historical fiction · writing workshop

Historical Fiction: Adding Detail

A brave colleague of mine is embarking on a unit of writing in historical fiction.  She has never taught this genre before, and her sixth grade students have never written in this genre before.  One of the potential obstacles she is anticipating is the subtle art of blending historical fact into a fictional story.  We know writers of historical fiction pay attention to period detail, but how do they weave that detail into the story?  What scaffolds can we provide to support the kids’ writing as they work to weave together history and story?  What kind of work could they do in their writer’s notebooks?

The Patchwork PathTo start, I looked at a couple of mentor texts.  First, I read The Patchwork Path: A Quilt Map to Freedom by Bettye Stroud.  In this story about a family who escapes from slavery via the Underground Railroad, I noticed Bettye uses time period specific vocabulary (slave, plantation, Master, safe house).  Using a specific vocabulary set is one way to weave detail into a story.  I imagine the sixth graders could keep a running Word List in their writer’s notebooks, recording specific vocabulary as they learn about their historical period.  To try this entry, I chose the historical period of Westward Expansion as the setting for my story.  I watched a CrashCourse video and read a short piece from Oklahoma’s Historical Society.  This is the word list I generated in my writer’s notebook so far as I learned about the time period:

Word List

I think these words can help add historical detail to my writing.  I know I will use words such as settlement, plains, or homesteading in my story.

Cheyenne AgainFor my next mentor text, I used Cheyenne Again by Eve Bunting.  In this picture book about a young Indian boy who is removed from his reservation and forced to attend a boarding school, I noticed Eve describes the physical characteristics of the characters.  For example, she writes, “He wears the hat and spurs, the gleaming silver badge, that mark his work.”  I would encourage students to examine some pictures of their chosen time period and notice the details. Students could use character details to weave historical fact into their story.  To try this in my writer’s notebook, I printed some images of Westward Expansion that I found on Google, and I wrote my noticings in my notebook:

Westward Expansion

I think this entry will help me add character details when I begin drafting my story.  I now envision that the women in my story will be wearing long skirts, their hair tied high in a bun.  I know one of my characters will be pushing a baby stroller over that hard, bumpy, uneven ground!

These are just two ways students can weave historical detail into their story: using time period specific vocabulary and describing character details.






5 thoughts on “Historical Fiction: Adding Detail

  1. Thank you for these great ideas. I teach a unit on early explorers where the children take on a role on board one of the ships and write a daily journal from that perspective. I will be using these ideas to make their writing come to life in that time period and setting. I loved the examples of the writers notebook. A great way to collate their findings. Thanks so much.


  2. In the fall, my students wrote historical fiction stories after a field trip in which they did gravestone rubbings. The idea was to research the time period their character lived in and write a story. I wish I had thought about using character details to show time period. We just talked about setting. I’ll put this idea in my mind for next year. Thanks.


  3. Another strategy to help students weave historical detail into their stories could involve collecting words and phrases that people might have used during the period. Students would mine mentor texts or other sources about their period and collect the words and phrases in their notebook. It might only yield a little, but it would pack a powerful punch in their use of dialogue. I am also playing around with this genre in my fourth grade classroom – we are reading it first. We are noticing how the behaviors and significant objects often have a double meaning or symbolic significance. Light in the Darkness, a story about pit schools on plantations, has people hiding in the ground, covered up, pushed down… to learn how to read. A light shines to help them learn their letters. I am not sure if that is too ambitious to ask students to weave those kind of big symbols into their stories. I might try.


  4. Great ideas. When I introduced a unit on historical fiction I was lucky to have a parent who wrote in the genre come in to talk about how she got into the field and her strategies. It was amazing to hear how she got information.


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