Conference Presentation 1

The is one of two presentations made at
the CIC4 Conference in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.

Other presentations are here.


“Did you like history when you were at school?”

I’ve been asked that question so many times, and my answer has always been, “Good grief no. I hated it. I thought history was just a bunch of dates and dead people.” My attitude might have been different, however, if I had had access to some of the historical novels being written for young people today.

In THE NEW REPLUBLIC OF CHILDHOOD, Sheila Egoff and Judith Saltman say that “Perhaps the greatest contribution the historical novelist can make to children’s reading is to show them that an event in the past did not happen in isolation but was part of a continuous series of events that have influenced and given meaning to the present time.”

That is what I strive to do in my own work, but I was a long time in coming to it.

My first book was published in 1977. I had been writing short stories for magazines and school readers for about ten years before then, and finally felt that I was ready to tackle a full-length novel. Although the main character in it is a 13-year old boy, it was, as most first novels often are, fairly autobiographical. It took six years to get it published, but while I was submitting it to publisher after publisher, I was casting around for an idea for a second novel. One hot summer day I found it.

I was living in Ottawa at the time, my kids were young, school was out and they were bored. “Let’s go to Upper Canada Village,” I suggested, and they leaped at the idea. Not too long after we arrived, however, they deserted me to go and look for ice cream. It was then that I found myself in the old schoolhouse. By chance I was alone. I looked around at the slate blackboards on the walls, the pot-bellied stove in the middle of the room, a bucket for firewood and a bucket for water. Beaten-up wooden desks with initials carved into them sat there as if just waiting for children to sit in them. Then I looked at the solid piece of log that formed the doorstep. Worn down in the middle by inches, I started wondering how many feet had gone in and out over that log? How many children had sat in this room and learned to read and write and do arithmetic here?

“What if...?” I thought, (the writer’s magic words, those). “What if a young girl from our time stepped into this schoolhouse, just as I have, and suddenly found herself back in time? Found herself taking the place of another Elizabeth who had lived in those days?”

Elizabeth was born and I had found my story.

I collected my kids, drove back to Ottawa, and then returned to do some more poking around on my own.

First question: How far back in time would she go? That was easy. There were plaques all over the place saying that this had been the site of the famous Battle of Crysler’s Farm in 1813—one of the decisive battles of the War of 1812. That would be exciting, I thought. I’ll have her come back just before that battle.

Then I was brought up short. I knew absolutely nothing about it. I knew nothing about the War of 1812. Brought up in Argentina, I knew nothing about Canadian history—who had settled along the St. Lawrence River here? Where had they come from? Worse—I didn’t even know anything about pioneers. What kind of clothes had they worn? What did they eat? What were their houses like? What were their lives like?

I can’t do this, I thought. I don’t know nearly enough.

But THE OTHER ELIZABETH had taken firm hold of my mind and wouldn’t let me go.

I’ll have to look into it, I thought. I’ll have to do...research!

It was a horrible thought, but I gritted my teeth and prepared to bite the bullet. But, where to start?

I decided to ask at the office of the village if they had any information about the original settlers. They most certainly did. They referred me to a library there which was not open to visitors to the village, but available to anyone doing research. There I found that the original settlers had been United Empire Loyalists who had come up from the States after the American War of Independence. That gave me an idea for a subplot—the story of the other Elizabeth’s grandmother, who had been a young girl when that event had happened. I found maps of the lots that had been allocated to the new settlers and their names.

(As much as possible I try to use names that are authentic for the time and place about which I am writing. I used real settlers’ names from the area for THE OTHER ELIZABETH. When writing HAUNTING AT CLIFF HOUSE, a ghost story set in Wales, I used Welsh names—modern ones for my modern-day characters, old-fashioned ones for the ghost and the olden-days characters. For my crusades books I used the German and French names that would have been used in the time about which I was writing.)

Then I found old newspapers that told of a mill being erected, who sold how many cows or horses to whom, when and where a new school was built, who planted the first orchard, and on and on.

Before I realized it, the whole afternoon had passed. Just dates and dead people? Boring? Not a bit! These were real people who had really lived here.

I followed up by going back to Ottawa to the public library. There I looked up everything I could find about the pioneers of this era. I got a three-ringed looseleaf notebook and divided it into sections: food, clothes, furniture, etc. etc. It became a detective hunt and the more I found out, the more enthusiastic I got. As I researched I found myself getting more and more ideas to round out the story. I had thought out the basic plot, but one day when I was sitting on the floor away in behind some shelves, reading about the Battle of Crysler’s Farm in an old book, I chanced upon a single sentence. It briefly mentioned a young Canadian militiaman who had captured two American officers and marched them back to his commanding officer at gunpoint, only to realize after he had handed them over that he had forgotten to load his musket. Elizabeth’s brother, Edward, immediately stepped into that role.

The next stop was the National Archives. There I found a map detailing the exact position of each American ship as they anchored and prepared for the battle and even the time the first shot was fired. By now I had most of the storyline plotted out but the ending was giving me trouble. As soon as I saw that map, however, the whole conclusion unrolled itself in my mind.

To my surprise, the writing of this book became an absolute joy. To the pleasure of just telling a good story had been added the interest of finding out a whole lot of things that I had never known before. It was addictive and I plunged right into another back in time book, THE STONE IN THE MEADOW.

I was living in England then and when our kids had school breaks my husband and I would load them, and the dog, into the car and go bed and breakfasting. One place that fascinated us was Cornwall. One day while my husband babysat, I set out to explore. I climbed over a stile into a meadow and saw a megalith, a standing stone, in the middle. I made my way over to it. It was a hot, sunny day, but when I stepped into the shadow I got a sudden cold, clammy feeling. Immediately it triggered a by now familiar thought: What if somebody stepped into this shadow and was transported back in time to when this stone was first erected?

Again, a subject about which I knew nothing. I was braver by now, however, and plunged in. The British Museum just happened to be having an exhibit about Druids and it gave me the background I needed to get started. Research in libraries followed, of course, and I learned as much about Druids and the possible history of those menhirs as I could. There are big gaps in our knowledge of ancient Britain, however, and that gave me more leeway with this book than I might otherwise have had. I could fill those gaps in as I wished. No one really knows how the megaliths, or menhirs were built, or exactly how they were used, although they now believe them to have mathematical significance. I could use them in the way that they might possibly have been used, therefore, based on careful research—and in the way that suited me for my book.

A note here about serendipity, or what Jung called synchronicity. Without fail I have found that when I start researching a book one thing leads to another. Doors open, details and stories fall into my lap. It’s as if a giant web were being spun and as I work further and further into it more strands crop up everywhere.

While I was in England I learned of Lady Jane Grey, who was Queen of England for nine days when she was only fifteen years old. I wasn’t able to write the book at that time, but returned on a Canada Council grant to research it as soon as I could. Jane was never crowned officially—the rightful Queen, Mary, saw to that by beheading her upstart cousin—so the history books didn’t have much to say about her. In North America I could find virtually nothing about her, but the Reading Room of the British Museum was my salvation. I was able to track down letters Jane had written, letters that had been written to her and even an anonymous account written by a man who had been imprisoned in the Tower of London at the same time as she was. He recounted a dinner that he shared with her and described the mournful roaring of a lion held captive in a cage at the gate. Wonderful details to add to my story! And I even held in my hands the very prayer book that Jane carried to her execution and in the margins of which she had written her last letters to her father and her sister.

While living in Germany I used to visit the city of Cologne often. It was the site of one of the most important Roman cities, Colonia Agrippina, and was full of history and fascinating museums. Here I found out that the first crusade of all, the People’s Crusade, had left from this city on Easter weekend in the year 1096. I had been casting about for an idea for a novel set in this myth-full country, and here it was. I began the research...

This time it was harder. Much of the reading had to be done in German and I didn’t know the language yet. So my daily lessons with a private teacher often consisted of translating books that I brought home with me from various libraries. She, in turn, told me about a restaurant that she had found in Cologne that had a cellar with carved stone animal heads on the walls and a Roman cellar underneath. That setting was just what I needed to hide a young Jewish boy during the massacre of the Jews carried out by the crusaders that Easter weekend before they set off. Research here was even more enjoyable because my teacher couldn’t remember the exact location of the winehouse and it involved visiting several winehouses over a period of a couple of weeks before I found the right one! Not an onerous duty.

Another highlight of this research was a trip my husband and I took following in the footsteps of the crusaders. I have been asked how this could have been useful over nine hundred years later, but it was. I could see for myself what kind of country they had traversed, imagine the hardship of crossing high, snow-capped mountains and visualize the destruction of peasants’ fields after 20,000 crusaders had camped on them for several days. I also was able to correct several inadvertant mistakes I had made in my first draft: there were no palm trees in Constantinople, for example. And the spot where I had drowned people, cattle and horses, crossing the Danube River, was too near the source. When I reached it I realized it was only about twenty feet wide and not quite a foot deep. I had to undrown everybody and drown them again later on.

Here a problem surfaced. I found that I had done so much research that it wouldn’t all fit into one book. That is always a problem with historical novels. You feel that after all that work, you just can’t leave anything out. You have to, though, or your novel becomes a history lesson with just the thread of a story running through it.

And anyway, as Jane Yolen says in WRITING BOOKS FOR CHILDREN, “Nothing is lost in your research. It just gets stored in your files or your memory for further use.”

I solved the problem in this particular instance, however, by writing three books.

I found as I wrote these books that a common theme was emerging: what happens to the innocents during wars? How are young people’s lives and emotions affected by war? A theme that is relevant to young people today, even if it is set in a far distant past.

But, to quote Jane Yolen again: “No historical period or historical event exists in a vacuum.” Young people today face fears, fall in love and experience tragic events just as they did in the past.

Writers of historical fiction have a problem, though, when they try to re-create the past. People throughout the ages have much in common and situations such as war have common effects on people, but perspectives change. People’s attitudes are different now. For example, when Ursula, the heroine of my first crusades book, THERE WILL BE WOLVES, sees a young man’s hand being cut off because he was a thief, her only comment is that he was already missing a finger, therefore he must have stolen before and he should have learned from it. A punishment that a modern-day teenager would think was inhumane and terrible was just an everyday occurrence to her and perfectly logical. It is necessary, therefore, to strive to create characters that the modern day reader can understand and sympathize with even though they cannot share their feelings in today’s world.

You cannot re-create exactly how people spoke in times past, either, and it would be awkward if not impossible to read if you did. You can, however, strive to set up a tone and rhythm that sound like an earlier kind of speech. You have to be especially careful to avoid anachronisms. You would not have someone move “mechanically” in the middle ages, for example. Nor did Europeans eat corn, beans, tomatoes or potatoes, because they were foods from the western hemisphere and hadn’t been discovered yet.

Descriptions of what life was like in older times must be filtered through the eyes of the characters and reflect their sensibilities. For example, in the middle ages people must have smelled very ripe, and certainly the places in which they lived stank. These are details that should be given to the reader but, at the same time, with the realization that to your character they are perfectly normal and usually not noticed at all.

Karen Cushman does this beautifully in her novel, CATHERINE CALLED BIRDY. Birdy casually keeps count of her flea bites in her daily journal, but without the slightest idea that fleas are the least bit unusual. She mentions chasing a rat around the hall with a broom, but only because she accidentally set the broom on fire. In THERE WILL BE WOLVES I say: “The whole city stank, of course, of ordure, filth and rot, but here (in the street of the tanners and the butchers)the smell was overwhelming.”

The more details you can work in of this sort, the more the background and setting of your historical novel will come alive and seem real to your reader.

Mechanical Details

I have mentioned that I keep my notes in a three-ring loose-leaf binder. I have sections for character descriptions, historical outlines, food, customs, dress, etc., and I can add more sections as needed. Some people prefer file cards, others keep a special folder on their computer. I carry a notebook with me when I’m “in the field” and transcribe my notes each evening into my binder or, if possible, I carry a clipboard with binder notepaper on it and I can just add them to the binder at night. My dream, of course, is to have a handy little notebook computer. Whatever method you use, however, it’s important to make your notes legible. I found this out to my dismay. When I come to the actual writing of the first draft, notes such as “shp nt Tk bt Msm” suddenly didn’t make any sense at all.

I also carry a small tape recorder so that if I am in a situation where I can’t take notes I can record my observations and transcribe them later.

Keep an accurate listing of all the reference books you use. I list them as I use them and assign a number to each one of them. Then, when I am transcribing notes from them, I head up the page with the appropriate book number and I note the page number of the item I am transcribing. Editors will often query your facts, and rightly so, and you have to be able to put your finger on your source and back your information up.

Speaking of sources, there are primary sources and secondary sources. A primary source is an original piece of work, a secondary source quotes or refers to an original piece of work. Both are useful, but I try to find primary sources whenever possible. I find that the closer I can get to my subject, the more my writing will ring true.

The usual way to locate primary sources is by digging. I start with libraries and books from libraries, and look at bibliographies in the backs of books to see what sources they used. If possible, going to the place where the event actually occurred opens up a whole new set of opportunities for learning new facts. In Canada, the National Archives in Ottawa records almost every aspect of our history in detail, as I found out when doing the research for THE OTHER ELIZABETH. Old newspapers are also an invaluable resource.

When I was writing my fictional biography of Lady Jane Grey (THE NINE DAYS QUEEN), all I could find at first was a rather dry biography of her written in 1922. This was a secondary source and not very satisfactory. When I returned to England to do further research I went to the British Museum where I had access to letters Jane had written, the prayerbook I have mentioned previously, letters which her cousin, the young King Edward had written to her, and other writings, including the anonymous dinner account. These were all original pieces of work and were, therefore, primary sources of information. Reading Jane’s own words, written in her own hand, and reading the actual words of the young King Edward and the others such as Jane’s unknown dinner companion, gave me an insight into their characters and the customs of the times that I could not have achieved otherwise. I could absorb the flavour of their words and try to reproduce it in my own writing.

Using primary sources also gives you a chance to find out things that other people have missed. While poking through those old manuscripts in the British Museum Reading Room, I found out that Jane had been engaged to Edward, the young Earl of Hertford. Her parents had beaten her to force her to break the engagement and marry the young man of their choice, Guildford Dudley, and thus further their design to put her on the throne of England. I only found this information in one source, but it was a legitimate source and reliable and it gave me something that nobody else had found. It also gave me the basis for a tragic love affair and a whole new aspect to the plot.

Secondary sources are valuable as well, though. I will often go first to the children’s section of the library. I find that resource and information books for young people are usually written in a clear, concise style and can give me the basic information I want. Then I go to the adult section and do further research. After that I will get in touch with magazines or societies that are concerned with whatever subject I’m researching and try to talk to people who know about it. I network and, as usual, find that the more feelers I put out, the more contacts I make and the more information I gather.

I use online sources from the Internet more and more, but I must admit that often I get frustrated, swear a little bit at my computer and then head for the library again. I often have to wade through so much junk to find what I’m looking for that it’s not worth the bother. This, of course, is just my personal failing. I’m sure my seven year old granddaughter will have no trouble at all researching her school projects online. She’s already taught me a lot. I must admit, though, that I’d rather spend a morning in the library, happily scrounging around in dusty stacks, than in the brave new world of the Internet.

When I interview individuals I tape record the interview, with their permission, of course, whether it’s a personal interview or over the telephone. Then I transcribe the tape. I keep the tapes on file in case there is ever something that needs verifying. Unfortunately, of course, when you’re researching a novel set over nine hundred years ago, you can’t interview your characters the way you can when you’re doing research for a modern-day novel or work of non-fiction. For novels set in the near past, however, older people can be a wonderful resource. I think of my father-in-law who grew up on the shores of Georgian Bay and knew all the old lake boat captains. He had a wealth of stories about them. My nephew was clever enough to record them before he died and they are preserved for us now.

When you are writing historical novels for children you must get your facts right. Teachers and librarians have to know that you can be depended upon to be accurate. That the facts you are presenting to young people, even in a work of fiction, are correct.

As for knowing when I’m ready to stop researching and start writing, by the way, that’s much more difficult. Usually I know when I’ve done enough research in order to get on with the writing—but research is so much fun now and so interesting—and so much easier than writing—that it’s often hard to summon up the discipline to make myself stop and get to the real work. (Quite a long way from my original views on research, isn’t it?)

I know it’s time, though, when I’ve exhausted all my present leads. I know that more will turn up during the actual writing—that synchronicity never stops working—and I leave myself open for that, but I make myself stop for the moment and start on that frightening and perilous first draft.

Writing historical novels has given me an unsuspected gift. With every book I have written, I have discovered a whole new world. I have learned so much! When I talk to young people about writing, I emphasize this. I urge them to take the most often-quoted rule they will ever hear: “Write about what you know” and turn it back to front. If I had stuck to that rule, I would only have one book published—my first, fairly autobiographical, one. Instead I urge them to “know what you want to write about.” And that means doing research.

I would like to close with a couple of quotes. The first is from Karen Hesse’s acceptance speech for the 1998 John Newbery Medal, which she received for her historical novel, OUT OF THE DUST.

“Often our lives are so crowded, we need to hold to what is essential and weed out what is not. Reading historical fiction gives us perspective. It gives us respite from the tempest of our present-day lives. It gives us a safe place in which we can grow, transform, transcend. It helps us understand that sometimes the questions are too hard, that sometimes there are no answers, that sometimes there is only forgiveness.”

And, finally, a quote from Erik Christian Haugaard in THE NEW REPUBLIC OF CHILDHOOD:

“Knowledge of the past—of history—gives perspective to our world. Without that knowledge our loneliness would be harder to bear and sorrow would easily crush us.”