Last Friday, I wrote a post about historic fiction, specifically how hard it is to do well. In his comments to this post, author David Patneaude questioned why so many editors and publisher shy away from historic fiction in spite of recent award winning novels and the fact that the books are used in schools.
Coincidentally, I just finished reading one of David’s books, Thin Wood Walls. Thanks to David and his book, I have something else to say on writing good historic fiction.
Make it relevant.
David’s book is about 11 year-old Joe Hanada, a Japanese American boy living on America’s West Coast at the time of the Pearl Harbor bombings. Since this is historic fiction, I’m not spoiling anything for you when I point out that Joe and his family end up living in an internment camp, specifically Tule Lake.
Some people might argue that Japanese Americans are a smallish percentage of our population (no, I haven’t looked up the numbers) and thus this is too much of a niche story. Part of the reason that this book has found an audience is because it is highly relevant to today’s reader because of two subjects within the book.
Shortly after the book opens, the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor. Joe sees people who were friendly enough turn against him and his family. Even before they are moved to the camp, they experience outright hostility. His father is arrested for being an active leader in the Japanese American community. This topic is relevant for today’s reader because of strong parallels between Joe’s experience and how 9/11 effected attitudes towards Middle Eastern and Muslim residents of our own country.
The second subject that makes this book relevant is bullying. Joe is bullied outside of the camp, because he is Japanese, and inside of the camp because he isn’t Japanese enough. I don’t think I need to go into why this is a relevant topic for today’s reader.
If you are going to write and submit historic fiction, make sure your story connects with what is going on in the world today. Don’t just write a book about a girl on a wagon train. Write a book about a girl on a wagon train whose family is forced to relocate so that her father can find work. I’m not telling you to insert something that couldn’t have been, but work to bring out the parallels between then and now. You will have a deeper story and it will be one that clicks with your editor and young readers.