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Posts from the ‘Historical fiction’ Category

Writing ‘Evil’ Characters In Teen Novels, by Elizabeth Wein

My novel Code Name Verity is set in Europe during World War Two. In talking about writing the book I had a conversation recently about how the concept of the Third Reich’s National Socialist Party should be presented to the rising generation of readers.  I ended up doing a lot of thinking about it afterward because, after the conversation ended, I felt that somehow I’d lost an argument I should have won.  Essentially here’s what the opposing views were, simplified:

Theirs:  Nazis are the ultimate personification of evil and should be represented as such.

Mine:  Nazis are complex human beings and should be represented as such.

In some sense, both views are correct.  Nazism was and is evil.  But I think there’s a lot of evil out there now, and that it is both blind and dangerous to fool ourselves into thinking that the evils of the Third Reich are confined to the past, as a lesson to learn from that couldn’t possibly happen again.

I think the reason I felt I’d ‘lost an argument’ is because there was some moral high ground taken in the opposing viewpoint.  It felt like I was being told, ‘It is your duty as a writer to show what monsters these people were, so as not to downplay the evil of this regime.’

Without going into a list of recent genocides or atrocities, what I want to point out here is that social concepts aren’t evil; social concepts don’t kill and maim and make war; people do those things.  Nazism wouldn’t have taken hold without people buying into it.  I feel that my duty as a writer is not to describe in detail the evil of any specific regime but to warn the reader that the potential to embrace such a regime lies dormant in all of us.

Rather than list the countless genocides, torture, injustices and local outbreaks of civilian killings connected with continuing political fighting all over the world in the 70 years since the defeat of German National Socialism, I will give you one name:  Malala Yousafzai.  The Pakistani schoolgirl suffered gunshot wounds to the head and neck, inflicted by a Taliban militant sniper on her way to school.  It wasn’t random.  At fourteen, Malala is a known and targeted revolutionary.  Since she was eleven, she was keeping an online journal chronicling life as a schoolgirl under the Taliban. She has a lot in common with Anne Frank – except that Malala’s diary is available to anyone with access to the internet, worldwide, as she’s writing it.  She is in fact working with the BBC and knows the danger it puts her in.

What makes her a revolutionary is that she’s telling the truth and that she’s going to school.  That’s reason enough to shoot a 14 year old girl?  Sounds familiar.

Take note teenage readers and writers: bravery and political awareness start early, and suppression is always lurking just around the corner.  Our duty is not just to describe the horrors of the past – it’s to make the evil and errors of the past relevant to modern readers so that we can guard against it in the present.  It is our duty to let young people know that evil is possible in everyone – in yourself as well as in your neighbour – but also that our world is in our own control.  Evil is not a cause for paranoia.  It is the reason we speak out. It is a reason to write.

***Write with New York Times bestselling novelist Elizabeth Wein in Hobart, Australia in November 2014

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Code Name VerityA Coalition of LionsThe Empty Kingdom     Shock PointVibesThe Gypsy Crown (Chain of Charms)

Writing Teen Novels

Why I Write About Children In Times Of War, by Monika Schroder

Germany, my home country, has started two World Wars in the last century. Both wars not only brought death and terror to large parts of Europe, but also ended in defeat followed by fundamental changes of the political system. I find it fascinating that a German person born at the beginning of the 20th century could have experienced two wars, a monarchy, a failed democracy, a fascist dictatorship, a socialist totalitarian regime and then again a democracy, all within one life span.

I have always been interested in history and when I became a writer I tried to imagine how regular people dealt with these wars and the turmoil that followed. As a result, my novels Dog in the Wood and My Brother’s Shadow explore how war and political transitions affect regular people and children in particular.

My first novel, The Dog in the Wood, set in a small village in east Germany, is based on my father’s experiences during the arrival of the red Army at the end of World War II. My father had told me that his grandparents had committed suicide a day before the arrival of the Russian Army. Fear of what would happen when the victorious Russians arrive at their farm had driven them to this desperate act. Later, the Soviets established their headquarters in my family’s farmhouse, and my father witnessed Russian soldiers taking his mother to a prison camp. Out of these harrowing family memories grew my book. I wanted to show Fritz’s internal conflicts and pain in the face of great loss and emotional turmoil, and thereby depict a young person’s experience during wartime.

Writing a novel about the end of WWII led me to examine the circumstances that caused this devastating military conflict and this interest in turn brought me to WWI. I began to research WWI shortly after the 90th anniversary of Armistice Day in November 2008. At the time, German television had put together an excellent 4-part series about the war with original footage of the battlefields and the revolution that ended the monarchy. While I was aghast at the details of trench warfare, gas attacks. I also learned about the food shortages that affected the German civilian population that later became a big part of my novel, My Brother’s Shadow. With the defeat of 1918 came the end of the monarchy, ushered in by a socialist revolution. A democratic government followed. But the Weimar Republic was fragile. The military defeat and the stipulations of the Versailles Peace Treaty had left Germany humiliated. A deep political division between right-wing nationalists and social democrats split the nation and provided the seeds for the violent rise of the National Socialists a decade later. My Brother’s Shadow, set in the fall of 1918, explores this important transition time in German history.

I tried to imagine what it might have been like for a young man who had grown up under the Kaiser to see the monarchy disappear and be confronted with socialist ideas and women’s emancipation. The book opens in Berlin, September 1918 and spans three months until December 1918. The main character is Moritz, a 16-year old apprentice in a print shop of a Berlin newspaper. His father has died and his older brother is still fighting in the trenches. The book is about his coming to grips with the changes in society and his struggle to know what to believe in. Moritz has to choose between his mother, sister and aunt, who are engaged in the socialist movement to end the war and bring democracy to Germany, and his brother, who returns disillusioned, as an injured veteran and joins a right wing extremist groups, seeking scapegoats to blame for the loss of the war.

I lived the first 30 years of my life in Germany but for the last 17 years I have been married to an American. By becoming deeply involved in another culture I became aware of the fundamental differences between the way Americans see the world and how I as a European look at it. By writing about times of war and political transitions I also hope to bring the experience of a European youth, or what I imagined it to be, to readers in the English speaking world. I hope I succeeded.


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The Dog in the WoodMy Brother's ShadowSaraswati's Way     Code Name VerityTarzan: The Savage LandsRikers HighThe Traitor's Kiss

Writing Teen Novels

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.


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FirehorseI Rode a Horse of Milk White JadeBlack Storm Comin'Raven Speak     My Brother's ShadowA World AwayThe Gypsy Crown (Chain of Charms)

Writing Teen Novels

Plotting My Teen Historical Novels, by Carolyn Meyer

One of the things I like about writing fiction based on historical people and events is that real history provides so many fictional possibilities. Deciding where to start is the first challenge in plotting a novel for teen readers.

The age of the main character is an important decision. Common wisdom has it that young teens want to read about older teens – but not too much older; older teens don’t want to read about younger ones, and they also don’t want to read about characters who are a lot older. The sweet spot seems to be about sixteen. But history doesn’t always cooperate. Sometimes the actual story starts much earlier in the life of the historical person you want to write about.

Mary Stuart became Queen of Scots as an infant, upon the death of her father. I decided to begin The Wild Queen when Mary’s mother sends her off to France at age six to grow up in the King’s court. Would a thirteen-year-old reader decide in the early chapters that Mary is too young to be interesting? It was a risk, but I took it.

Marie-Antoinette is twelve when her story begins in The Bad Queen. Mary Tudor is ten in Mary, Bloody Mary. Her sister, Elizabeth, is thirteen in Beware, Princess Elizabeth, and Anne Boleyn is thirteen in Doomed Queen Anne. Less important than the age is the situation in which the main character finds herself in those opening pages. Sometimes it’s better not to state the age at first; just begin with a situation that grabs your teen reader’s interest.

Conflict drives the plot. The next big challenge is choosing which events provide the most compelling way to tell the story to a teen reader and which events to leave out if they don’t move the story forward.

Teenaged Princess Elizabeth is despised by her older half-sister, Mary. Marie-Antoinette must deal with the ladies of the French court who resent her and want her to fail. Victoria must contend with her demanding mother and her mother’s advisor, Sir John. Young Charles Darwin, in The True Adventures of Charley Darwin, has to confront a demanding father and his own lack of focus. Cleopatra’s jealous sisters, in Cleopatra Confesses, want her dead. Far from home, Mary, Queen of Scots, must adjust to a new environment and make decisions that change the course of her life. As the characters mature, the conflicts they face become even more complicated. The writer’s task is to keep teen readers turning pages.

I don’t try to figure out everything in advance. I simply start writing, trying different approaches until I find one that I think is most engaging. In my first draft of Victoria Rebels, the opening chapter recounted the circumstances leading to the marriage of Victoria’s parents. In a later revision, that material – historically interesting but not the way to launch a plot – was moved to Author’s Notes. The final draft of the story opens with preparations for the wedding of Victoria’s sister and her realization that with her sister gone Victoria will be alone.

Just as I experiment with different starting points, I try out various points at which to end. A satisfactory ending may depend on the age of my readers. The ending of Cleopatra Confesses tends to satisfy younger teens, while older readers want the story to go on.

Sequel, anyone?


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Beware, Princess ElizabethThe Wild Queen: The Days and Nights of Mary, Queen of Scots (Young Royals Books (Hardcover))Cleopatra ConfessesThe True Adventures of Charley Darwin     The Gypsy Crown (Chain of Charms)Code Name VerityTarzan: The Jungle Warrior: Bk. 2

Writing Teen Novels

History As Fiction: A Balancing Act, by Diane Lee Wilson

Writers of historical fiction walk a tightrope between accuracy and entertainment, ever seeking balance between the two. It’s a precarious act. Lean too far toward the side of absolute, down-to-the-last-detail accuracy and you risk producing the sort of stale textbook that bores students in history class. But lean too far to the other side in creating a novel of historical fiction, one that plays fast and loose with the facts, and your account loses all credibility. A reader has picked up your book, after all, to read historical fiction and they’re no doubt presuming you’ll present history accurately. So where’s the balance?

Historical fiction begins, of course, with actual events, and these provide a framework on which to hang a story. I find they serve as guideposts too, helping me push the story forward because I know, for example, that I have to get my protagonist from this geographical point to that momentous event in a specific number of days.

But as I’m moving my character along, particulars crucial to daily life demand description. How does an individual start a fire in Norway 868? Mongolia 1281? Boston 1872? Does Viking clothing have pockets? Does a nomad on the steppes pause for a mid-day meal?

I can often write around a fact that can’t be verified—making no mention of lunch or pockets and stating simply “he started a fire” without explaining how. But for me, digging out those details adds spice to the narrative. How people lived in different eras is part of what’s interesting to this genre.

And there’s that key word: interesting. The person reading this work of historical fiction is expecting to be entertained. So how far do you massage the truth in the name of entertainment? Well, I try to keep it within the realm of “reasonably could have happened.” A mixed race boy could have passed as white and ended up riding for the Pony Express. A Viking girl of extraordinary character could have led her clan since she was the chieftain’s daughter. A young Mongol could have bravely confronted Kublai Khan face-to-face, and by finding a human connection, saved her neck. It’s a continual judgment call and one that keeps the reader’s interest at the fore.

A great liberation for me as a writer of historical fiction came upon finding Stephen King’s comments concerning research in his book On Writing: “…don’t end up with the tail wagging the dog; remember that you are writing a novel, not a research paper. The story always comes first.” The timing of that advice could not have been better because I was nearly finished with my novel Firehorse, which takes place in Boston in 1872 but, as is my habit, still poking around libraries and used book stores and the Internet for curiosities. In this instance, unfortunately, I stumbled across an academic website listing the addresses and occupations of everyone who’d lived within a certain Boston neighborhood in the 1870s, a neighborhood I’d already populated with my own fictional characters. What to do? Well, as much as I’m a perfectionist, I had to decide that my account of the events of that year was truthful and by that time complete and that this latest information—even assuming it was accurate (and secretly hoping it contained enough errors to permit my characters to take up residence)—wouldn’t affect the outcome. I would have loved to have confirmed the veracity of the website’s data and perhaps moved my characters down the street but I’ve also learned that there comes a time when a story is done; it’s been created to the best of your abilities and you have to let it go and begin another.

Let me state again that I’m adamant about historical accuracy but I strongly believe that writing historical fiction is ultimately about telling a good story. The most satisfying reviews I receive are when critics comment “meticulously researched” and readers say “couldn’t put it down.” For me, that’s the perfect balance.

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TracksRaven SpeakFirehorseJohnny TremainThe Silver SwordPyramid of Secrets (My Story S.)On Writing


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