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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
www.writingteennovels.com

Are Teen Novels ‘Genre’ Fiction? by Elizabeth Wein

Are teen novels ‘genre’ fiction?  I’d really like to argue ‘NO.’  The beauty of Young Adult fiction (YA) is its chameleon-like nature.  Science fiction, fantasy, paranormal, contemporary, mystery, thriller, historical, sports, romance, graphic novel – these are all ‘genre’ fiction and yet YA includes them all.

I think that while a person is developing as a reader, that person will read everything.  The developing reader is still trying to figure out what he or she most enjoys.  Let me throw a couple of names at you:  Robert Westall and K.M. Peyton.  As a young reader, I adored these writers not because they wrote in a genre I liked, but because they wrote books that I liked.  And those books were all over the map.  Westall wrote war stories, motorbike stories, mysteries, ghost stories, horror stories, and contemporary problem novels.  Peyton wrote horse stories, historical fiction, ghost stories, contemporary mysteries, thrillers, and just for the heck of it, a couple of books about a thug who was also a hugely talented pianist.  Where’s the genre?

I’ve heard it said that ‘genre’ fiction is plot driven – one of its defining characteristics, as opposed to ‘literary’ fiction.  I think that one of the reasons YA fiction suggests itself as a ‘genre’ is because it, too, is often plot driven.  The one thing that seems to connect most teen fiction is that it is dedicated to a good story, and that applies across the board, whether you’re writing a vampire romance or a spy thriller.

The YA category is also sometimes self-defeating.  My novel Code Name Verity was ineligible for one award because it was published by a children’s publisher; it was ineligible for a different award because the subject matter (or the narrator, I’m not sure which) was considered too mature for a children’s book.  So books for and about people in their late teens or early twenties exist in a kind of genre purgatory.  The term ‘crossover,’ applied to books which can be enjoyed by teens or children and adults, seems forced and false to me (and very modern).  Surely a good book is a good book?  I’m thinking of some of the books we consider ‘classic’ children’s or teen fiction, which were published simply as books.  Huckleberry Finn.  National Velvet.  The Sword in the Stone.  The Hobbit.  Charlotte’s Web.

No, I don’t like labeling - especially for books intended for young people.  It seems to me that adult readers are more likely to stick to mysteries or romances or action thrillers, and limit themselves to one particular type of book.  Teen readers are more eclectic, possibly just because they haven’t yet settled on what they enjoy the most, but I think that it does everyone a disservice to apply strict limits on who should read what and how old they have to be in order to enjoy it.  The same goes for so-called girls’ and boys’ books.

I like to think that Young Adult fiction, in its inability to be classified in any way, can offer both the writer and the reader an entire world of possibilities.

***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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United States (and beyond)

    

United Kingdom (and beyond)

    

Australia (and beyond)

Code Name VerityA Coalition of LionsThe Empty Kingdom     AuslanderRikers HighThe Night She Disappeared

Writing Teen Novels
www.writingteennovels.com

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