Bringing History To Life In Teen Novels, by Diane Lee Wilson
History rarely ranks as a favorite subject of children and teens. I didn’t like it when I was younger; I found it boring and irrelevant to my life. Now, being older and much wiser (haha), I realize that history is simply an ongoing collection of amazing stories of heroism, suffering, adventure and achievement. Topics such as these are relevant to everyone, and that’s what I build my historical fiction novels around.
The key to making history relevant to teens is to put a teen character at the scene of a historical event, the outcome of which will critically impact that teen. He or she doesn’t have to actually participate, unless there were enough anonymous players in that event that you can realistically slip in your character, but more likely he or she will observe the events, be affected by them and perhaps contribute in a secondary manner. The important thing is to vividly illustrate how that moment in history changed the circumstances of that teen’s life. That’s what teen readers can relate to.
Secondly, think like a teen when you’re doing your research and pluck out the really interesting historical tidbits. Yes, for accuracy you might mention the number of soldiers on the battlefield or how many days it took to make the canoe trip, but be sure to include the eye-popping details that make readers go “ooh!” Talk about the cave with the thousands of glowing spiders, the outlaw that cut off the ears of his victims and sewed them onto his belt or the rumours of a ghost that walked the school hall. Teens (and adults) are always interested in the “truth is stranger than fiction” details that you dig up.
There’s another key point – the digging. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of using primary sources. Too many writers rely on Wikipedia, the internet in general and perhaps a few research books checked out from the library, and unknowingly incorporate widely accepted but incorrect information into their historical fiction. You have to dig and dig and dig to find a contemporaneous account of your historical event. Journals are the best source; journals kept by teens are amazing. I especially like hunting through out-of-print catalogs and used-book stores and have uncovered many valuable reference materials there.
I was browsing the Daedulus catalog early into my research for Firehorse when I came across a book entitled Growing Up In Boston’s Gilded Age: The Journal of Alice Stone Blackwell, 1872-1874. I was floored. My protagonist was a teen female living in Boston in 1872! I quickly ordered the book, which was written as a diary, and learned the intimate details (food, clothing, weather, hobbies) that were pertinent to Alice and which thus brought my character, Rachel, more vividly to life. On another occasion I was researching a story about a family traveling by wagon across the United States in 1860. Perusing the selection at a favorite used-book store, I happened across the journal of a man in that time period who had walked nearly the exact route. He entered all the details of what he saw and what his life was like, including the really interesting stuff: how the telegraph lines were attached to living trees, that miners had set up bowling alleys in camp, and why a cat who could catch mice was literally worth its weight in gold.
As much as possible in my historical fiction I put my protagonist in physical danger. I want my teen reader to empathize with that character. I want him or her to experience a lung-stripping sprint from attackers; a heart-thumping search through a haunted attic; a sweaty, dizzying trudge beneath a blazing sun. Important historical events usually involve life-or-death scenarios, and that makes for a page-turning teen novel.
History overflows with thrilling stories that can engage teen readers. Put your young protagonist in the middle of the event and bring it to life.
Diane Lee Wilson’s author website: www.dianeleewilson.com
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