Guest post by Kathy Wiechman who recently won second prize in The Center for Writing Excellence contest for historical fiction writing.
Kathy is on the far left in this photo from a Highlights Foundation workshop.
History was never my favorite school subject. Back then, we were taught to memorize dates and battles. I confess I once confused the Battle of Bunker Hill with the Battle of Bull Run. (Not even the same war.)
We had to memorize lists. The list of the colonists’ grievances against the Crown. The list of inventions that led to the Industrial Revolution. The list of causes of the Civil War. Lists can bore me still.
At the same time, I loved reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books. I didn’t realize her stories were about Westward Expansion that we studied in history class. (There must have been a list involved with that, too.) But the missing ingredient in the classroom was people. I needed someone to care about.
Laura’s books involved me in her family’s struggles as they settled in different places across America. Because of her, I learned to love history. But what I love about it is the people who lived it. Without them, I can still be bored.
As an adult, I visit historic places, places where Lincoln spoke or Washington gardened or Jefferson invented. But it’s about more than presidents. What I truly love is the average, everyday people, people like Laura and Mary and Pa.
When I write historical fiction, I always begin with a character, a person whose eyes I can tell the story through, a person a reader can care about. The story might be set against an actual event or maybe just an interesting time period. But it has to begin and end with a person.
When I first learned about the Monongah, West Virginia coal mine disaster of 1907, I was intrigued. It remains the worst industrial accident in US history, but I had never heard of it. This horrific event killed hundreds of miners. Real people who had real families and led real lives. And few people knew about it. It was the kind of story I wanted to tell, wanted to make more people aware of.
I read everything I could get my hands on about it. I visited the site where it happened. I saw the church where hundreds of funerals took place.
But I didn’t begin writing the story until I envisioned Lucia Riccardi (a fictional character) and put her in that place at that time. A miner’s daughter and granddaughter. Her eyes were the ones who witnessed the event in my story, ONE YEAR AFTER.
Twice, I entered versions of this story in Historical Fiction Writing Contests, and it took fourth place from the Children’s Writer in 2011, and second place from the Center for Writing Excellence in February, 2013. Judges read my story and learned about an event that happened more than a hundred years ago. But it took prizes because a thirteen-year-old girl drew those readers into her life.
This is why I write. I want a reader to see through a character’s eyes and feel her heartbeat. I want them to care enough so that history lives.
(ONE YEAR AFTER will be published in an anthology put out by the Center for Writing Excellence in July, 2013.)