In my upcoming debut novel, FREEDOM FOR ME: A CHINESE YANKEE, I told a fictional story based on the life of a real person and placed him in the historical setting of Civil War America in 1862–1863. After years of writing and revision, I learned several do’s and don’ts about writing historical fiction for middle grade readers. I wanted to share my checklist for future projects with other authors who love historical fiction as much as I do!
1) Don’t get lost in the weeds of history. Although my protagonist, Thomas, is a fictional character, he is based on a real-life person named Joseph Pierce who served in the Fourteenth Connecticut Volunteer Infantry. I spent many hours with the regimental history ensuring that troop movements were accurate and battle accounts for Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Gettysburg were true. While this research was key to writing my story, I was also trying too hard. While the historian in me was attempting to be perfect, the writer in me was getting bogged down with unnecessary words, sentences, and even chapters, which were not central to the story.
2) Pay attention to period language and modern day idioms. As I underwent the editing process, I found myself pausing at many of my word choices. Did I adequately and succinctly define military terms like “reconnaissance” without bogging down the story? Are the references to “Minie ball” and “accoutrements” clear to a middle grade reader? Making sure that words can be determined by context is particularly important for middle grade readers who are still developing vocabulary skills.
I also had to make sure I removed any modern references, to get rid of any anachronisms. Many 21st century phrases found their way into my early drafts. I rewrote phrases such as “friendly vibe” and “dial it down,” which seemed vanilla enough, but would not have been understood in 1862. I also used the word “zoo” to describe the traveling zoos that visited nineteenth century American towns, but realized that my first treatment of the word “zoo” did not provide enough explanation, and as such, conjured up an entirely different idea for a modern reader.
3) Provide enough, but not too much setting. Historical fiction typically allows for longer descriptions of setting, but it’s tempting to provide too much. To keep my readers’ engaged, I followed a general rule of not allowing more than a paragraph or two of setting alone to ensure I got them quickly to the action of each chapter. Editing for use of all five senses helped me to whittle down too much telling versus showing.
There is also a unique challenge inherent with writing a novel for middle grade readers set during a war. I did not want to gloss over the carnage and misery of battle, but I was careful to write those scenes with the readers’ sensibilities in mind. After my protagonist’s first battle experience, he came face-to-face with the outcome. Instead of describing horrible scenes of blood and dismemberment, I instead showed Thomas violently vomiting at the terrible sight. Thomas’s intense physical reaction gave the reader sufficient information to understand the devastation without having to read all the gory details.
4) Don’t assume the readers know the history. As adults, we may presume that middle grade readers have at least some idea about why the American Civil War was fought and its outcome. At the very least, they may have learned that it was the war that ended slavery. I worked to provide enough context so that my readers could immerse themselves in the story, but I did this by having my protagonist come to understand the war’s meaning in his own way thereby bringing the reader along with him.
5) Make it new. The American Civil War ended more than 150 years ago, but that doesn’t make the story “old.” In fact, a character’s journey can be as exciting as any new adventure because it’s being experienced for the first time through the story. In the case of FREEDOM FOR ME: A CHINESE YANKEE, this is the first time a story about Chinese Civil War soldiers has been shared with the middle grade audience. While the book has a familiar subject for many readers, it’s different and fresh enough to keep them interested. It’s a new angle on a familiar topic.
I found writing historical fiction for middle grade readers to be a challenging and immensely rewarding experience. My love of American history began as a fifth-grade student when I had a teacher who made it come alive through her storytelling. As I still remember those stories, I channeled that “wow, I learned something and it was fun” feeling when writing FREEDOM FOR ME.
Stacie Haas is an award-winning professional and creative writer with background in business communications, public relations, and reputation management. She is the author of FREEDOM FOR ME: A CHINESE YANKEE, a historical fiction book for middle grade and young adult readers. It will be out this November from 50/50 Press along with a FREEDOM FOR ME Curriculum Guide for teachers. Her other writing has appeared in St. Anthony Messenger and Skipping Stones and in Indies Unlimited’s 2016 Flash Fiction Anthology. Stacie has a degrees in English and American History and is a graduate of the Institute of Children’s Literature.
Find her on Twitter @staciehaas, Facebook @authorstaciehaas, LinkedIn, and online at www.staciehaaas.com. Her publisher’s website is www.5050press.com.