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Setting Historical Novels In The Time Of My Childhood, by Lesley Kagen (guest article)

When my first novel, Whistling in the Dark, was released, I was fortunate enough to receive an invitation to launch the book at a neighborhood independent bookstore.

I spoke at the launch for an hour or so about my writing life, my inspirations and so forth. Then it was time to take questions from the audience.  One woman stood and asked why I had chosen to write a story set in 1950s Milwaukee.  I explained to her that what I write about is often not a conscious decision.  It springs from the desire to explore a feeling or a concept.

When I undertook Whistling in the Dark, my daughter had recently left home.  I was feeling bereft and anxious.  Concerned that I hadn’t given her all the tools she needed to fly out of the nest.  From that jumping off point I began to think about raising children, and how hard it is these days compared to the way it was back in the fifties when all that was required of parents was to provide a roof over their kids’ heads and food on the table.  (Self-esteem hadn’t been invented yet.)  Somewhere between remembering Elvis Presley and button candy, a longing began.  The desire to retreat to my childhood overwhelmed me.  I wanted to recall what it was like to be a kid of that era; the smells… the tastes… the music and the lingo.  (I especially loved the lingo, daddy-o.)

The next question came from a young woman in the audience. “I… um… I came with my mother tonight and I… um… didn’t really think I’d like your book, but now that I know it’s historical fiction…”

My jaw dropped and I barely managed to mutter out, “Historical fiction?”  I eyed her. She was maybe twenty or twenty-five years old.  To her, those ‘Happy Days’ that I’d written about must’ve seemed like the ‘days of yore’.

Up to that point, I hadn’t classified my novel as anything but a coming-of-age story set in the fifties but once I’d gotten over the shock of my childhood being categorized as historical, I realized that, like it or not, the young lady had been right.  I was old.

When had that happened?

On the drive home after the event I cursed my ancientness but by the time I’d pulled into my garage I realized that the upside of being a writer about to turn sixty was that I was sitting on a gold mine.  Eureka!  To heck with research; there would be very little need for it.  My memories would lend authenticity and ground my work in a way that I hoped would connect with readers who’d lived during those times, and with those who hadn’t.

So, with a shiny new spin on aging, I got busy writing four more novels.  A few were set in Wisconsin and a few were set down South, but all of them during time periods of my childhood.


Lesley Kagen’s author website:

Lesley Kagen is the New York Times bestselling author of Whistling in the Dark, Land of a Hundred Wonders, Tomorrow River, Good Graces and Mare’s Nest. Lesley lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

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Writing Historical Novels

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. To me, historical books, whether fiction or non-fiction, take the reader into the past and introduce them to a period of time that they could not have experienced first-hand. Therefore, a book about the 1950s, to someone born in the 1980s/90’s would be historical.
    Here is a quote by H. Scott Dalton:
    “We write historical fiction, and read it, not to learn about history so much as to live it. It is the closest we can get to experiencing the past without having been there.” I agree totally.
    Therefore, the young lady who called Whistling in the Dark a historical novel was quite right by the definition above.
    Whistling in the Dark is one of my sister’s favourite books. I have not read it yet, but she keeps nagging me to read it… I think I will now!

    April 14, 2013
  2. I too write novels set in the days of my childhood (in Australia), also the 1950s. They are not stories about me, but about the times in which I lived. I want to show the relative freedom we had and the social mores of the time. I want to show how things have changed since then.

    I realised that I was writing historical fiction when I had to classify my book into a genre. My readers range in age from pre-teens to folks in their nineties. Younger readers discover history; the older ones re-live it. Both please me very much.

    April 19, 2013

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Month In Review with Steve Rossiter (April 2013) | Writing Historical Novels
  2. Month In Review (May 2013) | Writing Historical Novels

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