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Why I Use Disgusting Details In Children’s Historical Novels, by Kathleen Benner Duble

How many times have you been in a long line of traffic, inching your way forward until, at last, you realize that the interminable wait was due to rubbernecking at the scene of some grisly accident? And as you pass, you complain about those people who are so intrigued by the gruesomeness that they have to slow down and look. And then… you slow down, and you look, too. Admit it. You’ve done it. We’ve all done it.

Kids are no different. The unusual, the gross, the scary, the disgusting – they are drawn to it. And by giving them repugnant details in historical fiction, you can make the past that much more memorable.

So what kinds of gory things am I talking about?

Here are some examples of hideous details I have used in my books to make kids sit up and take notice, to show them something awful enough that they will remember the incident and, most importantly, learn about the past:

In Quest, my book about Henry Hudson’s last ill‐fated voyage, I used these salient details:

  • Richard, Henry Hudson’s eight year old son, has a toothache. In going to see the apothecary with his mother, it is decided that the tooth must come out – without Novocain, with pliers and with leeches to cure an infection. I guarantee you kids who read this, will always remember that there were no dentists during Henry Hudson’s life, exactly what an apothecary is, and just how painful it was to have a toothache in 1610.
  • Having taken only eight months of supplies and being forced to winter in the ice, Henry’s crew is left with nothing to eat but frogs’ legs and moss. Their teeth fall out, and they are weak from scurvy. You won’t see kids soon forgetting that an explorer’s life was not particularly glamorous and was filled with danger at all times.
  • When Richard goes with his mother to the market to buy meat, he doesn’t pick up a nicely packaged steak. No, his beef is hanging from a hook, covered in flies and slime. Once again, the message becomes clear: there was no refrigeration in 1610. And hopefully, this scene will help my readers remember why everyone in London was so crazy for spices to put on their meat – to hide the spoilage and make it taste better.

In The Sacrifice, the story of my great-grandmother (nine times back) who was accused of witchcraft and put in the Salem Town Prison in 1692, I used these disgusting and/or unusual little tidbits:

  • I begin the story with my great‐grandmother, Abigail, being punished by having to sit in the stocks for six hours. Her crime: running for pleasure. Here I can address the strange customs of the Puritans such as no dancing or singing, no playing or kissing on the Sabbath and no running for pleasure. I want my readers to understand the tediousness of life under the Puritan regime and begin to comprehend why some girls might have been enticed to cry “itch” just to shake things up.
  • When Abby is put in the Salem Town Prison, the conditions there are less than stellar. If it rains, the water rises within her cell. Rats accompany the rising waters, and the candles allotted them smoke and stink, as they are made from tallow or animal fat. In addition, you had to pay for your upkeep so even if you were found innocent of being a witch, if you couldn’t cough up the cash to pay for your cell (and there was a lot of coughing back then), you went right back to jail. No passing Go. Again, these gruesome details will help my readers think about the differences in prison conditions over the centuries.

History is rich with disgusting details such as the ones mentioned above. Look for them. Search them out. Use them if your story allows it and hand your readers a way to remember the past that they will be unlikely to forget.


Kathleen Benner Duble’s author website:

Kathleen Benner Duble’s bio page


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QuestThe SacrificePhantoms in the Snow     The Cabinet of CuriositiesDoomed Queen Anne: A Young Royals BookGoldseekers

Writing Historical Novels

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Great post, and so true that kids, and many adults, do not have any idea about conditions in the past – even 15 years ago, before mobile phones were common. I had a middle-aged adult comment on my story, set in remote central Australia where there weren’t even regular phones in 1990, that the protagonist could have just called for help on her mobile!

    March 1, 2013

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