Historical Fiction

Midnight MagicThere is the term “historical fiction,” and I think we can all agree that it is a work of fiction (that is, imagination) based on historical fact. But historical fiction covers an unusually wide range of literary work. There can be novels such as my Midnight Magic, which, while ostensibly set in Renaissance Italy (Naples) is rather like a costume drama that takes general modes of thought from the time, but has virtually no historical fact. Then there are books like my Iron Thunder, in which I tried to replicate a deeply researched reality, so that even the boy protagonist was a real person.

There is, of course, a wide middle ground, in which a writer such as me tries to capture the historical reality, and then inserts manifestly fictional characters (Sophia’s War and City of Orphans).

Sophia's WarI just finished a new work of historical fiction. It was a challenge because the historical moment, which all agree happened, is usually (if then) hardly more than an anecdotal footnote. While I tried to stick to the facts, virtually everything else is invented by me—because no one knows what really occurred.
At the conclusion of the tale, I have a commoner and a king (both historically real people) engage in a vital conversation, in which the king says something that I hope effectively sums up what the whole book is about.

My editor says, “But the real king would never say that.”

City of OrphansMy reply, “I agree. But this is a work of fiction, and my book needs him to say that.”

In short, historical fiction is fiction. That’s a fact.

Beyond the book

teaching guidesHere’s another thing I don’t do on my own.

I am thankful for the educators who have prepared teaching guides, readers’ guides, and discussion questions for a number of my books. These are available on my website. It’s helpful to have a place to start when you’re planning to use Crispin or Midnight Magic or Iron Thunder in your classroom or book club.

I’ve even had a couple of individual readers tell me they use these guides once they’ve read a book because they like thinking more critically about their reading experience.

Bibliographies, libraries, and bookstores … oh, my

open bookA reader here asks: “I would love to hear more about your tips for students on how to start the research process and lessons you have learned on how to sift through the vast amount of information on the internet.”

Research is a puzzle for many people, I think, because they approach a subject without previous knowledge. As a result, the massive amount of information on a given subject is indeed overwhelming.

Sophia's WarIf you look at my historical novels you will see that they, by and large, concern the United States and the United Kingdom, with some about Europe. I read history for the pleasure of it, focusing on these areas. When you have a general knowledge of say, the American Revolution, it’s much easier to write about something in particular that happened, such as I did in Sophia’s War.

As to how to get information, and detail, if you will, about a particular moment, here are my suggestions.

Let us say you are interested in an incident during the Battle of Gettysburg, during our Civil War. The literature is vast. Here’s what you do.

Get a good, recent, general history of the Civil War. Read it so you have a general sense of big events. Learn why, for instance, the Battle of Gettysburg is considered important.

That general history, if it’s any good, will have a bibliography at the back of the book. See which books are cited for that battle. Choose one or two of them, and read them.

Those books will also have bibliographies. And those bibliographies will lead you to more books—and articles—which are more precisely concerned with your subject.

And so forth … you keep narrowing down to specifics—via bibliographies—to find out what you want to know.

Photo: Vladim Kulikov, Shakespeare & Sons bookstore, Prague

Photo: Vladim Kulikov, Shakespeare & Sons bookstore, Prague

How do you get your hands on these books, and articles? Your public library is a great place to begin. If they don’t have the title you want, many have interlibrary loan systems which will get what you need. Then—yes, on the internet—Google Scholar can help. Then, yes, again on the internet, seek out used-book dealers, and you can buy—often very cheaply—hard-to-find titles.

All during this process you should be reading, learning general and particular things. Finally, it is up to you to decide which particular details are interesting, revealing, and yes, entertaining to use. Just how to do that suggests another posting here.

In general I suggest that the more you know about the big picture, so to speak, the more you see the details.


Your Title HereThe English word title, as in title of a book, is very old, a part of Old English vocabulary. They are very hard to write. [You can read what I have written here about some of my titles in a March 19, 2012 posting]. Sometimes a title emerges early in the book writing process. However, sometimes that doesn’t work—or is rejected as not helpful for a variety of reasons—and you have to create one. This is current because my editor and I have been trying to find a title for a new collection of short stories. It does not help insofar as this is a collection of stories, and trying to find a title that embraces all has been difficult. Between us, going back and forth, I think we have come up with something like fifteen titles—none of them working.

What do you want in a title? The title is often the first contact a potential reader has with a book. They may well hear of it before they ever see the actual book. Therefore, it is enormously important. It should have some energy. (Sophia’s War) It should be strongly suggestive of the book’s content. (Catch You Later, Traitor) It is great if you can extract a key line from your book. (City of Orphans) It helps if it is original. (Iron Thunder) (One title we came up with had been used more than fifteen times!) If it has a meaning all of its own, so much the better. (The Book without Words) Moreover, as an editor once suggested to me, in this age of the internet, with tiny cover images on the screen, the fewer the words the better. (Old Wolf)

Have we come up with a title? We have. Will I post it here? No. Why? I’m betting it will change yet again.

Short story or marathon?

ready to runIs writing a short story very different than writing a novella or a novel? My own experience suggests the answer is no. Good writing is good writing, and the goal is to achieve quality no matter what you write. But surely, you say, there must be some differences when composing these different forms. Actually, in my opinion there is, but again, not in the writing.

The difference lies in the conception of the story you wish to relate. That is, when I begin, the length of the story provokes a different way of thinking about my story.

When I thought of writing Crispin, the Cross of Lead, I thought of it as a multi-volume story, and almost immediately conceptualized what the four volumes would be. (Well yes, the fourth volume has never been written, but I still know what the plot of that fourth volume is, and I even know the last moments of the tale. Someday…) When I wrote Sophia’s War, the overall arc of the story was broadly defined in my head, right from the first page. Even when I wrote City of Orphans, I had the overall complexity of the story in my head. No, by no means did I have it all sorted out—far from it—but I knew I wanted to write a novel.

However, when I compose a short story, and I have just been writing a few of them, my sense of the plot begins with knowing that the tale I intend to write will be short. That in turn informs my writing.

Yes, I could take the same idea and recalibrate it into something longer (that has happened) but most often, I choose not to.

I suspect it would be the same if you are a runner. If you intend to run a marathon, your thought process would be different than if you were going to run a fifty-yard dash. Note that in both cases, you are running, but you run in a different way. And when the “Start” gun is sounded you know what you have to do.

All about details

John, from Riverhead, NY, writes, “I love all the detail in your books. How do you find it, and then decide what to do about it?”


Well, John, the information comes from lots of places; things I have noticed, remembered, read about, or researched. But knowing the details is one thing, what do with it is quite another. There are countless styles of writing. Some writing is very sparse, with almost no physical details. If you look at book of mine such as Who Was That Masked Man Anyway? there is no descriptive detail whatsoever. It’s all dialogue. Then, consider a book like Traitor’s Gate, where there is so much description that one reviewer commented that the City of London (where the story takes place) is depicted in such detail it was virtually a character in the story.

In other words, it is the nature of the book that determines how much and what kind of detail you wish to write. That is to say, detail, or the lack of it, defines the kind of story you are telling. Moreover, the kind of detail you put in makes a big difference. The detail in Crispin helps reveal the medieval world. The detail in Sophia’s War help reveal the cruelty of British Prisons. The details in the Poppy books reveal the characters.

Moreover, what you leave out is just as important as what you put in. I think the best way to decide about detail, is that it should give life to the experience being narrated. Too much detail and you have a textbook. Too little and it’s hard to see the characters.

No wonder folks say, “The Devil is in the details.”

Spices and herbs

City of OrphansIf you were writing a book set in the fourteenth century, you might describe a character as “whispering,” but might that character say, “whisper to me”?

No, because it is not until Shakespeare used the word, in 1609 in his play, Pericles, that it enters the written language.

I know this because I checked with my (online) Oxford Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language (referenced often as the OED).

Does it matter in your writing? I suppose the answer is yes and no. Would you have an ancient Briton look out upon a Roman Legion for the first time and mutter, “Totally awesome.” I think not. However, no one will clap you into jail if you do. Still, if you love words—I do—I think it makes a difference.

Obviously, I do not check every word.

Sophia's WarNonetheless, my own rule for this is that if I can use a key word from the time about which I am writing, which is self-explanatory, I will use it. Thus in City of Orphans, a teenager is described as “pout-mouthed.” Anyone who knows children will instantly understand this marvelous word, which was used around the turn of the Nineteenth Century. Since I stumbled upon it, I have used it in other works and in conversation. You are welcome to spread the word. Pout-mouthed. Totally awesome.

In my most recently published book, Sophia’s War, set in New York City during the American Revolution, I used some of the vocabulary current at that time. I even put a glossary of these words at the back of the book, such as “glowflies” (fireflies) or “pixie-led” (confused).

A current project, set in Fifteenth Century England, uses such words as “brainsick” for crazy, “misfortuned” for poor, and “dreariheaded,” for sad. They are accurate for the time. I think of these words as the spices and herbs one uses to flavor a stew, a word, I need caution you, that only enters the written English language in 1594.

Do not take me at my word. Check the OED.

Girls’ books

Landon, from Powell, Ohio asks, “Why do you tell some stories from a girl’s perspective like in Charlotte Doyle?” 

Well, Landon, as I understand it, slightly more than half the world’s population is female. I do not think I want to ignore that many people. I have many good friends, boys, girls, men, and women. Moreover, in our culture, I think girls tend to read more than boys do—though I wish both boys and girls read equally.

In addition, in our culture boys and girls often (not always) learn to think differently about the world. When you write a story, it becomes deeper and, I think better, when different characters react differently to the events in a story.

True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle Secret School Sophia's War

In the case of True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, I think the story is interesting because it is about a girl’s transformation from one kind of girl to another kind of girl. It is not that she becomes a boy, but that she remains a girl, even as she becomes truer to herself.

As for Ida in The Secret School, I wrote it the way I did because I heard stories about going to a one-room schoolhouse from a woman who went—when she was a girl—to such a school.

Most recently there is Sophia’s War. She is the main character because she is torn between her affection for John André (the British soldier) and her passionate belief in the American Revolution. I think that is what makes the story interesting.

I do not want to write boys’ books or girls’ books. I want to write good books.

Historical accuracy

Crispin Cross of Lead, Sophia's WarEver since Sir Walter Scott invented historical fiction with his novel Waverly (1814), there have been many kinds and definitions of the form.

One of the questions that comes up repeatedly is historical accuracy. It is a complex question and usually has an equally complex answer. One can try to be accurate, but it is almost impossible to be completely accurate.

Start with language. My Crispin, takes place in 14th Century England, at a time when Middle English was spoken. Never mind that I cannot write Middle English, my readers could not read it. Therefore, I tried to give the prose a poetic beat, to approximate a Chaucerian voice. Different, but readable.

In Sophia’s War, in which 18th century colonial English is spoken, I tried to employ word usage of that day, to suggest a voice from that time. Thus “Shay-brained,” for silly, or “hurly-burly” for commotion. In addition, it was useful to be aware that colonial English could be different from, say, London English of the time. Maybe my readers will not catch that, but it is meaningful to me as a writer.

Sometimes I’ve been taken to task for putting too much religion in my medieval novels, or, for example, in a novel set in the 1950’s for allowing my adult characters to smoke too many cigarettes. Yet, as far as I am concerned, it is the way things were and it helps tell the story in a vivid historical context

My approach is to try to differentiate the historical time from the present time by showing how characters thought in such and such a time, even as I reveal a physical world that is not the contemporary world. That said, emotions, motivation, and personality must be recognizable to my readers today.

In short, one wants to avoid potheration (18th century English for confusion) while making the book upstirring (18th century English for stimulating).

The Revolutionary War Comes Alive

Recently, the recorded version of Sophia’s War was a School Library Journal Pick of the Day. I extend my thanks to the folks at SLJ.

Here’s what they had to say:

Sophia's WarSet in 1776 during the American Revolution when New York was under siege by the British, Avi’s tale (S & S/Beach Lane Books, 2012) of resistance features an amazing female protagonist, trials aplenty as she tries to avenge her brother’s death, and a little romance thrown in for good measure. Sophia’s family believes in freedom and desperately wants America to govern itself. Her brother goes off to fight, is captured, and ends up dying in a filthy hold of a British prison boat. John Andre, a charming English officer who is billeted with Sophia’s family, fails to intervene to save her brother. Despite having a schoolgirl crush on Andre, Sophia is conflicted by his failure to save her brother. After witnessing the execution of Nathan Hale, Sophia is determined to help the American cause. Recruited as a spy, she becomes a maid in the home of the commander of the British forces in America. Sophia uncovers some crucial information and sets out to reach West Point before Benedict Arnold can turn it over to the British. Avi’s outstanding text and Angela Goethals’s spot-on narration make the Revolutionary War come alive for listeners, providing a real sense of the time period. A perfect choice for school and public libraries.

Grades 5 to 9. 6 cassettes or 6 CDs. 7:15 hrs. Recorded Books. 2012. cassette: ISBN 978-1-4703-2043-0, CD: ISBN 978-1-4703-2042-3. $66.75.