word craft


Writing historical fiction

Over the years I’ve writ­ten three nov­els about the Amer­i­can Revolution.

The Fight­ing Ground (1884)

Sophia’s War (2013

Loy­al­ty (2022)

Loy­al­ty will be pub­lished in ear­ly February.

The American PastI believe I devel­oped an ear­ly inter­est in the peri­od when (l947) into my child­hood home—I was ten years old—came a book titled The Amer­i­can Past: A His­to­ry of the Unit­ed States from Con­cord to Hiroshi­ma, 1775–1945, by Roger But­ter­field. This was a lav­ish­ly (and beau­ti­ful­ly) illus­trat­ed volume—the first of its kind. The sub­ti­tle reads; “… told with the aid of a thou­sand pic­tures. Repro­duced from orig­i­nal pho­tographs, paint­ings, car­toons, lith­o­graphs, engrav­ings, and draw­ing, espe­cial­ly select­ed and arranged to illu­mi­nate and illus­trat­ed the pol­i­tics, per­son­al­i­ties, war, and peace­ful progress of Amer­i­ca and its people.”

The kid that was me was entranced by the book. I went over it again and again. I’m sure I didn’t have the skill to read it all (much less under­stand it all), but it was enough to peruse the illus­tra­tions and know what they were. I have no doubt my knowl­edge of Amer­i­can His­to­ry was shaped by that book.

I own that same book. It still sits on my shelves.

You’ll note that the book begins with the fight­ing at Con­cord, Mass­a­chu­setts. It’s no acci­dent that the bat­tle of Con­cord is a cen­tral part of Loy­al­ty.

The book did more than intro­duce me to Amer­i­can his­to­ry. It gave me an inter­est in history.

When I was in col­lege, already deter­mined to be a writer, my goal was to be a play­wright. My very first pub­lished work was a play I wrote when at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wis­con­sin, the sub­ject of that play being, yes, the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion. No sur­prise, at UW, I majored in The­atre. But in fact, I had a dou­ble major. The oth­er field of study; History.

Crispin The Cross of Lead
Crispin The Cross of Lead (Crispin, book 1 of 3)

When only 21 years old—a recent col­lege graduate—I actu­al­ly had seri­ous inter­est in a Broad­way pro­duc­tion of a play I wrote. I has­ten to say it was nev­er pro­duced. But deal­ing with an aspect of Euro­pean his­to­ry, it touched on some of the same themes—and time period—as my New­bery book, Crispin: the Cross of Lead.

I did have an off-Broad­way show­case pro­duc­tion of anoth­er of my plays. Again, it was about the Amer­i­can rev­o­lu­tion. The war was suc­cess­ful; my play was not.

But when I won the O’Dell Award for the best his­tor­i­cal nov­el, it was for The Fight­ing Ground, yet again, about the Amer­i­can Revolution.

Over the years I’ve pub­lished some eighty-four works. Loy­al­ty will be num­ber eighty-four. Some forty or more of those pub­li­ca­tions are his­tor­i­cal fic­tion. Lat­er this year I shall pub­lish City of Mag­ic, set in Renais­sance Venice.

Why the fas­ci­na­tion with his­to­ry? There is the obvi­ous: his­to­ry pro­vides great sto­ries. Not dates and bat­tles, but human stories. 

As for our War for Independence—and what followed—its suc­cess­es and failures—it is cen­tral to our his­to­ry, cul­ture, and ide­al­ism. It was a major event in world his­to­ry, with a vast impact.

But—it is not a sim­ple sto­ry. The more you learn about it, the more com­plex and inter­est­ing it becomes. Much of that com­plex­i­ty is woven into the fab­ric of Amer­i­can soci­ety with which we engage and wres­tle today. I have always found that com­plex­i­ty, its ideals, its many con­tra­dic­tions, and its hero­ic and fail­ing moments fascinating.

I’ll write more about Loy­al­ty in my next post.

4 thoughts on “Writing historical fiction”

  1. “Human sto­ries.” Love this. I wrote the his­to­ry book about the Farib­ault Woolen Mill and dis­cov­ered just that. Yes, “his­to­ry pro­vides great sto­ries.” Thank you for your his­tor­i­cal fiction.

  2. Thanks for shar­ing this. I wrote a play based on the life of George Wash­ing­ton and all of the fas­ci­nat­ing peo­ple he com­mu­ni­cat­ed with. I found an old book with the orig­i­nal con­ver­sa­tions and dis­cus­sions in there, so I want­ed to pre­serve them in a dra­mat­ic form. I agree that it was a very inter­est­ing time period.


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