Hearts Unbroken: Writing (Sort Of) Timeless Contemporary Realistic Fiction

Learn more about Cynthia Leitich Smith.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

The second in a series of four posts celebrating the Oct. 9 release of my realistic contemporary YA novel, Hearts Unbroken (Candlewick).

We’re all living in the past, present and future.

Perhaps that’s never so true as on the page.

My 2018 YA novel, Hearts Unbroken, is set about a year after the ending of my 2001 debut tween novel, Rain Is Not My Indian Name (HarperCollins). The protagonists, Louise and Rain, are cousins. Rain’s story largely takes place the summer she’s going into ninth grade, but in Louise’s story, Rain is only a sophomore.

Both books are contemporary realistic fiction. An early manuscript reader of both commented that, despite the 17 years between publication dates, there was no jarring evidence of the time jump on the page. I’m hopeful that she’s right and interested in reflecting on how that happened.

Truth is, I’m skeptical of “timeless” realistic contemporary fiction. We should take care not to mute too much of the detail needed to form a setting that’s a credible springboard for disbelief.

I also don’t know that we can fully anticipate changes to come. For example, Macy’s once seemed like an invincible, mid-tier retail store. Then in 2016, corporate announced that 100 stores would be closed, and that process is ongoing. The survivors are being retooled to compete with T.J. Maxx for bargain shoppers.

George Seton wrote the script for “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947). Would the classic film have resonated in the same way if it had been set anywhere but Macy’s? Maybe. Could Seaton have constructed a similar, fictional setting? Sure. Should he have? The question is a slippery one.

Sometimes writing deep into the now is necessary.

We’re in the midst of a rise in political literature (#politilit) for young readers, books that respond to current events and persistent societal issues. Though it’s also a romance and family story, Hearts Unbroken arguably falls into that category.

Kids and teens need all kinds of books, including those that speak to today’s burning challenges.

That said, to the extent Rain Is Not My Indian Name still reads as contemporary (rather than as a near history), some of my success was strategic and some of it was luck.

Consider these strategies:

1) Select and frame pop-culture references thoughtfully.

I’m a geek and I tend to write geeks. In Rain Is Not My Indian Name, my protagonist, Rain Berghoff, and her big brother Fynn are sci-fi fans. Rain’s dog is named “Chewie” after Chewbacca from “Star Wars,” Fynn has a “Star Trek” mug, and Rain writes fan fiction inspired by “The X-Files.”

One of the many fine qualities of geeks is that we tend to commit comprehensively to our fandoms. It’s entirely plausible that a contemporary kid would’ve seen and even studied the 1977 “Star Wars” movie, although she might refer to it as “old school.”

Those fandom choices were iconic in American pop culture and well traveled across borders. “The X-Files” was the biggest risk. If I had to choose again, I might double down on “Star Wars” or “Star Trek” instead. However, there was a recent resurgence of the franchise. The truth really is out there.

2) Use broad strokes to sketch the tech.

I went light on the specifics, even though Rain Is Not My Indian Name was one of the first children’s-YA novels to significantly incorporate the Internet in the story. Rain’s brother owns a small web-design business, and Rain creates an online memorial in honor of her friend Galen.

That said, unlike Hearts Unbroken, cell phones are not integrated in Rain Is Not My Indian Name.

According to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey, 85% of teens from age 14 to 17 have a mobile phone. Today, it’s plausible that a fictional teen doesn’t own a phone. She could be in that other 15%. But at least some other teens in their life would have phones. I would’ve at least acknowledged prevalant cell phone use with a brushstroke or two…if only I could’ve foreseen it.

Map by Mark G. Mitchell of fictional Hannesburg, Kansas, which appears in both novels.

3) Add more fiction to your realism.

I strategically made up some names as part of the world building.

Rain’s hometown of Hannesburg, Kansas, is fictional. Locally-owned businesses are more plausible in small towns than, say, suburbs or urban areas commonly overrun by national chains.

So, the names of various fictional small-town restaurants, Oma Dottie’s B&B, Garden of Roses Cemetery and Blue Heaven Trailer Park all sprang from my imagination. They’re not going out of business until I say so. The same is true of the fictional Kickapoo Blues Band, “Not Your Wild West Show,” a web client of Rain’s brother.

Seventeen years in real life.

A little over one year on the page.

How did this approach inform the writing of Hearts Unbroken?

Some of the characters (and their fandoms) repeated.

New pop-culture nods include (a) J.R.R. Tolkien‘s Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, which have enjoyed a resurgence due to the relatively recent film adaptations, and (b) superheroes from the D.C. Universe (e.g., Wonder Woman) who have arguably risen to mythological status.

I took a risk in mentioning a national chain restaurant, The Cracker Barrel, but also peppered in a few new, fictional small businesses.

I also dared to reference email, but made sure to specify that it’s outdated tech, the default of grownups. In fact, it’s inherent in a plot point that teens generally don’t use email.

Looking back, you may regret a judgment call or two. But these tips should help hedge your bets in writing “contemporary” realistic fiction that doesn’t skew historical too soon.

Cynsational Notes

★ “Absorbing….Blending teen romance with complex questions of identity, equality, and censorship, this is an excellent choice…”
— School Library Journal, starred review (see also Teen Librarian Toolbox: “a must-have for all collections.”)

“Highly recommended! There’s so much love and warmth and reality all through Hearts Unbroken. And so much hope! And some absolutely terrific ground-breaking moves!”
— Debbie Reese at American Indians in Children’s Literature (read the whole review)

In addition to the release of Hearts Unbroken, Cynthia is celebrating the new paperback edition of Feral Pride, the third book in the Feral trilogy and the final book set in the Tantalize series and Feral series universe.

Guest Post: Becca Puglisi on Setting as a Characterization Tool

By Becca Puglisi
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

In storytelling, our number one job is to make readers care. We want to ensure that our fiction captivates them on many levels and that our characters seem like living, breathing people who continue to exist in readers’ minds long after the book closes.

So how do we do this?

Well, it may not seem like the obvious choice, but the setting can be one of the best tools through which to organically reveal truths about your characters.

Here are two quick tips on how to use the setting to characterize your cast for readers:

Choose Emotionally Relevant Locations

As the gods of our own little universes, we have the power to choose literally everything. But when it comes to the setting, the decision is often a halfhearted one—since the setting is just a backdrop, right? Wrong.

Ordering Information

Every character has a history of blissful interludes, toxic run-ins, embarrassing moments, and traumatic episodes. And long after these formative events have been forgotten or buried, their settings will continue to hold significance for the characters involved.

For instance, let’s say that after being out of the romance game for a while, your heroine has agreed to go on a first date, and you need to decide on a setting.

Instead of falling back on a generic location for this scene, brainstorm some possibilities that hold significance for the character. Maybe her date has asked to meet at the same café where her fiancé once dumped her. Or in the park where she was mugged. Or at the bar where the guy she’s been in love with since tenth grade works as a bouncer.

Any of these settings can work because they’re already emotionally charged for the protagonist.

A first date can be difficult in and of itself; experiencing it in one of these places is going to heighten the character’s emotions and bring back old memories when she’d rather avoid them, ensuring that she won’t be at her best. When it comes to the important scenes in your story, complicate matters for your protagonist and tap into his or her emotions by choosing settings with personal significance.

Get Personal with the Details

Showing rather than telling is the most powerful means of providing insight into the personality of your protagonist and other cast members. Rather than explaining your characters through boring chunks of narrative, hone in on the personal details within a given setting that will tell readers about the people inhabiting it:

I surveyed Rossa’s spotless kitchen. Dishes in their racks—sparkling. Wooden counters—scrubbed to a stone-like smoothness. Rossa herself—hair perfectly arranged, clothes crisp even at this hour, the frivolous fall of lace at her throat. I crossed my arms and couldn’t help wondering, again, how she and Dad could be meant for each other.

Ordering Information

Here we have a scene that says loads about its owner. Rossa is meticulous when it comes to tidiness—both for her home and herself. You get the feeling that she values propriety and appearances. And we learn something about the narrator, too: she isn’t so concerned with all of that. She disdains it, in fact, and doesn’t seem to like her Dad’s love interest very much. All of this we’re able to infer from the simple description of a kitchen.

Personal spaces can be quite telling. Make them do more than simply set the scene by zooming in on those details that reveal something about your characters. And for those vital scenes in your story, put your cast members on edge by thoughtfully choosing the settings—ones that add an emotional component or will up the stakes. Resist the temptation to settle for a generic setting and start putting your locations to work for you and your characters.

Cynsational Notes

Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her latest publications are all about settings: The Rural and Urban Setting Thesauruses showcase over 200 different possible story locations, highlighting their associated sights, sounds, textures, tastes, and smells so authors can effectively describe them for readers.

Becca is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find her online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.