Monthly Archives: April 2009

The Value of Historical Fiction

I just completed our own Marilyn Donahue’s book, The Valley In Between. It is a prime example of our topic this month.

I read the story of Emmie and her family as they carved out a life for themselves in early San Bernardino County. While my intent was not to learn history, I did just that. It was woven into the fiber of the book.

I learned about a major earthquake that rocked the area during that period, the Mormons returning to Utah, various Indian attacks, a stagecoach that ran between San Bernardino and Los Angeles, a flood that changed the landscape, the first bees brought into the area and a toll road being established over the Cajon Pass. And, that’s only some of the things I learned IN ONE HISTORICAL NOVEL!

Never underestimate the value of well researched material that is threaded into an historical novel. You will have been entertained. More importantly, you will have been educated!

Appreciative of historical fiction, Gloria


Where in the World?

We want to write a historical novel. But set where, and when? There’s a big, wide world to choose from, and thousands of years. Some places and times are more relevant to children than others. Unless we’re writing about Bible eras, the last few hundred years will probably catch their imagination easier than prior times. Although Nancy and I both enjoy writing middle grade novels about American Revolutionary War years, other less significant times can be exciting too, and even obscure events and places can be intriguing when presented in a keep-the-pages-turning style. Check out the American Girl History Mystery series to see what I mean.

After the where and when have been established for our story, we create an unforgettable character to be propelled through the plot we also create that is full of tension, surprises and even a few laughs. Add supporting characters including the antagonist—no two alike, and some but not too many subplots. Weave in details of setting and description that will make the time and place come alive. Again, for kids, we don’t want too much.

Where do we find those details? Research and more research. The broad picture is important, but we look for primary sources—letters, journals, even newspapers, for the details that can make us “feel” for the times. We might find conflicting records of events. History is, after all, written by people and even eyewitness accounts can vary from person to person. If we’re fortunate enough to visit or live in the location we are writing about, we can check out the local museums like Catherine suggested. Also, hunt up historical sites that have been preserved, such as the Palomares Adobe close by us in La Verne, Calif. We love it? Kids will, too!

-contributed by Shirley Shibley

Let Your Characters Speak

Creating a fictional character’s voice in historical fiction can be similar to creating voice in any work of fiction, but how do you create the voice for the nonfiction characters in your historical fiction novel?

My solution is to let the historical characters speak for themselves. Find primary sources, letters, journals, diaries, interviews, quotes, and articles or books they wrote. Look for phrases they used themselves, mannerisms that were reflected in their writings, and personality traits that you can use for them in your own manuscripts.

For instance, in my historical fiction about Valley Forge, I have a real character named Cato Baker. Cato was an African American soldier in the Continental Army who spent the winter suffering at Valley Forge with the rest of the troops. He wrote home to tell about it! His letter, as found a collection of papers described in Strong and Brave Fellows by Glenn A. Knoblock, says:

Mr. Jeremiah Belknap, I have met with this opportunity [to] write to you and your family___. As these few lines have left me Sir, I am well (and) in good health and I thank God, for it [is] of his good will to hath been my guard in all these battles I have been in and I had the small pox in Valley Forge last March___, but now I am of good health…

When Cato appears in my historical fiction novel, I let him speak with his very own words. He says things such as, “I have met with this opportunity,” and “I thank God for it is his good will,” and “I had the small pox but now I am of good health.”

Cato Baker, himself, helped me find the voice to use for him in my historical fiction. Let your nonfiction characters speak in their own voice, too.

-Contributed by Nancy I. Sanders

Make Them Believe

I was deeply touched recently while reading comments from children about why they love reading. Some comments made me smile. Others brought me to tears. These children read fiction chapter books and historical fiction. I’ve rephrased what they said. Perhaps their comments will influence how you write historical fiction. I know it has changed my perspective. Listen to the children you write for:

From an 11 year old: When I read a book all of my troubles leave. I feel as though I’m in the book.

From a 10 year old: When I’m in the story it feels just like I’m the character. It feels like whatever happens to the character is happening to me. It’s like I’m in another world and I never really leave that other world until I finish the book. But even when I’m finished reading the book I’m still there in my mind.

From a 13 year old: Reading helps me escape from a hard day. Reading has helped me to learn right from wrong.

From an 11 year old: Reading is how I escape my life. Without a book I feel lost and empty. If I wasn’t able to read I would be bored and might die. To me reading is a way of survival.

From a 12 year old: Reading does NOT make you nerd or a dork! Reading is one of the greatest pleasures in life. I think the people who make fun of you for reading all the time are the nerds! Reading improves your vocabulary and knowledge.

From an 11 year old: Reading is like going on a vacation. It’s like seeing a movie in your own head and you don’t miss any of the good scenes. When you are sad and lonely and all your friends are gone, a book can be your friend.

From a 12 year old: When I read I can go to the past, present, or future. I feel like I’m exploring and journeying.

From a 14 year old: When I read I feel like I’m traveling to different worlds. I can be somebody else.

From a 12 year old: I can feel the authors words and see pictures in my head. Books are like portals. You can laugh, or be frightened or suddenly be plunged into a dangerous plot. Reading can calm you down when you are mad and when you are sad, reading can soothe you.

From a 13 year old: I feel like I’m really there. If you are lonely, you can read a book about people who are friendly and nice and you feel like they are your friends.

From a 12 year old: Books can help you follow your dreams or even become a hero. There is a whole world waiting to be discovered!

From a 13 year old: I love to read because it helps get me through hard times. When you have a book you will always have a friend.

From a 9 year old: When I read it takes me away from everything that’s going on and brings me to a whole new world.

From a 13 year old: Books can take you all around the world. They can keep you company when you’re lonely. BOOKS MAKE US BELIEVE.

Lots of children need a whole new world for many reasons. Books were referred to as friends, a way to escape troubles, a way to explore, follow their dreams, take a vacation in their mind, even learn right from wrong. To one child, reading was actually referred to as a way of survival.  I wonder how many children feel that way.

If you never really thought you could actually change a life with your writing…think again. Write for the children who NEED books in a way some of us never imagined.  Write and MAKE THEM BELIEVE!


Source:  Alan L. Brown’s website at

Confessions of Another History-Hater

I, too, was one of those students who found history class, especially in high school, a chore and a bore.  What did I care about all those long-ago times, places, and events we had to memorize, when there were clothes to admire, make-up to decide on, and actual dates to be had???


Of course, I always loved English class, and without my realizing it, I was already “into” historical fiction.  Books such as Edna Ferber’s Giant and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind were giving me an excellent background to the history of the U.S., especially the South and Southwest.


Later, as a young wife and mom, as my kids attended story hour at the library, I stumbled onto the excellent author, Norah Lofts.  What a wonderful world she opened up to me!  Her books have sometimes been classified as “historical romances,” but they are so much more.  In many of her books, the life and times of people in the Middle Ages are so interestingly detailed that I’ve read some of them over and over.  Those books caused me to become a dedicated Anglophile for life.  And, Lofts’ novel about Anne Boleyn, The Concubine, led me to reading, for about a 10-15 year period, everything I could get my hands on, both fiction and non-fiction, about Henry VIII and life in England at that time.


History was now truly coming alive for me, and I wondered how I could have found such a wealth of interesting stories so boring.  Could it be that the history books didn’t present nearly the compelling picture that the books I was now discovering did?  I do remember there was a series of small books in our school library that each focused on a different person throughout the history of America.  One I particularly recall was about a person called A.P. Giannini.  Because I didn’t pick it up, for many years I thought it was about the founder of the A&P stores.  Only when I worked in a library years later, did I learn it was really about the founder of Bank of America!  Since I’ve lived in this area for most of my life, I’ve now also taken an interest in local history.  As my daughter says, “Mom not only knows what’s on nearly every corner in San Bernardino and Redlands, she also knows what used to be there!”


Today, young people have a wealth of historical novels to choose from, to help bring alive for them a variety of different eras and lands.  Just a few of the many that focus on American history are the wonderful American Girl and Dear America series, and of course our own Marilyn Donahue’s books that deal with the early days of the San Bernardino Valley.  Let’s hope that through these and other books future generations of readers will not take as long as some of us have to discover the delights to be found in history and historical fiction.

Contributed by Marjorie Flathers

Finding Your Historical Voice (continued)

As soon as I knew what I was going to write about, I began with setting, for I instinctively knew that everything has to happen somewhere. The locale I would write about was, of course, the valley that is home to me.

I love our mountains. I love the canyons, cut between hills that seem to roll over upon themselves like bread dough being kneaded. I love the smell of sage, manzanita, yucca, and wild lilac. I love  the way morning mist plays over those warm springs that still exist in large numbers beneath the surface of the earth. I love it when winter rains swell the creeks where I waded as a child. I love the sycamores with their spotted, twisted trunks and big leaves that rustle in the wind. And I love the north wind — the Santana –that arrives with a lusty howl and makes the air so clear that I can reach out and trace the mountain shadows with my fingertips.

So did Emmy, my thirteen-year-old heroine. She loved it all as much as I did. I let her live on an island in Lytle Creek, much as my own great-grandmother had lived. I let threatening flood waters pour down the canyon. I sat with her as she picked flowers in the sunshine. I felt her sorrows and her gladness. 

Other characters, however, had different feelings about the place they lived. Tawny Crawford, the villainous character from Straight Along a Crooked Road, who was removed from the wagon train, only to appear again on the lawless streets of early San Bernardino, saw the valley as a chance to become powerful. Moss Murphy, a mountain man I had become fond of, saw it as a haven for himself and his Indian wife. Luanna, Emmy’s sister and the heroine of book one, found that the valley was the happy end of her journey.

After I decided who was going to be in the book, I did what all good authors do. I sat back and listened. I wrote pages of description, narrative, and dialogue, and I listened some more.  At last I heard my characters speak in their own voices. This is what finding your historical voice is all about — feeling the way into your characters and discovering how different they all sound.

There is no one single historical voice in a book — even though I felt closest to Emmy, my heroine, and heard her voice most often. There are many voices. A unique one for each character.

My characters respond strongly to the place — the setting in which they find themselves. It influences their actions, their decisions, their dreams. Sometimes I sit with my eyes closed, my fingers on the keyboard, and let them guide me.

If I write a third part to this series, it will be about character development in historical fiction. But for now, let the voices ring out!

Submitted by Marilyn Donahue

A Source for History

Most kids nowadays find museums boring. They contain nothing but a bunch of old dusty displays that hold very little relevance for children, at least in their own opinion.

But what if we as writers visit these very same museums and use them as building blocks for a story? We can visit the exhibits, pick up clues for a particular time and place, and then weave in an adventure that would turn that historical moment into something exciting.

We have easy access now with the web to help in our research; but nothing beats seeing a real covered wagon, or a Civil War officer’s uniform, or an old Roman coin, and imagining what life would have been like for those people.

Looking for inspiration for your stories? Visit a museum and see what historical element stirs your creativity.

Contributed by Catherine L. Osornio