Writing Historical Fiction

Stone Soup Editors' Notes  /   /  By Gerry Mandel, Editor
Stone Soup Magazine
Sept/Oct 2016

We know from the letters we receive from prospective book reviewers that many of our readers enjoy historical fiction. That’s one reason we’re always on the lookout for good historical fiction to publish in Stone Soup. It’s fun to read stories set in the past. You might just find that it’s fun to try and write one.

Where to begin? Perhaps you are studying the Civil War in school and you find it fascinating. Or perhaps you discovered a passion for the past on your own, by reading Laura Ingalls Wilder, seeing a Shakespeare play, or watching Downton Abbey on TV. Maybe you fed your passion with your own research, either online or in books from the library. If you are fascinated by a period in history, you can share your passion with others by writing a fictional story set in that time. While historical essays may be interesting to people who are already history buffs, historical fiction casts a wider net. A good story is a good story. With well-drawn characters facing common human problems, you can share your love of history with your readers and maybe even inspire some of them to learn more about the historical backdrop of your story.

In Miss Kagawa’s Gift, the featured story from our January/February 2016 issue, 13-year-old author Megan Lowe uses a a real incident from 1928 as her starting point. In that year, Japan sent 58 “friendship dolls” to the United States to reciprocate for a similar gift from the U.S. to Japan the previous year. Relations between the two countries had been strained by the Immigration Act of 1924, which prohibited East Asians from immigrating to the United States. The gifts were intended to improve relations between them. You can read more about these events here.

One of the dolls, Miss Kagawa, was placed in a museum in North Carolina. And that’s where our fictional story begins. Akemi, an orphan girl from Japan, has just been adopted by an American family. She’s having a hard time adjusting to her new life in North Carolina. Her adoptive father, Chris, works in the museum, and it’s his job to set up the display for Miss Kagawa. Along with the doll, the museum has received various accessories, including a miniature tea set. You may have mixed feeling when you read about what Chris did. He brought home one of Miss Kagawa’s teacups and gave it to his adopted daughter as a gift to help her feel more at home in her new country. On the one hand, of course, it is wrong to steal. On the other hand, this is a perfect gift for little Akemi, and maybe one little teacup won’t be missed. What do you think?

The moral question aside, isn’t this an interesting setting for a story? Not only does the story make us think about family life, adoption, starting over—all of which can happen in any time and place, but it also sparks our curiosity about relations between Japan and the United States in the 1920s. When we research the incident further, we see that each doll’s costume was different, each one representing a different city or region in Japan. We might be inspired to look even further. How did the Immigration Act come about? Did the dolls really help to improve relations between the two countries, at least for a little while? Thirteen years after the gift of the friendship dolls, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, and the U.S. declared war on Japan. World War II had begun.

The more you learn, the more you will want to know. And that’s what I call a great piece of historical fiction. Without even realizing it, we are drawn into a different place and time. Our lives are made richer as we learn and understand more about the incidents that brought us to the world we live in today.

Gerry Mandel, Editor
About the Author

Back in 1973, I was part of the group of UC Santa Cruz students who put together the very first issue of Stone Soup. It has been my great pleasure to continue to edit and publish Stone Soup for all these years, along with co-founder William Rubel. We hope you enjoy reading Stone Soup as much as we enjoy making it.

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