Historical Background, or How Often Do You Notice the Toaster?

Over at Six Boxes of Books, Roger Sutton talks about the Scott O’Dell Award and what makes good historical fiction. From the interview:

What is something that you see over and over again in the books you read, a common mistake that authors make [in writing historical fiction]?
RS: The thing that always bothers me the most, both judging this award and reviewing books, is undigested historical information thrown into a story. There was this great article in School Library Journal by Joan Blos called “Bunches of Hessians” where she talks about the various mistakes that are made in historical fiction. She said to take something from a historical novel–for example, a mother making dinner–and translate it into contemporary fiction. And then she wrote this hilarious passage about “Mother stood in front of the white box and carefully adjusted the black dial.” It has to be natural to the person telling the story. They shouldn’t be noticing things that only an outsider would be paying attention to. That always pulls me right out of the story.

This seems so obvious when Roger says it, but I think it’s a very common problem when trying to write historical fiction–or any kind of world that’s not our own. I know I’ve run into this issue of how much to describe and when. You want to develop the setting, but you don’t want to throw details in just to sound “authentic,” which actually makes you sound less authentic.

Make sure to check out the rest of the interview, too.

0 thoughts on “Historical Background, or How Often Do You Notice the Toaster?

  1. londonchoirgirl says:

    I absolutely agree. I’ve been coming across the same thing reading the world – often translators or editors feel the need to add in a lot of explanatory material for Western readers instead of trusting them to fill in the gaps (this was particularly the case with Girls of Riyadh, the book I read for Saudi Arabia).

    It’s a balancing act, but you’re right: the key if in doubt is to turn things round and look at them the other way.

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