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.
Carolyn Meyer’s author website: www.readcarolyn.com
United States (and beyond)
United Kingdom (and beyond)
Australia (and beyond)
Writing Teen Novels