Historical Setting in Children’s Books

Some editors are definitely changing their minds about historical setting in children’s books and period settings. They are looking for these kinds of projects more actively, but it’s no secret that they have been a bit of a hard sell in the last few years. The market is cyclical, though, so nothing stays down forever. While I’m not calling historical a trend or anything, by any stretch of the imagination, I wanted to talk a little bit about how to use a historical setting in the best possible way in your book.

historical setting in a novel, period piece, period setting, historical fiction, historical setting
If you write a novel with a historical setting, it’ll automatically look like this.

Making Historical Setting in Children’s Books Work

The number one (and, really, only good) reason to place your book in a historical setting is if the book’s events depend on that historical period. For example, if a lot of your plot is going to be informed by the political climate in Germany, say, in 1934, when a new leader has taken the political stage, and about the tensions boiling then, etc., then 1934 it is. That’s a great reason for historical fiction in children’s books.

Or if you’re writing a Victorian period piece. Or something set in San Francisco or Berkeley during the Summer of Love. Maybe a story about the Columbine shootings or another famous, time-specific event or historical period.

Now, there is a caveat to this. The event or period really has to be central to the events of your own novel. In other words, there has to be a dang good reason for you to be setting your book in another time. If you’re setting your book in the 90s just because there’s a scene of your characters finding out that Princess Di has died in a car crash and then reacting to that, but there’s really no bigger plot or theme connection than that one scene, I don’t think that’s a strong enough reason for the “historical” novel setting.

The 20th Century is Considered Historical Fiction (Don’t Shoot the Messenger)

Just in case I offended you there, that wasn’t my intention. While I think it sounds a little silly, believe it or not, the 60s, 70s, 80s, and even 90s are now considered historical fiction in children’s books — especially in a market where the overwhelming number of books are set in an undefined contemporary, near-future, or future setting. So if you think you’re writing an awesome contemporary book that just so happens to be set in the 80s and everyone is doing their hair like Molly Ringwald…you’re writing historical.

So the good reason for a historical setting is if the time period is woven inextricably with your plot. There are several bad reasons for writing historical, and some of them are difficult to let go of.

What to Avoid When Writing Historical Fiction

First, don’t set a book in a past decade just because you grew up that way. Sure, there are coming of age stories that are set in various 20th century decades that go on to win awards and whatnot. Rebecca Stead set WHEN YOU REACH ME in the 70s not because it had to be set in the 70s, but because she grew up in that era in New York City and really loved it…that’s when, to her, kids were given more freedom and independence than they are in the cities now.

That’s totally valid. But that’s also Rebecca Stead and the book is brilliantly done. At no point does it fail to be relatable or seem dated.

While it’s really tempting to “write what you know” in this regard, do be aware that historical fiction in children’s books that seems “old-fashioned” is a really tough sell right now. I know I’m always looking for fresh, modern voices, as are a lot of editors.

There’s a balance between making something resonate currently and writing something timeless…but the answer isn’t always to set it in the past. (Going back to Molly Ringwald for a second…there was one summer, when chick lit YA was still pretty big, when it seemed like every spunky YA heroine I read in slush had the cute “quirk” of just loooooving 80s movies and watching them with all her friends. Is that really the YA character talking…or the thirtysomething writer who is obsessed with John Hughes?)

Writing Historical Fiction Around Technology

Second, don’t go for historical setting in children’s books to eliminate the biggest thriller/adventure/mystery plot problems: cell phones and the Internet. Lots of writers think about setting their action stories in the past so that the kids can’t just call the police or so that the answer isn’t immediately obvious to all parties after five minutes on Google. This is a tough one.

For all of those writers crafting twisty yarns that rely on the character getting in high danger or the withholding of important information, cell phones and the Internet are hugely problematic. I can really, really get why a writer would long for the disconnected 80s for their serial killer novel. I’d imagine the same ruffling of feathers happened when pay phones hit the streets. Now the girl being chased by the murderer could potentially save herself. Remember pay phones? Well, fiction survived that, too (though pay phones didn’t…).

Here’s the reality: Kids today are attached to their cell phones and their computers. There are fewer and fewer places on this planet where we are cut off from communication, achieving that total isolation that lets evil characters and conspiracies and mysterious plot twists work their machinations. But technology and connectedness are, for better or worse, how kids relate to the world today.

While this is at odds with a lot of good and suspenseful fiction, writers are going to have to adapt, especially in the future, as information becomes more and more accessible. You have to figure out your own solutions to cutting characters off from information, because in 20 years, all of our mystery novels just can’t be set in the 80s to take the shortcut around it. That’s not realistic.

Integrating Technology Instead

In this battle of Writers vs. Technology, Technology has won, so it’s up to you to use your writerly imagination to make your plot work. It’s, personally, a pet peeve of mine when a writer doesn’t acknowledge that technology exists. I always find myself asking, “Why doesn’t s/he just Google this? I know everyone who writes books is in love with libraries, but does s/he really have to go to the musty old archives?” And I’m over a decade older than your target market. It’s a knee-jerk thought even for me.

Now, I know not everyone has a cell phone or an Internet connection — there’s a big socioeconomic divide here — but everyone can have access to technology in class and at the library. So put on your creative cap for the Technology Problem, and at least acknowledge that technology exists…that’s what your reader will be thinking.

So don’t fall back on the decade of your youth, and don’t go back to the 90s to avoid technology. If you really have a great reason for using a historical setting, do it. If not, I always recommend contemporary, near-future, or the far future as a setting for your story in today’s market.

I’ve worked on dozens of historical novels and read hundreds more. Let me bring my experience to your project and hire me as your freelance editor.

24 Replies to “Historical Setting in Children’s Books”

  1. I dealt with this recently with a piece I’d set in the nineties, actually further back than when I was a teenager, but only because it had once been part of a larger piece that continued until today. Once that was eliminated I had to accept that the nineties element was pointless.

    At least I had the fun experience of using Way Back Machine to look up old webpages. If I’d kept it in the 90s I might have OD’d on Comic Sans

  2. KDuBayGillis says:

    Thanks, Mary. Not because you’ve given me a solution to my problem (technology inteferring with my plot twists), but you’ve given me a kick in the pants to go solve it and quit whining.

    (But I’ll still probably whine.)

    : )

  3. This post almost made me cry… until I got to the end. My current WIP is set in 1995, and a lot of what you’re saying here made me think I should just toss the whole idea because no one is going to see past the fact that it is set in 1995, and see it for what it is beneath the time period. I feel that the story is relatable to any time period, but am *I* the only one who sees that? Not sure…

    But when you started talking about the technology aspects, it made me breathe a little easier. I was a teen in 1995, and I was highly on top of the technology of the time. So, in my WIP, there is heavy email usage (it was just beginning to get really popular then… remember Juno mail? lol) and the MC also acquires a cell phone… she is one of the first of her peers to ditch her pager for a cell phone (oh God, why did we ever think pagers were cool?). And this made me realize that my reasons for setting the story in the year that I did are NOT for the sake of a “plot device.”

    The main reason is because of the LGBT focus, and even though it was only 16 years ago, things were a LOT different back then for LGBT teens. Not that it’s perfect now, not at all. It’s just more public.

    So I guess I won’t burn my novel. Today. 😉

    That is more lengthy and more personal of a comment than I usually make here (or on any blog) but I know you’re not going to take it the wrong way, Mary. So there it is.

    And by the way, I’d like to know which Austen heroine you are:
    http://lydiasharp.blogspot.com/2011/04/which-austen-heroine-are-you.html 😀

  4. Someone just tweeted your post, and I followed it here. I’m impressed. Very well written . . . and a heckuva good point, too. The biggest problem with it is that you limit your audience to those who can relate to the times you’re remembering so fondly (how many readers can honestly follow you if you lovingly quote an early Cameron Crowe film, for instance?).

    I wonder how often writers (particuarly amongst the post-Boomer, Gen-Xers and the like) really do fall into this trap. I’ve never really given it a second thought; now you’ve got me believing it happens more often than we expect. A good warning–expecially for those among us who fall squarely into the generations I just mentioned.

    Thanks for the informative post.

  5. I’m one of those who is technologically challenged and it isn’t something I would naturally put into a novel, but I agree with everything said here. There is an easy way of avoiding these pitfals. Just don’t think about it! And what I mean is, we have to look at DIFFERENT dangers out there. NOT the lack of technology that maybe we were scared of or caused specific uncertainties in our youth. With any story we need to put ourselves into our Protag’s position. What would be scary for them? Maybe a place where the technology is tampered with, where the antagonist controls this (which is something I am sort of doing in my current WIP). Or maybe that the technology has gone arry or, I don’t know, be creative.

    It’s easy to get into mind-sets and part of being a good writer, I think, is to stop, think, and be creative. Think of new ideas, don’t just re-create old ones (which is more natural to do than we may think). The most admired writers out there, both old and new, are people who were innovative. They had something new to say and were different from anyone else out there at the time. I mean, just look at Dr. Seuss, to name a children’s book author. There is no one else like him. Or Shakespeare. No one touches him. I bet others could come up with better examples, but there are many I’m sure. =)

  6. My ears are burning as I read this post!

    I stupidly wrote my first MG novel in an 80s setting. I tried to make it contemporary, but the 2 main plotlines don’t work, due to changes in social values and also legal precedence.

    I tried putting in some vampires, but the moose ate them.

  7. This is a great reminder. Fiction-writing is always a kind of problem-solving…and, as you point out, it’s a problem for the writer when our characters find it too easy (via cell phones, Google, etc) to solve their own problems. Best to hunker down and solve the narrative problem rather than looking for an easy solution.

    It really is striking to watch a movie from, say, 10 years ago and think about the story would have gone differently if only the characters had cell phones. At my blog a few weeks ago, readers offered up their very funny takes on what would have happened if characters in classic stories had smart phones: http://jonathan-rogers.com/?p=1358.

  8. This is so refreshing to hear articulated. When I first started my manuscript, I wrote it in the voice of my favorite authors who were all writing in the fifties and sixties in England. The result was a setting in an ambiguous good-old-days-that-never-were. I wasn’t but a few chapters in before I realized I needed to write in my own voice, in my own time. My characters *do* use ipods, cell phones, and the internet, but only in passing. I didn’t try to put technology in, but I didn’t try to keep it out, either. I think it’s possible to find that balance without changing the heart of your work to become something technology-driven. Thanks for speaking to this, Mary.

  9. I appreciate you making the point that historical fiction needs to have a reason for the time period it’s in.

    I’d like to add that historical fiction with a setting of a time period of some time in the past with a character who acts like a kid of today is my personal pet peeve. You’ve got to be able to give it a historical voice as well, or don’t bother.

  10. I agree with you 100% about the John Hughes thing. I’ve read that particular “quirk” in a number of books — some pulled it off better than others, but the bigger point is that if it’s appearing in multiple books, then writers need to find another horse to flog.

    I also question whether the obsessive-fan trait it’s a good instinct in the first place? How is loving one of the most beloved directors of all time unique? It’s like trying to make a middle-aged man interesting by telling us he’s really into the Beatles. Or that a child is interesting for reading and loving the Narnia books. The problem with loving stuff that everybody loves is that everybody loves it. (That might be the worst sentence I’ve ever written … or the greatest?)

  11. Had one novel (oh, wait, you read it, didn’t you? 😉 ), where the heroine was stuck without her cellphone, and had to find one–one–last “old-school” pay-phone in a public building. Obviously, that was left over from an earlier draft from when pay-phones were easier to find as a public plot-device….But it was covered by the question of what to do when the main character is in a pinch without their omnipresent piece of 00’s-10’s technology.

    And yes, like Rebecca Stead, you have to have Been There to understand how much different how much different a period was than today. (I found myself last week trying to explain to someone how much influence television had in our daily lives in the 70’s and 80’s, and it sounded alien to me too.)
    Case in point, from the geezer: I was in high-school in the 80’s, and we couldn’tfreakin’STAND John Hughes pumping out a dopey sitcom movie every week. Every time I see “80’s=Breakfast Club” in a bit of decade identification, I smell someone getting dressup-nostalgic.

  12. Thank you for this. As one who has recently delved into writing at all (with my new-found love of historical MG fiction at its roots), I now have much to consider for my WIP. I see historical fiction for kids as an alternate way of teaching history to them, and that is why I chose a historical setting for my story. I will evaluate if my book’s events depend on the historical time period. Thanks again.

  13. I’m surprised to hear that technology interferes with plot. The great thing about mobile phones is how easy they are to break/lose/dunk in treacle etc. High heels go through iPads nicely too, and the internet is so massively chaotic, and its content so hard to verify quickly, that I don’t see how google can really compete with breaking into a library at 3 am for a spooky rummage in the dust. If tech is a life-line and a crutch, then just get rid of it, in the same we kid-lit writers have to get rid of that other life-line and crutch: parental protection.

  14. This whole availability-of-information question and how that affects modern storytelling is fascinating. Kathryn Roberts above mentions technology being “tampered with” as a possible solution, I for one have experienced this firsthand through living in China for two years. The internet remains severely restricted there with sites like YouTube, Facebook and foreign news sites unavailable without working some (illegal) technological wizardry. Freedom of information is not a universal thing – this could be one angle to work from if the story fit!

  15. I’ve just finished a novel set in 1576, which absolutely had to be then because of historical events, but usually I write contemporary. I’m astonished at all this negativeness about technology! I love that my characters use Google, take photos on their phones, use apps – write apps, even – use Facebook. It opens up far more possibilities than it closes off – embrace it!

  16. To me this is both interesting and encouraging for I recently attended a meeting to hear a very senior representative of a major publisher of childrens books say they had made a corporate decision not to do historical fiction — the area that most interests me, having started life with Henty.

  17. When I’m not working on my YA MS, I’m a pop music scholar. As someone who teaches college kids about the history of rock music, I have semesterly reminders that NONE of them think of the 1990s as remotely contemporary. They simply don’t remember them. In fact, a lot of times they know less about that decade than they do the 1950s and 1960s, which they’ve learned about in history classes.

    Sooo, I’d like to ask a question: how do you think the issue of 1990s “historical fiction” connects with the issue of voice? Because if the main character sounds right, it doesn’t sound like a 35-year-old waxing nostalgic, but like a genuine YA voice in a particular time and place that happen to be “not now.” It seems to me that this is actually a LOT harder than setting it now, if you want to get down to it, since you have to do as much world-building as someone writing fantasy or any other kind of historical fiction.

  18. How do you “show” a particular time period without being heavy-handed about it? In my current story I show an elementary marquee, but it feels to obvious. Do you have any other suggestions?

    I have another question but I want to ask privately. I hope you don’t mind.

  19. I came to this post after seeing your recent tweet, and the timing is perfect. My WIP is a middle grade mystery where the kids actually use their cell phones and the internet to solve a series of riddles. Or at least *try* to use the internet. Not everything is answerable on Google. I know–I ran Google searches just like my characters would so that I’d know what information they could and could not find.

    Looking forward to sending you a query once the revisions are complete!

  20. writer anonymous says:

    wow this helped so much!
    And to think that I hadn’t even considered technology into the equation…
    Great time to find this considering i just started writing my story today and i couldn’t decide what time to put it in… this makes it a lot easier! 🙂

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