Diversity and Inclusion in Historical Fiction

In the realm of diversity and inclusion in historical fiction, Patricia Hudson, author of Traces, offers sound advice based on her experience writing about 18th century interactions between Native Americans and colonists. Traces releases today.

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These days there’s a great deal of discussion in the publishing world about diversity and the need for books to include voices from many different races and cultural backgrounds. While it’s often depicted as an issue of concern primarily for authors of contemporary fiction, these ongoing discussions are having an impact on historical fiction as well.

Being cognizant of these concerns early in your writing process may help you avoid having to do extensive revisions at the behest of your agent or publisher. It might even be the difference between having your manuscript accepted or rejected. By sharing the recent experience with my historical novel, Traces, I hope to give other authors a heads up about the need to think through these issues as they apply to your own work.   

Traces released on November 1, 2022, by the University Press of Kentucky. It’s a retelling of the Daniel Boone saga from the women’s perspective, and takes place in colonial America’s backcountry at a time when the Cherokee and Shawnee were fighting to save their homelands from a wave of colonists. Not surprisingly, this violent clash of cultures is a central part of the novel. 

In 2015, the OwnVoices campaign was launched as a means of promoting books whose authors shared the same identity as their main character. Since then, there’s been an ever-growing call for minorities to tell their own stories, a publishing trend you should definitely be aware of when choosing a topic.

I first got the idea for Traces in 1996, long before the publishing world had begun to tackle diversity issues. As the years went by, while I was aware of the movement, and wholly supportive of an increased emphasis on highlighting marginalized voices, I assumed Traces wouldn’t be impacted since I was writing solely from the viewpoint of three white women (my own ethnicity) and was sticking to the historical record as closely as possible.

I was caught off guard when I submitted the manuscript to my agent and was told I’d need to find sensitivity readers for each ethnicity portrayed within the book, in this case, African-Americans, Cherokee and Shawnee, even though they were not point-of-view characters.

My advice to other authors is to think about sensitivity readers as early as possible, perhaps even enlisting them to look at one of your early drafts. That way you can incorporate their suggestions before you begin submitting your manuscript to agents or publishers. I wound up scrambling in a last minute search for readers, which meant my manuscript remained frozen on my agent’s desk, unmarketable, until I fulfilled her request.

Finding a Cherokee reader was fairly easy because I live near the Qualla Boundary, which is home to the Eastern Band of Cherokee, and I already had contacts there. But finding a Shawnee reader took weeks, with many dead ends and much drama. And here’s the rub — while a sensitivity reader may be well versed in their ethnicity’s contemporary culture, it’s highly unlikely they know how their ancestors dressed, or ate, or what they grew in their gardens in centuries past, which leaves the historical fiction author having to walk a fine line, knowing when to incorporate suggestions, and when to ignore them, based on one’s own research into a specific historic period.

In Traces, I deferred to my indigenous readers on matters of language and the spelling of native words. I also totally rewrote a scene where a Cherokee hunter reaches out to touch a young woman’s red hair because he’d never seen that shade before. I’d read an account of this actually happening during my research, but my Cherokee reader indicated that in her culture, this would be viewed as more sexually aggressive than what I’d intended to convey in that scene. The rewrite actually turned out stronger, so I counted that as a win-win.

If you want to understand why publishers are so risk-averse when it comes to issues of ethnicity, look no further than the 2020 controversy surrounding American Dirt, a novel about Mexican migrants, written by Jeanine Cummins, who is white. Flatiron Books, a division of Macmillan, paid Cummins a seven-figure advance and ordered an initial print run of half a million copies. But when confronted with cries of cultural appropriation, Flatiron wound up apologizing and cancelling the author’s book tour.

To avoid situations like this, Cuban-American author, Daniel Suarez, suggests that authors should ask themselves a series of questions: “Why should I be the one telling this story? How am I doing it? Who is reading and giving me feedback? Where are my blind spots? Where am I not doing enough of the cultural work?” 

As authors, we should strive to be nuanced in our portrayal of anyone different from ourselves, avoiding stereotypes at all costs. But we also need to keep in mind that writing a work of fiction has always been about putting oneself in someone else’s shoes and helping readers live for a while within an imagined experience. Authors shouldn’t be afraid of writing about otherness, so long as we make sure we’re doing it thoughtfully. Many publishers now expect authors to give this sort of attention towards issues of ethnicity, and by addressing these concerns early in our writing process, we can save ourselves unnecessary headaches when its time to find a publisher.

Many thanks for sharing your experience, Patricia. Best wishes for your new novel Traces.

Traces by Patricia Hudson ~~ An early American adage proclaimed, “The frontier was heaven for men and dogs—hell for women and mules.” Since the 1700s, when his name first appeared in print, Daniel Boone has been synonymous with America’s westward expansion and life on the frontier. Traces is a retelling of Boone’s saga through the eyes of his wife, Rebecca, and her two oldest daughters, Susannah and Jemima. 

Daniel became a mythic figure during his lifetime, but his fame fueled backwoods gossip that bedeviled the Boone women throughout their lives—most notably the widespread suspicion that one of Rebecca’s children was fathered by Daniel’s younger brother. Traces explores the origins of these rumors, exposes the harsh realities of frontier life, and gives voice to the women whose vibrant lives have been reduced to little more than scattered footnotes within the historical record. Along the path of Daniel’s restless wandering, the women were eyewitnesses to the clash of cultures between the settlers and the indigenous tribes who fought to retain control of their native lands, which made life on the frontier an ongoing struggle for survival. 

Patricia Hudson gives voice to these women, all of whom were pioneers in their own right. The Boone women’s joys and sorrows, as well as those of countless other forgotten women who braved the frontier, are invisibly woven into the fabric of America’s early years and the story of this country’s westward expansion.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY 

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel is THE ADMIRAL’S WIFE, a dual timeline set in Hong Kong. Mary’s other novels, PARIS IN RUINS, TIME AND REGRET, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

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11 Responses

    1. Hi Theresa … maybe you have some thoughts to add in a guest post? Would love to explore this topic further on the blog!

  1. Very informative piece, Mary. And Traces looks like a fascinating book. Hopefully I’ll be able to read it at some point.

  2. Thanks to Patricia and Mary for a very good and appropriate post. And another reason to go Indie! 😉 The thought of some agent holding up a book like this cuts across my grain.

    With my first book (“New York 1609”), I also faced some potential blow-back for my Native American characterizations. But after trying desperately to find actual descendents of my 17th century tribes/bands to give me some cultural-appropriate feedback, I finally gave up as none cared enough to do it. They just weren’t interested in their own history. So I did the best I could with as much research as possible.

    Personally, I think this whole “lived experience/cultural sensitivity” thing has gone too far. As Patricia says, writing about otherness is part of the deal in authoring fiction. And I refuse to be restricted to writing about Latvian-German men of a certain age!

    1. P.S. I forgot to say: Now that I have a TV/movie option agreement for that same “New York 1609” book, this sort of “sensitivity” shifts from me to the screenwriters and producers. Hollywood has its own diversity screeners with its own guidelines.

      1. Congratulations on getting your book optioned, Harald! That’s impressive. When the time comes, I’d love to hear about your experience dealing with diversity in Hollywood.

    2. Hi Harald .. thanks for adding to the discussion. Congrats about the TV/movie option – great recognition!!

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