Straight From the Source: J. Anderson Coats on Writing Historical Fiction

J. Anderson Coats is the author of historical fiction for young adults that routinely includes too much violence, name-calling and petty vandalism perpetrated by badly-behaved young people.  Her first YA novel, THE WICKED AND THE JUST, was one of Kirkus’s Best Teen Books of 2012, a 2013 YALSA Best for Young Adults (BFYA) winner, and a School Library Journal Best Books of 2012 selection.  It also won the 2013 Scandiuzzi Children’s Book award (the Washington State Book Award for teens).

How long do you typically research before beginning to draft? At what point do you feel comfortable beginning to draft? How does your research continue once you begin writing?

The answer is, maddeningly, it depends.

With W/J, I had an advantage when it came to research. I was the kind of unbalanced teenager that had research interests, so I was deep in the DA section of the library* by the time I was thirteen. So most of the background content I had going in. If I ever were to write about lumberjacks or samurai or galley slaves, I’d have to do a lot more research up front. But as long as I’m in the medieval or early-modern British Isles, I’m off to the races.

Basically I write along until I encounter a detail I either 1) don’t know or 2) am not sure of. Then I make an educated guess and put the affected content in [brackets] and look it all up at the end (or when I’m stuck and need to justify taking a break, whichever comes first).

What sorts of decisions have you had to make about “muddy” historical figures or events in order for your book to work?

One of the most significant challenges for W/J was a scarcity of pre-rebellion primary source material concerning Edwardian planted towns, since a lot of the records kept by English authorities in Caernarvon were lost in the rebellion itself. The rebels were aiming for the tax records, but everything else went up too. (There’s a lot of stuff on the castles and the minutiae their construction, but not on the towns themselves, although since W/J came out, this book was published.)

I had to approach the problem creatively, researching other towns founded by Edward I in other places, general medieval urban culture, and the North Wales planted towns in later ages when the records are better. When you’re a writer of historical fiction, you’re part garbage collector, part treasure hunter, part psychologist and part microfilm wrestler.

Why is historical fiction important?

I’m not sure how it’s important in a cosmic sense, but here’s why it’s important to me.

There are budding teenage history geeks out there, and I want to be on the front lines of handing them books that let them know they’re correct that history is in fact awesome. And that they’re not alone in thinking so.

There are kids who don’t think much of history because all they’ve ever had to judge it by is “social studies.” I want to hand them real stories about real people who feel familiar, who have the capacity to be cruel and kind and stupid and thoughtful and loving and vindictive just like we all do.

There are kids who might like history if it was more real. Or maybe it’s not so much that I want kids to like history, but to understand that it’s not as foreign or irrelevant as they think. I can’t unindoctrinate them, but I can hand them a story that doesn’t pull any punches, that presents the past in all its corrupt, seamy glory, and let them decide for themselves.

How do you conduct your research?

I research iteratively, and I love to compile.

Mostly I use books and articles (it’s rare I find a good online resource), and I record all my research notes on the back sides of sheets of recycle paper I scavenge out of the bin. I write the title of the research book I’m working with at the top and number the sheets as I need to. Each book gets its own set of note-pages.

I go through books chapter by chapter and jot down individual pieces of evidence followed by its page number. For articles, I underline and annotate in the margins. If there are images, maps, charts or graphs, they get scanned/copied and the bibliographic information logged at the top.

After I work on a topic for a while, I’m able to compile my evidence into charts and tables or timelines for quick reference. I’m a big fan of spreadsheets, and I’m especially fond of my spreadsheet o’ swears. It cross-references rude, vulgar, and otherwise unsavory terms; when each one came into the language, its context, terms that are similar and/or related, and how it changed over time.

F’r instance, if I need someone to insult someone else’s parentage, I just need to look up a term I know was used and I’ll get all the rest, plus some idea whether it’s appropriate for the era. My other spreadsheets work this way too, but this is the one I use the most.

What’s one of the most interesting things you’ve learned while researching?

Medieval people were really pretty raunchy. A lot of people in the modern era have this impression that medieval people were straight-laced and humorless, either because their lives were hard or because religion played a central role in their world. This really isn’t true. They had a deep and abiding love of poop and fart jokes, and they adored what we would call slapstick humor. If people were getting hurt, they thought it was hilarious. Medieval people were also fans of wordplay, especially the double-entendre. They could make dirty puns like you wouldn’t believe.

* History. Particularly medieval history. Particularly medieval Welsh history.

Autobiography, Memoir, and Journaling: Recording A Life

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Thinking, thinking after the LMM journals and the Laura Ingalls Wilder class* just what it means to capture a life on the page.

  • Is it ever really possible to get distance and perspective?
  • Are memoir and autobiography ever fully “true”?
  • How much can a writer truly reveal in public or even private writings?
  • Are these things fully known to the author herself?
  • How much do emotion and distance color things?
  • In the shaping of a life story, should a reader “listen in” on what is omitted?
  • Where is the moment autobiography shifts to autobiographical fiction?

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I keep circling back to the ideas infallibility and omniscience — two things no one has, but two things that would be needed to fully recored a “true” life. I don’t write memoir or autobiography so I am no expert, but I can’t help thinking what a challenge both formats would be. Memoir allows for more artistic license, (focusing on portions of a life rather than a whole life, for example, or in arranging events for thematic purposes), but both genres are expected to speak truth.

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Perhaps the windows autobiography and memoir afford us are enough to catch a glimpse of a true life. Perhaps journals, though they don’t tell the whole story, remove the public filter enough for a reader to know the author intimately. Maybe fictionalized accounts like the Little House books can give readers as strong a sense of a life as non-fiction.

Thinking, thinking, thinking.

 

* Laura Ingalls Wilder herself used fictionalized accounts of her childhood to get at greater truths. She said about her book, BY THE SHORES OF SILVER LAKE, “All I have told is true, but it’s not the whole truth.”

On Writing


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What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks “the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat.” And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. When I’m writing, I write. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, “Okay. Okay. I’ll come.”
— Maya Angelou

Classroom Connections: THE SECRET HUM OF A DAISY by Tracy Holczer

age range: middle grade (10 and up)
genre: contemporary fiction
study guide
Tracy Holczer’s website

“A lovely and captivating debut . . . Holczer writes with depth, heart, and a poetic lilt . . . nuanced characters engage from beginning to end.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review

“Holczer expertly crafts the characters and dialogue to create a story readers will identify with, and thoroughly enjoy… More than simply a book about grief and the death of a parent, Grace’s story is about the search for identity. An essential purchase for middle-grade collections.” —School Library Journal, starred review

Please tell us about your book.

The Secret Hum of a Daisy is a story about love and loss and what it means to be a family. It takes place after the sudden death of twelve-year-old Grace’s mother. Grace is forced to live with a grandmother she’s never met in a small town she’s never heard of. A town Mama left years before—with Grace in her belly and a bus ticket in her pocket—and never looked back. It doesn’t take long before Grace desperately wants to leave, too.

Until she finds the first crane.

A mysterious treasure hunt, just like the ones her mother used to send her on, takes Grace on a journey to find home. And it might just be closer than she thinks.

What inspired you to write this story?

I read a blog post recently where it talked about artists being “fundamentally inconsolable.”

This knocked my socks off for about two days while I thought about the reasons I sit in my chair to write. While “fundamentally inconsolable” isn’t the way I would talk about my life—I’m rather happy, actually—I do find that in my artist’s heart, this is very true. I feel compelled to write about themes of love and loss and belonging. These are deep rooted and wind in and out of my earliest memories, so when I sat down to write about Grace, it seemed natural to draw upon these themes that have special meaning to me.

Could you share with readers your writing process?

While I’m writing, my brain resembles something of a Jackson Pollack painting. Actually, even when I’m not writing, my brain tends to look like that. Ha! So, mostly, the writing process consists of me trying to figure out the order of things. As an instinctual writer, outlines don’t particularly work for me, but with my second book, I’m finding Blake Snyder’s beat sheet to be very helpful.

My books always start with a character and a situation. Family comes next and how that character interacts with the world. Once I see whatever it is that particular character yearns for, in their most secret heart, then the story begins to unfold. So the first few months of a book has me chasing down dead end roads and backtracking, and chasing down more dead end roads. It’s a little crazy making, but it’s what I’ve got. I am completely lacking a left brain, it seems.

What are some special challenges associated with writing contemporary middle grade?

Plot is so very tough for me to wrap my mind around. Especially in a contemporary story where the character isn’t questing for anything on the outside, like winning a competition or landing the lead in the school play. I mean, how to you write about yearning for a ten and up audience and keep them engaged? So, what I do is read writers who have mastered this. Kate DiCamillo. Linda Urban. Sharon Creech. Then I pray that things rub off.

What topics does your book touch upon that would make it a perfect fit for the classroom?

There is poetry from Robert Frost and from the main character, brief clips from different poems that felt very true to the themes of the story. I liked the idea of using clips since they can be easier to grasp and might encourage young writers to start small, as Grace does. The poetry also lends itself to the bigger idea that great sadness is always healed little by little, clip by clip.

The book touches on Sadako Sasaki and her thousand paper cranes, how we all have to find our own ways to heal. Magical thinking is part of that and children are so very good at it.

It would also tie in well with abstract art.

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