Friday, April 03, 2015

Ten Reasons Why You Should Write Historical Fiction

By Stacey Lee, @staceyleeauthor

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: Please join me in welcoming YA author Stacey Lee to the lecture hall today, to share some thoughts on writing historical fiction. Stacey is one of those people who is just a joy to be around and a delight to talk with (I highly recommend it if you ever get the chance). Her debut novel, Under a Painted Sky, released a few weeks ago and has already received two starred reviews (Publishers Weekly and Kirkus), as is creating a lot of buzz out there in the reading world.

Stacey is a fourth generation Chinese-American whose people came to California during the heydays of the cowboys. She believes she still has a bit of cowboy dust in her soul. A native of southern California, she graduated from UCLA then got her law degree at UC Davis King Hall. After practicing law in the Silicon Valley for several years, she finally took up the pen because she wanted the perks of being able to nap during the day, and it was easier than moving to Spain. She plays classical piano, raises children, and writes YA fiction.

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Take it away Stacey...

1) You flunked history.

Here’s your chance to prove to Miss Helsinburger that you were not a complete nincompoop when you said that Vasco De Gama was the stuff you put on your steak.

2) You aced history.

Good for you, you know how to memorize. Turn that super power into something useful. There is nothing more fulfilling than taking your God-given talent and enticing young minds to access the laboratory of human experience.

3) Historicals never go out of style.

It’s true. You ever hear someone say, “That medieval fantasy? That’s so last year.” No way, because if it was last year, it wouldn’t be historical fiction. Historical fiction is how we learn about the past without the pain of actually studying it. It’s like gummy vitamins, improving our health without the bitter taste. Will gummy vitamins ever go out of style? Not according to my kids. Next!

4) People will think you’re smart.

Historical fiction requires you to research a lot of stuff in order to write one sentence.

Example: my character Sammy says: “Annamae, I’m going to California.”

Just how was she going to get to California? What road did she take? What did the road look like? How many people were on that road, and most importantly, if there were chickens on that road, what was on the other side?

Once you write a work of historical fiction, people will start thinking you’re an expert on that particular subject, and after doing all that research, you might well be.

Note: though it’s true that authors of historical fiction are generally fascinating and highly intelligent, most of us are not historians. We cherry pick facts to fit a particular narrative thread in a way that tells an entertaining story. So while it’s okay to think we’re smart, don’t take us too seriously.

5) You will learn about yourself.

In researching the history of Chinese in America, I learned that my great great grand uncle owned a cigar factory and was a gangster. They had a 22-car funeral for him when he died, and this is back when cars were still a newfangled contraption. Here I thought I was descended from royalty, and turns out my people were shady mobsters.

Note: These are not really my relatives.

6) You will learn about others.

The world is a humongous place. As the great Katherine Paterson said, “If I only wrote what I know about, I would never write. I write to find out.”

In writing historical fiction, you will learn about different peoples, and that will give you perspective on your own life. In researching my book UNDER A PAINTED SKY, I learned a lot about cowboys. Who comes to mind when you think of a cowboy? For me, it’s John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, and, if I’m honest, Val Kilmer. But the truth is, the cowboys were a diverse group made up of blacks, Mexicans, and Native Americans. Many of the black cowboys who were slaves had better lives than typical slaves because of the independence that went along with the job.

7. You will be in good company.

Historical fiction is where you’ll find many of the greats. Walter Dean Myers. Laurie Halse Anderson. Mary Stewart. Jacqueline Woodson. Linda Sue Park. Markus Zusak.

8. Writers are the time machines, and books are the destinations.

You have the power to transport readers across the boundaries of time and culture, perhaps spurring your readers to learn more about the places and people you’ve shown them. Ancient Mesopotamia. The Mongolian steppes. You will leave a fingerprint upon the tender hearts of our youths that time will not smudge.

9. You need to make sense of the world.

History helps us make sense of our own problems, and to understand why humans behave as we do. There’s a reason why backstory is such a critical component of most books: it gives readers a deeper understanding of characters. History is the backstory of the world, and by studying it, you will have a better sense of the world and all the interesting creatures who inhabit it.

In an article for Publishers Weekly, Ron Rash said, “The best that any work of historical fiction has to offer—not just to its author, but, more importantly, to its readers—is a chance to grapple with the mysteries and complexities of the past, in hopes of seeing the present a little clearer.”

10. Leave Blank

There are actually only nine reasons to write historical fiction. This tenth one is the fiction component of this historical document, because writers of historical fiction can do that.

About Under a Painted Sky

Missouri, 1849: Samantha dreams of moving back to New York to be a professional musician—not an easy thing if you’re a girl, and harder still if you’re Chinese. But a tragic accident dashes any hopes of fulfilling her dream, and instead, leaves her fearing for her life. With the help of a runaway slave named Annamae, Samantha flees town for the unknown frontier. But life on the Oregon Trail is unsafe for two girls, so they disguise themselves as Sammy and Andy, two boys headed for the California gold rush. Sammy and Andy forge a powerful bond as they each search for a link to their past, and struggle to avoid any unwanted attention. But when they cross paths with a band of cowboys, the light-hearted troupe turn out to be unexpected allies. With the law closing in on them and new setbacks coming each day, the girls quickly learn that there are not many places to hide on the open trail.

This beautifully written debut is an exciting adventure and heart-wrenching survival tale. But above all else, it’s a story about perseverance and trust that will restore your faith in the power of friendship.

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  1. LOVED this post. Thanks for hosting Stacey! I smiled the whole way through this post and look forward to reading "Under a Painted Sky" Hoping to win it off of Goodreads!

  2. I have a historical fiction (urban fantasy) that I'm plotting. It's fun and it's hard.

    Congratulations and Great Sales, Stacey.

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  4. (I didn't finish comment and it posted)
    Thanks so much for this post. Great points about writing historical fiction. I am working on two very different ones now and they can be a challenge at times but so enjoyable to learn more about the eras. Wonderful post!

  5. I wrote a short story based on this genre. Maybe I'll expand it to a book. While I enjoyed the story's journey (set in 1960s Philadelphia), I met some difficulties that I didn't plan on, but took on nonetheless.

  6. Stacey!! My good friend Leslie went to your book launch, so I've heard all about your book. I love historical fiction, and Leslie said this is a must read. Congratulations!

  7. I'm working on a twist to one.

  8. Sounds like a really good read. Will it become available as an eBook in Australia, or just hardcover?

  9. Doing the research is part of the fun of writing it! But then we get to dress the research up and make it look pretty. In all seriousness, great post. I love historical fiction and I think everyone should try writing at least one historical story!