I’m having a bit of an issue, this week, with the finicky balance between historical accuracy and modern readability for historical YA fiction. My writerly instincts are at odds, and it’s making a mess of my first draft.
Here’s my dilemma: On the one hand, I want to create a believable early 19th century world. There’s nothing I hate more than reading historical fiction full of whiny 21st century teenagers and anachronistic slang. Yet— I also feel a very modern desire for my two heroines to overcome some of the restrictions of gender and social class to become self-actualized human beings, and to meet the male protagonist on a more equal footing than they probably would have, if we stuck strictly to historical facts.
This is a conflict that every modern writer has, on some level, when delving into a past that doesn’t share the opinions and prejudices of our own. Still, we’re not writing for dead people— we’re writing for our peers, who live in a modern world. And at the risk of making excuses for my own bad behavior, I’ll argue that a novel set in any time or place is often more interesting when it deals with the outliers, not the rule.
The thing is, most of the novels I’ve read that successfully paint the heroine as a whole human being instead of a foil or a fantasy still end with love and marriage— and most of my favorites were written by women who had lived through the time period in which they set those novels.
Spunky, confident, historically accurate women who get the guy are just great— but what happens to an Anne without a Gilbert? What about characters that don’t end up partnered? What about characters whose main story arc isn’t a romance?
I can think of a couple of YA historical fiction novels that do this well. Karen Cushman’s Catherine, Called Birdy does an excellent job placing a young girl with essentially modern sensibilities so firmly in a historical time period that we believe her utterly.
I’m envious of how masterfully done this book is! Still, I can’t apply too many of Cushman’s tricks to my project— I’m working within the restrictions of a traditional fairy tale, with three female narrators, two of which are not entirely human. Tackling a historical world that is also a fantasy world, three different narrative voices AND a love triangle means that at any given time I’m juggling too many story elements to feel like any one of them is staying constant. A change in one part of the story has a massive ripple effect on everything else, until to avoid going crazy/writing in circles I just have to keep forging forward with notes to fix inconsistencies later.
I don’t know that there is a solution to my problem, or a trick to doing this well. It might just be about that ever-elusive line between good writing and bad writing, between lazy cliché and characters with depth. A character like Catherine who knows how to read even though she’s a 14-year-old girl in Medeival England and hates the idea of an arranged marriage can fly in Cushman’s book because she’s well-written, while a Harlequin heroine with those same qualities rings false because she’s been hastily written and poorly researched… and has early ’90s hair.
Insight or advice about writing strong women into history without tweaking out the conscientious reader would be much appreciated.