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.