Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

What, Me? Write Historical Fiction? -- Part 2

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Today I’m continuing my conversation with PAT BOURKE, who has just published her first book for children, a historical novel, and MARGARET BUFFIE, a celebrated writer of ten children’s books, including four historical fiction novels.

ME: Pat, how would you describe the main challenges of writing historical fiction for children?

PAT BOURKE: My biggest challenge is giving an accurate picture of the details of life in that time period, because kids are very keen observers and details are so important in bringing a story alive. This means I’m always coming up with questions that need answering.

For instance, I needed to know what kinds of medicine a doctor might have to offer in 1918, whether zippers had been invented yet, how much the newspaper cost, and funeral customs. Writing historical fiction is a bit like a treasure hunt. It’s fun to stumble over unexpected facts that can help paint the picture for readers.

ME: And Margaret? Do you still find challenges when you write historical fiction, even after completing four books that successfully transport their readers into the past?

MARGARET BUFFIE: The biggest challenge for me is to not allow the historical research to dominate the telling of the story. When I do my research, I fall into it head first because I love this part of the process. But once I read all I can on a particular time and place, I have to put all the research away and just write the story. If I put in too many historical details then I’m indulging myself -- and the reader, I know, will get impatient with me for “showing off” everything I soaked up during my research!

ME: Pat, you’re fresh from writing your own first manuscript of historical fiction for kids. What are the three main tips you’d offer another writer is about to embark on the same journey?


1. Develop a main character who intrigues you as a person no matter what time period he or she inhabits, and whose story will interest your readers. Kids today face many of the same problems and important issues that kids have always faced: What will my future be? How am I unique? What will happen when I leave my family and go out into the world? How do I tell truth from lies, and friends from foes?

2. Find a time period that you’re curious or excited about – you’ll be spending a lot of time thinking about it and imagining what life was like then.

3. Look at original sources if you can. I was able to read about the Spanish Influenza epidemic in archived copies of daily newspapers in Toronto from the fall of 1918, and I was able to look at photographs of people and places from the time in the online Toronto archives.

ME: Margaret, what are three tips from the pro?


1. Pick an historical time that really interests you.

2. Do your research meticulously, then let it go it when you start writing. When you need to pull up specific information about the history of the times to make the story authentic, it will be there in your head and in the notes you made.

3. Don’t let the research take over the story!

ME: Do you read much historical fiction? What are some historical novels you'd recommend for adult readers?

PAT BOURKE: I love to read historical fiction. I’ve particularly enjoyed:

• Sandra Gulland’s JOSEPHINE B. TRILOGY that traces the life of Josephine deBeauharnais, daughter of a Caribbean plantation owner who married Napolean Bonaparte and became Empress of France. Wonderful, rich detail about this turbulent time in France’s history.

• Tracy Chevalier’s REMARKABLE CREATURES exploring the role of women in uncovering dinosaur-era fossils in Britain. I love how her books give me a new understanding and perspective on historical events.

• Sheri Holman's THE DRESS LODGER which introduced me to the world famous potteries of England in 1931, the sad life of the young women who worked as prostitutes, the illicit “body snatchers” who provided cadavers for medical students to practise on, and the ravages of cholera.

ME: I know readers will want to know what books set in the past you have most enjoyed, Margaret. Can you share your favourites with us?

MARGARET BUFFIE: As a child, my favourite single historical novel was HEIDI by Johanna Spyri. My mother had to read it over and over again to me.

I was more into fantasy, fairy tales and mysteries, but I also loved THE SECRET GARDEN, TOM’S MIDNIGHT GARDEN, LITTLE WOMEN, and of course ANNE OF GREEN GABLES. Later, I also enjoyed books like A TRAVELLER IN TIME by Allison Uttley, THE EMPTY SLEEVE by Leon Garfield, CARRIE’S WAR by Nina Bawden, and many others. It's hard to define the novels of L. M. Montgomery, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle, the Brontë sisters, and so on as “historical” -- they were once, in fact, contemporary to an author's time -- but those are some of my favourite "historical" writers as an adult.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Susan Hughes

Susan Hughes is an award-winning author whose books include The Island Horse, Case Closed?, No Girls Allowed, Earth to Audrey and Virginia.

Go to Susan Hughes’s Author Page