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Writing ‘Evil’ Characters In Teen Novels, by Elizabeth Wein

My novel Code Name Verity is set in Europe during World War Two. In talking about writing the book I had a conversation recently about how the concept of the Third Reich’s National Socialist Party should be presented to the rising generation of readers.  I ended up doing a lot of thinking about it afterward because, after the conversation ended, I felt that somehow I’d lost an argument I should have won.  Essentially here’s what the opposing views were, simplified:

Theirs:  Nazis are the ultimate personification of evil and should be represented as such.

Mine:  Nazis are complex human beings and should be represented as such.

In some sense, both views are correct.  Nazism was and is evil.  But I think there’s a lot of evil out there now, and that it is both blind and dangerous to fool ourselves into thinking that the evils of the Third Reich are confined to the past, as a lesson to learn from that couldn’t possibly happen again.

I think the reason I felt I’d ‘lost an argument’ is because there was some moral high ground taken in the opposing viewpoint.  It felt like I was being told, ‘It is your duty as a writer to show what monsters these people were, so as not to downplay the evil of this regime.’

Without going into a list of recent genocides or atrocities, what I want to point out here is that social concepts aren’t evil; social concepts don’t kill and maim and make war; people do those things.  Nazism wouldn’t have taken hold without people buying into it.  I feel that my duty as a writer is not to describe in detail the evil of any specific regime but to warn the reader that the potential to embrace such a regime lies dormant in all of us.

Rather than list the countless genocides, torture, injustices and local outbreaks of civilian killings connected with continuing political fighting all over the world in the 70 years since the defeat of German National Socialism, I will give you one name:  Malala Yousafzai.  The Pakistani schoolgirl suffered gunshot wounds to the head and neck, inflicted by a Taliban militant sniper on her way to school.  It wasn’t random.  At fourteen, Malala is a known and targeted revolutionary.  Since she was eleven, she was keeping an online journal chronicling life as a schoolgirl under the Taliban. She has a lot in common with Anne Frank – except that Malala’s diary is available to anyone with access to the internet, worldwide, as she’s writing it.  She is in fact working with the BBC and knows the danger it puts her in.

What makes her a revolutionary is that she’s telling the truth and that she’s going to school.  That’s reason enough to shoot a 14 year old girl?  Sounds familiar.

Take note teenage readers and writers: bravery and political awareness start early, and suppression is always lurking just around the corner.  Our duty is not just to describe the horrors of the past – it’s to make the evil and errors of the past relevant to modern readers so that we can guard against it in the present.  It is our duty to let young people know that evil is possible in everyone – in yourself as well as in your neighbour – but also that our world is in our own control.  Evil is not a cause for paranoia.  It is the reason we speak out. It is a reason to write.

***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     Shock PointVibesThe Gypsy Crown (Chain of Charms)

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

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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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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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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.

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Paulines Francis’s author website: www.paulinefrancis.co.uk

Pauline Francis bio page

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The Raven QueenA World AwayThe Traitor's Kiss     Victoria RebelsRaven SpeakRed is for RemembranceAngel Dust

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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Historical Teen Novels: Fact, Fiction And Friction, by Pauline Francis

I never planned to write historical fiction. Sometimes, I try to argue that I don’t. I’d rather say that I was a writer of timeless novels – but that might be confusing because all my novels are set in the sixteenth century – in the Tudor period.

So – what do I mean?

Writers of historical fiction fall into two categories. Those who are passionate about history (and want to ‘teach’ readers about history through fiction), and those who use history as a catalyst for their own imagination. I belong to the second category.

I’ve written two historical teen novels based on English Queens: Raven Queen about Lady Jane Grey, who ruled England for nine unhappy days, and Traitor’s Kiss about Elizabeth I who ruled England for forty-four glorious years. I chose two Tudor women because their characters appealed to me for reasons I’ll tell you in the next post.

Readers tell me that I have an unusual approach to historical fiction. My view about historical detail is this: if I was writing contemporary fiction, I’d only put in as much contemporary detail as the book needed. I wouldn’t overload it with every detail of a character’s clothing or hair style or car. I’d use just enough to paint the picture I wanted. So why should historical fiction be any different? My characters are just people, like you and me. They have the same hopes and dreams and ambitions, so why overload my writing with details of embroidered sleeves and cloaks and jewellery?  I want you to know how my characters reacted to dangerous situations, not what they were wearing when they did it – unless it’s important for some reason. At the end of Traitor’s Kiss, clothing is important, but only in a scene where Elizabeth has to make a difficult decision, and to do this, she decides to dress in a certain way so that her interrogators (who could send her to the Tower of London) are reminded that she might be Queen one day.

But I do feel a responsibility to historical truth. My novels are set in specific times and events, so I am always faithful to them. I research my books very accurately, even if I don’t include much historical detail. It’s the characters who attract me in the first place and historical detail comes second. There is an important event in each of these novels – a real event – which endangers my characters.

How much fiction do you include in a historical novel? Every writer is different. As I write about real people as my main characters, I include many as fictional ones as I need. Logically, all events connected with fictional characters are fictional too, so that the reader knows where fact and fiction separate. In Raven Queen, I decided to give Lady Jane Grey a fictional friend called Ned. He is one of the narrators of the novel. One publisher turned down my novel, outraged that I’d dared to meddle with history – hence the friction. But others loved it. It was published and won awards.

I’ve spent a great deal of time justifying Ned, but I’ve never regretted my decision. Why did I do it? Jane has always been portrayed as a prim intellectual and a fanatical Protestant. Her parents didn’t seem to like her very much. I thought she deserved to be given a warmer side to her nature, and when I came across a line of research that she’d rather fancied the boy next door… (well, the boy on the next huge estate in the Midlands) I wanted my readers to know that side of her. After all, she was just a girl of fourteen.

I choose to use other historical facts only to build interest and tension. Hair is very important in my novels. Not only did it prove birthright (Jane’s was the Tudor red-gold, as was Elizabeth’s illegitimate half-brother), it was the sixteenth century tradition for unmarried women to wear their hair loose (the longer it was, the better a sign of fertility) and hidden when safely married.

There is a huge problem when writing about real historical people. Most readers (well, ones who have studied these people in history) will know what happened before they read the book. So I give a twist to the ending that is fictional because it’s based on a fictional character. It’s Ned who provides the gut-wrenching twist in Raven Queen and made my editor cry on the subway when she was reading the manuscript.

That’s my approach to historical fiction.

Next time, I’ll tell you how I chose my characters.

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Paulines Francis’s author website: www.paulinefrancis.co.uk

Pauline Francis bio page

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The Raven QueenThe Traitor's Kiss     The Wild Queen: The Days and Nights of Mary, Queen of Scots (Young Royals Books (Hardcover))To Ride the Gods' Own StallionMy Brother's ShadowEleven ElevenCode Name Verity

Getting ‘Great Ideas’ For Novels, by Carolyn Meyer

Just to set the record straight: I did not plan any of this. My first published book, Miss Patch’s Learn-to-Sew Book, was a how-to book for little girls. When I was a student, history bored me silly – too many battles, too many treaties, too many old guys in uniforms. Who cared? Not me. I certainly didn’t expect to go on to write more than twenty young adult novels about historic characters, ranging from the Tudor queens to Cleopatra and introducing Mozart’s sister and Degas’ model.

But somehow along the way, as I struggled to find myself as a writer, I discovered that I really liked doing research. It was interesting, even fun, and a lot easier than actually writing. Then one day in a fast-food restaurant in Texas I picked up a pamphlet describing the story of a young white girl captured by Indians and kept for 25 years before being “rescued” against her will by the Texas Rangers. What a story! What a great idea!

An editor thought so, too, and Where the Broken Heart Still Beats was published in 1992.  (It was reissued in 2012 with a new cover.)

But it hasn’t always worked out so neatly. In addition to the published novels, I’ve come up with other “great ideas” unlikely ever to see print. I once visited the little historical museum in my hometown and noticed a handwritten document, an agreement between a girl’s family and a man who wanted to take her on as an indentured servant; after seven years she’d get a bed, a table, and a few other items to set up a household. I thought I had a terrific germ of a novel for teens, but no editor was convinced. Or maybe I simply failed to present the idea compellingly.

The point is that you never know when or where a Great Idea might show up. I didn’t expect to find one in a Dairy Queen in Texas, but there it was.

Sometimes the historical period and the setting kindle the Great Idea (Texas in the 1800s) and sometimes it’s the character (Cynthia Ann Parker is a Texas legend; schoolchildren learn about her in state history class). If I’d pursued the indentured servant idea, I would have had to create the character from scratch.

Google didn’t exist in 1992, nor did online booksellers. Now when a Great Idea is sparked, I check to see if another writer has had a similar inspiration. If the story has already been written, I look up how recently the book was published, and then I decide if my idea is better – or if I can approach it differently.

In order for a Great Idea to fly, you must have a clear notion of your audience. The more accurately you can define your potential teen readers, the more focused your writing will be, and the more likely you are to persuade an editor that this is a Great Idea that will sell.

Victoria Rebels (January 2013) wasn’t even my own Great Idea. I emailed my teen fans for suggestions, they responded enthusiastically, and Queen Victoria got the most votes.

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

Carolyn Meyer’s bio page

***

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Victoria RebelsBeware, Princess ElizabethWhere the Broken Heart Still Beats: The Story of Cynthia Ann ParkerIn Mozart's Shadow: His Sister's Story     Eleven ElevenKeeping CornerNecromancing the Stone

Writing Teen Novels
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