Saturday, November 18, 2017
Writing Young Adult Historical Novels
On Tuesday November 14, 2017, I gave a talk to the National Capital Branch of the Canadian Authors Association on writing young adult historical novels. It is always fun to talk to a group of peer professionals who grapple with the same concerns as I do.
Below is a summary of what I had to say.
My three novels with young adults as protagonists are The Secret of White Birch Road; The Songcatcher and Me; and Grace and the Secret Vault. Since they have young adult protagonists they are young adult novels, but they are of interest to grown-ups as well. Increasingly, adults are reading teen novels, perhaps because teen fiction is less experimental than some literary fiction, and because modern teen novels deal with mature themes.
Each novel required different levels of research. The Secret of White Birch Road, set in 1952, required verification of historic details; the internet came in handy. The same was so for The Songcatcher and Me, which also involved research into folk song collecting and into the real-life Canadian folklorist Edith Fowke. Grace and the Secret Vault, which is about a real person and an historic event, is the sort of novel that requires a lot of library and archival research. The novel centres on Grace Woodsworth (later Grace MacInnis) at age thirteen, and the historic event is the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919, in which her father, J.S. Woodsworth, was involved.
Actually I'd done a great deal of the research already, for the biography Grace MacInnis: A Woman to Remember, by myself and the late E. Joy Trott. (This biography is now out of print, though available through libraries.) In writing Grace and the Secret Vault, which is fiction, I refreshed my memory by reading Woodsworth biographies and memoirs and works on the Winnipeg General Strike, as well as looking at J.S. Woodsworth papers on microfilm at Library and Archives Canada.
Grace and the Secret Vault is a coming of age story in which a girl becomes politically aware and comes to understand her parents better. In writing it, I used real-life family incidents and also created some fictitious scenes, all of which furthered my theme, which was the serious effects of World War I on Canada.
If you are writing historical fiction, rather than biography, it is permissible to make up characters and scenes to further your plot and theme, provided that you stay true to the characters' personalities and relationships.
As for advice to aspiring authors of young adult historical novels, I have a few recommendations:
. Check to see if there are other works of fiction on your subject, and if so, read them to see other authors' approaches so that you can plan something unique.
. Read histories and biographies from the period.
. If location is important to your story, try to visit the place.
. If descendants of your central character are still living, contact them and get their help and cooperation.
. Avoid information dumps: passages of historical information that halt the flow of the story and turn it into a history lesson. This can be done in two ways: by providing a summary of the historical event at the beginning, and/or by feeding in information as you go along, through what your characters experience, overhear or discuss.
You can do this by selecting and dramatizing real life incidents that show the temper of the times; through the use of fictional characters in imagined scenes that reveal the historical events of the era, and through a knowledgeable character who will discuss then-current events with the protagonist, and at the same time, with the reader.
. Avoid using present-day terms that your characters would not have used. Some authors choose present-day words and expressions over those authentic to the era, for fear that their readers won't otherwise understand what they mean.
I have a preference for authentic terminology: for instance, I would say "shell shock" rather than "post-traumatic stress disorder"; "consumption" rather than "tuberculosis"' "melancholy", rather than "depression" - depending on what the common use was at the particular time in the past. I might even use Victorian circumlocutions for "pregnant", like "in a delicate condition"; "in the family way"; or "with child".
My audience pointed out the value of providing a glossary in some instances.
I told them that if they decide to write historical novels, I hope they will enjoy their subjects' company as much as I have enjoyed Grace's.