I just finished reading three novels written for young people. Each one is historical. Since I am writing a novel set in 1907 I was eager to get insight into how to best craft a story set in the past.
The Gentle Falcon by Hilda Lewis takes place in the 1300s and tells the story of Isabella Clinton a girl chosen to be a special companion to the French child bride of England’s King Richard II. The book starts off in an interesting way as we meet Isabella and learn about her life and the adventure she is about to begin. However the middle section of the book seems too bent on getting in all the historical details of Richard II’s life. It took the focus off the main character too much. Reading The Gentle Falcon reminded me that story and character development is more important than covering all the historical facts.
The second novel I read was When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stein. It is a Newberry Medal winner set in 1979. The book is about a New York girl named Miranda and her life at school, home and in her neighbourhood. She is trying to figure out who is sending mysterious letters to her. From reading this book I learned it is much harder to write a novel set just decades ago than a novel set more than a hundred years ago. Because many things in 1979 were similar to the present it is harder to establish the unique historical context of the story. I think the author might have included more references to things unique to the 70’s. It reminded me to check every detail of my manuscript to be sure I don’t have references that are too generic or modern and plenty that are unique to 1907.
The third novel I read was Tuscon Jo by Carol Matas. It is set in the 1880s in Arizona and is a fictional account of the family life of one of Tuscon’s first mayors. We really get to know our main character Jo, the mayor’s daughter very well. The real mayor whose life inspired the story was Jewish and Jewish faith and culture is given lots of emphasis in the story. I found out later that the book’s publisher specializes in Judaic literature. I learned you sometimes have to write your story in a way that will bring it to the attention of a certain publisher. In an afterword Carol Matas said she moved some of the events around in time to make the story better. It is important to remember when you write historical fiction that you can do that.