I recently met with a literary agent who reviewed the opening pages of my novel A Common Language. While this book was my thesis at SHU, I worked my tail off to make sure it was historically and culturally accurate. At the request of my mentors and critique partners, out went the words “like” when I meant “such as,” “can I” when I meant “may I,” and “grounded” when referring to the punishment of not leaving the house. And that’s not even counting all the British-American words like “wireless” for “radio,” “jumper” for “sweater” (and “gym slip” for “jumper”), “post” for “mail,” and so on.
But in being so careful about what my first-person narrator could not say, as she’s an English teen in 1940, the first five pages also became void of her personality, which has a lot of spark and fight to it under its proper verneer. Someone reading only to page five, like this literary agent, though, didn’t know about her drive to be the best at school, her compassion for her little sister, her resourcefulness when things don’t go as planned, and her talent for trading insults with her host family’s oldest son. And those things are, in some ways, more important than being 100% historically accurate with everything my protagonist says.
As this agent pointed out, those personality traits are what connect the readers of today to historical characters. They’re what make yesteryear leap off the page and turn into a time full of real people. Libba Bray’s Gemma Doyle books do this by giving Gemma all the sarcasm and angst of any current teen TV show, even though she lives in Victorian England. What I Saw and How I Lied, which I reviewed, does this by having Evelyn and her best friend long to grow up and wear lipstick and date, longings many young teens can relate to.
I’ve tried to do it by bringing in my Evelyn’s friends and schoolmates on top of her family worries. As she sees her chance of being Head Girl at her London boarding school slipping away, she now also sees her school rival claiming the title, which doesn’t set well with her. I hope some of today’s smart, driven teens can relate to this and see that even though Evelyn’s life differs from theirs, they do have something in common.
What’s your “way in” for modern kids reading your historical work (or fantasy, or anything taking place in a world very different from ours)?