What dost thou say?

March 29, 2010

Thrice.  Fortnight.  He’s the bee’s knees.

If you came across these or other expressions in an old or historical novel, would they make you stop reading so you could look them up?  Make you fall further into the story?  Make you put down the book altogether?

This is a problem writers of historical fiction face as they write, particularly those of us who write for young readers.  We want to make a story as authentic as possible, yet write a story that’s engaging and understandable.  And everyone who reads your book will have an opinion on how far is too far.  One of my grad school mentors got me to cut “like” out of most of my manuscript so my 1940s heroine didn’t inadvertantly sound like a Valley Girl.  At the same time, critique partners deemed some of the re-worded phrasing as sounding “too adult.”

Finding this delicate balance won’t come from one post by one Damsel in Regress, but as a starting place for discussion, I asked a few of our past interviewees for their opinions.

Randall Platt, author of Hellie Jondoe, made an interesting point that she uses more period language in dialogue than she does in narrative.  To her, it’s easier to discern meaning from an unfamiliar word in dialogue than it is while reading action or description.  She also uses dialogue to explain archaic words, but feels that if she has to give explanation in narrative, it’s better to just cut it out altogether even if it’s technically correct.  (Wish I could figure out how this applies to my first-person stories…)

Kim Ablon Whitney, author of The Other Half of Life, had an additional challenge I and other historical authors share: she used not only archaic words, but also some foreign words because her characters were German.  Not an easy balance to strike, but when I asked her about it, she emphasized making it clear through context.  For her, glossaries are a distraction, so being able to dicern a word from its context is essential.  As a reader, though, she shares my own view that archaic words, if able to be figured out by context, make you fall more into the dream of the story.

This is far from the final word on period language, so please share your thoughts as writers and readers!

P.S.  Kirby Larson, author of Hattie Big Sky, also had this to add: Don’t overload your young readers, but don’t underestimate them, either, because they probably love learning new words.  More sage advice!


Contest: The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

March 26, 2010

As I said in my review on Monday, I really enjoyed the wit and humor in The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate. So, to enter this month’s contest, post the name of a historical novel that you found humorous or that was even laugh-out-loud funny and tell us why. The winner will receive a signed copy of Jacqueline Kelly’s Calpurnia. I’ll post the results on Friday, April 2.  Good luck!

Interview with Jacqueline Kelly

March 24, 2010

This month we’re pleased to welcome Jacqueline Kelly, winner of a 2010 Newbery Honor award for her debut novel, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate.

1. Welcome to Damsels in Regress, Jacqueline. How did Calpurnia’s story come about?

Calpurnia’s story was inspired by the huge old Victorian farmhouse that I own in Fentress (Texas). The house is old, and lovely, and falling down, and inadequately cooled by ancient window units. I was lying on the day-bed in the parlor one hot summer day thinking, how did people stand it in this house a hundred years ago? Especially the women, who had to wear all those layers of clothes? And just like that, Calpurnia and her whole family sprang to life to answer that question for me. The first page of the book was basically me taking down dictation from them, especially Callie, in answer to my question.

I love it when that happens with characters.  Did Callie continue to dictate the direction of the novel for you?

Callie continued to dictate the direction of the book most of the time, but I found that Granddaddy took over every now and then, seemingly without my input.

2. Though set in 1899, your novel also looks at the Civil War through the eyes of Calpurnia’s grandfather.  What kind of research did you do?  Were there any difficulties?

I did a little research into the dates and locations of the Civil War, but I already knew about some of the dreadful medical aspects of care then. The best surgeons were those who could get a limb off the fastest, giving their patients the best chance of surviving the operation.

How did you research the rest of the book?

I used the Texas Handbook Online for research. It contains a small snippet about the town of Fentress.

3. Callie has such a strong, witty voice, especially when she’s dealing with her brothers.  Did you come from a large family?  If not, how did you come up with some of those situations?

I am an only child. I loved this growing up, but now that I’m an adult, I dearly wish I had siblings, especially a sister. I’m not sure where I came up with some of these situations.  I guess they come from watching other families over the years and the way the children interact.

4. Callie’s grandfather is such an interesting and fun character.  How did you decide on his traits?

Granddaddy is a combination of four people:  my father, my mother, and two older male friends of mine. I picked the best characteristics (or at least the most interesting) of all four of them and melded them together. My family is from New Zealand, but we left there when I was quite young and moved to Canada, so I basically grew up without a grandfather. This left me free to create the kind of grandfather that I would have wanted as a child.

5. Are you working on anything new? If so, can you tell us a little about it?

I am working on The Willow Redux, which is an updated sequel to The Wind in the Willows. I am disappointed to find that American children are not reading the original so much any more, although it’s still wildly popular in Britain with both kids and adults.

6. You are both a doctor and a lawyer.  Do you still work in those professions or is your time devoted to writing?

I don’t practice law any more. I continue to practice medicine part-time in Austin, and spend the rest of my time writing.

7. What were some of your favorite books as a teenager?

When I was growing up, there really wasn’t a body of teen literature per se, so my favorite books as a young reader included The Wind in the Willows (of course), the Dr. Doolittle stories, National Velvet, the Kipling books, Treasure Island, and all sorts of animal books.

Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us.

For more information on Jacqueline and her work, check out her website at www.jacquelinekelly.com. Don’t forget to drop by on Friday for a chance to win an autographed copy of The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate.

Book Review: The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

March 22, 2010

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate
Jacqueline Kelly
Ages 9-12
338 pages

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly won a Newbery Honor award for 2010. There’s a good reason why. This middle grade novel is a charming coming of age story set in 1899 Texas. (And, no, I didn’t like it just because I’m a Texan.)

In episodic style, Kelly takes the reader through part of Calpurnia’s eleventh year as she forges a relationship with her reclusive naturalist grandfather. The only girl out of seven children and the middle child to boot, Callie deals with her brothers’s troubles—issues like first crushes and making pets of turkeys—with wit and displays of vulnerability. While her interest in the world of nature grows, she struggles against her mother’s attempts to teach her housewifery with its needlework and cooking lessons.

The story progresses and it’s clear that Callie would much rather be a scientist than a housewife. The possibility of that happening is slim. Yet the poignant relationship she builds with her granddaddy is what brings her hope.

This is one of those books where I fell in love with the narrator’s voice. Callie’s interpretation of the events of her life had me laughing aloud and scrambling to find unsuspecting family members so I could read it to them. The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate is an enjoyable read, rich with historical detail and fully developed characters. I highly recommend it for those who love historical fiction.

Don’t miss the interview with Jacqueline Kelly on Wednesday. Friday’s post will be a contest to win a signed copy of Calpurnia Tate.

Dinner in a Country Village

March 16, 2010

The last weekend of January I got the chance to participate in a program at Old Sturbridge Village called “Dinner in a Country Village”.  I had planned to write a historical post about cooking in an 1830s home, but decided instead to write about my experience since I had an amazing time.  I threw in a few historical facts…I couldn’t help myself!  Enjoy.

Notice the grater and apple corer!

As we all trekked out—on the second coldest day of the month—to the Parsonage house, I felt like I should have donned my long skirt and bonnet that my mom made for me a few years back when I played a schoolmarm for our town’s one room schoolhouse.  However, the below freezing temperatures made me glad I had modern apparel at my disposal.  Once inside, we were time morphed to 1838.  No electricity, no central heating, just a few candles casting an eerie glow on the tables and a blessedly warm fire raging in the huge brick fireplace.

With three interpreters as guides, it took fourteen of us, divided into four groups, three hours to prepare a meal…I kept thinking if it’d been just my mom and me…we’d have spent forever in the kitchen…which explains why running a household was pretty much a full time job in the 1830s.  The first group worked on preparing our appetizers (mulled cider and pounded cheese).  I admit I pigged out on the cheese; it was that good!  The second group worked on the vegetable dishes (onion soup, roasted carrots, stewed beets, turnip sauce and hot slaw).  If you know me, you know I didn’t go near the veggies.  The men eagerly volunteered to handle the meats (roast beef with kitchen pepper and fricasseed chicken) and I, sweet tooth that I have, helped with the pastries, which included making the biscuits, Marlboro pudding and a trifle.  Sounds good huh?  It was!

Read the rest of this entry »

The everyday…from the past: Tax Bill

March 11, 2010

This was a tax bill from 1910 from my mom’s side of the family.

1910 Tax Bill

How historical is “historical?”

March 9, 2010

I’ve been looking for an excuse to blog about the brilliant middle grade novel that won this year’s Newbery Award,

because I truly loved it.  It is, however, not historical fiction in the strictest sense.  Remember, the definition of historical fiction is fiction set more than 50 years in the past and/or prior to the lifetime of the author, forcing the author to research the living daylights out of the time period to craft a believable story.  Author Rebecca Stead set her book in the school year she was in sixth grade, same age as her protagonist, Miranda, which is 1978-1979.  Not to say she didn’t have to fact-check herself, but writing about your childhood isn’t the same as writing about the previous century.

But maybe the definition of historical fiction needs to be expanded.  Without giving too much away, a major element of the story is the game show “The $25,000 Pyramid.”  I watched it mostly as “The $100,000 Pyramid,” and even then mostly in re-runs on the Game Show Network, but I am familiar with the show.  When I was fortunate enough several weeks ago to hear Rebecca Stead read and take audience questions, though, a young girl (probably ten, twelve years old) asked if it was a real show or if she’d made it up.

That got me thinking, and not in an oh-my-gosh-I’m-so-old way (at least not much).  To that little girl, this book is a sort of historical novel.  It’s set at a time before she lived, probably her parents’ childhood era.  The technology, pop culture, and world events are new to her, and this book may have been her first introduction to them.  Is that so different from when my grandmother had a hard time buying me an American girl Molly doll because she realized she was “older” than Molly?  World War II is history to me, and any novel set during it reads like historical fiction.  It’s the foreign-ness of the time, the questions about whether this is real or made-up, that make it so, not the length of time that has passed from then to now.

I’ve also heard advice from various industry professionals that World War II, incidentally, is about as “new” as historical fiction can get right now, even for young readers.  I agreed–until Rebecca Stead’s reading.  Maybe they need to realize we’re all getting older and history isn’t staying stagnet.  Things are changing, new readers are growing into new books, and maybe it’s time to give them some new territory.