Monday, September 12, 2011

On Writing HIstorical Fiction: A Guest Post from Julie Chibbaro

Award-winning young adult author Julie Chibbaro has a knack for creating vidid, fascinating and intense worlds from eras long gone. Her first book, Redemption, took us to the harrowing wildness of the New World in the 1500s, while her latest--Deadly--takes us to New York in the early 1900's during a typhoid epidemic.

Deadly has received a lot of attention, with The New York Times calling it a "rare young adult novel" that "reads like a medical thriller." Julie is here to share with us her tips for creating powerful, realistic worlds:

I’m so pleased to have a chance to write for your wonderful site, Vicky.  My novel, Deadly, is historical fiction – not ancient history, unless you consider 100 years ago ancient, which some teens do, but a history that can seem unreal and far away to us. 

Deadly is about a girl’s hunt for the cause of a typhoid fever epidemic in NYC, 1906, which ultimately leads her to the killer Typhoid Mary.  In the process of writing, I realized that the most important thing to remember was:  Make the reader experience the time period, then she can really live it!  The trick to bringing history and science to life in fiction is a difficult one.  To make it more vivid, I relied on the five senses to help me paint a living, breathing picture.

What was the smell of life in early 20th century NYC?  Horses dominated the streets, their manure piled high before cleaners could remove it.  Can you smell it now?

Horse manure, the smell of NYC in 1906.
What did the streets sound like?  An organ grinder playing right outside the window, the sounds of new inventions – steam-engine car, 20-pound telephone.

What did girls look like?  Prudence struggles with The Look – Gibson Girls with their feminine ideal, soft hair piled high, waists cinched tight.

What was the taste of frustration?  A girl who wants to be a scientist in a roomful of boys with microscopes.  Desire tastes like metal to her.

The "hot" look of the era: Gibson Girls.
What does Mr. Soper feel like?  Prudence falls madly in love with her boss, the head epidemiologist Mr. George Soper, who’s as handsome as the most gorgeous explorer of her day, Mr. Peary.  When she nears him, she can feel the rough tweed of his coat; when she kisses him, the edge of his mustache.

The senses can bring any text to life, but they’re especially important in a historical work.  I hope, when reading Deadly, you can live this history, and imagine yourself fully involved in the hunt for a dangerous killer.


Karen Strong said...

This sounds like an interesting read. Loved how the author broke down the smells and sounds of 1906.

Cathy C. Hall said...

This is exactly why I love historical fiction--readers get an education plus a great story!

I've heard good things about this book--am adding it to my TBR list today. Thanks, Vicky and Julie!

Gilly said...

This sounds great. Although - can't lie - that cover makes me want to go wash my hands. Ten times.

Patricia Cruzan said...

Julie's comments about senses remind me of the ones made at the Georgia Writers Association meeting on Saturday. Her book Deadly sounds like one I might like to read.

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Thanks for commenting Karen and Cathy.

@Gilly, I hadn't thought about that--but now that's all I think of!

@Patricia, I think you'll really enjoy it.