I never meant to write historical fiction—mostly out of laziness (all that research!), but also because of the responsibility.
Since it’s fiction, we expect to take liberties with the facts. But how much liberty is too much? At what point does stretching the facts become a disservice to history, and to young readers?
Plus, from reading hundreds of slush-pile manuscripts when I was an editor at Cricket Books, I knew how difficult it is to integrate historical facts into a story gracefully. Less successful attempts sound like Google personified:
Aunt Zelda asks, “Have you spoken with Florence Kelley, the woman who worked with Jane Addams at Hull House and was the first female chief factory inspector in Chicago?”
“How could I?” replies Matilda. “You know she moved to New York in 1899.”
But something unexpected happened that changed my mind: after my father died, his wife sent me a diary that Dad had written when he was a farm boy in Ellisville, Illinois, during World War II. I’d never even known it existed.
It was a five-year diary, with room to write four short lines a day, and Dad did just that from 1944 when he was 12, to 1948 when he was 16.
(The green arrow in the photo points to Dad. The blue arrow is my Grama. I’m pretty sure that what looks like her hat is actually on the head of someone standing behind her.)
Reading the diary, I found snippets filled with possibilities:
“Today we typed to music. If I could keep up, I’d type 16 words.”
“This afternoon we dug four little foxes out of the hill at Merl’s. Brought them home and put them in silo pit.”
“This morning Harold come over in a B-24. He circled 5 times. . . . We saw guns & insignia.”
Click to read larger image.
I was so inspired I ended up writing Eddie’s War, a middle-grade novel about (you guessed it) an Illinois farm boy during World War II.
Anyone who’s read my book will recognize the origins of vignettes in those quotes from the diary.
But the Eddie of my novel is not my father. And Eddie’s big brother Thomas, who goes off to fly a bomber in the Pacific, is not my uncle Harold. The diary was only a starting point.
I didn’t know my father when he was a boy. I never knew my uncle. Stinky, Gabe, Grampa Rob, Grama Lucy—all are from my imagination.
In fact, much more than plot, the diary was a resource for background and stage business: “We went over in the calf pasture and cut some mullen.”
I don’t even know what mullen is—but I know that in June 1944 teenagers were cutting it in a calf pasture, so when I needed some farm work for Eddie to do in June 1944, there it was:
Most of the time
it didn’t seem real.
Then one day in the calf pasture cutting mullen
it hit me again
and wouldn’t turn loose—
wave after wave, right to the gut.
I heaved up my breakfast
and started to cry.
I promise you I also consulted many books and online resources in researching Eddie’s War (namelos, 2011). But the kind of history I found in Dad’s diary brought more color and authenticity to the prose than anything else I found.
Whether I would have chosen to write historical fiction without it—or ever will again—who knows?
I think, when I write, about voice. I begin there. Not with the color of the characters’ eyes, nor with the plot. Not with a sweet synopsis or even a one-page outline that points from here to there.
Sometimes I wish I started with those things. Sometimes I wish I were more organized. Sometimes I wish I didn’t have a process that had me whispering (like a crazy lady) to myself out loud—trying to get a purchase on cadence, prepositions, word order, slang.
But what I’ve got, what I work on first, is voice.
Voice liberates me and also (in some ways) condemns me. It gives me the canvas, but it also gives me the frame. And frames, in the end, have boundaries.
You Are My Only (Laura Geringer/Egmont, 2011) was originally a book written for adults starring a 40ish protagonist, Sophie, who had grown up with a strange mother, moving from town to town, perpetually cloistered. We saw but glimpses of the child Sophie in the book I originally wrote, and the narration was delivered by way of a close over-the-shoulder third person. I thought of it as flute and bird song.
When I decided to tell the story of Sophie as a fourteen year old—and to alternate her story with the story of a young mother whose baby is stolen—I needed an entirely different sound for this book. I needed, obviously, two sounds.
My fourteen-year-old Sophie has not been out in the real world when we first meet her. She’s locked in a world of homeschooling with a beleaguered mom who moves her from town to town. Her voice hasn’t been buffed or shined or slanged by school lessons or schoolyard talk. It’s been informed by library books and loneliness and a resilient imagination. It sounds, when we meet Sophie, like this:
My house is a storybook house. A huff-and-a-puff-and-they’ll-blow-it-down-house. The roof is soft; it’s tumbled. There are bushes growing tall past the sills. A single sprouted tree leans in from high above the cracked slate path, torpedoing acorns to the ground.
Photo by William Sulit
The voice of Emmy, the bereft young mother, comes from another place. She’s not book smart. She’s not widely read. She turns verbs into nouns and nouns into verbs, she repeats herself, sometimes, but she’s a poet.
Creating Emmy’s voice made me happy. Forcing myself to tell her story made me sad. I fell in love with her, wanted to protect her, but I could not. Her voice kept taking me down an inevitable path. When we first meet her, she sounds like this:
The baby is missing. The baby is not where I left her—checked the rope and strapped her in, pulled my weight into the branch above, and said out loud, “This is good and nice and sturdy.”
Sophie’s voice—cloistered but resilient. Emmy’s voice—big-hearted, broken. This is what I had. This was the music in my ears. It was a privilege to write this book—not once, but several times. I never do get it right the first time.
From the promotional copy: “In You Are My Only, Beth Kephart tells the story of a young girl ripped from the life meant for her as a child and raised in captivity with honesty, fairness, tenderness, and most of all hope. It’s a story of unusual circumstances with universal application–no matter how dark and difficult life may seem the hope for something more is always within reach. Breathtaking in its beauty and with great heart, You Are My Only brings readers the story of a kidnapped young girl that they will never want to forget.”
Mike Mullin is the first-time author of Ashfall (Tanglewood, 2011). From the promotional copy:
Many visitors to Yellowstone National Park don’t realize that the boiling hot springs and spraying geysers are caused by an underlying supervolcano. It has erupted three times in the last 2.1 million years, and it will erupt again, changing the earth forever.
Fifteen-year-old Alex is home alone when Yellowstone erupts. His town collapses into a nightmare of darkness, ash, and violence, forcing him to flee. He begins a harrowing trek in search of his parents and sister, who were visiting relatives 140 miles away.
Along the way, Alex struggles through a landscape transformed by more than a foot of ash. The disaster brings out the best and worst in people desperate for food, clean water, and shelter.
When an escaped convict injures Alex, he searches for a sheltered place where he can wait—to heal or to die. Instead, he finds Darla. Together, they fight to achieve a nearly impossible goal: surviving the supervolcano.
What were you like as a young reader, and how did that influence the book that you’re debuting this year?
My first reading materials were library science textbooks my mother foisted on me.
Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. The truth is that, in a way, I foisted the library science textbooks on her.
Before I was born, she taught kindergarten in the Denver Public School system. They had a crazy rule that any pregnant women had to resign her teaching position and couldn’t return until her youngest child turned two. (I still don’t understand exactly where they thought all those kindergarteners came from.) Dad was in seminary and regularly driving their only car to Medicine Bow, Wyoming to preach.
I mean that literally. Mom was a great believer in reading out loud to babies. She would bounce me on her knees while reading her librarianship textbooks to me. It worked, too, since I was reading on my own before I turned four. But I still have a powerful aversion to reading library science textbooks.
Eventually, I graduated from textbooks to picture books. From age two to four my favorite book was Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (Harper & Row, 1963). My younger brother and I had a special ritual for it—when Mom reached the words, “‘And now,’ cried Max, ‘let the wild rumpus start!’” we would begin to dance. We didn’t need any music, just the example of Max and his subjects over the three full-page spreads that followed.
By kindergarten, Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie (Hodder and Stoughton, 1911) had supplanted Sendak. I even went so far as to organize a production of it in my backyard. I recruited classmates to act, held rehearsals, and scheduled a big opening night (well, afternoon) with parents and classmates comprising the audience. When Mom asked why I didn’t have a role in my own play, I told her indignantly, “I can’t act—I’m the director.” The young actor assigned to play Captain Hook froze up with stage fright so bad he peed his pants. I convinced Dad to jump in and improvise the role.
Our family was firmly middle class, and I got all the usual stuff for Christmas: Lincoln Logs, Legos, even a bicycle one year. But the best Christmas gift of my childhood was the one I got while I was in fourth grade—a boxed set of The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis (Geoffrey Bles, 1956).
I read the series eleven times over the following year, keeping count with hash marks inside the front covers. That year I’d been placed in a gifted and talented class with a particularly vicious and mean-spirited teacher, Mrs. Walsh, and C.S. Lewis provided me with a much-needed escape.
Once, I escaped in a literal as well as figurative sense—Mrs. Walsh interrupted her excruciatingly boring lecture about reading to scream, “Michael Mullin, if you’re just going to read that book under your desk, you can go out in the hall to do it!” Busted! So I calmly got up, left the classroom, and settled in one of the study carrels in the hall to finish The Horse and His Boy (1954).
As a teenager, I needed the escape books provided even more desperately. I read adult science fiction and fantasy voraciously, but my favorite book was one written for teens: Tunnel in the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein (Scribner, 1955). It described my perfect world—one without adults, where teens could live without the oppressive constraints of parents and teachers. Like the protagonist, Rod Walker, I was interested in primitive survival at that time. I practiced building shelters, foraging for edible plants, and matchless fire starting, both on my own and with the Boy Scouts.
Today I prefer a lighter or matches for starting fires and hotel rooms over improvised shelter, but I still enjoy foraging for edible wild plants.
With Ashfall, I attempted to write the sort of book I would have loved as a teenager. So I dispense with all the adults in Alex’s life in the first chapter, much as Heinlein did in Tunnel in the Sky. And though the positive reviews and awards Ashfall has garnered have been thrilling, my highest hope for my work is that it will provide a few teens what Heinlein, Lewis, Peck and so many other authors provided me: a few hours of blissful escape from a childhood that was sometimes difficult to endure.
How did you go about connecting with your agent? What was your search process like? Who did you decide to sign with? What about that person and/or agency seemed like the best fit for you? What advice do you have for other writers in seeking the right agent for them?
Shirley and Mike Mullin at Kids Ink
When I finished rewriting and polishing the manuscript for Ashfall, I spent more than two weeks working on the four paragraphs of my query letter. I chose five literary agents to send it to, working mostly from Casey McCormick’s excellent Agent Spotlight series of blog posts.
Four hours later, I had my first request for a full manuscript. What’s all this fuss about how difficult it is to get a literary agent? I wondered.
Well, I found out. Two months and three batches of query letters later, every agent that responded had rejected Ashfall.
With a firm offer of publication in hand, I figured signing with an agent would be easy. Not so much. I added a sentence about Tanglewood’s offer of publication to my query letter and sent it off to five more agents. Four of them rejected Ashfall, and one never replied.
Frustrated, I gave up and negotiated my own contract. I’m still not represented by a literary agent, although now that Ashfall has sold through its first printing in four weeks flat and been listed on Kirkus Review’s Best Teen Books of 2011 list, I’ve had agents sending me queries.
If you’re struggling with getting published, take heart from my story. Yes, your work might not be ready. But it might also be great work that simply hasn’t found a champion.
I’m pretty confident that Ashfall wasn’t garnering rejections due to its quality. The prolific science fiction author Jay Lake said it best: to succeed as a fiction writer you need psychotic persistence. Or a mother in the industry. In my case, it took both.
African-Americans in Graphic Novels from YALSA’s The Hub. Peek: “From what I’ve discovered, there are a number of appealing, well-written graphic novels with African-American characters. What I didn’t see were that many female African-American characters in these graphics compared to male characters. There is also a real lack of comics written and illustrated by women. Hopefully, that will change.”
“Chrissy’s Classroom” seeks book donations for Shiprock High School, an under-served school in the Four Corners region of New Mexico, from Cory Putnam Oats. Note: Chrissy Costello is there in conjunction with Teach for America Program, and the school serves children of the Navajo Nation.
Interview with Barnes & Noble Children’s Bookseller: Cerelle Woods from Kathryn Lay. Peek: “As far as age groups, I think there’s a real need for “tween” books—both for boys and girls. Parents really hesitate to buy teen books for their 12-14 year olds. They are worried about the content. Another thin genre is realistic fiction for young boys. I hear so many parents tell me that their sons simply don’t enjoy fantasy and want something more ‘true-to-life.'”
A Sense of Self by Donald Maas from Writer Unboxed. Peek: “The protagonists in fiction serve a similar purpose. We look to them as models. What we want from them is not just entertaining stories but examples of how we can feel, see the world, conduct ourselves, grow and change. We admire them, learn from them, celebrate them and return to them over and over for inspiration.” Source: Phil Guinta.
Holiday Art Implosion from Jesse Joshua Watson. Jesse is offering original art, both fine art and children’s book illustration, on sale (30% off the list price) with free shipping anywhere in the U.S. through Christmas. “Imagine your walls beaming with original art from Hope For Haiti, I AND I- Bob Marley, Chess Rumble, Ghetto Cowboy… or any of Jesse’s original portraits of jazz, blues, and reggae musicians, or his evocative surf and snow scenes.” Contact him directly at: mail at jessewatson dot com.
The Sense of Ending by Tim Wynne-Jones from Write at Your Own Risk. Peek: ” Fiction, according to Kermode, is about the humanizing of time. We want a beginning, middle and ending; we want shape Story — something that means.”
Writing Diversity: Avoiding the Magical Negro by Stacy Whitman from Stacy Whitman’s Grimoire. Peek: “The trope is a trope because it can make a story work. Yet just because it’s something that works doesn’t mean it’s something we shouldn’t try to avoid when we can, especially because the trope can be pretty caustic, too.”
Agent Spotlight: Nicole Resciniti from Literary Rambles. Peek: “A consummate science geek and card-carrying Mensa member, Nicole would love to find the next great science fiction/fantasy novel or action/adventure masterpiece.” Note: represents YA.
First Book Fundraiser from Teaching Authors. During December, the TeachingAuthors are sponsoring a fundraiser on their blog in support of First Book, an organization “determined to see that all children, regardless of their economic conditions, can achieve more in school and in life through access to an ongoing supply of new books.” For every comment posted at www.TeachingAuthors.com this month (one per person, please), the TeachingAuthors will donate $1 to First Book, up to $225. Every $2.50 donated provides a brand-new book to a child in need. And through Dec. 31, Disney Publishing Worldwide will match every $1 donated with another new book. Their goal is to send 315 new books to children in need. Visit www.TeachingAuthors.com for details, and to post your comment.
The fall of 2011 left the Bastrop community ravaged by Texas forest fires. Even though the Bastrop Public Library escaped damage to their building, many of their books perished because they had been checked out in the community.
The winner of a critique by Peggy of a nonfiction picture book manuscript or the first three chapters of a longer nonfiction manuscript and a signed copy of Anatomy of Nonfiction by Margery Facklam and Peggy Thomas (Writers Institute Publications, 2011) is Joanna in Nice, France.
My friend and neighbor, John Hannah, was so amazed that I’d chosen such seemingly diverse subjects for picture book bios that he concocted this image (right) which appeared in my mailbox one day and has kept me laughing ever since.
I first read Warhol’s Philosophy while living in New York in the late ‘70s and I’ve been quoting, and living by his “three rules” since—
Never complain about a situation while the situation is going on.
If you can’t believe it’s happening, pretend it’s a movie.
After it’s over, find somebody to pin the blame on and never let them forget it.
Okay, I’m not so big on the last one, but the first two work beautifully!
His overall philosophy, difficult childhood, and the fact that he illustrated shoes for years made him an incredibly appealing subject. Also I’d worked in theatre in New York and was cast in a play at Actors Studio by Taylor Mead, a Warhol superstar. A fascination with “all things Warhol” took hold.
A few centuries later, I hunkered down to write a picture book bio on pop art icon. I started writing, then realized it couldn’t be done. Down it went to the basement dead file. The next year the three rules started buzzing in my brain again and I brought the manuscript back upstairs from the basement. After a few months in the live file, it went back to the basement.
This went on for a very long time, and then one day I realized it wasn’t necessary to tell the story of his entire life.
We could begin and end with him at Max’s Kansas City eating chick peas and the rest of the story, childhood to Max’s days, would be a flashback. At that point, I began writing in earnest and the manuscript never went to the basement again!
The next question was the art. My editor, Christy Ottaviano, and I agreed that we wanted something edgy but not imitative. I was teaching art at the time, and some of my students were experimenting with a photo transfer method which I adopted and adapted for the illustrations.
It’s an acrylic transfer method that can be found on various websites and involves a lot of washing off of paper. One day while the images were drying it struck me how odd it might look to a passerby to see a bunch of paintings on a drying rack.
Then there was the question of rights to reproduce Warhol’s work. The cost of the number of images needed would have been enormous, so I did what Andy would have done – copied. Marilyns, flowers, soup cans, cats, money, all the “Warhol” paintings in the books are copies, a fact acknowledged on the copyright page.
Sylvia never expected to be at the center of a landmark legal battle. All she wanted was to enroll in school.
Aki never expected to be relocated to a Japanese internment camp in the Arizona desert. All she wanted was to stay on her family farm and finish the school year.
The two girls certainly never expected to know each other, until their lives intersected in Southern California during a time when their country changed forever.
Here is the remarkable story based on true events of Sylvia Mendez and Aki Munemitsu, two ordinary girls living in extraordinary times. When Sylvia and her brothers are not allowed to register at the same school Aki attended – instead, they are sent to a “Mexican school” – the stage is set for Sylvia’s father to challenge in court the separation of races in California’s schools.
Ultimately, Mendez vs. Westminster School District led to the desegregation of California schools and helped build the case that would end school segregation nationally.
As a historical fiction writer, what drew you first – character, concept, or historical period? In whichever case, how did you go about building your world and integrating it into the story? What were the special challenges? Where did you turn for inspiration or support?
As soon as I heard about Sylvia Mendez, I knew I wanted to write about her. I actually had a lightning-bolt moment: I was listening to NPR on the car radio when I heard a report about the 50th anniversary of the Brown. v. Board of Education lawsuit that desegregated the public schools.
The story mentioned a discrimination case that happened years before the Brown case. It involved a nine-year-old Mexican-American girl who wasn’t allowed to go to the “white” school near her home. The girl’s father filed a lawsuit, and Thurgood Marshall — the famous civil rights attorney – wrote a supporting brief that included the argument he would use seven years later in the Brown case.
Without Sylvia Mendez and her lawsuit, the landmark Brown case wouldn’t have happened the way it did. I was so fascinated by the NPR report that I actually pulled my car over on the side of the road and started taking notes. Seriously.
I started reading everything I could about Sylvia Mendez and the lawsuit her father filed against the school system in Orange County, California. I read thousands of pages of transcripts of the trial. To some people that might sound boring, but I found it fascinating.
Today it’s hard to imagine a Superintendent of Schools calling a group of children “inferior” in their ability to learn and saying they have “generally dirty hands, face, neck, and ears,” but that’s what happened. I cringed when I imagined Sylvia, an impressionable third-grade girl, sitting in a courtroom and listening to her school superintendent testify under oath that he considered her inferior to the white students. I couldn’t believe the cruelty of the testimony.
I wanted my readers to share my outrage, so I used the actual court transcripts as the basis of the dialogue in the court scene in Sylvia & Aki. I didn’t want to rewrite or reinterpret history. Instead, I let the Superintendent speak for himself, which I think provides a much more powerful sense of the prejudices and discrimination experienced by Mexican-Americans in southern California, 1945.
I knew the segregation lawsuit would be the backbone of the story, but as I did my research, I became emotionally involved in a second, equally compelling story that happened at the same time. In the early 1940s, Japanese families in southern California were removed from their homes and farms and forced into internment camps for the duration of World War II.
Sylvia’s story began in 1941 when she moved to a farm in Westminster, California, and was told she had to go to a “Mexican school.” But another young girl – a Japanese girl named Aki – had lived on that farm until she was forced to move to Poston, an internment camp. Here was a second young girl who was also subjected to heartbreaking discrimination. In addition to leaving her home, Aki was separated from her father for years because he was sent to a different internment camp.
Ultimately, I realized that Sylvia and Aki both had important stores to share. Their life journeys were intertwined, and I didn’t think I could tell one story without including the other.
How did you approach the research process for your story? What resources did you turn to? What roadblocks did you run into? How did you overcome them? What was your greatest coup, and how did it inform your manuscript?
Since my book is based on actual events, the first thing I did was find Sylvia and Aki, who were now in their seventies, and make sure they were comfortable with me telling their stories.
I found them both in southern California, not too far from the 40-acre asparagus farm where my book takes place.
I spoke with the women on the phone several times, and then I went to California to interview them in person. By that time, I had fallen in love with their story and I just wanted to tell it the best way I knew how.
I struggled with the format for the book. I wrote it as nonfiction, then I rewrote it as fiction. I wrote it in first-person, then rewrote it in third-person. I wrote it using a three-part format – Sylvia’s story, Aki’s story, then the summer with the girls together – then I rewrote it in alternating points of view on a single timeline. The story is complicated in that there are distinct narrative threads, but the two story lines share a lot of common themes, and, in the end, the girls did spend time together and become friends in the summer of 1945.
My ultimate goal was to tell the story in a way that would make it most accessible to young readers. The story was true, but I wanted it to read like a novel so that young readers would identify with Sylvia and Aki as children, not historical figures.
At first I worried that choosing a fictional approach might undermine the truth of the story, but I ultimately decided that the Truth – capital “T”, the emotional truth – of what happened could best be conveyed in fiction.
I didn’t want to misrepresent any of the events, so I had both Sylvia and Aki review the text to make sure it was accurate. When they both told me I got it right, then I knew I had chosen the correct approach.
This story includes a sneak preview of Cynthia Leitich Smith’s upcoming novel, Diabolical (Jan. 2012), which unites heroes from the previous three novels in the Tantalize Series along with a fascinating cast of all-new characters for a suspenseful, action-packed clash between the forces of heaven and hell.
Published by Candlewick Press (N. America) and Walker Books (U.K.).
Litter Box: Scoop Daily observes: “…sometimes after reading a lengthy novel, a short story is exactly what you need. If you find that this is where you are at…I recommend this be the one.”
“Our neighbor had a greenhouse in her backyard and grew orchids. I was about four years old and wanted to buy one for my mother for Christmas. Rosalind told me to come by to choose one and this is what happened . . . ”
Gift for My Mother
by Joan Bransfield Graham
. . .
I choose an orchid
. . .
empty my pockets on her table,
“Do I have enough?”
Taking only the pennies,
she says, “It’s just right.”
We want you to look at a bottle of perfume and remember—
remember the first time you felt “grown up”:
by Rebecca Kai Dotlich
. . .
I am ready tonight
to open that present
dad bought at the store.
. . .
he lifts a small box
and a daisy’s in bloom;
inside is a bottle
of grown up perfume.
Conga drums remind Margarita Engle of Cuba, a Cuba she knew as a child, where she received a horse from her abuelita but never got to ride it. “[S]oldiers took the family farm, but they couldn’t take away my treasured memory of my grandma’s gift.” Can you imagine being given a horse, never getting to ride it—and yet still having joyful memories of simply receiving the gift?
My Own Horse
by Margarita Engle
. . .
My grandma’s red mare
has a red colt
Have you ever received a present that you really didn’t want (at first) but later came to treasure? (Charles Waters)
Have you ever received something that seemed to swirl with magic?
“Did our goldfish fly / over trees and roofs / in Santa’s frosted sled?” (Pat Mora)
What are your favorite holiday memories? What are your simplest wishes? Amy Ludwig VanDerwater writes about snow as a gift.
May your home be filled with surprises . . . like Lorie Ann Grover’s “Christmas tree Troll” who “Curls a smile / And reaches out to me”