Write Like A Picker
by Lindsay K. Bandy
Anyone who enjoys historical fiction knows it’s all about the details—but not just any details. Writers who enjoy the rabbit trails of research sometimes lose their way and end up in a confusing plot-maze that leads nowhere. Others collect facts like a flea market dealer—you know, the one who watches reruns on a black and white TV amidst his collection of unsold creepy dolls, doorknobs, and crocheted doilies. Nobody wants that stuff. Nobody buys it. And as writers, nobody wants to be that guy! But as a lover of history, how do you decide which details to include and which to delete? How do you vividly transport your reader back in time without shoving them into pages that read like a musty, deserted vintage shop?
Luckily, it turns out successful vintage shop owners, upcyclers, and authors of historical fiction have quite a bit in common. They have a firm grasp on the market and understand what their customers are looking for. They’re also self-aware enough to recognize when something might only be interesting to them. They know when to call in the experts for verification or help, and they aren’t afraid to throw junk in the dumpster. They have an eye for potential and an ear to the ground.
Successful vintage shops carry affordable items that can be used or displayed as lively conversation pieces. One of my favorites, Joe Retro in Havre de Grace, MD, specializes in wearable vintage clothing and jewelry, records, and Pyrex dishes. The key to selling these items is their usability. Modern readers and modern shoppers want a connection to the past—but they don’t want another thing to dust. Serving guests a casserole in seventy-year-old Pyrex brings history into the immediate present, and does double duty as a conversation piece. Give readers something they can bring to the dinner table, and they’ll be back for seconds!
In his excellent book on writing craft, STORY, screenwriter Robert McKee offers the following warning to those who wish to craft historical fiction for the screen, stage, or page: “What is past must be present….The best use of history, and the only legitimate excuse to set a film in the past and thereby add untold millions to the budget, is anachronism—to use the past as a clear glass through which you show us the present.” And as any historical writer knows, those untold millions quickly add up to research hours just as easily as dollars spent on period costumes!
When considering emotionally, politically, or religiously charged issues, taking a few paces back in time can give your audience the distance they need to consider the present in a new light. As McKee says, “Many contemporary antagonisms are so distressing or loaded with controversy that it’s difficult to dramatize them in a present-day setting without alienating the audience. Such dilemmas are often best viewed at a safe distance in time.”
Writers of young adult fiction, in particular, offer young readers important opportunities to critically view present conflicts in light of the past. Rather than excess details, writers must focus on the heart of the connection. Details fill out your character’s world, but human struggles and emotions pull your reader into it. The stuff of humanity is what makes a story feel real—details of architecture, clothing, and wind speed simply add realism.
Multi-award-winning author Marcus Sedgwick offers the following advice: “The test I use in order to permit myself to use something I’ve come across in research in a book is this: does it belong to the story? If it furthers the story; if it’s useful or necessary or indispensable; if you cannot imagine the book without it; then fine, use it. But if it feels tacked on, forced in, and altogether superfluous then it is probably there only because you are in love with it. That’s not good enough, and you owe it to your readers to take it out.”
Unless you are extraordinarily self-aware, however, this can be difficult to do on your own. This is where critique groups, beta readers, and honest family members come in. Surround yourself with people who will tell you the truth! When my great-grandmother was moving out of her house and into a smaller apartment, the whole family took turns helping her to sort through her overwhelming collection of stuff. When it comes to things we find interesting or meaningful, we need to bring in reinforcement in the form of people who love us enough to help us let go.
We also need reinforcements in the form of experts. If you’ve ever watched AMERICAN PICKERS or PAWN STARS, you know that even the very best pickers or antique dealers have experts on speed dial. In order to be sure they’re not about to purchase a fraud, they call in professionals who specialize in Revolutionary War ammunition or Beatles autographs. As a writer, it can feel intimidating to reach out to museum curators, librarians, professors, or big-name bloggers, but I have been met with overwhelming support and enthusiasm. Experts are often are anxious to share their knowledge and excited to have a lively discussion. So, take a chance. Reach out. You’ll find new information with confidence, and even make new friends!
As you sort through your treasure trove of information, be on the lookout for combinations with potential. Some of my favorite vintage shops feature popular pieces from independent, local artists who upcycle. While recycling consists of manufacturing waste products into items of lower quality than the originals, upcyclers craft interesting old items into something of higher quality—something fresh, hip, and useful. The products upcyclers create range from beautiful jewelry made from broken dishes or typewriter parts to cabinets crafted from refinished shutters. Unexpected combinations keep it interesting!
Take Lin-Manuel Miranda’s wildly popular HAMILTON. Whether or not you appreciated Miranda’s rapping founding fathers, the musical resonates with modern audiences because it hits hard on topics of race and immigration, along with timeless themes of freedom, faithfulness, and family. The Revolutionary War-era is suddenly both novel and antique. It’s been upcycled.
As you research and write historical fiction, imagine yourself collecting items to fill the shelves of your own vintage shop. Choose wisely. Avoid acquiring forgeries by reaching out to experts for verification. Remember that some things really do belong in a dumpster, because age doesn’t always indicate worth. Consider your market—their age, their background knowledge, and the daily struggles they face. Curate a collection of vintage details and relevant themes that modern audiences will turn into vibrant conversation pieces.
DON’T FORGET THE STORY IN HISTORY by Marcus Sedgwick. EASTERN PENN POINTS, THE OFFICIAL BLOG OF THE EASTERN PA CHAPTER OF SCBWI. March 6, 2015.
McKee, Robert. STORY: SUBSTANCE, STRUCTURE, STYLE, AND THE PRINCIPLES OF SCREENWRITING. Regan Books, 1997.
Lindsay K. Bandy writes young adult historical and contemporary fiction, as well as poetry. She lives in Lancaster County, PA with her husband, two daughters, and two cats, and when she’s not working as a youth librarian or writing, she’s probably eating donuts while treasure-hunting at her local thrift shop. She serves as the Co-Regional Advisor of the Eastern Pennsylvania Chapter of SCBWI. Her debut novel, NEMESIS AND THE SWAN, releases October 27, 2020 with Blackstone Publishing and is set at the height of the French Revolution. It is now available for pre-order: https://www.blackstonepublishing.com/nemesis-and-the-swan-lindsay-bandy