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Posts tagged ‘YA historical fiction’

Writing Teen Novels About Pilots And Flying, by Elizabeth Wein

In 2003 I got my private pilot’s license, and ever since then I have found myself more and more embroiled in writing about flying.  It crept up on me gradually.  I started out with a short story called ‘Chasing the Wind’ (in Sharyn November’s first anthology  Firebirds), which was about a girl who is a passenger in a small plane in Kenya in the early 1950s… I moved from there to ‘Chain of Events’ (in the Reckless issue of Michael Cart’s Rush Hour) in which a girl passenger takes over the command, though not the controls, of a feckless teenage pilot.  It wasn’t until my third short story about flying that I felt confident enough to write about a girl who actually becomes a pilot, and ‘Something Worth Doing’ (in Sharyn November’s Firebirds Soaring) eventually provided the seed for my novel Code Name Verity.

What do these stories have in common?  Well, they’re all about women in flight, and it’s the feminine aspect of piloting that inspires me.  It’s such an unusual activity for a woman, or a girl; I want to spread the word.  I want to inspire others.  I hope that one or two girls who read my stories will think, ‘Hmmm.  Maybe I could do that.’

I couldn’t have written about flying until I knew how to fly.  I wouldn’t have dared.  I still never quite feel sure I’m being as accurate as I need to be, especially since my fictional pilots tend to be more adventurous than I am myself.  But the seed for verisimilitude is there.

You know the old adage, ‘Write about what you know’?  I think it could be more accurately stated, ‘Write about what you love.’  That’s what makes good writing – the personal touch doesn’t necessarily come from first hand experience, but rather from first hand passion.  A writer’s knowledge born of a deep, inquiring interest can be every bit as thorough as knowledge gained through experience.  Do the research; do the fieldwork; learn the language.

Your passion is a gift which you can share – a gift you should want to share.  Your flair for a subject should shine through your writing and inspire your readers.  But be cautious about your expertise.  Not all your readers share your expertise and not all of them will care about it.  The trick is to draw their interest with your story without getting into the nitty gritty of what you know.  You don’t need to describe how a piston engine works in order to describe the thrill of take-off at full power.  Your know-how should be sketched in lightly – let the full extent of your knowledge be readable between the lines only.

There will always be a few people who don’t want to know – who simply aren’t interested in the detailed story you want to share, no matter how passionate that story is.  But I like to hope for the best.  I’ll continue to imagine an ideal reader with an inquiring mind open to new ideas.  Maybe a love of flying will creep up on readers gradually, just as it did on me.

***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     Raven SpeakSektion 20Spark

Writing Teen Novels
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Bringing History To Life In Teen Novels, by Diane Lee Wilson

History rarely ranks as a favorite subject of children and teens. I didn’t like it when I was younger; I found it boring and irrelevant to my life. Now, being older and much wiser (haha), I realize that history is simply an ongoing collection of amazing stories of heroism, suffering, adventure and achievement. Topics such as these are relevant to everyone, and that’s what I build my historical fiction novels around.

The key to making history relevant to teens is to put a teen character at the scene of a historical event, the outcome of which will critically impact that teen. He or she doesn’t have to actually participate, unless there were enough anonymous players in that event that you can realistically slip in your character, but more likely he or she will observe the events, be affected by them and perhaps contribute in a secondary manner. The important thing is to vividly illustrate how that moment in history changed the circumstances of that teen’s life. That’s what teen readers can relate to.

Secondly, think like a teen when you’re doing your research and pluck out the really interesting historical tidbits. Yes, for accuracy you might mention the number of soldiers on the battlefield or how many days it took to make the canoe trip, but be sure to include the eye-popping details that make readers go “ooh!” Talk about the cave with the thousands of glowing spiders, the outlaw that cut off the ears of his victims and sewed them onto his belt or the rumours of a ghost that walked the school hall. Teens (and adults) are always interested in the “truth is stranger than fiction” details that you dig up.

There’s another key point – the digging. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of using primary sources. Too many writers rely on Wikipedia, the internet in general and perhaps a few research books checked out from the library, and unknowingly incorporate widely accepted but incorrect information into their historical fiction. You have to dig and dig and dig to find a contemporaneous account of your historical event. Journals are the best source; journals kept by teens are amazing. I especially like hunting through out-of-print catalogs and used-book stores and have uncovered many valuable reference materials there.

I was browsing the Daedulus catalog early into my research for Firehorse when I came across a book entitled Growing Up In Boston’s Gilded Age: The Journal of Alice Stone Blackwell, 1872-1874. I was floored. My protagonist was a teen female living in Boston in 1872! I quickly ordered the book, which was written as a diary, and learned the intimate details (food, clothing, weather, hobbies) that were pertinent to Alice and which thus brought my character, Rachel, more vividly to life. On another occasion I was researching a story about a family traveling by wagon across the United States in 1860. Perusing the selection at a favorite used-book store, I happened across the journal of a man in that time period who had walked nearly the exact route. He entered all the details of what he saw and what his life was like, including the really interesting stuff: how the telegraph lines were attached to living trees, that miners had set up bowling alleys in camp, and why a cat who could catch mice was literally worth its weight in gold.

As much as possible in my historical fiction I put my protagonist in physical danger. I want my teen reader to empathize with that character. I want him or her to experience a lung-stripping sprint from attackers; a heart-thumping search through a haunted attic; a sweaty, dizzying trudge beneath a blazing sun. Important historical events usually involve life-or-death scenarios, and that makes for a page-turning teen novel.

History overflows with thrilling stories that can engage teen readers. Put your young protagonist in the middle of the event and bring it to life.

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Diane Lee Wilson’s author website: www.dianeleewilson.com

Diane Lee Wilson’s bio page

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FirehorseI Rode a Horse of Milk White JadeBlack Storm Comin'Raven Speak     My Brother's ShadowA World AwayThe Gypsy Crown (Chain of Charms)

Writing Teen Novels
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Using Setting Descriptions To Convey Mood In A Novel, by Monika Schroder

Writers often use setting descriptions to convey particular moods in scenes. One such common but effective way to convey mood is to give details of the weather. I will explore this technique here with a few examples:

My novel, Saraswati’s Way, opens in rural Rajasthan, the arid north-eastern state of India. The annual monsoon has not come; instead the land is parched by relentless heat. At the beginning of the book we meet Akash, my 12-year old protagonist, in his classroom in a poor schoolhouse in his village. Soon after the opening paragraph we learn that he has a talent for maths and, under-challenged in his class, hopes to go to a better school that would allow him to nurture and develop his aptitude for numbers.

Here an early paragraph:

A light breeze blew plumes of sand across the empty schoolyard. On the other side of a low wall the flat desert stretched out against the horizon. Over the course of the morning the dark rectangle this side of the wall would shrink and by recess time provide just enough shade for children like Akash who didn’t like to play cricket or run after a ball. From his seat by the open window Akash scanned the sky for signs of a rainstorm, for the swollen monsoon clouds that usually built up this time of year before they exploded with thunder and lightning to unleash sheets of rain. But the breeze only died, and Akash resigned himself to yet another day of relentless heat. 

I chose certain details to describe what Akash sees from his seat near the window to express a mood of boredom and anticipation of something that might not come. He looks out on the empty, flat desert, hoping for a rainstorm that would bring relief. Instead the wind dies down, leaving everything bare and exposed to the relentless heat for the rest of the day. The oppressive temperatures and desolate landscape reflect Akash’s sense of despair at the beginning of the book.

Andrew Smith, in his novel, Stick, also uses the weather, light and the color of the sky to express an atmosphere. Stick, the 14-year-old main character of the novel, lives in an abusive home with his gay brother, Bosten. After falling out with his father, Bosten leaves and Stick sets out to find him. He is confused, anxious and often overwhelmed by his sexual desires, and Smith keeps the reader close to Stick’s inner turmoil with an intense first-person narrative. On his quest, Stick meets many people, among them April and Willie who pick him up on his way to California. They offer him a place to stay on Willie’s houseboat and when they arrive Stick is not sure if he can trust them, but also finds himself sexually attracted to April. Andrew Smith sets the tense mood of the scene with this opening paragraph:

By the afternoon of my fourteenth birthday, the sky striped flat in ribbons of chalk and slate clouds that hung so low I could almost feel the pressure and weight of them, like a ceiling of sodden sponge that I could press my hands to if I had the courage to raise my arms high enough.

The reader feels the atmospheric pressure caused by the low hanging sky and relates to Stick’s insecurity when he compares the sky to a ‘sodden sponge’ he lacks the courage to lift.

When Stick finally returns to California and is about to be reunited with his aunt, Smith adds this description:

The sun had dropped below the horizon out on the sea, and I realized that there was a certain unique color the light would cast at precisely this hour.

This is a beautiful observation. We can all see that particular hue the sky takes on when the sun is about to set at the ocean. With this description Smith captures the mood right before Stick will see his aunt by comparing it with the special glow that occurs before the sunset. Stick is worried if she will welcome him and asks the truck driver who drops him off not to leave before his aunt has seen him. Stick doesn’t know if she will be happy to see him or not. In his image Smith expresses the beauty of the moment combined with the possibility of darkness that follows.

Weather descriptions provide an effective tool to depict mood in a scene, but writers have to be careful not to overuse it. The sky should not darken every time the character becomes sad and the sun should not come out from behind the cloud when the protagonist’s mood brightens. It is important to employ this technique sparsely and avoid clichés or too many “emotion-enhancing coincidences” between weather and character’s emotional state and instead to find fresh and precise images.

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Monika Schroder’s author website: www.monikaschroeder.com

Monika Schroder’s bio page

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The Dog in the WoodMy Brother's ShadowSaraswati's Way     Boys without NamesGlowThe RepossessionA World Away

Writing Teen Novels
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Using Character Handles In My Teen Novels, by Elizabeth Wein

In my first teen novel, The Winter Prince, there are four secondary characters who turn up in a pack.  They’re brothers, they’re all teens, and they all have similar names (they are, in fact, the princes of Orkney from Arthurian legend, traditionally named Gawaine, Agravaine, Gaheris, and Gareth).  When a friend of mine read an early draft of The Winter Prince he couldn’t tell any of them apart.

Here’s what he advised me:  ‘A supporting character needs a handle.’

‘A handle?  You mean like a nickname?’

‘No.  I mean like a door handle.  Or a pot handle.  Something that the reader can grab.’

Ever since then, I’ve tried to do exactly that with minor characters.  I give them handles.  I give them some characteristic, twitch or quirk designed to jolt the reader into recognition: ‘Oh, yeah, this is the guy with the thick glasses/the wandering hands/the car that’s always breaking down/the missing fingers…’ and those are just the ones from Code Name Verity!  After my friend gave me this advice, I gave my character Agravaine my very first conscious handle.  He wears his hair in a long copper-coloured plait of which he is very vain.

Handles shouldn’t be gratuitous.  Agravaine’s plait, though I included it on purpose to make him a little different from the rest of his red-haired brothers, is important because it works symbolically to show how like his mother he is – she, too, has long red hair and is vain.  It also shows Agravaine’s bond to his mother.  Similarly, the handles for the minor characters in Code Name Verity all contribute to the plot in some way.

The magic thing about handles is that they help the writer as well as the reader.  Once you’ve given someone an interesting characteristic, the writing starts to generate itself around that characteristic.  The guy with the thick glasses suddenly has a prop that can be used in a number of different ways – sometimes he seems to be disguised, sometimes he seems to be hiding, sometimes he can take the glasses off and wipe his eyes and I, as the author, can use this prop to suggest his emotional state without having to speculate about what he’s thinking.

Handles aren’t just relevant to characters.  Giving your settings specific, detailed characteristics helps to make them come alive, too.  Not just the smell of flowers, but the smell of lilacs.  Not just a fire in a fireplace, but a coal fire in an iron grate.  Not just a small dog but a wire-haired terrier.  Specific details don’t just make your story more interesting to read: they make it realistic and evocative.  These small nuanced touches can be particularly important in historical fiction or fantasy, where it can be tempting to generalize when you don’t know or can’t visualize specifics.

What are your characters eating around their campfire?  Have they got a coffee pot?  Is the coffee burning?  What does it smell like?  When someone picks it up, is the handle hot?

It’s worth a few burnt fingers to grab that handle.

***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

***

 

United States (and beyond)

    

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Code Name VerityA Coalition of LionsThe Empty Kingdom     The Dog in the WoodRaven SpeakDeadly Little Games

Writing Teen Novels
www.writingteennovels.com

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

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Some Themes For Teen Novels, by Elizabeth Wein

I sat down to write these blog posts armed with some thoughts about writing, reviewing, themes I deal with, and literary tips that I think help make the story vivid.  And then I found myself stuck because I realized that none of these ideas were specifically connected to writing for teens.  So, I am going to start my entries with a disclaimer.  I don’t write teen novels.  Most of my novels are about teens, but I have never once in my life set out to write a ‘teen novel’.  As a teen – and into adulthood – I never set out to read a ‘teen novel’.  I just read!  So, as a novelist I can probably give some good advice about how to write a book, but I haven’t thought much about writing a ‘teen’ book.  These posts are going to make me think about it!

My first ‘teen’ novel, The Winter Prince, has a narrator who is pushing thirty.  In my third and fourth ‘teen’ novels, The Sunbird and The Lion Hunter, the hero is 11 and then 12.  In Code Name Verity the heroines start at 18.  I don’t consciously sit there thinking, ‘Ah, this time I’m writing for teens, so I’m going to have to do things differently.’  I just write the book that I am writing.

However, my books, despite my protests and the wide age range of their protagonists, are very solidly Young Adult.  So maybe I need to think about why.  I think it has to do with the themes I deal with in my novels.

1) The age of the protagonists.  Okay, so the narrator in The Winter Prince is 27 or whatever.  In fact, it’s the teenagers in the book that the reader really cares about—the narrator’s 14-16 year old siblings and his relationship with them.  In The Sunbird, where the hero is a little younger than a teen, and in Code Name Verity, where the heroines are a little older than teens, their age doesn’t get mentioned.  The implication is that they are teens, or close to it—and also, that teens reading the books will relate to these characters in spite of the slight difference in age.  This is not only an authorial decision but an editorial one.  In crafting the book, we are consciously aiming it at teen readers—giving them characters they can relate to because of their age.

2) The emotional maturity of the protagonists.  There are a couple of themes that resonate throughout my books and, I think, throughout all YA fiction, and one of these is that the heroes or heroines have to mature in some way.  The events of the book help them or force them into growing up.  In a true YA novel, the main characters will be changed forever by the end of the book.  This isn’t necessarily true of ‘adult’ fiction.  To my mind, the change ought to be for the better in teen fiction—even in fiction where the ending is bleak, the protagonist should have had the opportunity to grow somewhere along the way.

3) The acquisition of skill.  This is also key, I think, to teen fiction: the characters are thinking about What They’re Going To Be When They Grow Up.  In an adult novel, that’s no longer necessary, and in a book for younger readers, they’re not yet worrying about this.  So figuring out who you are and what you’re best at, and how you’re going to use that in later life, is critical to teen fiction.

4) Figuring out your body.  I don’t really want to say ‘sex’ is a driving force in teen novels, because it isn’t always, but certainly there has got to be some aspect of the protagonist facing and dealing with his or her changing body.  In The Lion Hunter and The Empty Kingdom I took this on both metaphorically and brutally by making the hero have to deal with losing an arm.  In Code Name Verity the two heroines are physically mature, but they are pretty sexually innocent, and though that’s not the focus of the book, their growing awareness of their own attractiveness and desires does affect the plot.

5) Building relationships.  Moving from the limited relationship of family life into the broad and complex relationships of society, including friendship, conflict, and romance, is another key theme that characterizes teen fiction.

These five points probably aren’t the only defining themes in teen fiction, but they are the ones that leap out at me.

For further reading on this topic, Jo Wyton has an interesting discussion on her blog about what makes teen fiction, using my book Code Name Verity as an example.

***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

***

 

United States (and beyond)

   

United Kingdom (and beyond)

   

Australia (and beyond)

Code Name VerityA Coalition of LionsThe Empty Kingdom    My Brother's ShadowGenesisA World Away

Writing Teen Novels
www.writingteennovels.com

Writing Novels For Children Versus Writing Novels For Teens, by Diane Lee Wilson

When I set out to write my first novel my goal was simply to write the kind of book that I’d enjoyed as a girl: a horse-centric story set in a different land. My models were the wonderful books by Margeurite Henry (which include her Newbery-winning King of the Wind), the Black Stallion series by Walter Farley, and a few other library finds, such as The Silver Brumby and Dapples of the Circus. That first novel became I Rode a Horse of Milk White Jade and it was published in the U.S. by Orchard Books, an imprint of Scholastic, as well as in three other countries and languages. In the U.S. it was marketed as a “young adult” novel.

At the time, I’d never heard of that genre and, to my knowledge, had never read such a book. What, exactly, was a “young adult” novel? It was explained to me that young adult, or YA, books are intended for readers aged 12 to 18 and that my style of writing and subject matter naturally fit that reading level. Okay. Happy that my writing had found an audience, I continued to produce and have since published five additional YA novels, all historical fiction and all involving a horse or horses in some way.

I now know that what often sets apart a young adult story from children’s or adult novels is the age of the protagonist and the subject matter. I have been advised to keep my protagonists in the upper teen range (13-17) so that readers can envision themselves in the role. And I have had at least one scene (in Ravenspeak, in which my protagonist has to cut off her arm in order to survive) severely edited due to “overly gruesome details.” I’ve also, on occasion, had to modify a few expletives spat out by the less respectable individuals in my cast of characters. Other than these instances, my writing style seems to suit the YA genre. I try to keep the pacing fast and the details vivid.

While I am currently working on a seventh novel (again YA but contemporary rather than historical) I am also developing a series of books for the children’s market, specifically middle grade readers. This is still a learning process for me and I have been perusing the styles of other authors, studying voice and pacing and structure. I can see that the pages are fewer, the descriptive passages shorter and the plots simpler. I have read some bestsellers that I find unmemorable and I have uncovered a few gems that have told beautiful, rich stories in an enviably simple yet artful fashion. That is what I will strive for in this nascent collection.

I firmly believe that good writing can be produced for readers of any age and skill level. What’s most important is that the reader be interested and engaged in the story, and thoroughly enjoy the reading experience. And, since the chronological ages of readers don’t always mesh with their prescribed reading levels, I think there need not be any firm demarcation between books intended for children and those written for teens.

A final note: In considering this topic, I came across an informative discussion from people who are actually in school classrooms and libraries. It can be found at: http://childrenslitblog.wordpress.com/2010/07/13/childrens-literature-vs-young-adult

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Diane Lee Wilson author site: www.dianeleewilson.com

Diane Lee Wilson bio page

To Ride the Gods' Own StallionRaven SpeakFirehorseBlack Storm Comin'King of the Wind: The Story of the Godolphin ArabianThe Silver Brumby (Essential Modern Classics)The Silver Horse (Chain of Charms)

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