Agent Monday: Getting Historical

Antique pocket watch - closeup on very old pocket watchHappy Agent Monday, gang!  With this weekend involving turning back clocks, I thought this would be a great time to talk a bit about historical novels (clever, huh?).  So here are some thoughts about getting historical.

I spent last weekend at the wonderful SCBWI Eastern PA Critique Fest, where I sat down with many authors critiquing manuscripts ranging from picture book through YA.  What a great experience! I did have a number of historical manuscripts to crit there, and I’ve also gotten many queries and sample chapters in my agent inbox recently that were historical middle grade, YA or adult.  Some intriguing stories, and fascinating time periods!  But also I found some familiar issues popping up, too. Things that held the story back or got in the way of the plot.

The biggest problem? The author felt challenged about providing historical context and facts – all having to do with world-building, really.  So we ended up with spending a lot of time in those opening pages explaining what was going on in the world at that time – something the characters would never do if they lived way back then.  Imagine you the writer lived 100 years from now and were writing a story about 2013.  Would you have your character thinking, wow, here I am taking off my shoes at an airport because a few years back this horrific act of terrorism happened…and let me just go over all that happened on that horrible day politically and terror-wise so you know why I’m taking off my shoes now?

Yeah, that wouldn’t happen. It would be clunky and unrealistic. Instead, in a story set in a world of hyper-security and scrutiny, the character in our current time would just move forward with the story, and details would present themselves as things progressed, providing context for the reader as relevant. They would notice the cameras trained on them in the parking lot perhaps as they rushed toward the airport, dealing with their own issues, goals, conflicts. The airport PA system would make those “watch out for stuff” announcements, and officers would stand by with bomb sniffing dogs. Our character would remove his shoes, even as he’s thinking about the personal plot challenge that is set in front of him…perhaps he needs to get something from point A to point B without being seen by authorities for something that has nothing to do with terrorism, but everything to do with his family’s well-being.  And voila! The reader will understand the context and the history of that time AS IT RELATES TO THE STORY.

It’s all in the details and how history actually intersects at that moment with the character’s world. Give us what’s relevant. When characters spend paragraphs at the outset detailing for the reader all that research the writer’s done about that time, I check out of the story, honestly. But give me a character I believe in and care about, give me an obstacle with high stakes that they must face, and I’ll follow you for pages and pages as you take them through their world. And I’ll absorb the details of the time and figure out how the era really is and impacts the characters. And yes, here and there as you move along, you could drop in some facts as they become relevant to that character’s world. It’s not about giving the reader a lecture, though. It’s about serving the story and plot. In the end, the reader will have learned a ton about that time and its history. That’s one of the joys of reading historical novels, right?  But it’s all in how you do it.

I’m extremely proud to represent some truly kick-ass historical authors, including Harmony Verna and M.P. Barker. Harmony’s debut manuscript is an adult historical titled FROM ROOTS TO WINGS. She has us immediately worry and care about an orphan abandoned in the Australian desert in the late 1800s, and about a crippled miner who discovers her and saves her. And over the course of this engrossing novel we need to know that somehow they will end up okay. That’s the heart of the story.  But we learn so much as we follow the tale. About harsh living. About the mines. About farming in the Australian wheat belt. About WWI, about Australia’s sacrifices during the war. And about the wealthy Pittsburgh elite. About the Aborigines. Oh, the knowledge we gain feels endless. Yet not once do we feel lectured to.

M.P. Barker’s novels A DIFFICULT BOY (Holiday House 2008) and MENDING HORSES (Holiday House, coming out this spring!) are fabulous examples of historical novels done right for the upper middle grade and YA audiences, and I highly recommend you grab one of these and see how deftly she creates that character, makes us love him, and then throws him into peril so that we simply must know he’ll survive and thrive some day. And the lush details of New England life in the 1800s are simply stunning. Again, she never loads the readers with facts and figures — just has her characters live their lives in this time. And we learn a ton about rural life back then, bigotry against the Irish, the horrors of indentured servitude, the world of both the privileged and the poor.  It truly is an education. But first of all, these are fabulous novels, and the story always holds center stage.

So if you are interested in querying me about your historical novel, I’d love to see it! But be sure that you don’t fall into the trap of historical info dumping and killing the reality you want to build. Take me into another time in a believable way with a character I’ll care about. I’m looking forward to the trip!


*Marie is an Associate Agent at the Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency in New York City.  To keep up with all her posts, subscribe to her site by clicking on the “Subscribe to Marie’s site here” link located on her page on the upper left margin.


9 thoughts on “Agent Monday: Getting Historical

  1. Thanks for the plug, Marie!! One of the perils of writing historical fiction is the “I’ve suffered for my research, now it’s YOUR turn” syndrome–it is a big challenge to NOT include all those juicy details that you’ve spent so much time digging up, or those historical oddities that you just love but that don’t move your story along. Sometimes I whimper when I hack those needless details out, but hack I must!

    • Hi Michele!

      A very deserved plug 🙂 And it is so true. When I wrote my novel DRAWN I ran into the same problem. SO many juicy details. Surely they had to fit in somewhere. But alas, no. Well, save that stuff in a folder… maybe in a future book, right?

  2. Marie, I beg and pray that this was a purpose pitch right at me! Your critique yesterday hit home. I went direct to the library after work, dead set on reading “A Difficult Boy” — the best I could do was filling out a form recommending that the country system purchase it. On to the neighboring county tomorrow!

    • Hi Millicent!

      A number of folks definitely helped inspire this post 🙂 I’m glad you requested it from the library. The novel can also be purchased (which is what I did) via a number of online routes. Best of luck with your writing!

  3. Great stuff. I have dealt with this two ways myself. First, for contemporaneous characters, I did just as you described in the airport scene. Just putting my five senses in my characters’ bodies worked for me. In the book that I would have workshopped at SCWBI if I had the membership fee, I had my main character growing more and more aware of the sights, smells, sounds, and feeling of 1944 Denmark and Sweden each time he visits. That trick involved a little science fiction or magical realism, but it seemed to evoke the feel of a stranger in a strange land.

    • Hi Ronald,

      Yeah, it’s definitely a matter of keeping the story in the center of things, no matter what time it’s set in. And world building can be tricky that way. Thanks for stopping by.

  4. Pingback: Top Picks Thursday 11-14-2013 | The Author Chronicles

  5. Wonderful post! I totally want to go to a critiquefest!!! I haven’t heard of one before. I spent the summer doing my own critiquefest. I critiqued 29 novels, pbs, queries, poems, bios for writing friends. It was a great time.

    I hope my historical fiction (mg) takes the reader into my main character’s world. I did loads of research about WWII, life in England during that time, and what happened to lots of evacuees.

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