Sometimes it’s better not to begin at the beginning. Historical novels for teens often cover a much longer span of time than contemporary novels, so I look for ways to make the time span more manageable. A prologue to set up the story and/or an epilogue to end it can solve the problem.
In the Young Royals series, I almost always began with a prologue. Mary Tudor, the narrator of Mary, Bloody Mary, sets the scene, blaming Anne Boleyn for everything: “Anne was a witch; I never doubted it. She deserved to die; neither have I doubted that….” The first chapter picks up the story years earlier, Mary at age eleven, and the last chapter ends with Mary’s realization that her enemy is no longer Anne Boleyn, but Anne’s daughter, Elizabeth.
The next book in the series, Beware, Princess Elizabeth, also opens with a prologue. This time it’s Elizabeth speaking: “There was a time, long ago, that I loved my sister. There may have been a time that Mary loved me. But that all changed….” The prologue is dated 1558; Chapter 1 begins at the death of her father, Henry VIII, in 1547. The novel ends when Elizabeth becomes queen.
Anne Boleyn tells her story in Doomed Queen Anne with a prologue dated the night before she is to be executed; an epilogue summarizes events following her beheading, through Henry’s death and Elizabeth’s accession.
Henry’s first wife – Mary’s mother, Catherine of Aragon – narrates a prologue from the tower where she is being held prisoner. The year is 1533 and the duke of Suffolk is at the door, demanding that she agree to divorce Henry so that he can marry Anne. Catherine tells her story, beginning with her voyage from Spain to England in 1501. In an epilogue the duke returns, pounding on the door, but Catherine remains adamant.
In the prologue to Cleopatra Confesses, the Egyptian queen awaits her enemy’s arrival. In the epilogue she summarizes the major events in the seventeen years since Caesar, her lover, left Egypt. The epilogue touches on her love affair with Marcus Antonius, a story that carried Cleopatra far into adulthood, well beyond the range of a YA novel.
Prologues and epilogues are useful tools for setting the emotional tone. The sad truth is that most of the historical novels I’ve written don’t have happy endings. Most of my queens end in prison or at the guillotine. Marie-Antoinette’s daughter narrates the last chapter of her mother’s life in The Bad Queen. Catherine de’ Medici is alive but grieving at the end of Duchessina, she has bested her rival for the king’s affections, and she will go on to make life miserable for her future daughter-in-law, Mary, Queen of Scots in The Wild Queen – another novel with a tragic ending. Queen Elizabeth is an exception. The novel ends with the beginning of her long reign.
I can’t rewrite history and save my characters from their fate or from the executioner. However, with an epilogue I can give a proper ending to a story, leaving the reader feeling tearful, perhaps, but satisfied.
Carolyn Meyer’s author website: www.readcarolyn.com
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