Monday, November 29, 2010

Guest Post: How An Author Researches

Enjoy today's guest post from author Kimberly Griffiths Little, about what draws her to historical fiction and how she researches and writes her books.  --Melissa

Historical Fiction Is A-Changing!

Many folks hear the genre, “historical fiction” and smother a yawn. They want fantasy, dragons, action, danger, excitement, incantations, magical wands and lightning bolt scars on their main character, but STOP. WAIT.

The saying, “Kids don’t really like historical fiction” is a long-held mantra, and it’s true that many editors don’t buy much historical fiction. Publishers are leery of being able to sell only a few thousand copies of “historical fiction”.

And yet.

I was a Nancy Drew and mystery fanatic when I was growing up and I still remember choosing books at my library or through the Scholastic Book Clubs about Jenny Lind, the famous singer as well as books about Florence Nightingale, Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan. There was a biography about a young woman who was a spy during the Civil War. As the enemy ambushed her, this girl spy ATE the secret note she was carrying! Chewed it up and swallowed it! How daring and thrilling! Oh, and love me some Abraham Lincoln! I also loved World War II stories like The Endless Steppe, about a girl and her family who were exiled to Siberia. And that other heart-grabbing book about a girl called Anne Frank. And then there are all those exciting stories about European queens getting their heads cut off.

Of course, this was long before Harry Potter and Bella and Edward. Kids are different, folks say. They have shorter attention spans. They don’t care about dead people.

Screech! Put on the brakes, people. Shorter attention spans? Me-thinks-not. They’re reading 800 flippin’ pages of Harry Potter and Twilight, for crying out loud. Recently, a librarian told me that her nine-year-old daughter loves thick books. Thick books are a status symbol.

So it all comes back to content.

Can historical fiction grab a reader? You betcha.

Can historical fiction be heart-pounding, exciting, fast-paced and thrilling? You betcha.

Can parents and teachers and librarians introduce these books in meaningful ways and get kids hooked on stories and time periods THAT REALLY HAPPENED? Yes!

Since I’m a writer and not a librarian, I’m going to tease you by telling you about some of the very cool research I get to do to bring my own novels alive.

Part of the fun of being a writer is – yes, research! Some of my critique partners tell me that I spend too much time researching. After a few weeks or months, they tell me, “just start writing already”! 

But I only stop obsessively researching when I get to the point that the material has become repetitive. I get to the point where I start thinking, “I could have written this book!” I stop when the details have become ingrained in my own brain and psyche that when I start drafting I almost never have to stop and look something up. My goal is to get to the point that I can write with confidence and authenticity.

I love putting in tiny, cool details that brings the story truly alive.

My novel, The Healing Spell (Scholastic, 2010) started out as a book about a girl in the bayous during 1968. I dressed my characters in funky 1960s clothing, added music references from the Beatles, etc, but when the manuscript sold my editor thought that the book would feel even more timeless if I took out all the 1960s references. I agreed.

So it’s not “historical” any longer. But I spent a decade researching for this book since I didn’t actually grow up in Louisiana and I’m not a native Cajun girl (although I’m an adopted one now!) I wanted their lifestyle, relationships, food, dialogue, and family life to be accurate. Cajun Book reviewers tell me I nailed it. Sweet words to a writer! I had a librarian tell me that I painted the relationship between Livie and her daddy perfectly - that girls and their daddy’s in the South have very special relationships. I never found that “fact” in any of my research, but I spent so much time in Louisiana and read so widely that I *got* that important emotional relationship by pure osmosis.

My upcoming novel, Secret Rites of the Goddess (Scholastic, 2012), is an edgy YA historical about the roots of belly dance and the sexual rites performed in the goddess temples about 1750 BC. I’d already been taking belly dance classes so that came in real handy. I found architectural descriptions of the ruins of Ashtoreth goddess temples that I incorporated into my story. I read dozens of books about the Bedouin culture written by Bedouins. They drink camel’s milk and baby camels often do sleep inside the tents! I used that knowledge to place my heroine’s personal camel inside her tent during a particularly grim and emotionally raw scene.

Murdering the Dead, one of my WIPs, is a thriller about the mysterious death of King Tut as told through the eyes of the Mummy Priest who embalmed him. I pored over books about King Tut’s actual clothing, jewelry, swords, etc that were found on him. During the Pharaoh’s embalming and funeral in my story, those details are completely accurate to Tut’s mummy; including how many silk shrouds he was wrapped in—seven.

My Work-In-Progress, a YA gothic paranormal called Essence is a challenge blending paranormal creatures and Super Powers into a novel set in 1878 in a castle in Scotland and a Southern Plantation in the South. 

Trust your kid readers to get engrossed and fascinated by the *history* in Middle-Grade and Young Adult literature – and have a blast reading and discussing together and discovering all those juicy *real* tidbits hidden within the pages.

Kimberly Griffiths Little
Website: (Book Trailer, Teacher's Guide and Mother/Daughter Book Club Guide)

1 comment:

Debbie Reese said...

Good morning,

I came here via Cynsations.

I've got a tip to add to yours...

If your novel has anything to do with American Indians, make sure your research includes study of Native-authored materials. There are several journals in American Indian Studies that you can use. I link to them at my site, American Indians in Children's Literature. To find them scroll down on the left side to "Native Professional Associations and Journals." On the top right I've got a section called "EVALUATE FROM AN INFORMED PERSPECTIVE" that will help you discern bias in the materials you're using for your research.