Historical Characters Aren’t Psychic

I’m going to state the obvious here: when you write a book set in a specific time in the past, nothing else has happened after that point. My World War II characters know nothing of what’s to come with the Cold War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and our continuing struggles with the Middle East. Duh, you say. Of course they wouldn’t know this. But they also don’t know how World War II ends until I write a scene on VJ (Victory in Japan) Day in August 1945. And this gets really tricky when writing a book set in, say, September 1940, when Hitler has just blazed across Europe and begins sending the nightly air attacks over London that eventually become known as the Battle of Britain. The Nazis look pretty victorious at that point, and America isn’t even in the war.

That’s when my trilogy of novels begins, September 1940. Evelyn, my main character and narrator, has just left her home in London and traveled to the American Midwest for safe keeping, along with her sister, Sara. I know this war will go on another five years and that Evelyn and Sara will be staying in Indiana all that time, but Evelyn doesn’t know that. Her belief in her quick departure from America shows up in scheduling school classes, where she takes two language classes instead of home ec because she needs to keep up with the curriculum of her school in London. In my third book, she graduates from said American high school, still with no home ec credit because she may be going back to London any day. She isn’t, but she doesn’t know that. Neither does anyone else.

All this boils down to truly putting yourself back in time. It’s one thing to immerse yourself in a character’s lifestyle and remove “modern conveniences,” whatever those may be. It’s another to force yourself to feel the general sentiment of the time, to interpret events the way those people did based on the information they had. One of the hardest lines I’ve written was Evelyn’s friend John telling her “The war will be over by Christmas,” meaning Christmas 1944, when not only was it not over, but the Battle of the Bulge occurred, killing more troops than any other single battle. But that was the general sentiment that summer after the D-Day invasion, and I have to let my characters embody it, because then they feel the disappointment millions of Americans at that time experienced. Then the reader gets to experience that same feeling, too.

What about this has seemed difficult to you as you read or write in the past?


6 Responses to Historical Characters Aren’t Psychic

  1. Kirby Larson says:

    Emilie, This is a great reminder! I know it was hard for me with Hattie not to comment upon certain attitudes that existed — and for the work in progress, it’s been hard to get over how awful things got during the Depression, which folks of course didn’t know at the beginning.

  2. Elizabeth Varadan says:

    I found this a very helpful reminder. The historical juvenile I’m working on now takes place in Sacramento in 1919, in the aftermath of the Influenza Epidemic. It’s amazing what you learn about past attitudes as well: Some people thought eating a package of yeast would make you immune, and that washing the furniture with Lysol would prevent its spread!

  3. Emilie says:

    Kirby and Elizabeth, you both make excellent points, and I love all those areas, both big and small, where a view or practice has later been proven incorrect. The Lysol bit cracked me up, though of course at the church nursery where I work, we make the kids use hand sanitizer before they come in. Wonder what someone will discover about that in the next 50 years…

  4. Hi, Emilie! What a great post! I totally get what Kirby said–a writer with modern sensibilities can’t comment on the attitudes of the time period if historical fiction is to be done right. I also like what you and Elizabeth said. It does make you think…

  5. Danielle Hinesly says:

    Hi Emilie,
    I know I’m a little late to this discussion, but I sure appreciate the reminder. I am fortunate to have one living relative who, though young, still remembers the feelings and such from the time period of my novel–fall, 1947.
    It’s been helpful to have him to bounce ideas off of.
    Thanks for your reminder. Sure helps!

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