Historical Fiction and Research


  • To learn the tools of writing historical fiction to create plot, setting, character, and theme
  • To research a notable person of the 19th Century, using primary and secondary sources
  • To discover an interesting story, or perhaps only a single fact, from the person’s childhood
  • To write a biography of the person, with a focus on them as a child
  • To develop an original story based on a real event in that person’s life
  • To publish


A.  Read & Discuss a Biographical Sketch and Original Story

In the opening lesson of the historical writing unit, use the example biography about Henry David Thoreau as a boy and the short story, The Missing Pocketknife Unsheathed,  based on one detail of his life, to read and then discuss how to write historical fiction. What characteristics in writing style and content distinguish this story as an example of historical fiction? Is it effective in creating a mood or tone of its 19th Century setting? How is that achieved? What devices does the author use to give the impression of reality about the story she creates?

Introduce the students to the eventual outcome of this unit of study, which will be to write a biographical sketch about a person of interest to them in the 19th Century, as well as to write an original short story (approximately 1500 words) based on an historical fact about that person as a child.


Henry David Thoreau as a Boy
By Ellen Gaines

Henry David Thoreau was a real person, born and raised in Concord, Massachusetts, 200 years ago. In the fictional story that follows this biography, he is 11 years old and attending the Concord Academy, where his older brother John also went to school. The boys were great friends as well as brothers, and it was John who inspired Henry with his interest in nature. They spent much of their time together rambling around the local woods and lakes; fishing, ice skating, berrying, hunting fireflies, and looking for Indian artifacts. These early explorations laid the foundation for Henry’s knowledge about the natural world, especially water habitats, which attracted his greatest interest.

As an adult, his friend Louisa May Alcott would say of him, that “He knew nature in a way no others could equal… animals <ate> from his hand…”  His best-known book about nature is Walden; or, Life in the Woods. When he was 28 years old, Henry lived alone by Walden Pond in a cabin he built himself. There, he wrote in his journal and composed his tribute to John, the brother he had recently lost. That book was A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.  While residing at Walden Pond, Henry also explored the woods, collecting specimens and gaining inspiration for his book.

From his mother Cynthia Dunbar Thoreau, he inherited a quick-witted spirit and passionate love of nature; from his father John, the pencil manufacturer, a calm and quiet temperament with an industrious and inventive mind. As much as Henry kept his head in the clouds, he was also practical. He contributed many new ideas to the family business, which helped make Thoreau Pencils some of the finest made in the country.

He had an Aquiline or Roman nose, more like a beak, and grey-blue eyes with large overhanging brows above them. His dark brown hair shot out from his head and swept in different directions; abundant, fine, and soft. He had the habit of looking downward at his feet, even when talking to someone. Although awkward in social situations, Henry had many friends. Some are in the story The Missing Pocketknife Unsheathed. The Hosmer’s, Wesson’s, Buttrick’s, Whiting’s, Loring’s, Peters, and Hoar’s were all prominent families in Concord at the time. Stearns Wheeler was an actual classmate at the Concord Academy and later at Harvard, where he and Henry attended.

As a boy and throughout his life, Henry was a strong individual possessing high moral principles. Once, he was accused of stealing another boy’s knife. His only defense: “I did not take it.” Later, it was discovered that he was innocent and that he had known the real thief. When asked why he hadn’t defended himself, he stated again,

“I did not take it.”

True to himself and honest in his interactions, Henry was a boy of few well-chosen words. As in the story you will read of the stolen knife, in real life Henry Thoreau earned the respect of his classmates, who nicknamed him “The Judge.”

Let every one mind his own business, and endeavor to be what he was made… If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.  Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.

 From Walden; or, Life in the Woods, 1854


The Missing Pocketknife Unsheathed
By Ellen Gaines

“I did not take it,” said Henry.  He stared at his teacher’s square-toed boot.

Mr. Jacoby furrowed his brow.  “Look at me, Henry.”

Henry remained motionless.  The stove’s fire hissed.  Elvira Buttrick hic-cupped.  Elvira always hic-cupped when nervous.

Rubbing her nose, Lizzie scanned the room with alert green eyes.  She believed Henry Thoreau.  He avoided attention.  She knew he was honest.  Besides, her nose was itching like crazy.  Something isn’t right, she thought.  If Henry didn’t take Stearns Wheeler’s new pocketknife, then who did?

“Henry,” Mr. Jacoby challenged, “William Wesson saw you in the cloakroom Wednesday holding Mr. Wheeler’s knife.  He reports you returned it to Stearns’s coat-pocket.”  Mr. Jacoby leaned within inches of Henry’s curly brown hair.  “Did you go back today, as your classmate Stearns has accused, and steal his knife?”

Henry raised his grey-blue eyes to meet his teacher’s flaring nostrils.  “I did not take it.”

“I have no alternative, Mr. Thoreau.  Empty your desk.”

Everyone’s jaw dropped.  Lizzie looked in horror at her teacher.  William shot glances to Stearns, while Maria Whiting sneered with pleasure.  Lizzie wanted to pull her tight yellow curls.  She knew all Maria cared about was gossip she could spread.

“Go along children,” said Mr. Jacoby.  “Recess.”

Lizzie joined the others out heavy oak doors, down limestone steps, and into the backyard of Concord Academy.  It had opened five years before in 1823.  Lizzie was proud when accepted.  Now, she felt ashamed.  How could Henry be accused so unfairly?

 The boys gathered beneath an old elm tree.  The girls, except for Lizzie, circled Maria.  As she passed them, Lizzie heard Maria begin in hushed tones, “That Henry-boy is strange.  He only cares about roaming in woods.  I bet he took Stearns’s knife to make his birch-bark specimen-boxes.  He carves them to hold slimy-things for Show-and-Tell.”

Lizzie rolled her eyes and shook her auburn-red braids.  Her freckles shook, too, with rage.  Henry’s specimens are more interesting than anything of Maria’s.  Once, Henry brought an injured house-finch to school.  His voice calmed the bird; later mended, he set it free.  Henry knows nature better than anyone.  Such a boy wouldn’t steal anything.

Edging toward them, Lizzie joined the boys.  Stearns proclaimed, “It’s him that done it!  Will, you saw Henry with my knife?”

William nodded.

“Even if he put it back Wednesday, it’s sure he took it today.”

The boys agreed.  Lizzie stepped forward.  “Stearns, there wasn’t a boy here not drooling over it.”  As she spoke, William, whose father owned The Middlesex Hotel, winced.   Mr. Wesson wouldn’t let his son own a knife.  David Loring grimaced.  Michael Peters shrugged.  She saw they were uneasy and scratched her nose.  “Henry didn’t steal anything.  I’m going to prove it.”  With her thick braids bouncing, she streamed past the girls, still clinging to Maria’s every word.  I’ll show them and the boys.   I need a secluded spot to think.

 Lizzie walked into the Academy.  She eased past her classroom, where Mr. Jacoby loomed over Henry, and exited the front door, secreting back to the schoolyard.  The girls had moved to play hopscotch.  The boys still surrounded Stearns.

Now is my chance.  Lizzie ducked into a stand of evergreen bushes, camouflaged and ready to sort the clues.  Staring out at the children, she whispered, “Think…”

Monday morning Mr. Jacoby had excused everyone after Arithmetic.  “Time for my surprise!” shouted Stearns to the boys.  “You, too, Lizzie.”

Lucky me, I had thought.  What could Stearns have that would interest ME?  “Go on Stearns, show us.  I’m supposed to be first in line for hop-scotch.  Ol’-Maria-girl is licking her chops to begin without me.”

“Hold your apron straps,” mocked Stearns.

He knew Lizzie hated wearing her dress and smock apron.  She preferred coveralls like the ones she wore in her father’s workshop.   Thank goodness Father was broad-minded, thought Lizzie.  He taught her how to whittle while he made furniture.  “Watch what you say, Stearns, or I’ll show you what a girl, EVEN in a dress, can do.”

“Okay.  Look!”  Stearns pulled out his pocketknife.  Michael whistled.  David mouthed, Wow.  William stood agape.

Henry asked, “May I hold it, Stearns?”


Henry grasped it, admiring the well-formed blade.  His metal knife was chipped with use.  Returning it, he said, “Nice knife, Stearns.”

“Here, Lizzie, show us how it whittles.”

Lizzie retrieved a piece of ash-wood she kept in her apron-pocket.  She eased the sharp true blade of the knife over it.  “Carves nice, Stearns.”  With a few strokes, Lizzie created a smooth curve.

“Father said he’d wear me out if anythin’ happens to this knife.  It cost him a week’s wages at the Iron Forge.”

“Wow,” exclaimed David.

Mr. Jacoby had arrived at that moment and rung the bell.  Everyone followed him into school for an Object Lesson on stained glass.

Okay, that was Monday.

Lizzie remembered that on Tuesday and Wednesday the boys huddled together again, looking at Stearns’ knife, each taking his turn to hold it. Henry had strayed into the woods and gone down to the river, emerging with muddy boots and pockets-full of specimens.

Lizzie stared out into the yard through the laurel’s crisscrossed branches, wondering, If Henry didn’t care about the knife, why had he taken it from Stearns’s coat-pocket and then put it back as William said?  That bit of evidence made Henry look guilty.  Why did he do it?  Lizzie sat up.  “Maybe, he didn’t!”

She strained to remember anything that could explain why William would lie.  Yesterday, when Henry was absent from school, helping his father at their pencil factory, something had been different about the boys’ routine.  Stearns pulled out his knife at morning recess; then, he and William went into the woods.

Think, Lizzie.  She rubbed her nose.  After recess Stearns and Will, with muddy boots, came running into class.  Later, when asked to pull out his knife, Stearns had refused.  Instead, he and Will went back into the woods.  Lizzie’s eyes popped.  “Stearns didn’t lose his pocketknife this morning.  He lost it yesterday.”

DING!  The bell rang.  Everyone gathered round Mr. Jacoby as Lizzie crawled out from hiding.

Stearns whispered, “Keep to your story, Will.”

“I don’t like it.  It’s not fair.”

“Remember what’s in it for you.”

Lizzie exploded, “Stearns Wheeler!  You no-good liar.  Your pocketknife wasn’t stolen by Henry.”

Mr. Jacoby parted the way of his students and moved to where Stearns and Lizzie were squared-off.  “What’s the meaning of this outburst, Miss Hosmer?”

“Ask Stearns, Mr. Jacoby, or better yet, William.”  Lizzie spun to face him.  He looked as if he might throw-up.  “Either you tell everyone what’s not fair, William, or I will.”

“I… I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Try this on for size, Will, and you, too, Stearns Wheeler.  The pocketknife went missing yesterday when Henry wasn’t even in school.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about.  Mind your own business.”

“One moment, Stearns,” interrupted Mr. Jacoby.  “What proof do you have of these accusations?  If Henry Thoreau didn’t take the knife, then who did?”

“Nobody,” replied Lizzie.

Will turned to run, but Mr. Jacoby caught his collar.  “Wait, William.  Continue, Miss Hosmer.”

“Will, you made up that story about Henry removing the knife from Stearns’ coat.”  He looked away.  “Stearns, you knew if your father found out you had lost your knife in the river, he’d wallop you.  If he thought someone had stolen it, he might forgive and replace it.  Right, William?  What did Stearns promise you to lie?  Use of his new knife once he got it?”

William’s expression told everyone Lizzie was on to something.  “What’s not fair is my father won’t let me have one.  How’d you know Stearns dropped his in the river?”

“I didn’t, for sure.  As boastful as Stearns was about the knife, it seemed suspicious no one had seen it since yesterday.  AND, something of value was in that river. You two have looked like a couple of horned-pout covered in mud after every recess.  Look at you now.”  Everyone stared at their mud-caked boots and trousers.  “You must have made one last try to find the knife this morning before accusing Henry.”

“Well, Miss Hosmer, you seem to have unsheathed the missing pocket-knife mystery,” said Mr. Jacoby.  “I suggest you go tell Henry.  Apologies are in order.”  Mr. Jacoby glared at Will and Stearns.  Grabbing them by their ears he led them inside, followed by their snickering classmates.

Maria Whiting, flouncing her yellow curls, brought up the rear.  She preened, “I knew Henry’s innocence.  Didn’t I, Elvira?”  Elvira’s hic-cups were muffled as the large oak doors closed.

Lizzie dashed down Main Street to Henry’s house and told the Thoreau’s what had happened.  Forevermore, Henry’s classmates called him “The Judge.”  Quiet, reserved Henry had earned their respect.  “The Nose” Lizzie became his new best friend.  Together they roamed the streets and byways of Concord; collecting this, observing that, and sometimes, stumbling upon a mystery to solve.


Author’s Note:

When submitting manuscripts to magazines, there is always a limited word count. That is where editing becomes important. This short story began as a 5,200-word short story. For reasons of publishing, it necessarily was “whittled down.” Like Lizzie, I needed to hone my creation.

Besides, in choosing words more carefully, you will find that the direct language (fewer prepositional phrases, adverbs, and adjectives) makes the story more powerful. Also, avoid exclamation points! Use them sparingly or they lose their effect! Oops… The well-chosen word (particularly powerful verbs) will evoke the intended emotion.

Happy writing,
Ellen Gaines


B.  Do Individual & Group Research/Write an original Short Story

  1. Students do research on early 19th Century American history. This can be done individually or in groups and shared with the class in oral reports. Orchestration of this part of the lesson can be determined by the amount of time to be devoted to it, as well as the individual focus of the teacher. From those oral presentations can come a list of persons from the 19th Century to be considered for deeper individual research and fictional writing.
  2. Use at least three sources in researching the first part of the assignment. Use at least one book.
  3. For the in-depth research on a person, the second part of the assignment, again use at least three sources, one of which needs to be a primary source.
  4. Based on the in-depth research, write a short biographical sketch of the historical person to be used in the story of fiction, including an anecdote of a childhood experience.
  5. Write an original short story based on the anecdote.


Writing an Outline for the Short Story:  Notes for writing

Plot – Write an outline for a story based on one anecdote or fact learned about the central character. Think about the “back-story” of what happens. Develop a sequence of events leading to a climax for what happens. How is the story resolved?

Setting – Draw a picture, literally, if you like. Write a description of setting – time (year, season, duration of story); objects of place (buildings, utensils, details about materials of description – such as wooden doors, floorboards, pot-bellied stoves and other period identifications); environment of the place, including weather and natural world. Develop a list of descriptive phrases appealing to the senses (visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile.) It is important that the setting be authentic, so careful research into the place and time of the story must be accurate. Consult two to three sources for this.

Character – List each character involved in the action of the plot. If possible, use real people and/or families known to have been part of the central character’s life. Assign each character with traits that will identify them. (For example – loud, friendly, suspicious, etc.) What are typical words or phrases they would be heard saying? What mannerisms identify them? (For example, Henry was somewhat shy and awkward in society, so he does not make eye contact readily; he often looks down at his feet. Also, he is a boy of few words.) What motivates each character? Their values?

Theme – Based on the anecdote and story created around it, choose a theme. What does the anecdotal event reveal about his or her character as a notable person in the past? How does it reveal why we remember them today? This theme should be about the role this person played in history and the values that guided them. In Henry’s story, the theme is his individualism and love of nature, which as an adult, guides his writing.


Overview of Process

  1. At each stage of the writing process for the story, the teacher should have one-on-one discussions with each student about his or her story. Give suggestions for change. Select a fellow student as a reading partner and exchange story outlines and notes. Discuss and gain further suggestions for change, embellishment, clarification, etc. (This is a very effective tool in improving one’s writing, but it must be established in the classroom with careful and clear parameters for how to critique a peer’s work. Perhaps even brainstorm together as a class about the proper etiquette in this kind of endeavor. Make up a written guide for peer editing and literary critique. With the “rules” in hand, everyone will have a more effective experience with helpful insight into their writing.)
  2. Write, write, and write again. Edit for word choice, authentic 19th Century voice, consistency of story and the details in it, clarity, and interest. Keep the story to 2,000 words or fewer. Hone it until it works! Share with reading partners as each edit is done, as well as with the teacher.
  3. Share finished stories at an author’s reading. If time is an issue, perhaps do this in groups that are arranged according to theme or some other connecting point, i.e., stories about inventors or stories about women, or…
  4. Evaluation of the writing is best done by a rubric created by the teacher and given to the students before they begin to write. As individual teachers and classrooms have specific goals, there is no rubric provided with this study guide.
  5. Publish. This is an important step. If there is a literary magazine or other venue for publication, use that as possible. Perhaps, too, some social media such as Facebook or the school’s website could be used. There is nothing more satisfying than seeing that story out there in public and having your very own “by-line!”