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Finding The Right “Voice” For Your Novel, by Carolyn Meyer

Finding a “voice” that enables a novel to connect with teen readers requires skill. Even the most fascinating characters and the most intriguing plot will fall flat without that voice.

Finding it begins with the narrator. An older adult, looking back over his life? A young person, telling her story in a voice that changes as she ages? Or a third-person narrator, recounting the story from a distance? Tense also affects voice; present feels different from past.

Victoria’s diaries and Darwin’s correspondence were invaluable in finding the voice in Victoria Rebels and The True Adventures of Charley Darwin.

Cleopatra Confesses was harder. She spoke ancient Greek and a number of other ancient languages, including Egyptian. None of this helped. I decided to use first person present tense, but I knew that if she sounded too “modern”, the effect would be jarring, and a formal voice felt too mannered and off-putting. Contractions have been common in English for centuries; not using them makes for a formal voice. Assuming there must have been similar grammatical constructs in ancient Greek, I used contractions when Cleopatra speaks to her sisters, brothers and servants, and more formal language when she speaks to her father.

Voice also involves the length and complexity of sentences. Generally a mix of short, simple sentences with some compound and complex sentences feels right. Choice of vocabulary is critical, especially in writing for teens. I avoid passive voice and replace weak-verb-plus-adverb with a strong verb: “gobbled” or “gulped”, rather than “ate hungrily.”

When a certain word or phrase may be unfamiliar to a teen reader, I explain it, directly or by context. When Darwin meets the captain of the ship on which he will sail around the world, the captain says, “I’m an ardent believer in phrenology, and I hold that a man’s character is revealed nowhere so strongly as in his face. I doubt whether anyone with a broad, indelicate nose such as yours could possess sufficient energy and determination for the voyage.”  Concerned that young readers would not know anything about phrenology, I included the phrase about “a man’s character is revealed…” to explain it.

White Lilacs is narrated by a 12-year-old African-American girl in the 1920s. I didn’t use dialect; Rose Lee’s voice is simple and direct. I must have gotten it right, for many teen readers were surprised when this white author showed up for school visits.

Beware the dreaded anachronism. When I wrote Loving Will Shakespeare I used a dictionary to determine when certain words came into common usage. But I missed one, and was nailed by a reviewer who noted that I had referred to Anne Hathaway as a “spinster”; in Shakespeare’s time a spinster was a woman who spun wool or flax and did not yet mean “an older unmarried woman” for another half century or so.

At some point I read aloud what I’ve written and listen to the voice, trusting my own ear to detect anything that sounds a bit “off”. It’s not a perfect detector but it’s usually good enough to send me back for a rewrite – especially when I’m writing about spinsters.

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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 Bad Queen: Rules and Instructions for Marie-AntoinetteVictoria Rebels     Shades of Earth: An Across the Universe Novel (Across the Universe)My Brother's ShadowWinter Town

Writing Teen Novels
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Narrative Point Of View In My Teen Novels, by Carolyn Meyer

Once I’ve had a great idea, fallen in love with my characters and have a sense of the direction the story will take, the question becomes: whose story is it and how will I tell it?

Will I stick with one character’s point of view or shift among characters? Will I use a first-person or a third-person narrator?

Recently I worked on a four-book series called Hotline with a contemporary setting and four main characters; each teen takes a turn as the central character of a book with the others in secondary roles. This was my first experience with handling multiple points of view, and it wasn’t difficult as long as I remembered to keep my mental camera focused on one character at a time. Mostly I prefer a single point of view with the main character as the focus – frankly, it’s easier.

Choosing first person (I) or third (he/she) is a separate issue. I sometimes struggle to find the emotional core of my story and to convey that to teen readers. When I wrote The True Adventures of Charley Darwin I was steeped in the novels of Jane Austen, popular in Darwin’s time. Like Austen, I tried writing the story in third person, but my editor thought my narrator was “too distant” and would not connect well with teen readers. So I started over and let Charley tell his own story, as I have in most of my historical novels.

The most straightforward approach to first-person narration is the style of a memoir or autobiography. In Cleopatra Confesses I elected to write in first person: “I, the king’s third daughter, called Cleopatra, sit alone in my quarters….” Present tense gives a sense of immediacy, but could just as well have been in past tense, by changing sit to sat. It could have been told in third person: “Cleopatra, the king’s third daughter, sat in alone in her quarters…”

The perspective of the first-person narrator has to be considered. In the prologue for Cleopatra Confesses Cleopatra looks back, telling her story while she waits for the arrival of the enemy who will take her prisoner. In The Wild Queen Mary, queen of Scots, is also looking back and narrates her tale on the night before her execution. In Victoria Rebels Victoria begins by grumbling about the evils of her mother’s friend, Sir John Conroy, as she prepares for her sister’s wedding; she’s not looking back, but peering ahead.

Another option is to construct the story as a diary. Writing Anastasia: the Last Grand Duchess, as part of the Royal Diaries series, was harder than I expected. There couldn’t be long descriptions or even much dialogue – just short, crisp scenes. The writer of a memoir knows how her story ends because she has already lived it. The fictional diarist does not know what lies ahead and how her story will end – she has no idea throughout the story that she will be murdered but it was up to me as the author to move the plot inexorably toward that end.

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

Carolyn Meyer’s bio page

***

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The Wild Queen: The Days and Nights of Mary, Queen of Scots (Young Royals Books (Hardcover))Cleopatra ConfessesThe True Adventures of Charley DarwinVictoria Rebels     VibesAngel DustFirehorse

Writing Teen Novels
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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)

    

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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
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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

***

United States (and beyond)

    

United Kingdom (and beyond)

    

Australia (and beyond)

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
www.writingteennovels.com

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