Brian Herberger on Historical Fiction
Historical fiction is a popular genre for YA lit. At least it is in middle school classrooms. I spent almost fifteen years teaching, and the English department book room at my school was packed with historical fiction. So I ended up reading a ton of it.
After working my way through all that historical fiction, I realized that there’s a pretty wide range in the genre. Some of it reads like the characters are walking through a history book, loaded with historical people, places, and events. Some books even toss in a few glossary-like pages at the end just in case the reader didn’t get enough facts out of the story. Other historical fiction goes much lighter on the history and heavier on the fiction. That’s where I land. I like to think of my books as totally made up stories that just happen to take place in the late 1960s.
My second book, Cross Country, tells the story of a teenage girl whose father has recently returned from Vietnam. Unsure how to deal with his PTSD, Bets decides to run off with a friend on a cross-country trip from California to New York to attend the Woodstock festival. The people she encounters on the trip all have their own perspectives, each changing the way Bets thinks about the war in Vietnam, the problems America is dealing with, and her own problems back at home.
My goal was to tell a meaningful story and to create characters that readers could connect with. But I knew I was writing about a time period that many young adult readers wouldn’t be familiar with, so I had to give some context and create a backdrop for the story. Because of her father’s involvement in the war, Bets is pretty tuned in to newspapers and TV news, so in an early chapter she ends up cataloging some of the events that have happened in the last year. The assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. Race riots, the Black Panthers, and the black power salute at the 1968 Olympics. The war, the draft, and protests. There was so much happening in the late 60s, and even though many of those events don’t play a central part in the story, I wanted readers today to know that a high school kid in 1969 would have a lot on her mind beyond homework and the school dance.
Given current events and the upcoming 50th anniversary of Woodstock, I could have easily set my story in the present, but I liked the absence of technology that 1969 offered. There’s no cell phones, no internet, and a drive across the country truly puts the characters in the middle of nowhere. Bets uses payphones and actually looks up a number in a phone book. She gets her music from a stack of favorite records and whatever radio stations she can tune in. It was fun writing a YA novel set in a time before we had so much technology, and I’m sure some readers will scratch their heads, wondering about getting change for a payphone, using a card catalog, unfolding a map to find a route, or keeping in touch through postcards. But more importantly, without all those conveniences we take for granted, it made my character’s decision to leave home and travel across the country even more significant, and it gave her the opportunity to be alone with her thoughts so she could start to sort out some of the stuff she was dealing with. We don’t always have that opportunity today, and I wanted readers to see how important it is to make space for that.
Beyond creating a historical backdrop and doing without some modern conveniences, there were definitely some historic events I wanted to highlight - three in particular that I decided to work into the story. The first two were obvious choices because they were closely related to the plot - the Vietnam War and Woodstock. The third, while not part of my plan at first, was a perfect fit - the Apollo 11 Moon Landing.
There’s so much historical fiction centered around wars, and much of it puts the reader right on the front lines. I wanted to show a very different side to a war. Both my books focus on what happens at home while the war is going on. Characters missing family members, young men worried about the draft, some volunteering to go, others protesting and draft dodging. All of those opinions make for a complex time, and the events happening at home are just as much a part of our history as the conflict in Vietnam.
Another important part of showing the homefront perspective of the war is that the story doesn’t necessarily end when the fighting is over. Bets’s father brings part of the war home with him, and her friend’s father doesn’t come home at all. There are characters in Cross Country whose lives are changed forever by their part in the war, and I felt that was important to show as well.
I struggled at first when it came time to write the chapters in Cross Country that take place at Woodstock. My first attempts sounded more like a newspaper review of a concert, and it was tempting to just focus on the story and leave the history in the background. But since Woodstock was Bets’s destination through the entire book, and the reader would be following along on that journey, in the end I knew I had to do it justice. Woodstock was both the climax of my fictional cross-country trip and the very real climax of the book.
In the end, when describing the events on stage at Woodstock, I made connections to the events Bets was working through in the story. Music has context, it’s written for a reason, and that has never been more true than in the music of the 60s. I’d like to think that anyone listening to Jimi Hendrix playing The Star Spangled Banner knew there was a message behind the way he played that song, that he he was taking a stand and letting his voice be heard in those notes. Certainly anyone hearing Joni Mitchell playing Woodstock understood that they were indeed “stardust” and were yearning to “get back to the garden.” But I knew there was no way I could get a young adult reader to simply turn away from their favorite music and replace it with bands that were playing fifty years ago. Instead, I worked on creating characters that readers would care about and connect with. I knew if I could do that, then the music and messages that were important to my characters would in turn become important to readers.
Finally, deciding to write about the moon landing was a delightful surprise. I was about halfway through writing Cross Country when I started to feel like the whole story had turned into a bit of a downer. Bets was supposed to be setting off on an exciting trip to an amazing concert, but instead she was missing her parents, seeing first hand the many issues our country was dealing with, and traveling with someone who was racist, abusive, and dangerous. Who would want to go on the trip like that? I needed something to lift my story back up, and luckily there was an inspiring event in 1969 that had the whole world’s attention.
The moon landing is a “where were you when” event. Anyone alive at that time can certainly remember where they were, what they were doing, and how they felt. So this event deserved special treatment. Because it was an unplanned chapter, it ended up being inserted between two other chapters that had already been written. And because of that, the events of the story are put on hold, the plot pauses, and just like everyone else in 1969, the characters drop everything, look to the sky, and witness history.
Unlike some of the other historical events I included in Cross County, I was pretty sure most readers would know about the moon landing, so I didn’t need to provide as much context. And I thought the reader would share Bets’s wonder and excitement. Almost fifty years later, there’s nothing ordinary or everyday about going to the moon. That freed me up to just have fun with the chapter and to put my characters in a unique place for that moment in history - they experience the moon landing from the roof of an old VW bus, parked in a dark field and tuning in by radio.
Writing historical fiction is a nice mix of research and writing. The history that ends up in a book can offer a backdrop to the story, give context for how a character is feeling, and in some cases become an important part of the plot. I tried to find the balance in all that, but in the end, I think the most important part of any good book is that it pulls the reader into the story and creates characters the reader cares about.
Brian Herberger has spent much of his career teaching middle school English. His favorite genre, whether encouraging students to read, reading to his own kids, or simply relaxing with a good book, is young adult fiction. Brian weaves many of his personal interests into his books, Miss E. and Cross Country. The activism and free-spirited culture of the 1960s, memories of flying in his father's airplane as a boy, the adventure of a cross-country trip, and the sights and sounds of his hometown of Buffalo - all of these elements find their way into his stories, along with engaging characters who bring his historical fiction to life.