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Digging for Details that Make Historical Fiction Delicious

by Kirby Larson
February 7, 2013
Two fellow Nerdy Book Club members encouraged me to use this forum to share some thoughts about how to incorporate historical fiction in the classroom. I resisted the suggestion—what could I possibly tell the readers of this blog about teaching? Then it hit me: maybe simply sharing what I know about researching historical fiction would help you create new classroom connections. Shall we give it a go?

True confession: I haven’t always loved historical fiction. In fact, I avoided it. Until my then-preteen daughter got me hooked by bringing home Jennifer Armstrong’s THE DREAMS OF MAIRHE MEHAN and MARY MEHAN AWAKE. These stunning Civil War-era novels opened my eyes to how deeply compelling this genre can be.

Shortly afterward, I discovered Karen Cushman’s CATHERINE, CALLED BIRDY, with its delicious opening lines: “I am commanded to write an account of my days. I am bit by fleas and plagued by family. That is all there is to say.” I was gobsmacked, as Birdy might say. If that’s historical fiction, I’m in! I became a voracious reader of the genre and then, thanks to a snippet of a family story about my great-grandmother, I became a passionate writer of the genre, as well.

In addition to my Nerdy Book Club friends, I also sought advice from writing colleagues Barb Kerley and Mary Nethery. Mary’s a former educator and Barb’s done extensive work to tie her author presentations to the Common Core State Standards. Their input led me to one CCS standard that can readily be supported by donning the historical fiction writer’s hat: “Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using . . . relevant descriptive details . . .” (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.6.3).

A writer of historical fiction lives for relevant descriptive details. The trick is, of course, finding them. How do I do it? By relying on primary resources. I scour second hand stores and eBay and etsy and everywhere else I can think of for old diaries, letters and postcards, maps and atlases. I am the woman who buys all of those self-published memoirs at library sales, national park gift shops and roadside attractions. I dig through box after box in musty museum archives, as if searching for the big prize in a Cracker Jack box. I NEED the first-hand stories of ordinary people. Without them, I’m nowhere as a writer of historical fiction.

While researching HATTIE BIG SKY, I discovered the diary of young homesteader Vanity L. Stout Irving. She had written about her beau giving her a ruby ring for a wedding present “…which I made him take back. I said I would rather have a cow and three pigs.” Vanity knew what it would take to survive on the Montana prairie, way back when: Forget the bling; bring on the bacon! As a life-long city girl, I couldn’t make up a detail like that. Another diary I read included a ledger listing the diarist’s purchases during the year. From her records, I learned the price of a new pair of leather gloves in 1918 (85 cents).

A sensible wedding present. The price of a pair of gloves. These are relevant descriptive details. And it is just such specifics that bring past times and places to life.

Great news: many such details are to be had at the click of a mouse. Old newspapers provide insights into attitudes, daily life, and entertainments, fashions, costs, place names, etc. and are increasingly easy to access. Our county library system allows me to read historical newspapers from the comfort of my home office. I’m guessing you would have similar access, too, through your local library.

It was while reading through issues of the Seattle DAILY TIMES, circa 1920, that I learned about opera great, Luisa Tetrazzini, and her plans to take an aerial tour of Seattle. Shortly before take-off, her manager deemed the chilly air too risky for the diva’s voice, and an enterprising young woman reporter jumped at the chance to take Tetrazzini’s place. I borrowed these details (switching out San Francisco for Seattle) to give Hattie her first big chance at a byline in HATTIE EVER AFTER.

The Internet is a gateway to other resources. I’ve used the Densho Project, dedicated to preserving the stories of the Japanese Americans incarcerated during WWII; USGenWeb.com, a free, volunteer-run historical site; the Library of Congress American Memory Project; the Montana Memory Project, where I found an accounting of a 1916 road trip from Seattle to Boston; the Ames, Iowa Historical Society, which has scanned fabulous WWII resources, including ration books; the National Parks Service; the This Day in History feature at History.org; and, of course, the Oxford English Dictionary (via the Seattle Public Library—where would we be without libraries?!), which helps me ensure that the words I’m putting in my characters’ mouths fit with their time period. This is a small sampling of sites that can put primary sources at your students’ fingertips.

After you’ve introduced your students to these stores of relevant descriptive details, give them the opportunity to put their new research knowledge to work. Collect a handful of old postcards and then ask your students to write a narrative based on/inspired by one of them. In order to create historically accurate narratives, students would need to do some sleuthing about manners of speaking, food, dress, names and places during the time period of their postcard. There’s a wonderful collection of short stories for adults by Robert Olen Butler, HAD A GOOD TIME: STORIES IN AMERICAN POSTCARDS, that might give you additional ideas.

This school year, I have made a commitment to interview teachers and librarians each Tuesday on my blog; in October, I interviewed Brian Wilhorn about how he provides context for the books his students read through a classroom blog. For instance, for THE WATSONS GO TO BIRMINGHAM—1963, Brian posted historical photos of the 16th Street Baptist Church after the bombing, links to articles about that tragic event, and a current photo of the church. Through this blog, he’s doing two things I admire: giving his students a richer grasp of the literature they’re reading, and modeling curiosity. His digging to find more information can’t help but lead his students to do the same.

I would love to hear about a particularly powerful strategy you’ve used in your classroom to help incorporate historical fiction and would be honored to include such ideas in future Teacher Tuesday postings. Drop me a line—Kirby@kirbylarson.com.

Come see Kirby at IRA’s 58th Annual Convention in San Antonio, Texas! Kirby will be speaking at IRA’s Teachers' Choices Committee session, “Making a Difference for Readers, Writers, and Artists by Connecting them with Authors and Illustrators who Create Books that Inspire, Motivate, and Delight” on Monday, April 22, 2013.

After Kirby Larson heard a snippet of a story about her great-grandmother homesteading in eastern Montana, she went on to write HATTIE BIG SKY, winner of a 2007 Newbery Honor Award. This sequel was written in part to answer many questions readers posed about the irrepressible Hattie. Connect with the author on her blog (www.kirbyslane.blogspot.com) or via Twitter (@kirbylarson).

© 2013 Kirby Larson. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.


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