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Historical Fiction

Re: Should Historical Fiction Be Written in Past Tense?

in Historical Fiction by

Dear Editor…

I want to ask you if my middle grade historical fiction should be written in past tense, or is it acceptable/marketable to write in historical present? It is currently written in historical present, but I am open to revising to past tense if you feel it will be better received upon submission.

Sincerely,
Writing It Like It Was

Dear Writing It Like It Was…

Present tense is a valid choice for middle grade historical fiction. In fact, there’s a school of thought that says the sense of immediacy injected into a narrative by present tense is extra honey for young people too often lured away from books by non-literary activities. There aren’t any rules dictating the tense for MG historical fiction, and I suspect most agents and editors would say the tense choice depends on each story. If one did have a preferred tense for middle grade fiction, it’d probably be present tense because of that “immediacy” thing. Here’s what’s most important to this editor: Present tense organically flowed out of your pen for this story. Stories have a way of telling us what they need, and I believe in listening to them, at least for the first draft. Unless there’s a story-related reason to switch tenses, I recommend you stick with present. Definitely don’t root yourself at your window, peering through the blinds, to see if the Tense Police are coming. If they do show up, let their knocks and shouts go unanswered—you have a WIP to finish. 

Happy writing!
The Editor

re: Must I Contact Descendants for Biography?

in Contracts/Historical Fiction/Nonfiction/Picture Books by

Dear Editor…

During the recent Picture Book Idea Month hosted by Tara Lazar, I had a question that popped up (and was referred your way). I have a nonfiction biography I’m working on (creative nonfiction). If the person still has possible living descendants, do you track them down for permission to write about the historical person (if they’re not someone famous)? What would a publisher’s or editor’s perspective be on a project like this? Any idea?

Sincerely,
Jena

Dear Jena…

Though you don’t need descendants’ permission for biographies of private people, descendants can conceivably sue for an aspect of defamation/ invasion of privacy. They may not have standing or a strong case in this legal gray area, but you’d have to deal with it. Publishing contracts are usually worded to put that on you, although in-house attorneys weigh in. If your portrayal isn’t complimentary, smart money says have a publishing attorney assess your specifics to prevent greater future expense. I recently urged a client to do that because her subject is current generation, the circumstances emotional. The longer your subject has been deceased, the safer you likely are. Is there a moral imperative to seek permission? Get their blessing? I and experts I spoke with don’t think so. What if they decline? Will you trash your project? Do consider that descendants can be great resources, confirming/correcting info and providing insights, photos, documents. You could reach out for interviews or info without asking permission. Share your angle and aim to be thorough and fair.

Happy writing!
The Editor

Re: What Do They Mean, ‘Not Literary Enough’?

in Characterization/Historical Fiction/Literary Fiction/Submissions by

Dear Editor…

What does it mean if an agent says your MG historical novel, due to the concept, needs to be more literary? Is that referring to the choice of language and sentence structure?

Sincerely,
P.

Dear P….

The “literary” versus “commercial” distinction runs deeper than vocab and sentence structure, so elevating the language won’t address the agent’s concern. I suspect your concept promises rich exploration of themes or sociocultural issues, while the story itself is action- and dialogue-driven, having the effect of skimming the surface of those themes or issues. I hear the agent calling for richer layering, with more nuanced character work as you explore how sociocultural elements of the era affect your character and, thus, her interactions with others. Does your protagonist act and react to others in discomfiting ways that force everyone to question or defend worldviews beyond the event at hand? Consider To Kill a Mockingbird, in which a child’s fear of the bogeyman plays out against the larger canvas of a town’s railroading of a black man. As the characters confront the overt theme of racism, they also struggle with universal themes of courage, class, gender, and compassion. Layers. Literary. Above all, rich storytelling that mines the era for more than its events. Is your story layered? Should it be?

Happy writing!
The Editor

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