Friday, February 16, 2018

Writing Historical Fiction by Barbara Carney-Coston

Writing historical fiction requires both a strong interest in big picture information and an eye for details that convey a sense of time and place. My experience in writing TO THE COPPER COUNTRY—MIHAELA's JOURNEY was deeply satisfying on many levels. It’s based on my family history, so learning about my ancestors was fascinating. But I also enjoyed the process. I tell young readers that research can be like a treasure hunt. You’re looking for unknown jewels that can make your story shine.

Research tips:
Historical fiction needs to be based on accurate information. And publishers like bibliographies. Here are a few ways to get started on the big picture idea.
  • Look for primary sources first. These are first-hand accounts of events, practices or artifacts that were in use at the time of your character’s story.  Diaries, letters, reports, photographs, creative works, financial records, memos, and factual newspaper articles are possibilities. Even post cards and original recipes reveal a lot. My first research for To the Copper Country involved scrapbooks that my grandfather had kept about his adult life. He was proud of his accomplishments, and he saved newspaper clippings, letters, and photos of his professional milestones, much as Linked In does today. While I chose another character to develop, getting started with these materials helped me focus on what I was trying to say.
  • Secondary sources are also important. These include reports of historical events or interpretations, newspaper editorials, biographies or even advertisements. If your story is set in the not-too-distant past, look for contemporaries of your characters and interview them about their memories and experiences of the time.
  • Internet sources are convenient, but make sure they are reliable. If you are not sure of sources, crosscheck to find at least two other trustworthy sites that can verify (not Wikipedia!). The Library of Congress, and the National Archives are excellent resources and free. Online encyclopedias such as World Book or Britannica are well regarded for basic fact checking. But don’t limit yourself to the biggest and broadest. Some of the best information can come from small regional libraries with collections that focus on a particular area
  • Once you’ve established background research, try to include a site visit. It can be well worth the time and money, and you may find something that leads you in an unexpected direction. Understanding that your character had to work in a certain way, for example, or that geography had a particular impact on life can create depth for your story. Add the details you’ve discovered and revise as your data directs.
  • Before submitting anywhere, check the manuscript against your research and create an annotated bibliography. You’ll be confident that you can state such an event might have occurred as described—you have solid evidence to support your point of view.

Finding the right publisher:
If a story has a regional focus, consider local publishers. I read about Jean Alicia Elster’s book, The Colored Car, in the SCBWI Bulletin, and realized the story was based on her family’s experiences in Detroit. Published by Wayne State University Press, I thought mine might be a fit there, too. I queried, and they asked for the complete manuscript. Working with WSU Press has been a wonderful experience. I was especially pleased when they asked for my input regarding the cover design. According to writing friends with bigger publishing houses, this is quite a nice benefit. (I agree!)

When it comes to historical fiction, enjoy the process. May your research uncover great treasures!

Barbara Carney-Coston grew up in Michigan and loved seeing the Mitten dancers at the SCBWI Summer Conference last July. She has written for Highlights, Hopscotch and Washington Parent magazines. TO THE COPPER COUNTRY—MIHAELA's JOURNEY is her first book and she hopes young readers will enjoy the story and feel empathy for immigrants today. Learn more at and find her on Twitter @barcrn.

Coming up on the Mitten blog: More about the 4 Out the Door Illustrator Postcard Challenge, the resonant roar of quiet stories, an interview with one of our SCBWI-MI novel mentors, a recap of the NY conference, and a round-up of SCBWI-MI member blogs. Do you have an active kidlit blog? Send an email to Charlie Barshaw to let him know.

Read the newly updated SCBWI Anti-Harassment Policy.

Save the date for our spring conference, Unearthing Your Funny Bone, May 5, 2018:
Thanks to Nina Goebel for creating the conference artwork!
Congrats to Gin Price for winning the inaugural SCBWI-MI 2018 Writing Competition!
Stay tuned for her winning entry and an interview.


  1. Thanks for the shout out, Barbara. Great that you could join the Wayne State University Press team.

    1. Thanks, Jean! SO happy to be part of the WSU Press team!

  2. This is a super duper wonderful article. I do not know much about historical fiction but as a reader I find these stories fascinating. Thank you for sharing your knowledge with us!

  3. Fantastic post and CONGRATS, Barbara. As a writer of historical fiction and biography, I especially appreciate your timeline for approaching research -- from primary to secondary to refinement to onsite if possible. Excellent! Signed, One of the Mitten Dancers ;)