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Fictionalizing History for Young Readers

16 March, 2015 | By Goldie Alexander


Back in the dark ages the history I was taught when very young consisted of memorising facts and dates. I could recite all the kings and queens of England, though I knew almost nothing of our own history. I recall with wry amusement a first year university British History course made up entirely of 16th Century documents, but with no explanation as to why I was required to understand them.

In a way fictionalizing history is writing about time. Time is the element in which we all live much like fish in water and yet the realisation that time flows on and on and never flows backward is one of the most stunning of childhood discoveries. Time is what makes discovering history so important, because time is the narrative of mankind. It provides answers as to how people lived in the past as well as the roots of contemporary laws, customs, and political ideas. The accuracy of that old adage, “you can’t know where you are going unless you know where you have been” holds true. Historians realize history does repeat itself, though with different permutations. This repetition has importance in all societies. It teaches younger generations the value of certain social attitudes, it helps social change and gives sound governmental policies. A good example is the Aborigines of Australia who managed to hang onto their history for 40,000 years by word of mouth. A knowledge of history clearly proves early man’s love of the arts and demonstrates that once a civilization is able to maintain a steady food supply that their creative ideas flowed whether the evidence appeared on rock walls, papyrus, or cedar bark.

A child immersed in facebook, twitter, instagram, or playing the latest computer game, might ask, why bother with those old stories? So the challenge for us authors who write historical fiction is to make these stories as relevant and exciting as any Hunger Game or Vampire novel and to write what our youngsters will enjoy, and incidentally learn a lot. I think this can happen if the author is able to turn the story into a compelling ‘here and now’ narrative. The best historical fiction works on the premise of “What if you were there at the time?”

It goes without saying that all historical fiction in whichever medium it appears (film, TV, or novel) must be based on careful research.  My favourite faux pas is Elizabeth Taylor’s ‘Cleopatra costume’ with its frontal zip and the extra wearing a watch. Does anyone here recall that? Nothing is more irritating coming across a glaring error such as dialogue set well in the past in the past using a contemporary idiom.

There are certain rules we authors keep. We know that good historical fiction has a strong internal logic and is easy for young readers to follow. If the story darts too quickly between ‘times’, unless this is carefully stated, this can confuse even a sophisticated adult.  And the story must contain some kind of quest. The characters must have a clear idea of what they desire or fear. They must be wholly rounded, and as three dimensional as if living in the present. The reader must be able to identify with these characters and feel empathy or compassion for their situation.

Some writers worry that readers might not like characters who exhibit typical prejudices of their time. But flawed characters who gain the readers’ sympathy and understanding despite their flaws are a key element of good fiction. Good historical fiction balances a characters’ flaws with qualities we can respect and admire, and gains sympathy for them without excusing prejudice, cruelty and the like.

I have written a number of historical novels for young readers. As an Aussie author, I mostly stick to our own history. I fictionalised the lives of our First Fleet in “My Australian Story Surviving Sydney Cove”; wrote about life during the Great Depression in “Mavis Road Medley”; wrote about the little known non-indigenous discovery of Uluru in “The Youngest Cameleer”; explored the First World War for very young readers in “Gallipoli Medals”; and imagined life in Melbourne just before World War Two in “Lilbet’s Romance”. One of my recent novels ‘That Stranger Next Door’ centres on the Australian equivalent of the mid-fifties McCarthy Senate inquiries and can be compared to the Children Overboard incident as both have political overtones. I believe the events I use as my settings have helped shape my country as to what it is now.  My most recent novel ‘My Holocaust Story: Hanna’, my only historical novel set in the Warsaw Ghetto, partly shaped what I am now,

Browsing, I came across this comment in Good Reads; “Historical fiction gives me the opportunity to engage with what it would be like to live in those times. It is always great when you find a good source and even more so if that source confirms what you have already imagined. There is so much to learn from the past, it would be waste to just write about our day to day presence.

Writers are often chastised for writing about the past – as if only 21st Century problems are relevant, as if writing fantasy is the only way we will persuade youngsters to read. Certainly there are vogues involving vampires, zombies, super- adventurous girls, and a heap of Tolkien-style fantasy. In the end I doubt they will have a long life. These novels are often commercially driven and may only last until something new takes over. On the other hand history is never out of fashion and fictionalising it, is the best way of ensuring that some understanding of past mistakes might prevent them happening again.




3 Responses to “Fictionalizing History for Young Readers”

  1. Dip says:

    That’s hard work. It’s difficult to fill an empty page. Once you know what you want to write, in broad stokres, just pound out material. Doesn’t need to be perfect. Figure on twice what the final length is to be after editing. Good luck! I know Tynan has written several shorties about 100 pages each. I actually have one of them somewhere.

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