Writing historical fiction requires more than just authorly talent and an interest in the past. It requires a love of research and, even more importantly, the ability to turn that research into a story that will be relevant to current readers. It’s not an easy task, but there are writers out there who do it remarkably well.
One such author is Goldie Alexander, whose latest young adult novel, That Stranger Next Door, is another in a long line of historical novels for young people. Today, Goldie has stopped by with an account of how she approaches the genre. Take it away Goldie…
By Goldie Alexander
Over the years I have had 6 historical fictions published for young readers. The challenge was to create convincing settings, characters and dialogue, and the all-important story line to keep my readers involved. This narrative develops from the problems my characters encounter — their aims, wishes and fears. All fictions based on history start with the premise ‘what if you were there at the time’. Though they are based on carefully researched facts, this research must never show. The story must be seamless.
In Mavis Road Medley my two contemporary youngsters find themselves in Princes Hill Melbourne at the end of the Great Depression. In My Australian Story: Surviving Sydney Cove a thirteen-year-old girl convict lives in the Sydney of 1790, when the First Fleet felt cut off from the rest of the world. Body and Soul: Lilbet’s Romance describes a disabled girl’s life just before the outbreak of World War Two. In Gallipoli Medals Great Uncle Jack is a soldier in WW1.
The Youngest Cameleer is viewed from the perspective of a fourteen-year-old Moslem. This lesser known exploration into the interior led by William Gosse in 1873 included both Europeans and Afghans, and is based on Gosse’s own journal. This expedition was the first non-indigenous group to stumble across Uluru, and without the use of cameleers they might never have survived the harsh desert conditions.
My most recent historical fiction That Stranger Next Door is set in 1954 at the height of the ‘Cold War’. In the United States, Senator McCarthy was using anti-communist laws to force academics, film-makers and other intellectuals to a senate hearing to ask if they ever belonged to the Communist Party and to name anyone who had gone to their meetings. Many people lost their jobs and their families. Some even committed suicide.
We think of this time in Australia as a time when Prime Minister Menzies ruled, the Queen visited us wearing pearls, England was Home, there was the Korean War, migrants being shunted into camps, the Snowy Mountain Scheme, the six o’clock swill, nuclear families, housewifery for women, and the coming of television. Politically, there was the Communist Referendum, the split in the Labour Party into ALP and DLP, and the infamous Petrov Affair.
When an insignificant Russian diplomat called Vladimir Petrov defected to Australia, promising to provide information about a Russian spy-ring, he ‘forgot’ to mention this to his wife. As Evdokia was pulled onto a plane in Darwin, she was rescued at the last minute by ASIO and hidden in a ‘safe house’. At the time PM Menzies was also trying to bring in similar anti-communist legislation to the US, and thankfully, in this he was unsuccessful.
In That Stranger Next Door, fifteen-year-old Ruth, her Jewish mother, father, four-year-old brother Leon and her grandfather (Zieda) live above the family milk-bar in Melbourne’s Elwood. Because Ruth’s father once belonged to the Communist Party, the family fear that the ‘Petrov Affair’ will help bring in anti-Communist legislation that will produce another wave of anti-Semitism.
The story opens with Eva moving in next-door and Ruth meeting Catholic Patrick O’Sullivan. (Patrick’s father is about to work for Bob Santamaria and the emerging DLP party). Patrick offers to teach Ruth to ride a bike at a time when some Jewish girls were actively discouraged from riding bikes, never allowed to mix with gentile boys, and kept sexually ignorant. Eva agrees to provide Ruth with an alibi for meeting Patrick, but only with the proviso that her presence also be kept secret. As Ruth rails against her mother’s authority, she is fascinated by Patrick’s totally different background. Between Ruth’s account of her first love, Eva fills in her own story. All this takes place during the height of the Cold War when the world seemed on the knife edge of nuclear annihilation.
Australians are sometimes chastised for dwelling on immediate present, as if only 21st Century problems are relevant. Nevertheless I agree with those who argue that ‘those who are ignorant of history are destined to repeat it’.
George’s bit at the end
My thanks to Goldie for sharing her approach to writing this kind of fiction. I am amazed by the amount of historical knowledge demonstrated in just this short article. Imagine what her books might be like! Well, guess what? You don’t have to imagine. Go read one. 🙂
Catch ya later, George
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