Hot trends may come and go, but for some readers, nothing takes the place of great historical fiction. It can explore any period, from ancient – even prehistoric – times, to recent decades (that’s right, your childhood is now historical). The best books let readers explore a fascinating time in the past, through a character who appeals to modern tastes.
For young people, historical fiction can get them interested in long-ago times and faraway places.
The People of the Past
Character is key in bringing stories to life, and in making the past appeal to today’s readers. In my Arabian-Nights-inspired fantasy The Genie’s Gift, the heroine has led a sheltered life in the 15th-century Ottoman Empire. She wants to find the Genie who can give her “the gift of sweet speech” so people will listen to her, and so she can determine her own future. What modern preteen doesn’t think her parents are overprotective? Who doesn’t want a say in her future?
Historical characters must be appealing, yet believable for their time. Changing social standards produce challenges. I ran into this problem with my historical Mayan drama, The Well of Sacrifice. The Maya practiced human sacrifice and bloodletting. It was an important part of their culture, so not something I should simply ignore. I tried to show the devout religious beliefs that led to that behavior, while also showing the dangers and horror so as not to glamorize it.
I wasn’t sure if this would make the book too mature for middle grade readers. However, the publisher tagged the book as “for ages nine and up,” and it’s been used in many schools in the fourth grade. (As an aside, I’ve had teachers say, “Girls love the strong heroine, and boys love the gory stuff.” Kids can often handle things better than adults expect.)
Authentic but Lively Language
Character authenticity is one of the big challenges of historical fiction, but authors risk confusing readers if the language is too authentic. Yet I avoided this problem in The Well of Sacrifice, The Genie’s Gift, and my Egyptian mystery The Eyes of Pharaoh. Since those characters would not have been speaking English, I didn’t have to worry about when specific English words came into use. I assumed I was “translating” from ancient Egyptian into modern English.
I still avoided slang or other words that would jar the story out of its historical time period. However, in the past, people usually spoke in a way that seemed natural to them at the time, not in stiff, formal language. (Read some Egyptian love poems if you don’t believe me.)
So what makes great historical fiction? A spark of inspiration, months of research, carefully chosen details to bring the setting to life, and a dynamic character who appeals to today’s readers, while expressing the differences of her time. With a little luck, the end result is a book that will last long beyond modern trends.
Teachers who would like lesson plans associated with the book can find them at my website or the publisher’s website. If you buy a classroom or school set of 6 or more copies, contact me via my website for a free Skype visit.
Chris Eboch lives in New Mexico, where she enjoys hiking, rock climbing, and watching the sunset from her patio. Her home office looks out on nature, complete with distracting wildlife such as roadrunners and foxes. Her BFA in photography is used mainly to show Facebook friends how lovely the Southwest is.
Chris’s middle grade novels include The Eyes of Pharaoh, a mystery in ancient Egypt; The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan adventure; The Genie’s Gift, a middle eastern fantasy; and the Haunted series, which starts with The Ghost on the Stairs. Learn more at https://chriseboch.com/ or her Amazon page.
Chris writes romantic suspense novels for adults as Kris Bock. The Mad Monk’s Treasure, “Smart romance with an ‘Indiana Jones’ feel,” is currently free at all e-book retailers.