Our special guest is Beverly Stowe McClure, author of the young adult novels, Rebel in Blue Jeans and Just Breeze. McClure’s latest release, Caves Cannons, and Crinolines, is a departure from her contemporary stories. Today she will discuss the differencs in writing an historical novel versus a modern-day story, and why she plans to keep writing both.
Historical Versus Contemporary Novels–The Similiarities and the Differences by Beverly Stowe McClure
History was never my favorite subject. Writing an historical novel had never entered my mind. Then one summer my husband and I drove to South Carolina to visit our son and daughter-in-law. On the way we stopped at Vicksburg, Mississippi, and toured the national park there. We visited the museum, located in the old courthouse that dates back to the Civil War. I talked to the curator of the museum and also to a little old lady whose grandparents had survived the siege of Vicksburg. I read journals kept by the women who faced the horrors of war in their daily lives. And I knew I had to write their stories.
In some ways writing historical fiction is the same as writing contemporary fiction. No matter the time element, a story needs characters, a plot and theme, and a setting. To make my story set in the 1860s authentic, however, I needed to research the times. What did they eat? How did they dress? What were their interests: books, music, sports? How did they talk? Travel? To answer these questions, I bought books and journals and copies of old newspapers and read them and marked them and put myself in 1863 Vicksburg with its dirt streets, hillsides, and families terrified by daily cannon and rifle fire that destroyed their homes and in many cases their lives. I scoured the Internet where I found more journals, some written by children. Many university Web sites have great collections of Civil War information, including letters from soldiers to their families back home. From reading the way they wrote, their choice of words, and how many of the words differ in meaning today from the 1860s, I learned the flavor of their language. It’s very easy to let a modern term, such as a cell phone, slip in, so I had to check for the dates many items were invented. These letters also gave me the idea to have Lizzie write to her brothers who were away.
Research for my historical novel took several months, but it was worth every minute. When I knew what daily life was like for the people, not just the soldiers fighting the war, I could put myself in Lizzie’s place, or Nat’s. I could see the destruction of my home through their eyes, which added depth to the scenes.
My contemporary stories sometimes require research, as well. Small details make the difference, especially if the reader has some knowledge of the area of your setting. Readers will catch those little mistakes and then question the rest of the book, if the agent or editor doesn’t see them first. For instance, in Listen to the Ghost, set in Charleston, SC, I had to research the streets of the city to visualize a map of where they lived, where the library was located, and the park. I have been to Fort Sumter, where part of the story takes place and had pictures and other info to help me with that scene.
As for writing historical as opposed to contemporary, I enjoy both and hope to continue writing a variety of novels. My second historical fiction novel is under contract. It will be a couple years before it’s out, but the story is loosely based on my mother’s story as an Orphan Train Rider. I’ve discovered how much I love history. After all, our ancestors and the men and women who lived before us made us who we are today. What better reason to tell their stories?
Beverly Stowe McClure is the author of novels for teens including Just Breeze, Listen to the Ghost, Secrets I Have Kept, Rebel in Blue Jeans, and her latest Caves, Cannons, and Crinolines. A native Texan she lives in the country with her husband, cat, and a variety of wild critters.