A Few Thoughts on Responsibility and Intent in Approaching History in Historical YA
Last week I wrote a review, essay, analysis, whatever you’d like to call it about a historical YA that played loose and fast with history, with disastrous, antisemitic and problematic results. And I don’t think that’s particularly uncommon, unfortunately, in historical fiction or books that use history as a base for exploring something else, like historical fantasy does. History is political. Who writes history is political. Who is uplifted in history is political. And ignoring that does everyone a disservice.My first historical fantasy comes out on September 1st, and so I acknowledge that I'm pretty new to this. I’m not an expert. And I almost definitely get some things wrong. I’ve learned a lot along the way, and today I wanted to share a few things I use to ensure that I don’t trample on the lives and memories of people who actually lived these histories. My historical fantasy is heavy on the history, light on the fantasy (for the most part). Especially because I am adding magic--and thus altering the historical record--I try to be keenly aware of where I’m stepping. Because the magic isn’t there to be glitter, something shiny to catch a reader’s eye. The magic is there to make history sing louder. I am using it like an amplifier. So I don’t want to amplify the wrong things.
- I over-research. I know that research is a black hole. I know that it can be a procrastination attempt. I know that it can stop you from writing your book, and I know that it can muddy the waters of your book. But I don’t actually think you can research too much for historical fiction, or fantasy heavily based in history. First, it’s a rare case where you can read everything related to your subject. Most of the time, you could research for years and still never reach the bottom of the bucket. There are always side-quests. I know, for instance, a lot about feminine hygiene product availability in East Germany. None of that made it into the book, but it made me a better historical fiction writer to know it. I have three books on one subject for The Balloonmakers #2. It’s part of a plot, but the details aren’t super necessary for the plot. I could have read one, or the Wikipedia article, for what I need in terms of where, who, and when. But researching this allowed me to add a secondary character who peeled back a layer in history, who added more gray to a story that could have been too easily black and white. Even if it doesn’t end up in your book, what you learn and what you research influences your writing and your approach in subconscious ways. This is valuable.
- I try not to undermine reality. In The Girl with the Red Balloon, Ellie’s grandfather escapes via a red balloon. This isn’t a spoiler, she tells you this story in the first chapter. It’s why she grabs the red balloon that ends up pulling her back in time. He escapes a death camp that very few people escaped. But people did escape it, so I felt comfortable using it as a setting. One of those people was an unnamed 18-year old boy. Had no one escaped this--had it been more like one of the mass graves where people were shot and buried, regardless of how dead they were--then I wouldn’t have been comfortable using it because to do so felt like suggesting that the people who hadn’t survived could have survived. It would have undermined horrific tragedy to give a survivor to something that had no survivors. I’m researching a new book now, and there’s an unnamed person who asked a simple question in front of a lot of people who were a powder keg waiting for a spark. No one’s ever identified him. That type of information jumps out at me, because that I can use as a historical fiction and fantasy author. Instead of inventing a scene, I’m using a scene in real life. In the author’s note, I’ll acknowledge that he was real, and has never been identified (and is likely dead, solely based on years and life expectancy)
- I account for real life events. If there was a real resistance effort that happened, and I’m not setting one of my characters in it, then I do not pretend it didn’t exist. I always strive to recognize it either on the page in the story, or in an author’s note.
- I will always use an author’s note. Especially because I play with fantasy in my books that are largely historical fiction, an author’s note is crucial. An author’s note tells the reader what is real--historical record--and what is fiction, because historical fiction is both history and fiction. It is real and not-real at the same time. And to ignore that is a deep disservice to readers, and, in my opinion, a dereliction of duty, to be quite honest. I will tell you in the author’s note if I moved a timeline, what was real, what was based in reality but I changed, and what I invented. Does this ruin some of the magic? Maybe. For some readers. But for countless other readers, it helps them sort reality out, and it makes the historical aspects carry their weight, as they should.
- I use sensitivity readers. Or you can call them topical consultants. The same way that I’ll check the physics with a nuclear scientist for Book 2 (hint!) and I checked the German, French, Hebrew and Yiddish with people who know those languages, I use sensitivity readers for all sorts of aspects of my books: race, gender, sexuality, country of origin, career, etc. And in doing so, it’s like getting a primary resource to read, to correct me where I misstep, and to help me add layers and depth and realism to a book that contains magic.
- Whenever I think of a plot twist, or of a cool thing that could happen, I ask myself if it hurts someone who lived what I’m writing. No plot twist, no plot point, no witty piece of dialogue, no cool special effect with magic is worth harming someone who wasn’t fictional and actually lived this historical event.
- I accept that I won’t get everything right, but I don’t let that stop me from trying to get it right. Don’t throw up your hands and say “It’s impossible to make everyone happy so I’m just going to write a book where Hitler wins, Mengele turns Jews into monsters, and there are nice Nazis.” Because there are so many levels in which you step on people who actually lived those events that you aren’t even trying. Try. Give it a good faith effort. Do your research. Talk to people. And when you screw up, own it. And do better next time. Knowing you won’t get it 100% doesn’t mean you don’t do the work to get it as close to 100% as you can.
I keep learning with every book, and adjusting my rules and the guidelines I set down for myself. So no, I'm not an expert, but I hope this is helpful to others who are exploring this genre. I’d like to see more historical fantasy out there, or even just historical fiction! But I want to see it done right, and that means acknowledging the high burden of responsibility and a lot of hard work. Don’t shy away, but don’t ignore it.