Posted by: Kathy Temean | February 19, 2019

Three Ways to Make The Historical Real

Three Ways to Make The Historical Real

By Katia Raina, debut author of Castle of Concrete, a YA novel set in the last year of the collapsing Soviet Union, about a shy Jewish girl falling in love with a boy who may be an anti-Semite. This book, forthcoming from Young Europe Books in June had a long, looong journey, about which Katia will blog here soon. 

Katia graduated from the Vermont College of Fine Arts with an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. She is looking forward to sharing what she’s learned there in a special series here on this blog as well.

Katia started writing when she lived in New Jersey – in fact she shared the first draft of the manuscript that became her debut at a first SCBWI NJ retreat in Toms River. Now she teaches middle school in D.C., but still keeps cherishes her writing friends from Jersey.

To find out more about Katia, visit her at http://www.KatiaRaina.com.

Writing historical fiction is its own special kind of fun — and its own special challenge. The challenge of course is: how can you bring to life a world that you can’t even visit? But the fun lies in the answer: there are ways.

Way #1

Make It Personal

The life in your historical fiction story must start at its core: the story concept. Whatever tumultuous times you want to portray — and the more tumultuous the times you choose, the more potential for conflict —  you don’t want the drama of the time to be artificially superimposed onto your characters’ problems. No reader wants to feel they are reading a history textbook when picking the pages of a novel, and no writer wants to have to info-dump their facts onto the poor reader’s head. By tying your characters’ conflicts to the conflict of the time you make your readers hungry for the historical info.

For example, my novel Castle of Concrete is set in the final year of Communist Russia’s collapse, amidst intensifying nationalism and anti-Semitism. Lots of drama to go around, but I made sure the drama was directly related to my characters’ lives by making my protagonist the daughter of a Jewish anti-Communist dissident who is trying to put her life together. The conflict gets even more personal, as my protagonist, Sonya, falls deeper and deeper in love with a boy who may be an actual, passionate anti-Semite.

Exercise:

Think of the historical period that intrigues you. Brainstorm a list of people who would be hit hardest or affected most powerfully by the tensions of the time and the place.

Way #2

Make It Relevant

Connect your historical time and place to here and now. This isn’t a new idea. I picked it up from Story, an insightful writing guide by Robert McKee. “Historical drama polishes the past into a mirror of the present,” McKee writes. It’s the point of studying history, isn’t it? To understand our own selves better. In Castle of Concrete I tried to take that advice to heart. As I was writing the story about anti-Semitism, I kept making mental connections with all kinds of other “anti.” I kept thinking of other “outsiders,” in Russia and much closer to my current home than that, whom the society had pushed aside, or tried to. To be honest, I wish the topic of xenophobia and “otherness” wasn’t relevant to today. But we all know that’s not so.

Exercise:

Look at your amazing historical fiction idea. Write a list of three to five parallels one can make from it to the crazy times we live in. Then look over your list and see what you can amp up in your story. Now, you don’t want to be heavy-handed about it. Really, just keeping these connections in the back of your mind will add richness to your story and make it even more relevant. See an excerpt from Castle of Concrete below, for an example of connections between anti-Semitism and other kinds of hate. This particular part was hard to write.

“A negr—a black-skinned man—asks a genie, ‘pleaze, make me white … ”

I tune out the rest of it. When he is done, he looks at me expectantly. The laugh he wants from me stays glued to the bottom of my throat. His fingers stroking my leg do not falter.

“A bit vulgar?—All right, how about this one. A negr and a Georgian tried to trade with a Jew—”

“No.”

He lifts his hand from my thigh for a moment. I dare a small breath, realizing only now that I haven’t been breathing, trying to quiet my leg trembling under a sudden absence of touch. “I don’t want to hear any more jokes.”

Way #3

Make It Sing

Language informs thought, reflects our reality and makes us who we are. Language is the mirror to culture. So using language intentionally can be a great way for you to immerse the reader into your world. According to 19th century anthropologist Franz Boas, the Eskimo have 50 different words for “snow.” And if you read the novel Code Talker by Joseph Bruchac, then you might remember that apparently in Navajo language, the word “goodbye” does not exist at all. In your own writing, look for the odd expressions, look for the slang, ponder the rhythm that feels truest to your historical setting (for example, choppy sentences or long, winding ones?) Bring in the special expressions, the street names, the nicknames, the superstitions. It will make your world more real. Not to mention, it will make your story that much more fun to write!

Here are a few weird Russianisms and slang expressions from Castle of Concrete that I had a lot of fun translating and then infusing into my story. I tried to get in as many as possible, though a few times my editor had to ask a nicer version of, Huh?

“Interesting, who he’ll choose next, now that he has sampled practically every chiksa in Moscow Region. . . .”

“Sh-sh-sh! Shut your fountain. He’s standing right here—”

“Ey, who is this bird?”

And one more, for the road, because I just can’t stop, can I? This next one shows an interaction of a boy who is bullying and harassing Sonya. It also examines traditional Russian thinking, which is based on hierarchy and challenge to those who try to stand out from the community.

“Roll away from me,” I say.

“You know what your problem is, microbe?” His breath reeks of roasted sunflower seeds. “You don’t know your place, that’s what. You think you’re so-oh classy—” His hand brushes down the front of my shirt. “Just cause you’ve got an imported shirt and a pair of boobies?”

Exercise:

Research the slang expressions of your time period. Collect them. How about sayings or proverbs? Read poetry written during that era; watch a period movie and stop it frequently to jot down the way the characters speak. Internalize it. Listen to a song of the time. Memorize it. You never know how it can come in handy.

****

Some of these suggestions you can make a conscious effort to implement, though others you will use naturally, without trying, in the course of your brainstorming process or research. Thinking about it now, this can be a good guide for any kind of story that you write. Be it magical realism, science fiction set on a distant planet or the here and now romance, each story must provide the reader with its own unique and flavorful landscape, with which the characters lives intimately intertwine.

So, whatever genre you work in, happy writing! I can’t wait to visit your worlds on the page!


 

Thank you Katia for a great article. Looking to the next.

Talk tomorrow,

Kathy


Responses

  1. Yay, Katia! So glad your book will debut soon.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for a very informative post.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Great article, Katia. Loved the part about making parallels and relevancy to readers today. Congrats on your new book!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Excellent advice! Can’t wait to read the novel. What year(s) is it set in exactly?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Bonni, and thank you! The novel spans one year, starting with the summer of 1990. Can’t wait for you to read it!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. This is great info, Katia 😀 And CONGRATS on your book!!!!! 😀 😀 😀

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Great tips, Katia. I’ve applied these to my own historical fiction novel, but this has made me wonder if I’ve done enough. Time for another read-through.

    Like


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