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Plotting A Novel Versus Winging It, by Diane Lee Wilson

I began my first novel not really knowing what I was doing. In a burst of inspiration, I scribbled a few opening sentences on a piece of paper and gradually turned that into a short first chapter. Then I started a second chapter. And it went on from there. Whenever I finished a chapter I would ask myself: What has to happen next? I was never quite sure. I wanted to move the story along and I had a vague idea where I wanted the story to end up, but the middle was unknown territory.

Did that work? Yes, I’m happy to say that it did. With the help of my agent I sold that novel to a respected publishing house. Soon after, about the time I was doing my rewriting based on my newly assigned editor’s comments, I came across a book entitled The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers & Screenwriters by Christopher Vogler. In this book, Vogler mapped each stage of a well-constructed novel or film. Oh, no. What if I’d done it all wrong?

I read the book cover to cover and loved it, happy to find that I’d intuitively followed the basic structure for good storytelling. And I recommend this book to aspiring novelists. It shed new understanding on the roles played by archetypal characters and explained the different “acts” inherent in most stories. I also adopted a few tips for making future stories stronger.

But here’s where I slipped: When I began my second novel I didn’t follow my intuition. I used Vogler’s outline to create a “perfect” story arc. I sat on my living room floor and, with an idea in my head, filled out 3”x5” cards with sequential segments of the story. I then slavishly followed those cards to write my story. And when this novel was completed I felt it was somewhat lifeless. In my opinion, it lacked the spark that arises from seat-of-your-pants inspiration.

Each of my subsequent novels has been conceived and written like my first one. I’m aware of classic story structure and the archetypes that appear in most stories, but I rely more on my intuition to keep my reader turning the pages. At times, if I’m stuck in my progress, I might pick up The Writer’s Journey for a little inspiration. I’ll be reminded of the tension created when a hero fails a few times, or the suspense lent by a “shapeshifter” character. Then I’ll set the book down and return to my writing.

I’ve spoken to authors who have found success writing from a detailed outline but that doesn’t work for me. I simply begin each novel introducing a teen character with a problem. I know where he or she needs to end up; I just don’t know how that will happen. I also don’t know how much the character will change or develop over the course of the story – and that’s part of the fun of writing without a map: I wake up in the morning wondering what will happen in the story today!

So my words of advice would be: familiarize yourself with good storytelling, whether that’s through studying manuals or just reading the works of accomplished authors, but then sit down and tell your story YOUR way, the way you see it in your head. That’s when the magic happens.

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Diane Lee Wilson’s author website: www.dianeleewilson.com

Diane Lee Wilson’s bio page

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FirehorseRaven SpeakI Rode a Horse of Milk White JadeBlack Storm Comin'     The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for WritersShades of Earth: An Across the Universe Novel (Across the Universe)My Brother's Shadow

Writing Teen Novels
www.writingteennovels.com

What Is At Stake For The Characters In Your Teen Novel? by Diane Lee Wilson

Within your story, what’s at stake for your protagonist? Are the stakes set high enough and are the risks real enough that your readers will care about what happens? No matter what genre of teen novel you’re writing, the stakes for your protagonist have to amount to life itself. In other words, at some point in your story (preferably about half of the way through) your protagonist has to face a life and death situation in order to overcome it and evolve into a true hero.

For those of you who aren’t writing murder mysteries, this doesn’t have to be a physical death (although teenaged literary heroes such as Harry Potter have embraced death – and, of course, survived it). But the stakes still have to be high enough that, should the protagonist lose, the consequences would be the equivalent of death. Such consequences might be the loss of one’s true love, great public humiliation or a personal failure. In any of these situations the hero might admit, “I’d rather be dead,” and the reader will suffer along. In a wonderful analysis of the craft of story writing called The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers and Screenwriters author Christopher Vogler states, “Heroes must die so that they can be reborn. The dramatic movement that audiences enjoy more than any other is death and rebirth.”

I was recently reminded of this need to challenge the protagonist again and again when I watched the Pixar film Finding Nemo. I’m a big fan of Pixar’s unique characters and rich storytelling, and their writers’ ability to pull at your heartstrings. But I’d forgotten what an emotional roller coaster this particular film was and is. In only 100 minutes the little clownfish Nemo and his dad narrowly escape death more than a dozen times: by shark, jellyfish, deep sea angler fish, aquarium water pump, plastic baggie, crab, seagull, underwater mine explosion, strong currents, being flushed down a sink, dropped on a dock, caught in a net and crushed by a net. In addition, there are many crises that feel like imminent death: the ocean’s too big, the destination is too far, I’ve lost my map, my friend has forsaken me. Even with all of these near-fatal scenes, at no point in the story did it feel like the creators were creating artificial dangers; they simply put two heroic characters in one very difficult situation after another and allowed them to use their personal strengths and intense familial love to attempt to reunite – and Finding Nemo is ostensibly a children’s story! Imagine what you can do with a teen’s story.

Nearly every day of a teen’s life is fraught with emotion and crisis. Happiness blooms from the fleeting smile of a member of the opposite sex and tears from an apparent snub. Life is over after a failed test, a broken heart or parental restrictions. The reactions to these events may seem overly dramatic to an adult (and especially to a parent) but to a teen these crises feel like death itself. Understanding what your protagonist most values will allow you to place that thing at risk – even time and time again – and that will make your story intensely interesting to your teen readers.

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Diane Lee Wilson’s author website: www.dianeleewilson.com

Diane Lee Wilson’s bio page

***

United States (and beyond)

    

United Kingdom (and beyond)

    

Australia (and beyond)

Raven SpeakTracksI Rode a Horse of Milk White JadeBlack Storm Comin'     Cleopatra ConfessesThe Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for WritersFinding Nemo Big Golden Book (Disney/Pixar Finding Nemo)

Writing Teen Novels
www.writingteennovels.com

“When are you going to write a novel for adults?” by Diane Lee Wilson

Writers of teen novels invariably receive the (only slightly disparaging) question “When are you going to write a novel for adults?” The implication behind that inquiry is: You’re not a real writer until you write a real novel, one for an adult audience.

I have been asked that question, and it comes repeatedly from good friends of mine, individuals who are avid readers and whose opinions I value. In the literary world there is more caché, I suppose, in writing a critically acclaimed, bestselling novel for adults than there is in writing one for teens. Perhaps that’s one of the factors that drove J.K. Rowling to write The Casual Vacancy. But authors need not apologize for writing novels for teens, and here’s why:

Teen fiction can and is being written so well that it is part of the fastest growing segment in publishing. In the United States the children’s/young adult book market saw overall publisher revenues for last year rise a reported 12%. The books in this genre offer unusual plots, fast pacing, and strong characters with whom readers of all ages can identify.

That’s another key to the genre’s growth: readers of all ages. According to a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, “The young adult, or YA, category is particularly healthy as a result of blockbuster franchises and strong crossover readership. Many young adult books are read as much by adults as they are by their intended teen audiences.” Personally, I’ve received letters and emails from many moms who “just happened to pick up” a title of mine brought home by one of their children and then admitted to me that they “couldn’t put it down.” I’m glad to hear that my stories appeal to readers of all ages. I try to write good stories and I never “write down” to my intended audience.

Historically, teen literature has included some of the best-written, most memorable works of any genre, books that can easily hold their own with any “adult” literature. Such titles as To Kill A Mockingbird, Fahrenheit 451 and Catcher in the Rye regularly make “best books of the century” lists. Harper Lee’s book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

What’s timeless about good teen fiction is that it gets to the heart of the matter, and century after century matters don’t change much. Children and teens continue to question the adult world in which they find themselves, as they should. Because they’re not quite adults, and not quite burdened by society’s expectations of what is proper, they can ask the naïve questions. “Why is it like this?” “Couldn’t we do it differently?” And adult readers can respond to that voice within themselves that recognizes the truth in these questions, a truth that they’ve always known but which, over time, they’ve learned not to hear.

In a way, writing for the teen market is the most important genre of fiction writing because it provides a chance to say things truthfully. To ask for change. The best part is, a great number of the readers of these books are young enough and energetic enough and naïve enough to enact that change.

Finally, should none of these reasons pop to mind the next time you’re asked when you’re going to write a real novel, answer with a retort once shared with me. It goes like this: “Do you ask your pediatrician why he/she isn’t a real doctor?”

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Diane Lee Wilson bio page

To Ride the Gods' Own StallionTracksRaven SpeakBlack Storm Comin'To Kill a MockingbirdFahrenheit 451Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

Vocabulary and Grammar in Teen Novels, by Diane Lee Wilson

Early in my writing career I regularly participated in read-and-critique groups. Each of us took a turn reading aloud from one of our own newly completed chapters and then accepted verbal comments from the other aspiring novelists. More than once someone would tell me that my vocabulary was too difficult for my teen audience. It was suggested that I use simpler words.

I bridled at that and still do. I firmly believe that authors of teen novels can use rich, complex language if done in context and with purpose. It is not necessary to “write down” to readers. My goal is to produce the best writing I can, and if a reader is unfamiliar with the occasional word (even though I’ve used it in context) then I expect them to look it up in a dictionary, be it a hardcover one from a bookshelf, or an electronic one on a computer or phone.

Nurturing language has never been more important. Because of the widespread use of electronic communication—texting, tweeting, tagging—where minimal space takes precedence over clarity, a great number of teens are allowing their writing and reading skills to diminish.

A professor of communications at Pennsylvania State University recently warned that rampant texting is exacting “compromises on traditional, cultural writing” abilities of today’s teens. “Routine use of textual adaptations by current and future generations of 13-17-year-olds,” says S. Shyam Sundar, “may serve to create the impression that this is normal and accepted use of the language and rob this age group of a fundamental understanding of standard English grammar.” Teens who took the professor’s grammar test, for example, couldn’t discern the difference between “lose” and “loose” or “accept” and “except.”

At a writing camp held at the University of Central Florida, another professor also bemoaned the negative effect that instant communication is having on writing skills. “Social media takes out all the imaginative threads, descriptions and interesting parts of a language,” said Terry Thaxton. “I find that troubling.”

The argument can be made that language is dynamic, always evolving (or for the cynical, devolving) and that teens are communicating in a language that they understand. But today’s teens will not always be talking among themselves. They will be speaking with future employers, potential partners, perhaps world leaders. They will need to understand the difference between “nonplussed” and “nonchalant.” From “accepting your proposition” to “taking exception to your proposition.” And they can begin to master language, painlessly and even pleasurably, in a well-written novel with a rich vocabulary.

No, teen readers do not have to limit themselves to “serious books” only. Just as there’s always room for a little “junk food” in one’s diet, there’s a place for the “summer beach read,” the “guilty pleasure” or the book that “everyone’s talking about.” But these stories will never be as satisfying as time spent with a complex fictional character in a colorfully drawn world.

Tweets and texts are fine, and fun, in day-to-day life. Instant communication can bring us closer as a society. But language is what defines our society and I urge every writer to access its riches.

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Diane Lee Wilson bio page

FirehorseTracksBlack Storm Comin'Raven SpeakBefore I FallCollision Course (Villain.Net)English Grammar in Use with Answers: A Self-study Reference and Practice Book for Intermediate Students of English

On Getting Story Ideas (and Developing Them Into Finished Stories) by Diane Lee Wilson

“Where Do You Get Your Ideas?” That’s a question I frequently get from aspiring writers and one that, frankly, surprises me. Because gathering ideas is truly the easiest part of writing a teen novel. Developing them into a finished story is quite another matter.

Viable ideas for your novel are everywhere. Literally. If you maintain a keen interest and a sensitive ear you’ll find possibilities in a “human interest” story in the newspaper. In a conversation with a stranger. In an unusual photograph in a magazine. In a “throwaway” line from an old movie. If, as a writer, you’re truly alert to the bits of stories all around you then you will find more stories to tell than you have years to live.

Keep in mind that you’re going to craft your story for a teen audience so focus on those themes or settings that will most appeal to this age group.

Now, how do you keep track of all these gestating ideas and which ones do you nurture first? For me, I always have a completely unedited “idea file” in progress. This manila folder regularly accumulates intriguing clippings, photos, and random scribbles on notepaper (often jotted down in the middle of the night when “brilliance” seems to appear). Most of these thought fragments have never blossomed into full stories. But sometimes a theme begins developing (a place in history or a particular character type, for example) and I’ll extract all this pertinent inspiration and assemble it in its own “story file.”

When I’m between projects I’ll also take the time to edit my “idea file”. If I’m no longer struck by the wonderful possibilities of a certain piece then it has lost its magic for me, and I crumple and toss it without regret. You don’t have to hold onto every single story idea; there are many, many more in the world around you. Trust me.

So how do you identify the best ones? The very best idea, the one to which you should apply all your energy, is the one you’re constantly turning in your mind, the one that makes you jump out of bed in the morning and want to start writing. It’s the one that lights the creative fire inside you.

As all writers know, however, self-doubt can creep in and all too easily dampen that fire. Maybe there’s another story that’s better, you begin to think. Maybe I should be working on that one.

Well, here’s where you have to balance inspiration with determination. Re-evaluate what got you started on this teen novel of yours. Do you still believe in that idea? If so, then dig down and find the determination to carry your idea through to a complete novel.

If you truly find yourself staring into the dark, though, perhaps it’s only temporary. Perhaps you need to put your story on the back burner for a while and let it develop at its own pace. I think most writers have several story ideas incubating at the same time. I, for one, always have two or three projects in various stages of maturation lined up behind the one on which I’m working.

Although I consider myself a fairly disciplined writer, even my project line-up can change. As an example: I have compiled research for an intended novel that now fills an entire file box. Relevant books have been acquired, notes organized, character descriptions fleshed out, even a few early chapters have been written. I like this story. I want to write it. But twice now, some other project has pre-empted my creative fire and assumed priority. Most recently this happened when I was reading a newspaper article and turned the page to find a striking photograph that I immediately saw as the climax of a story. At the same instant that I was acknowledging that “THIS is my next story” I was bemoaning the fact that I would once again have to set aside the story with the huge file box. Oh well. Hopefully I have enough years left in me to return to it.

Determination to complete a story can always be mustered, but inspiration, especially when it presents itself in full flame, should never be ignored. Follow your instinct.

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Diane Lee Wilson bio page

TracksRaven SpeakBlack Storm Comin'FirehorseBefore I FallMentors, Muses & Monsters  : 30 Writers on the People Who Changed Their LivesThe 101 Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters: Insider Secrets from Hollywood's Top Writers

Smells Like Teen Spirit: Writing Fiction For and About Teens, by Diane Lee Wilson

Why do adult writers, who are usually well past their teens, write novels for and about teens?

One of my motivations (which may be quite the opposite experience of others) is that I enjoyed the teen years. Yes, there was anxiety and tears and overblown emotions, but there was also an intoxicating sense of what life had to offer. The world was opening up to me, presenting ever-expanding freedoms along with an unimaginable variety of places and people and experiences.

The teen years were and are a precious time because they embody promise and possibility. With each year taken into adulthood those possibilities narrow. Adults necessarily limit their options as they become classified by education and career choice; as they are weighed down by a job, a mortgage, and family responsibilities; and as they become tethered to routine, to friends, and to hobbies. As we get older it becomes harder and harder to embrace change.

Not for the teen. The teen years are a whirlwind of constant change: body, relationships, music, dreams, friends. Beliefs and personalities are adopted temporarily then easily tossed off as other ones are sampled. The teen years are a time of exploration and of testing one’s abilities, and that’s what makes teen characters so much fun to write about. Anything can happen.

So how does the typical adult with a deadline and a mortgage and failing eyesight and friends with cancer and a stack of newspapers delivering more sadness than the day before recapture that teen spirit? Remember. All those poignant, horrifying, exhilarating times are still inside you. Call them forward. Re-experience the giddiness of that first love, the crush of malicious gossip, the terror of new schools and new teachers. How did you feel when that first classmate died? What song was on the radio the first time you took the car out alone? Re-live those experiences and make new connections.

A favorite perspective of mine comes from Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays With Morrie, a book that compiles conversations with the author’s former professor who is dying. When asked if he envies the young, Professor Morrie Schwartz responds, “Age is not a competitive issue…The truth is, part of me is every age. I’m a three-year-old, I’m a five-year-old. I’ve been through all of them, and I know what it’s like. I delight in being a child when it’s appropriate to be a child. I delight in being a wise old man when it is appropriate to be a wise old man…I am every age, up to now.”

Slipping into the skin of a teen character is an opportunity for an author to revisit his or her own youth. But there is an adjunct rule to remembering: Don’t judge. Let your character breathe, rush down the wrong road, make impetuous choices. It’s what teens do and it’s part of the fun of being a teen. Yes, as adult authors we’re older, and perhaps wiser, but avoid the temptation to preach to your teen characters. Let them experience the world in their own way and be molded by the consequences of their actions. That’s living. And sharing their adventures keeps writers young!

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Diane Lee Wilson bio page

To Ride the Gods' Own StallionRaven SpeakTracksFirehorseGlowMishapsCode Name Verity

Mentor Characters in Teen Fiction, by Diane Lee Wilson

Heroes of all ages rely on mentors but teen protagonists, especially, can often benefit from an “older and wiser” point of view. Such elders are iconic in literature and film: Professor Dumbledore for Harry Potter, Gandalf for Frodo (okay, not truly a teen but young in character) or Mr. Miyagi for Daniel in The Karate Kid.

Utilizing an aged mentor in your cast of characters presents benefits but also some dangers, the riskiest being the creation of a cliché: the saccharine octogenarian who too readily dispenses wisdom in platitudes.

How can you avoid this pitfall?

The key, I think, lies in creating a mentor who is genuinely interested in helping the teen protagonist but does so mostly by encouraging the teen’s best. Rather than solving problems themselves or providing answers directly, they help the teen arrive at success through guidance, modeling, or when necessary, challenge.

I’ve used “old wise ones” in several of my books and they’ve become some of my favorite characters. To keep them interesting I make these elderly mentors a little “prickly” in character or a little “off” mentally. Their words and actions can then be unexpected, leading the teen to speculate on the reliability of the advice (and thus begin to trust his or her own instincts even more). Such unpredictability creates story tension as well because the reader must decide right along with the protagonist if the mentor can be trusted.

In my novel I Rode a Horse of Milk White Jade, for example, the teen Oyuna is warned by her father to stay away from her shamaness grandmother, who has suddenly appeared in their nomad’s camp:

“Her mind is twisted,” he said, spitting into the cooking fire. “Too many years traveling alone.”

Of course Oyuna secretly visits her eccentric grandmother anyway and receives clues to her destiny; but they’re just that—clues, wrapped in convoluted language that’s close to gibberish. She’s not sure, in fact, if what she’s received is any sort of wisdom at all.

A similar relationship exists in Firehorse where Rachel and her maternal grandmother live cramped, unsatisfying lives beneath the overbearing rule of Rachel’s father. Rachel suspects her grandmother of approaching senility and is surprised one evening when the woman delivers a defiant speech directed at Rachel’s father. Via this bold action the grandmother symbolically separates herself from Rachel’s parents, creating a natural alliance with her rebellious granddaughter, and paving the way for Rachel to also stand up to her father.

Interestingly, in both of these novels the grandmother dies three quarters of the way through—quite to the author’s surprise, I might add. Upon reflection, though, I realize that Dumbledore and Gandalf also died before their stories ended. I think the death or disappearance of a mentor signals the teen’s arrival at maturity; the necessary wisdom has been imparted, the torch has been passed.

In another of my novels, Raven Speak, a Viking teen named Asa struggles throughout the story with the issue of trusting her decidedly unusual mentor, the mercurial Wenda. Near the end of a pivotal chapter the two have this exchange:

Asa shook her head. This was absurd. “No,” she replied. “I’m not traveling with you any further. I can’t trust you.”

“Of course you can’t.” Wenda made the statement seem obvious. “You can only trust yourself.”

This is the vote of confidence that every good mentor is trying to impart to a novel’s hero. And the mentor’s role really boils down to that: instilling confidence. It can be accomplished in many ways by inventive authors but remains a message that teens, real and fictional, long to hear.

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Diane Lee Wilson bio page

I Rode a Horse of Milk White JadeFirehorseRaven SpeakHarry Potter and the Philosopher's StoneThe Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings Boxed SetKarate Kid CollectionHarry Potter Page to Screen: The Complete Filmmaking Journey

Animals Speak Volumes: Animal-Human Friendships in Fiction, by Diane Lee Wilson

As the daughter of a veterinarian, I was knee-deep in animals from infancy. A pet skunk shared my parents’ apartment situated above a clinic where yips and meows lulled me to sleep. My first words, I believe, were addressed to the Dalmatian in the neighboring yard. We were each behind bars — I in my playpen and he inside his fence. Eye level. It was natural to introduce myself. Before long my world was populated by innumerable cats, a schnauzer and guinea pigs. A brother came along and he introduced ducks and rabbits. Another brother, turtles. My father began breeding Labradors. And I fell in love with horses.

Which is to say that I’ve always felt myself on equal footing with animals. In my experience they’re more than secondary companions, they’re friends, with visible emotions, varying degrees of intelligence, and a willingness to communicate. They readily take up residence in my novels, playing a variety of roles.

Because my protagonists are typically loners (as a great many teens envision themselves), cats, dogs and horses often serve as best friends—non-judgmental and loyal. Time spent in the company of these animals is a welcome respite from the greater world. As Walter Hogan writes in his scholarly work Animals in Young Adult Fiction, “Animals are important to the adolescent because it is during the teen years that the child’s healthy, natural sense of being connected with an entire living planet—instead of just to his own species—is routinely shattered.” Romping with a dog or stroking a cat or even just sitting quietly in a stall with a favorite horse can provide a teen with a satisfying sense of affection and connection. As Rachel says in my novel Firehorse, “When I’m standing beside a horse, I feel that I’m neither girl nor boy, child nor adult, strong nor weak. I’m accepted just as I am. And there, and only there, I can breathe.”

Because most novels take place in the civilized world though, one ruled by humans, the friendships are not equal; the teen has the opportunity to take the more powerful role. Wielding that power provides opportunities for maturation. Maybe a dog shouldn’t be left to sleep in the snow, even though the boss’s rules say otherwise. Perhaps a horse, callously misused, requires bold rescue. Caring about—and acting to better—the treatment of animals helps a teen become a more thoughtful, compassionate adult. As Hogan further states in his book, “…animals provide a vital perspective on our understanding of what it is to be human.”

During the writing process I’ve sometimes found animal characters nudging the human characters to “do better” or “make the right choice” via a soul-piercing stare. At least, the teen reads such intent into the animal’s gaze as he/she contemplates a current situation’s moral complexities. In my most recent novel Tracks, for instance, Malachy, an Irish boy, often snubs a Chinese co-worker whom he considers inferior. His dog, Brina, who shares her affection with both boys, serves up occasional judgment. After one caustic exchange Malachy admits, “But here was Brina, her golden eyes brimming with disdain, which bothered me…” In these situations, the animal, I think, evolves from friend to gentle counselor.

A word of caution to writers who plan on incorporating animals in their stories: keep them on stage! I once introduced a cat solely as a plot device though the creature unexpectedly pounced into a few more scenes before disappearing from the story. My editor asked what happened to him. I assured her he was fine and living off-stage, but she said, “I like that cat; I want to hear more about him. Your readers are going to want to hear more about him.” So I gave this feline ham a few more scenes and included him in the final chapter. Which is to say, it’s a whole lot easier to introduce animal characters than it is to dispose of them! But incorporating animals in novels offers rich opportunities for character-developing interaction. And surprises for authors and readers alike.

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Diane Lee Wilson bio page

TracksFirehorseTo Ride the Gods' Own StallionFarm BoyShadowShilohAnimals in Young Adult Fiction (Scarecrow Studies in Young Adult Literature)

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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Diane Lee Wilson bio page

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

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