Back in the summer we announced that Ann-Marie Howell had become the 50th former novel-writing student to get a major publishing deal. Ann-Marie was a student on our online Writing YA and Children’s Fiction course in 2015 (check out this blog about her time on the course), and her debut middle grade novel, The Garden of Lost Secrets, was published by Usborne in 2019. Here Anne-Marie shares her top tips on writing historical fiction for young readers…
Throughout the last few years I’ve kept in my head something Catherine Johnson, our Curtis Brown course tutor, told us, ‘don’t give readers a reason to put your book down’. I think this is especially important if you’re writing historical fiction for the middle-grade age group (8-12 years) as your readers could be a doing a million things rather than reading your book – playing computer games , watching Netflix, chatting to friends on social media. Above all they are living in the Now and you have to give them pretty good reasons to pick up your book and live in the Past. Below are a few tips I’ve picked up along the way which could help make your story shine:
- Characters and plot first
When you have the ‘ding’ of an idea for a historical fiction story, it’s very easy to get carried away with research – reading and watching anything and everything you can get your hands on and making endless notes. Perhaps stop and think about the books you loved as a child – what elements of those books have stayed with you over the years? For me it was the colourful characters and exciting plots which kept me hooked. Imagine your book is a cake – characters and plot being the sponge layers and the historical details the filling. You don’t want so much filling that the sponge becomes soggy and sinks.
- Research is not just about reading
I spent ages researching 20th century hothouses for my book The Garden of Lost Secrets, even recording details on the types of mechanisms used to open the windows. But while these details mattered to me, it would bore those reading the book silly! But I still wanted readers to feel, smell and taste what it would have been like to sit inside a hothouse – small details to pull them into the story and firmly keep them there. In the end it was a visit to a muggy hothouse still in use today which proved far more valuable than all the hours of online research. Think about where your story is set. Is there a museum nearby which has artifacts on display from the period in history you are writing about and members of staff you can talk to about your research? I’ve found it’s often when you are out and about you discover gem-like historical details that will make your story unique, and hopefully stand out above all the rest.
- Make it original
Because there is so much historical information online, in libraries and in published children’s fiction, it’s very easy to slip into the pattern of repeating someone else’s thoughts or personal interpretation of events from a period in history. But there are so many original ways to root your book in a period in time – include a small detail about an item of clothing or a reference to something in the newspaper local to where your story is set. Avoid clichés if you can, be original and your book will be all the richer and more interesting for it.
- Use of language and dialogue
I recently re-read some early 20th century children’s fiction, including The Secret Garden and Tom’s Midnight Garden. These stories are amongst my all-time historical favourites, but the dialogue reads differently to the way people speak today. My tip here is to write authentically, while still making the text accessible for modern readers. This might just mean dropping modern slang and peppering the dialogue with some commonly used words of the time, or it could mean you have one character who speaks with a particular local dialect. Read historical fiction by some of today’s authors (Catherine Johnson, Emma Carroll and Katherine Rundell) to see how the well the masters do it.
- Remember your reader
This loops back to what I mentioned at the beginning. Whenever you pick up your pen, or open your laptop to research, plot or write, try and have an image of your reader in your head. Your readers won’t be your adult friends and family, they will be children between the ages of 8-12. Explore what is on the national curriculum for this age group. If you can seed some of these details into your text it could peak your readers’ interest and enthusiasm for topics which they may already be learning about – and give them a love of historical fiction which carries well on into adulthood.