Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

What, Me? Write Historical Fiction? -- Part 1

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Care to dip into the past? Dare to write about it?

Ah, historical fiction! Writing in this genre can be demanding, that's for certain, but it offers unique opportunities for writers willing to venture into the past -- and sometimes, well, you don't choose it, it just chooses you!

I wrote the juvenile novel ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN (Doubleday, 1992) after I’d just returned from my second trip to India. Longing to share some of my love for the vast continent, I was compelled to write a time travel novel. Through contact with a Rajasthani puppet passed down to him from his Indian father, a young Canadian boy is transported back to India of the 1600s and the court of the great Shah Jahan. Researching the time period and the setting allowed me to return to a place I loved.

Just this spring, my children’s novel THE ISLAND HORSE was published by Kids Can. The story is set on Sable Island of the early 1800s. Why? Both the place and the time period sparked my imagination. Wild horses still roam the sandy crescent off the coast of Nova Scotia but 200 years ago there weren’t even lighthouses warning ships of its dangerous shifting location. What would it be like for a young girl to live in this remote, isolated spit of a place, I wondered. What would happen if she met a very special horse?

My own writing experiences make me curious about why other writers have ventured into this unique genre and how they deal with its special challenges. I decided to chat with two kid lit writers of historical fiction, one who has just published her first book and one who has published many. I’ll share our discussion here and in a subsequent post.

PAT BOURKE, who lives in Toronto, is a professional business writer and the author of YESTERDAY’S DEAD (Second Story Press, 2012), a novel for young readers set in the Toronto of 1918. Pat launches her book tonight at Type Books in Toronto.

MARGARET BUFFIE, who lives most of the year in Winnipeg, is the well-known author of ten children’s books, including the acclaimed WHO IS FRANCES RAIN? (Kids Can, 1987). As well as the winner of many awards, she is a recipient of the prestigious Vicky Metcalf Award for Children’s Literature which is awarded to a writer whose body of work has been inspirational to Canadian youth.

ME: Margaret, how many books have you written that are set in an historical time period? Can you please describe the range of settings and time periods you’ve written about?

MARGARET BUFFIE: Of my ten published novels, four are novels are set in past eras. These times range from the1850’s to the 1930’s. The settings are the lake district in northern Manitoba; ranch country in Alberta; early Winnipeg; and a small Métis village on the Red River in Manitoba.

ME: Pat, this is your first published book for children. How did it come to be a historical novel? For example, did you choose the time period first and the story developed around that, or did the plot come first, or did you "meet" the main character and she introduced you to her time period?

PAT BOURKE: My main character, thirteen-year-old Meredith, came first, directly as a result of a writing assignment in a class on writing for children. (The assignment was to write a scene and use some techniques to slow time down.) I had a clear picture of Meredith struggling with a suitcase at Union Station as she tried to keep up with an older woman striding ahead. I knew she had come to Toronto to take a job, and I knew she was from some period in Toronto’s history, but I didn’t know what time period it would be.

I liked the character and the situation, so I later went searching for a historical event that I could weave into Meredith’s story. I did quite a bit of reading on Toronto history and when I read about the Spanish Influenza epidemic in 1918 I knew this could present a dramatic story.

ME: Margaret, what about you? Why do you write historical fiction for kids?

MARGARET BUFFIE: Most of my “historical” novels are referred to as “time-slip/time-travel” stories. In my case, it means I have two main characters who meet each other through time – a modern teenager and another person from a past time.

WHO IS FRANCES RAIN? was the first book I wrote. In that story, a young woman from the late 19th century meets a teenager from our time. I literally fell over the idea for the story when I found a pair of old spectacles in an antique mug on an island near our cottage in North Western Ontario. I was actually cleaning up the island so our children could play on it safely, and it meant clearing away a lot of broken glass and hidden debris. I put on the glasses and wondered what it would be like if I saw someone from another time walking toward me. I decided to write a novel using this as the seed of the story. So, for that book, the idea came first, the historical part came later. Two of my other “ghost” stories came to me in much the same way.

However, in my last book, WINTER SHADOWS, and in the book I am working on now, the time and setting came first.

The historical part of WINTER SHADOWS takes place in an English Métis farming community, which included a number of high ranking Hudson’s Bay Company officers who built large stone houses for their families and were politically powerful in the Red River Settlement. I have long been fascinated by this very unusual one-of-a-kind community in Canada.

In my new manuscript, which takes place during the great immigration from Europe to Canada in the early 20th century, everything takes place in one time! No time-slip. But it still has a ghost! It has been a big challenge for me, but I am loving the research, and my character and I are now well into her story. But the storyline is my secret for now.

It always feel as if ideas for my time-slip/historical novels come to me in a kind of unplanned serendipitous flash, but at the very core of it all, really, is that I simply write about what interests me the most.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Susan Hughes

Susan Hughes is an award-winning author whose books include The Island Horse, Case Closed?, No Girls Allowed, Earth to Audrey and Virginia.

Go to Susan Hughes’s Author Page