One of the instructional themes in Teaching the Story is that the details which an author includes make a difference in depicting a character, setting, or time period. I am repeatedly reminded of this fact in my own reading and writing.
Currently I am listening to Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson. This story of a young black female slave in New York City during the American Revolution is full of well-researched details. The foods the characters eat (eel pie, strawberry tarts, turtle soup); the clothes which the slaves wore (rags for gloves in the middle of winter); the fashion of the upper class women (mouse fur for fake eyebrows); the foods which the prisoners shared (buckets of moldy table scraps which friends or family brought)—all of these provide authenticity to Anderson’s thought-provoking story about the struggle for freedom. (By the way, this book would be a great supplement for upper elementary through high school students who are studying this time period. Make sure you download the reading guide and Anderson’s “Behind The Book” also.)
Recently I wrote a scene in my historical novel where my character puts her dog on a leash and walks him. Several days later, I interviewed George Snyder, a native Charlottean who lived in Myers Park in 1950—-the place and time period for my book. While showing me the house he grew up in and talking about his childhood George said, "We all had dogs. They weren't penned like they are nowadays. They would just run after us on our bikes. No one had leashes." I wouldn’t have guessed that in 1950 in Charlotte, NC dogs weren't on leashes. A minor detail, but one that is now correct.
Here is a picture of George pointing out the initials “LS” (for Luther Snyder) carved in the shutters of his grandfather’s eighty-year-old house. It’s an intriguing detail which would be tempting to work into my story. But as Karen Dionne warns in “Fact into Fiction” in the January 2010 issue of Writer’s Digest, “Facts are fun, but if a detail doesn’t move the story forward by establishing the setting, advancing the plot or shedding light on the characters, it doesn’t belong.”
In a few years when you read Half-Truths and you come across a savory detail—be sure that I have thought long and hard about including it. And if initials appear in a shutter somewhere you'll know there is a reason why.
Teaching the Story: Fiction Writing in Grades 4-8, Laurie Halse Anderson, Chains, historical fiction, Charlotte, 1950, details
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