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Writing Description In Novels, by Carolyn Meyer

Writing description is like writing a dream. As you search for words to capture the sense of where you were, what you felt and what you saw, you try to visualize the way it was. When I describe my characters, the space around them, the way they move, their gestures and their tone of voice, I imagine myself present in the story.

The more information you have about your characters and their lives, the easier it is. When you’re writing for teens, you must imagine the location in great detail: the schoolroom, the playing field, the horse-drawn carriage or the car. You won’t use all the details, of course. It’s like exploring the prop room backstage at the theatre: you go in, take what you need and leave the rest.

I found the dream world of Victoria Rebels easy to access. Queen Victoria kept a diary and drew pictures of herself and people around her. Artists painted her portrait against vivid backgrounds. Far more challenging was Beauty’s Daughter, a novel about Hermione, the daughter of Helen of Troy. Hundreds of years passed before the Greek poet Homer dreamed his two great epic poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey, describing the Trojan War and its aftermath, on which my novel is based. Descriptions of bloody battle scenes offered no help in telling the story to teen readers. Shards of ancient pottery present stylized pictures of ladies in long gowns playing lyres, weaving on looms and drinking from goblets, but those are meagre sources on which to build the dream world.

Occasionally I’ve had the rare chance to see for myself the details that bring the dream to life. When I visited Shrewsbury, England, where Charles Darwin grew up, I made a cold-call from a payphone to the owner of the house where teen-aged Charley courted his sweetheart, Fanny Owen. The owner graciously met me at the bus stop in a nearby village and drove me through his “patch” of perhaps two thousand acres to Woodhouse, a splendid white mansion on the brow of a low rise, overlooking thickly wooded grounds. Four massive Greek columns supported the grand portico. It wasn’t hard to imagine Charley arriving on horseback, entering the great hall with tapestries and paintings covering the walls and a broad staircase leading up to a gallery.

But it was the library that most interested me. This was where Charley intended to propose to Fanny before he left on his journey on the Beagle, asking her to wait for him but having no idea when he’d return.

Painted the soothing green of moss, the room smelt pleasantly of leather and tobacco. Books bound in leather and stamped in gilt lined shelves reaching to the high ceiling. Fanny sat down on a bench covered in yellow silk and patted the place beside her, smiling up at me. I was too nervous to sit.

“Will you wait for me, dearest Fanny?”

“Your future is so unclear! How can I promise to wait when I’m not sure what I’m to wait for?”

I had everything I needed. I was in the dream.

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Carolyn Meyer’s author website: www.readcarolyn.com

Carolyn Meyer’s bio page

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The True Adventures of Charley DarwinIn Mozart's Shadow: His Sister's StoryVictoria RebelsWhere the Broken Heart Still Beats: The Story of Cynthia Ann Parker     The Girl Who Was Supposed to DieGlowHappyface

Writing Teen Novels
www.writingteennovels.com

Researching For My Teen Historical Novels, by Pauline Francis

I love doing research. Most historical novelists do.

When I first began to write about the Tudors, I read everything from text books to popular biography and other people’s novels of the same period. For example, you might know Philippa Gregory’s novels, especially The Other Boleyn Girl, which was made into a film.

Students are always reminded that there are primary and secondary sources of information. In other words, you can sometimes find out what you want from words spoken or written by people who lived at the time (primary) or written by other people who have studied those primary sources (secondary). Go for primary if you can. Historical writers are in luck. With no telephone and texting or email, people wrote letters, sometimes several times a day – or kept diaries. Both Lady Jane Grey and Princess Elizabeth did – but I had to remember that they might be writing in a bad temper, or worse, under duress, which might affect the truth of what they wrote. The love letters that Henry VIII wrote to Anne Boleyn are exquisite, making his murder of her all the more heart-breaking; but I was able to use them to have my Elizabeth character remember the love they had shared.

Historians using primary sources often have a particular point of view or argument to prove, so they might give a biased account of what they have researched.

If I can, I visit a place associated with my characters. This is sometimes worth more than weeks of research using books.

When I was writing Raven Queen, I was able to visit the ruins of Bradgate House, in Leicestershire, England, where Jane was brought up. By chance, I went in February, the month in which she was executed. The surrounding woods and parks were deserted because it was so cold. The ruins were shrouded in mist. On the railings, somebody had left flowers for Jane to mark her death. This completely overwhelmed me. The thought that somebody remembered her after hundreds of years certainly gave an emotional kick to the novel.

When I was writing Traitor’s Kiss, I visited Princess Elizabeth’s house, where she lived under virtual house arrest for some time and was interrogated. I saw what she saw when she was fighting for her life.

However, I didn’t visit America for A World Away. The island where the first colonists landed – Roanoke Island – is now a popular holiday resort. Instead, I found a piece of English coast which is completely undeveloped, as Roanoke would have been then.

You might remember from earlier posts that I don’t like putting too much historical detail into my novels. What I’m always looking for is the unusual or a small detail that will make a plot or character believable and acceptable. For Traitor’s Kiss, I needed a trinket that the stranger, Francis, could give to Princess Elizabeth in memory of her mother, Anne Boleyn. I wanted it to be perfume, because that is often how people remember each other. Elizabeth was only two years old when her mother was executed and she might remember her mother’s perfume. I gave up the idea because I thought ten years was too long for perfume to keep (although I think it might). Two pieces of research made my day… I discovered that, in the 16th century, perfume was always in a cream form (wouldn’t that be good now, for flying regulations?) and that Elizabeth had inherited her father’s keen sense of smell.  When I read that sometimes poison might be added to perfume to kill – it all became part of the novel: both as a memory link between Elizabeth and her mother and for cruel allegations from Anne Boleyn’s step-daughter, Mary.

Sometimes, I go that extra distance for a result. In A World Away, I wanted to use five words of Algonquian (a Native American language of Virginia and the Carolinas) to remind the reader that the kidnapped Nadie would have spoken that language and that this is what the colonists would have heard when they arrived in America. I contacted an American language reprint series to purchase a small booklet from them. It was really important to me that my kidnapped girl should have a name in her language and I was able to choose Nadie, which means ‘wise one’. It gave me an extra thrill to remember that in Spanish, it means ‘nobody’, which is how her captors thought of her.

I really believe that if you dig deep enough, there’ll be a tasty bit of information that will transform the writing.  So start digging.

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Paulines Francis’s author website: www.paulinefrancis.co.uk

Pauline Francis bio page

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The Raven QueenA World AwayThe Traitor's Kiss     Shades of Earth: An Across the Universe Novel (Across the Universe)The HuntingVictoria Rebels

Writing Teen Novels
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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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Monika Schroder’s author website: www.monikaschroeder.com

Monika Schroder’s bio page

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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
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My Novel Writing Process, by Carolyn Meyer

When I begin the first page of a new novel, I’ve already invested months in research, made notes on yellow pads, obsessed about it on my morning walks. I have a mental picture of my characters and I know in a general sort of way what they’re likely to be doing. I’m telling myself the story I hope will become a novel that teens will read fervently, talk about enthusiastically and love forever. At this point nothing is set in stone.

At first I’m talking to myself, describing the story: first she does this, then she does that, then he says and she says, then they do something else. But that’s not a novel, it’s a treatment – a story about the story.

Then comes the real work: turning the story-about-a-story into a sequence of scenes, each building on the last. In that first chapter I must also provide the teen reader with enough information to understand what’s happening. I approach the writing as though I’m making a movie, fully visualizing each scene. If I can picture it, I can write it and the reader will “get” it.

I decided to begin Cleopatra Confesses with Cleopatra’s long-absent father’s return to Egypt. I used a series of scenes and flashbacks to introduce principal characters and establish family relationships, as well as to create tension. The chapters are brief and the scenes move the story along quickly. Here’s how I structured the first chapter:

Scene 1: Cleopatra hears a commotion and goes out to investigate; a messenger brings news that Ptolemy XII is on his way from Rome.

Scene 2: Cleopatra visits her younger sister, plays her with sister’s pet monkey and her sister’s bodyguard is introduced.

Transition: description of Cleopatra’s older sisters, brothers and father.

Scene 3:  Cleopatra, in borrowed servants’ clothes, leaves the palace for the marketplace.

Scene 4 (flashback): Cleopatra with her father before he leaves for Rome.

Scene 5 (flashback): Cleopatra with her jealous sisters.

Then on to the second chapter, with scenes in the marketplace with Cleopatra waiting for father’s ship; then in the palace, dressing for her father’s welcome.

Total pages for first two chapters: thirteen.

Contemporary teen novels usually take place over a relatively short time – days or weeks, rarely covering more than a year. A teen historical novel may span years, even decades, and that requires tracking the passage of time in a way that keeps teen readers oriented. One strategy is to use the day or date in chapter titles, but the calendar in Cleopatra’s era was so confusing that I indicated the time in other ways: “It is the season of the Inundation, the time of year when the Nile overflows its banks….”, “In the evening of the first day as the royal boat drifts….” or “It is winter now…”

The structure of Cleopatra Confesses evolved as I added and deleted scenes; lengthened, shortened and divided chapters; and changed chapter titles. This process continued through successive drafts and revisions, as it has through all of my teen novels. It may be worth noting that I never get it right the first time but only through trial and error.

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Carolyn Meyer’s author website: www.readcarolyn.com

Carolyn Meyer’s bio page

***

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Cleopatra ConfessesMary, Bloody MaryThe Wild Queen: The Days and Nights of Mary, Queen of Scots (Young Royals Books (Hardcover))The Bad Queen: Rules and Instructions for Marie-Antoinette     Shades of Earth: An Across the Universe Novel (Across the Universe)My Brother's ShadowWinter Town

Writing Teen Novels
www.writingteennovels.com

Language In My Teen Historical Novels, by Pauline Francis

How do you choose the language that your characters speak in a historical novel? A novel usually takes a year to be edited and published. If you write contemporary fiction, it will already be out of date when it’s published. In a sense, most novels are historical fiction. But I’m really talking about historical fiction that takes us back hundreds of years years. It’s a huge responsibility to portray ways of speaking which have not been recorded. I think good language use in a historical novel suggests the past but can still be understood by today’s readers.

I once had an idea for a novel set in the Bronze Age and discovered that the language spoken then would have been based on a vocabulary of only two thousand words. I tried to write the novel using only those words… and it seemed restricted and dull.

The language in my novels set in 16th century England is a compromise. I can never know exactly how my characters spoke but I want to make my young characters people of their time. I want the language to be a blend of the past and present. I don’t try to reproduce Tudor slang but I do contrast the language from more modern language in subtle ways. I also try to use a few linguistic features to help distinguish each character.  For example, Jane wouldn’t have sworn but Elizabeth did. Religious language has changed the least, so when Jane (a Protestant) discovers that Ned is a Catholic, she overhears him reciting the rosary over a man killed by a falling tree.

In 16th century England, class differences were very distinct and I mark the difference by language. When Elizabeth meets a stranger on the banks of the Thames, rather than try to write how he spoke, I use Elizabeth to tell us: “His voice was gentle - and a gentleman’s, although it seemed from his accent that he was used to speaking French.” The boy, Francis, was brought up in France by his English mother and had returned to England to help Elizabeth find out the truth about her mother, Anne Boleyn. Otherwise, I would have had to write Francis’s dialogue in a sort of hybrid French/English which would have been ridiculous in this genre - although fine in a humorous book or a TV sitcom.

In choosing vocabulary generally, I use 16th century words that many readers would have heard of but would not use themselves in modern times. Many of my words are Shakespearian and although my books are set a few years before I don’t hesitate to use them, because they convey the general flavour of 16th century England.

It would be wonderful to hear my characters speak as they really did. I wonder: If they read my novels, would they understand them? Would they think I’d done well? I hope so.

***

Paulines Francis’s author website: www.paulinefrancis.co.uk

Pauline Francis bio page

***

United States (and beyond)

    

United Kingdom (and beyond)

    

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The Raven QueenA World AwayThe Traitor's Kiss     The Wild Queen: The Days and Nights of Mary, Queen of Scots (Young Royals Books (Hardcover))The Dog in the WoodTracksShock Point

Writing Teen Novels
www.writingteennovels.com

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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Carolyn Meyer’s author website: www.readcarolyn.com

Carolyn Meyer’s bio page

***

United States (and beyond)

    

United Kingdom (and beyond)

    

Australia (and beyond)

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
www.writingteennovels.com

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