for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations
I never meant to write historical fiction—mostly out of laziness (all that research!), but also because of the responsibility.
Since it’s fiction, we expect to take liberties with the facts. But how much liberty is too much? At what point does stretching the facts become a disservice to history, and to young readers?
Plus, from reading hundreds of slush-pile manuscripts when I was an editor at Cricket Books, I knew how difficult it is to integrate historical facts into a story gracefully. Less successful attempts sound like Google personified:
Aunt Zelda asks, “Have you spoken with Florence Kelley, the woman who worked with Jane Addams at Hull House and was the first female chief factory inspector in Chicago?”
“How could I?” replies Matilda. “You know she moved to New York in 1899.”
But something unexpected happened that changed my mind: after my father died, his wife sent me a diary that Dad had written when he was a farm boy in Ellisville, Illinois, during World War II. I’d never even known it existed.
It was a five-year diary, with room to write four short lines a day, and Dad did just that from 1944 when he was 12, to 1948 when he was 16.
Reading the diary, I found snippets filled with possibilities:
“Today we typed to music. If I could keep up, I’d type 16 words.”
“This afternoon we dug four little foxes out of the hill at Merl’s. Brought them home and put them in silo pit.”
“This morning Harold come over in a B-24. He circled 5 times. . . . We saw guns & insignia.”
|Click to read larger image.|
Anyone who’s read my book will recognize the origins of vignettes in those quotes from the diary.
But the Eddie of my novel is not my father. And Eddie’s big brother Thomas, who goes off to fly a bomber in the Pacific, is not my uncle Harold. The diary was only a starting point.
I didn’t know my father when he was a boy. I never knew my uncle. Stinky, Gabe, Grampa Rob, Grama Lucy—all are from my imagination.
In fact, much more than plot, the diary was a resource for background and stage business: “We went over in the calf pasture and cut some mullen.”
I don’t even know what mullen is—but I know that in June 1944 teenagers were cutting it in a calf pasture, so when I needed some farm work for Eddie to do in June 1944, there it was:
Most of the time
it didn’t seem real.
Then one day in the calf pasture cutting mullen
it hit me again
and wouldn’t turn loose—
wave after wave, right to the gut.
I heaved up my breakfast
and started to cry.
I promise you I also consulted many books and online resources in researching Eddie’s War (namelos, 2011). But the kind of history I found in Dad’s diary brought more color and authenticity to the prose than anything else I found.
Whether I would have chosen to write historical fiction without it—or ever will again—who knows?
Find more about Eddie’s War, including discussion questions and links to online history resources.
Eddie's War was named one of Kirkus Reviews's Best Children's Books of 2011.