Spotlight Article
Things to Keep In Mind When Teaching Historical Fiction Writing
January 18, 2011 at 7:21pm

The following article was written by senior staff developer, Colleen Cruz.

Sometimes when we’re immersed a unit, whether it’s the first time we’ve taught it or the hundred and first, we will stop in the midst of a unit and much like we might suddenly wonder if we left the stove on at home, we’ll find ourselves asking, “Am I forgetting to teach something crucial?”

This is especially true in a unit like historical fiction, where it can often feel like there is so much more to contend with: the reading work, the historical accuracy, and let’s not forget the narrative craft. However, if we simply keep a handful of key points in the forefront of our minds, we will be able to keep our students (and ourselves) moving and growing throughout the unit, knowing we can rest assured that we are teaching in a comprehensive way – without forgetting any of the most important stuff!

If possible, ground your students’ historical fiction pieces in a time period that has been studied (or is being currently studied) by the class. This is helpful for a variety of reasons. First of all, your students will need a fairly rich understanding of a time period to write a story set in history with fluidity. If they need to pause and look up virtually every aspect of the scene they are crafting (What kind of soap did they use? What clothes did they wear? What food did they eat?) the students will quickly grow fatigued. Additionally, when there is a need to look up facts, for simple fact checking, for inspiration or for elaboration, the class will have plenty of resources available.

Give the students a variety of experiences with the time period they will be writing in. Collect baskets of artifacts students can touch and explore: a leather pouch, a piece of wool, a replica of a tool used during the time period. Show a short 5-minute clip of a documentary or historical fiction film set in the era and guide students to watch for sights, sounds, customs, architecture and other details. Read primary documents from the time period. Encourage students to study photographs, etchings or other pieces of art that depict every day life during that era. Play music that people listened to. Taste foods that were popular. Role-play everyday scenarios that would be typical of the times. Take a field trip to a museum or historical locale. Depending on your resources and creativity you can give students a 3-D sense of the time period which will in turn not only make it more likely that their pieces will have more authenticity, but students will likely be even more inspired to write.

Hold on to what you (and your students) know about strong narrative writing. Sometimes in the whirl of fancy language and historical factoids students can lose track of what they should be keeping in mind first and foremost: story. Remind students that they already know so much about what goes into a good story: strong characters, a clear and compelling plot and of course a setting the reader can clearly visualize. We also want to help students to remember that when they are writing the scenes for their historical fiction pieces, whether they take place in 17776 or 1929, they are simply writing another version of those small moment stories they have been practicing for years.

Focus on quality versus quantity. It is far too easy for students (and teachers) to get so caught up in all the writing possibilities that historical fiction offers that they write long and windy pieces that become unraveled and unruly, often stretching across several mostly summarized pages. A word to the wise – one or two tightly crafted scenes with a main character that is around the writer’s age grappling with a surmountable, believable, historically accurate problem will be infinitely stronger writing than the story a youngster might be clamoring to write which crosses battlefields and presidential edicts across twenty summary-thick pages.

Teach students to ask themselves and each other, “Does this ring true?” One of the pitfalls of historical fiction writers of any age is the dreaded anachronism – when something mentioned in a story set in a particular time period, say 1865, really belongs in another more recent time period – such as a cell phone. It breaks the reader’s suspension of disbelief. Now, while it is true that there is no way that every little fact included in a child’s historical fiction piece can be checked with validity, we certainly can be sure that students are mindful of key details, objects, language usages that are likely to be more accurate. We can help this along by immersing our students in the time period so much so that they have a sort of natural sense of what would or would not exist or be done/said during that time. Additionally we can teach our students to revise their own writing and to help their partners revise their writing with an eagle eye on which parts of the story really and truly fit the times being depicted.