Sunday, April 15, 2007

Historical Fiction

This week Lectitans is asking readers a very important question: "What is the recipe of good historical fiction?" Since historical fiction borders on an obsessive passion of mine, I thought I'd answer on my own blog.

I think there are many elements that make up good historical fiction. One of the signs--or marks--for me is that a writer turns a previously "boring" or "uninteresting" topic and spins it into a book that I cannot--will not--put down. For example, I had zero interest in reading any literature--fiction, nonfiction, poetry, whatever--about the Erie canal. No interest. Yet, I could not put Jim Murphy's Desperate Journey down. I was absolutely hooked. Why? Because of the writing. Strong writing--whether it is characters, plot, style, language, whatever--has the power to draw you into any story regardless of the topic or any prior interest. Which brings me to another very important element: characterization. The magic--and it's pure magic--of the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder is in the characterization. A writer needs to make the characters come alive for the readers. Carolyn Meyer is another great example. I am absolutely in love with her Royal Tudors series because she makes these historical figures into living characters that you can relate to...understand. I don't know how she weaves her magic, but I see it. How else can you explain how both Elizabeth and Mary can be presented as sympathetic characters in her books? Bloody Mary has never been high on my list of characters I'd want to meet...but yet Carolyn Meyer presents her as a very human, very vulnerable, very sympathetic character. With Beware, Princess Elizabeth and Mary, Bloody Mary she could be talking about any broken family where the parents are separated or divorced. She could be talking about ANY dysfunctional family. So I think it's key for writers to present characters that are human. In other words, readers need to be able to say, "Oh, they once lived and loved and had the same fears and hopes that I do." Good historical fiction makes the characters, the period, the culture come alive. When you forget the stale facts and statistics and the 'boring' things you have to memorize in school...and get drawn into the story...the author has done something right. Some of my recent favorites include Black Duck by Janet Taylor Lisle, Bread and Roses, Too by Katherine Paterson, and Crooked River by Shelley Pearsall.

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