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On Prologues And Epilogues In Teen Historical Novels, by Carolyn Meyer

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.

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

Carolyn Meyer’s bio page

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Mary, Bloody MaryThe Bad Queen: Rules and Instructions for Marie-AntoinetteVictoria RebelsCleopatra Confesses     Hurricane SongThe Traitor's KissNecromancing the Stone

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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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A Novelist’s Responsibility To Readers, by Elizabeth Wein

My husband the businessman often talks about a thing called ‘duty of care’.  Here’s the Wikipedia link to its usage in English law, which is generally what he’s referring to.

Loosely speaking, as the article says, ‘a duty of care arises where one individual or group undertakes an activity which could reasonably harm another, either physically, mentally, or economically.’  On the simplest level, when you drive a car you have a ‘duty of care’ not to endanger anyone with your driving.

On a more subtle and complex level, a writer also has a ‘duty of care’.  Maybe the risk of physical harm isn’t there, but throwing radical ideas at people can be dangerous in a different way.  Author contracts often contain a clause where the author must assure the publisher that his or her work ‘contains no recipe, formula or instruction injurious to the user.’

In writing historical fiction, I feel that I have a duty of care to present my readers with an accurate picture of the past.  Any misrepresentation on my part won’t be physically harmful, it’s true, but I feel that it could be developmentally harmful.  I don’t like the idea of people going around repeating inaccuracies based on something I’ve written.  I want to generate my readers’ interest in the subjects I’m interested in, but I don’t want to be considered the ultimate source or authority on those subjects.

I check almost everything, including my word usage.  I flag things I’m not sure of.  I work with a slang dictionary to date things; I spend hours checking up on single items.  What did the Special Operations Executive use for their sabotage operations in Occupied Europe?  It turns out they were pioneers in the use of plastic explosive.  But did they refer to it as plastic explosive?  How did they transport and detonate it?  What color was it then – the same as now?  Was it made out of the same stuff? Was it effective?  Once I’ve found the answers to these questions, how much can I actually talk about without giving information that might count as a ‘formula or instruction injurious to the user’?

I sometimes envy fantasy writers who build their own worlds with their own internal integrity without these hurdles to narrative flow.  It’s possible JK Rowling stopped writing and spent two solid days figuring out the mechanics of floo powder, but I don’t think it’s likely.  Even if she did, there’s no ‘duty of care’ in getting floo powder right or wrong.  Successful worldbuilding in a fantasy novel is in the author’s hands, not laid down in the annals of history and the laws of physics.

I have to confess that part of the reason I get so bogged down in fact-checking is because I really enjoy it.  It probably takes me longer than it should because I get distracted finding out other things that are loosely connected to the subject I’m looking up.  Reading about early aerial photography makes me want to go and research 19th century ballooning.

Probably the best thing about doing research for historical novels is that it often generates plot.  Once you start digging, you run into all kinds of interesting and often exciting facts you didn’t know existed.  ‘Thinking’s like archeology,’ Jamie Delano writes in the comic book series Hellblazer (volume IX). ‘You scrape; beneath your trowel, shape starts to form.  Forgotten secrets come to light.  ’Til finally you reveal the face of perfect beauty—the plan.’

For good tips on detail and fact checking in writing historical fiction, check out Alison Rattle’s article here: http://hotkeyblog.wordpress.com/2012/11/06/dont-get-lost-in-the-archives-a-bit-of-advice-for-historical-fiction-writers

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

Elizabeth Wein’s author website: www.elizabethwein.com

Elizabeth Wein’s bio page

***

 

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Code Name VerityA Coalition of Lions     My Brother's ShadowMary, Bloody MaryAcross the Universe

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

Diane Lee Wilson’s bio page

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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
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Research For My Teen Historical Novels, by Carolyn Meyer

Writing historical fiction for teens begins with imagining a story that brings history to life, and research is key to creating compelling characters in an engrossing setting. Research: the very word has a musty sound to it. Once upon a time I spent hours wandering through the library stacks, searching through book after book in hopes of finding precious nuggets of information and glittering gems of detail that would lure teen readers into the story and keep them there. Now it’s all just a few keystrokes away.

My first stop is usually Wikipedia for a broad overview of characters and setting; then I follow the links and wander down unfamiliar paths, making note of the books referenced at the end of the most useful articles. I check the online catalog of my public and university library to locate library copies of promising resources, then order those I want to own. Researching Cleopatra Confesses, I acquired a half-dozen biographies and reference books. Nine online sites are listed in the bibliography, but in fact, I browsed through many more sites, chasing down details about food, markets, architecture, furniture, boats, music, dance, dress. For The True Adventures of Charley Darwin I read Darwin’s autobiography and made extensive use of an online collection of his many letters to and from family and friends, especially during his Beagle voyages.

Whenever I can, I travel. I’ve visited Marie-Antoinette’s rustic farm and opulent Versailles, cruised down Cleopatra’s Nile, listened to a concert in the Viennese church where Wolfgang performed before I started In Mozart’s Shadow. I’ve poked around Darwin’s childhood home in Shrewsbury, England, toured the school he despised as a boarding student, visited the home of the girl he loved. I wish I had visited the Galapagos Islands, but that was more than I could manage. Of course, it’s possible to make historical fiction real and exciting for teens without leaving home. A virtual online tour of Versailles can be very helpful and helped to job my memory, but for me nothing takes the place of an actual visit.

Research is so much easier than writing, and it’s tempting just to keep on doing it, postponing the time when you simply have to start telling the story.

A much more dangerous temptation is to use all those marvelous bits of information you’ve gathered, stuffing the novel with the details you’ve grown to love. When you’ve gone to so much trouble to find out what the queen was wearing or what the king was eating and what kind of dance step they were executing, it is painful indeed to cut, cut, cut.

Painful, but necessary. Good research makes your story authentic. The right details help to draw teen readers into the story, take them out of the here-and-now and transport them to another time and place. But loading the story with too many details is like throwing too many herbs and spices into a stew. Over-season your fictional stew, and young readers will yawn – and then they’re gone.

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

Carolyn Meyer’s bio page

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Cleopatra ConfessesThe True Adventures of Charley DarwinIn Mozart's Shadow: His Sister's StoryMarie, Dancing     My Brother's ShadowSektion 20Across the Universe

Writing Teen Novels
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Writing Characters In Historical Novels For Teens, by Carolyn Meyer

When you start to write a novel, you’re signing on for the long haul. It’s a marriage, or at least a long-term relationship. For at least a year, maybe longer, you’re going to live with your characters, sleep with them, dream about, walk and talk with them. So you’d better love them – especially the principal characters – a lot.

You can write about a historical event, such as the French Revolution, in which the main character is fictional, but I usually tell the story through the eyes of a historically important person, and I begin the story in that character’s youth. When I wrote The Bad Queen: Rules and Instructions for Marie-Antoinette, I focused on the young teen who much later supposedly said, “Let them eat cake.”

The main character, real or fictional, must be sympathetic, while other characters help her or impede her. If she doesn’t have problems to deal with, if she doesn’t grow and change, you don’t have a story. Marie’s mother provides the early conflict. When Marie leaves Austria at fourteen and arrives in France, a nasty countess makes her life miserable. The hapless French prince she marries condemns her to unhappiness, and the handsome Swedish officer she meets when both are eighteen offers romance and temptation. The events of history and her own flaws propel the story to its tragic conclusion.

I knew that this girl would arouse my sympathies, lead me to despair, and finally bring me to understanding and forgiveness. Marie was a spoiled teenage princess, but the more I learned about her, the more I discovered a character I could fall in love with – and could make my readers understand and forgive her, too.

But how much of it is “true”? I don’t change known facts, but I do invent scenes and dialogue, and sometimes I create a character -a friend or a servant, say – to help tell the story. When I was writing Mary, Bloody Mary, about the eldest daughter of Henry VIII, I invented servants, a female friend, and the boy who was her falconer. In Cleopatra Confesses I created a cast of minor characters, because so little is known about her early life. Not a single soul needed to be added to the cast of Victoria Rebels, or of The Wild Queen, about Mary, Queen of Scots.

You can’t know too much about your characters, but it’s possible to say too much about them. I learned a lot about Victoria’s childhood, when Papa died and left her German Mama alone and penniless. I got caught up with those difficult early days – far more than my teen readers would be – and my editor prodded me to cut the first 30 pages. That was painful, but it improved the story. And I was much more sympathetic to the 12-year-old Victoria than I would have been if I hadn’t gotten to know her so well when she was much younger. The solution is to put everything in your first draft and then be absolutely ruthless and take most of it out. Your characters will survive the surgery, and your teen readers will fall in love with them just as surely as you did.

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

Carolyn Meyer’s bio page

***

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The Bad Queen: Rules and Instructions for Marie-AntoinetteThe Wild Queen: The Days and Nights of Mary, Queen of Scots (Young Royals Books (Hardcover))Victoria RebelsMary, Bloody Mary     I Rode a Horse of Milk White JadeShades of Earth: An Across the Universe Novel (Across the Universe)My Brother's Shadow

Writing Teen Novels
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Plot, Character And Hooptedoodle In Teen Novels, by Elizabeth Wein

I think that one of the strong characteristics of teen fiction, as opposed to adult fiction, is that it is plot-driven.  Middle grade fiction is too, but teen fiction offers the author the opportunity to bring in all kinds of adventure and excitement and angst that isn’t appropriate for a younger readership.  I feel like Young Adult fiction offers me the best of both worlds as a writer – I can write about mature themes and at the same time I can tell a good story.

But I don’t come up with a plot idea out of the blue.  I find that my plot-driven fiction is really character-driven.  What starts me off is a good character.  Once I get the idea for the hero (or sometimes the anti-hero) of the book, that person usually sets the plot going.  In The Sunbird, Telemakos’s aptitude for sneakiness gets him recruited as a child spy.  In Code Name Verity, Maddie’s interest in mechanics leads her into aviation, and her level-headed reliability and discretion draws the interest of the Special Operations Executive.

Being plot-driven, there’s not a lot of room for what John Steinbeck calls ‘Hooptedoodle’ in YA fiction.  Hooptedoodle is a foray into purple prose.  It can be a linking passage between action scenes, or a description of landscape to set the scene, or maybe just the author waxing lyrical and enjoying the sound of his or her own voice.  I am a very literary writer and I like writing hooptedoodle.  I have to be tricky about working it in, because the general assumption is:  1) it does nothing for plot, and 2) teens get bored quickly if your writing is too flowery.

I think that both these assumptions are incorrect.  I think that YA readers, who are still forming their own literary tastes and styles, can be just as hungry for mature and beautiful writing as they are for action.  Certainly it was during my own teenage years that I read and wrote the most poetry.  If anything, my ‘juvenilia’ was more florid than anything I’ve written since.  Obviously I am a sample population of One, but that also means that in an ideal world I’m writing for myself – I’m writing what I would have liked to read as a teen – and indeed, what I still like to read.

As for furthering the plot, well, that’s just a matter of your skill as a writer.  The first half of Code Name Verity is really one lengthy coded message, all of which comes clear in the second half of the book, and a lot of the ‘hooptedoodle’ in Part 1 is there on purpose to disguise the message.  There are other important things Verity’s lyrical passages do: they are an outlet for her despair (she is a prisoner of the Gestapo as she tells her story), they describe her past, they help to show her commitment and loyalty, and they help her survive – so when Verity (or me, as the author) describes the landscape of her childhood, the passage is doing any number of things to help define the characters and to set up the plot.

So there’s my recipe for a great teen read – tight plot, engaging characters and a dash of hooptedoodle!

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

Elizabeth Wein’s author website: www.elizabethwein.com

Elizabeth Wein’s bio page

***

 

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Code Name VerityA Coalition of LionsThe Empty Kingdom     Sektion 20Tarzan: The Savage LandsGirl, Stolen

Writing Teen Novels
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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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