Thursday, 5 January 2017

5 Questions to Ask Yourself When Reading or Writing YA Historical Fiction (ROYA #25)

Greetings, Readers of Young Adult! 

Having recently devoured several historical genre novels, I thought I’d share my selection process for finding relevant, purposeful YA historical fiction. As it happens, it’s also how I sense-check any new writing projects I’m tempted to set in the past. So, for readers and writers alike, here’s my Sense-Check-List questions for getting the most from stories set in a historical context. 

1) Is the period crucial to the plot?

Or, simply, could the same story be set now? If yes, there’d better be a darn good reason why it’s not. When it comes to overall satisfaction, that well-deserved four or five star rating, stories which depend on perceived romanticism of bygone eras have a tendency to disappoint. Not in a hurl-it-at-the-wall-after-three-pages sort of way, but they often lack poignancy, something real history offers in abundance. I can sniff out a yarn that relies on corsets and fluttering hearts instead of an exciting plot. Usually from the cat-and-mouse romance slapped all over the blurb and the unmistakable whiff of misogyny from the male love interest. There’s nothing wrong with portraying rampant sexism and other uncomfortable realities of history. In fact, I’m all for it. But unless there’s something important the story aims to convey about the chosen era, there’s nothing to gain from a historical setting. Except, of course, the story contains an important message we might benefit from now or in the future. 

2) Is the historical setting significant now?

Sometimes, a story is set in the past for the purpose of drawing parallels to present major happenings. These stories are important. All too often we humans fail to learn from our own history. As George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Similarly, there are subjects a contemporay audiene is reluctant to consider, but which provoke engagement when presented in a historical context, like Yongla by Guy Lane. There are also situations where readers and writers are restricted from tackling certain subjects and must settle with symbolic representations of current events. Anyone familiar with Arthur Miller’s only historical play, The Crucible knows what an allegory is. When Miller wrote The Crucible, Senator Joseph McCarthy lead a witch-hunt for communists hiding in the government, education, and the arts. To avoid risking persecution – which he didn’t – Miller fictionalised the Salem witch trials to exemplify the absurdity of convicting people without concrete evidence. However, these days writers can create with impunity, and readers can enjoy pretty much anything without fear of imprisonment. Without a valid reason to use a historical context to highlight a contemporary issue, what reason is there to set a story in the past? Why not just read or write about what’s actually happening now? Unless, of course, your reason for choosing historical fiction is personal.

3) Are you avoiding technology?

For many, reading YA is an escape from reality, especially those who dislike the societal effects of continued technological advancement. It goes without saying that smartphones have dramatically altered the way we communicate. Some adults find comfort in reading about a time before mobile phones and the internet. And that’s okay. For those too young to remember, it can provide insight into a world unknown. However, it’s a thin premise on which to build a story and would likely prove a dull book. As a writer, I’ve learned to embrace tackling technology in fictionbut it can be daunting for those of us who were born before the 90’s. Nevertheless, a story has a better chance of being understood by a wider audience if it’s told in a context relevant to when it’s released. Declaring yourself a Luddite is no excuse. There has to be a stronger reason for a story to be set in the past, something the reader can emotionally invest in.

4a) Dear writer, is it the era you grew up in?

If so, here's something to consider. Like many writers, this July I was hooked on P.S. Literary agent Maria Vicente’s #100Queries on Twitter. Ms. Vicente tweeted her responses to the queries in her inbox, providing insight into how agents view submissions. One particular tweet caught my attention.

Maria Vicente: “YA Contemporary. Unnecessarily (it seems) set in the recent past. Write for teens today, not for teenage you. #100Queries”

Last year I finally got around to reading Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park. I’ll admit to having mixed feelings. Although I loved the book, I couldn’t help wonder why it was set in the 80’s and assumed it was based on the author’s life. I mean, the comics are still in print, playlists are the new mix tapes, and as far as I’m aware, school buses still run in the states. There’s even a solution to why one of them wouldn’t have a phone or access to the internet. So I kept wondering - Who’s the story for? It’s the same question I ask myself when it comes to my own work. Rainbow Rowell is able to break the rules because, well, she’s Rainbow Rowell. As for the rest of us, we need to remember who we are writing for, because if it’s for yourself, I’ve got news for you. It’s unlikely it’ll get picked up by an agent unless you can argue the case for how the reader will benefit. And if you self-publish, you may find your readership struggles to connect with your story. Then again, some readers will identify because it’s set during the period in which they grew up. .

4b) Dear reader, is it the era you grew up in?

If it is, that’s hunky-dory – we all like to reminisce. But you still want to read a compeling story, right?  Sure, it’s great to remember giving out phone numbers on the backs of bottle labels that can easily be lost - plot twist! Date hairstyles, clothes, general use of cigarettes and casual sexism – I get it. BUT, it’s not enough. Trust me. Even the shallowest reader needs that payoff at the end, and it’s never going to happen if the story holds nothing stronger than a hairdo set with Brillcream. Often, a visit to Goodreads for a scan of the reviews will give you an idea of whether or not the book you’re interested in has substance. Because, even if you’re in it for the nostalgia, you might want to ask yourself…

5) Is it purely for cosmetics?

Yep. Some stories rely on cosmetic novelty. If you’re familiar with the Indie Publishing scene, you’re probably no stranger to this concept. We all know we’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but if I see a picture of a fashionably beautiful girl with HD brows and a tan wearing Tudor garb, I’m out.  Just because a story is set in Ancient Rome, the Inca Empire, or the Tang Dynasty, the plot doesn’t suddenly become interesting. Sure, I can imagine the attractive people, picturesque landscape, and glorious weaponry. I don’t want to read about the same visuals repeatedly, though, like being reminded of a character’s eye colour on every other page. It happens. In these instances, it’s perfectly acceptable to hurl the book at the wall after three pages and start another story. When I pick up a book promising historical tales, I want the author’s research to seep into my mind through the gaps between the words from the first page.  If I find I’m reading description after description instead of gaining a sense of time an place from the language, narration, and characters, I grow tired and move on. Good historical fiction doesn’t rely on long descriptions, gimmicks, or fancy costumes.

Sadly, a lot of guff gets punted about because it’s titillating, and titillation sells. If you’re happy reading or writing that, then good on you, there’s no shame in liking what you like. However, if you appreciate, or are interested in finding captivating, historical fiction, YA or otherwise, then the above check-list should steer you on the right path. As for you writers, I hope what I’ve shared makes sense. If you have any further thoughts or questions, please comment below.

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