rural, NC told me to replace "what the heck?" with "What in tarnation?" in my revised first chapter. She still uses it ALL the time!! SO perhaps, you need to go back and change the title of this blog. Just kidding..

Augusta Scattergood said...

Aha, Carol! Although I don't really say What in Tarnation- I might just write it occasionally.

Funny, until this conversation, I hadn't really thought that much about "time period" as setting. But it sure is. Thanks for your comments, fellow writers of historical fiction.

Shannon Hitchcock said...

I think the time period gets complicated with where the story takes place and with who the reader is. When I moved from North Carolina to New Jersey, I discovered that North Carolina was much more old-fashioned than NJ. Where I'm from people routinely saddle their horses and go for a Sunday afternoon ride on dusty trails, if it's too wet for the tractor, my dad will hitch up his mule and get behind the handles of a plow. Though those things still happen today, to a NJ reader, it's historical fiction because it's so outside of their norm.

Anonymous said...

This is an interesting discussion. I was forced to think about this 10 years ago because I had a fifth grade student who had an argument with the librarian on this. They were talking about historical fiction and she asked for examples. The student offered up From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. The librarian told him that wasn't historical. He argued it had to be because of the prices of the food, transportation fares, and post office box rental. Nothing is that cheap anymore. It definitely dates the book. I have had a broader thinking on the topic ever since then.

Ms. Yingling said...

If a book was written in the 1970s about the present, is it NOW historical fiction? I thought that recently about Mom, The Wolf Man, and Me. Primary source historical fiction? We teach Ellis' The Breadwinner as historical, and it is set in ... 2002? A tough one to nail down as far as definitions go, but the old rule of 50 years is definitely out!

Augusta Scattergood said...

I agree it's a stickier wicket if written at the time (aka "olden days" of the 1970s, etc.) as contemporary and now, to young readers, seems historical. A dilemma I don't know the answer to.