Choosing And Voicing Characters For My Teen Historical Novels, by Pauline Francis
I always imagined that I’d write contemporary fiction. When I decided to write for teenagers, I wrote a full-length novel about a young girl with anorexia. It was good – but it lacked a strong voice.
What is the secret of a good character? Why can it take so long to discover what it is?
I felt like an alchemist in search of the great secret: how to change metal into gold. I followed all the rules. I read and read and read (I was a children’s librarian at the time, so I knew what appealed to readers). I was involved in writing abridged classics (Fast Track Classics) for younger readers, so I knew most of the great English and American Classics and why they’d become classics.
But I still didn’t know how to make my fiction better.
I read and re-read my favourite teen authors; Witch Child by Celia Rees, Apache by Tanya Landman, The Road of Bones by Anne Fine (2006) and Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo (2003).
They all have one thing in common – they are historical novels.
I came to understand the author’s voice. …that special ingredient that makes the magic. It’s ME – the author – who must be emotionally part of my writing and that without it, my narrative will be as dull as a base metal, whether historical or contemporary.
I asked myself: what had made me tick emotionally when I was a teenager?
I disliked being a teenager. I felt trapped in a difficult situation – wanting to study and go to University but with a father who believed that girls shouldn’t be educated. I was a rather shy and very thin child, and my family thought I was too serious and hated to see me reading. They believed in lots of fresh air and healthy sport. Lady Jane Grey came into my mind. I knew her from my school history. The little written about her wasn’t very flattering. She was shy, short and very thin – and preferred reading to hunting. Her parents disapproved of her, preferring her beautiful and outgoing sister, Catherine.
You can see where this is going. I resisted the urge to write about Jane for a while because I’d never planned to write historical fiction. Then I gave in. I decided to make Jane the subject of my first novel because she echoed how I felt as a teenager.
It was unbelievably easy to write about Jane. I understood what made her tick.
She was sold into marriage by her ambitious father to the son of an equally ambitious father-in-law. They both sought power through this fifteen year old girl, because she was close in line to the throne of England. She was manipulated onto the throne and died for it.
I’m sure that my voice echoing through Jane made it the novel it was.
I chose Elizabeth for Traitor’s Kiss because she had to draw on enormous resources as she grew up – and make difficult decisions as I did. She had few people to guide her and this was her great attraction for me.
Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn, was the second wife of Henry VIII. He had her executed for suppose adultery when Elizabeth was only two. Everything that belonged to Anne was banned and burned. Her name was never mentioned.
What would it be like to grow up, knowing that your father had killed your mother? What would the gossip be like? As Elizabeth grew into womanhood, spirited and swarthy skinned like her mother, she attracted attention from men who wanted power (she was third in line for the throne) – especially her step-father, Thomas Seymour. He flirted with Elizabeth. She flirted back. They were seen kissing. Like mother, like daughter? Elizabeth was only fourteen, but banned from court. As her step-father tried to gain power, he was taken to the Tower of London and Elizabeth, by association with him, was interrogated for six weeks.
Elizabeth used all her resources to outwit her interrogators – and to live to be Queen. Although none of these events happened to me, I recognised the kindred spirit in a young girl forced to draw on her own resources.
In between these two novels, I wrote another called A World Away, based on the first British colony to be established in America. It has been well-liked, but it is the least popular of my novels and I think it’s because the voice of my characters doesn’t reflect me.
Paulines Francis’s author website: www.paulinefrancis.co.uk
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