My first novel The Beloved Wild, a historical YA, came out in 2018, but once in a great while, a reader will still contact me about it. It’s gratifying when this person shares what they liked about the book, but usually they just have questions. Okay, one question: “Are you going to write a sequel?”
I don’t know. That’s usually what I say. But the truth is, when that novel was finally off my plate and out in the world, I was relieved and ready to move on. A sequel was the last thing on my mind. Not that I didn’t love my girl-masquerading-as-a-boy protagonist Harriet Winter or the early nineteenth century Genesee Valley where her pioneer adventure unfolds; just that crafting an excellent historical novel is, well, hard.
To write a novel, any kind of novel, is to attempt a wooing: attract a reader with the subject, catch their attention with an opening paragraph, hold their interest from page to page, and convince them to care—about the characters’ plights, decisions, and fates.
This is challenging enough. Setting one’s story in the past only makes the courtship trickier. If the writer incorporates and explains too few historical details, the reader doesn’t feel grounded in the period. If the writer incorporates and explains too many, the novel turns into a textbook, and the reader wanders away from the book bored and with a vague knowledge of how to churn butter.
Then there’s the horrible possibility of making a mistake. An historical inaccuracy, an expression or a mere word that simply wasn’t in use during the targeted time period, an action, decision, or belief that doesn’t fit the era’s sensibility: just a few of the many ways to turn off a reader and break their trust. Avoiding such pitfalls requires a lot of research. A lot of work.
So I must be nuts because I’m doing it again. Writing a historical novel, that is. It isn’t a sequel to The Beloved Wild, though a few of the characters from that novel make appearances. This work takes place a little later, during the heyday of the Erie Canal.
Why in the world would I return to writing historical fiction when I complain about its challenges? My only defense is that the present has suddenly, shockingly, and profoundly turned murkier than the past.
The pandemic is changing so much: how things work, how people interact. I don’t think I could write a contemporary young adult or middle grade novel right now. The fixtures of a young person’s life—attending school, going to summer camp, rushing through a mall, having a sleepover, dining in a restaurant, visiting a friend—have become unfixed. What will these activities look like in the future? Will kids scoop up their books when the bell rings at the end of the period and trudge through crowded corridors to their next class? Will they play volleyball in phys ed? Will they try out for the school play? Will they join the wrestling team? And what about relationships? How will they unfold? Will masks hide expressions? Will fear check embraces? Will dread kill the impulse to kiss?
Maybe everything will return to normal. I hope it does. But who knows?
Yes, fictionalizing the past requires multitasking—telling a compelling story and paying painstaking attention to period details. But the past, for me of late, has become a comforting place to dwell.
I’m actually enjoying my Erie Canal research. I started with many questions. What turns of phrase did people use in the 1830s? What was it like to live and work on a boat? How did a packet captain dress? What did crewmembers sing, eat, and drink? What class struggles did the Erie Canal improve or exacerbate? What opportunities did it provide? There are books on all of that. Concrete answers.
Studying this era and using what I’m learning to grow a tale have been good for me—an escape, for certain, but also a soothing and regular reminder that though many things, good and bad, have happened throughout our history, here we are now. Persisting.