Writing historical fiction for teens

  • Current word count: 39,771
  • New words written: 664
  • Words til goal: 229 / 19 words a day til the end of September
  • Yay! I finally got up and wrote this morning, and it feels good. I feel so much better when I’m writing. I’m so close to my goal of 40K now, but still two chapters away from the end of the book, so I’m going into overtime. I’d still love to be finished the book by the end of this weekend, but we’ll see.

    Historical fiction author for teens JoAn Watson Martin is guest posting on Day By Day Writer. Historical fiction is a wonderful genre as it gives kids an inroad to really enjoying learning about history. I never liked the subject much in high school, but give me a good book the has a story weaved into all the history, and I’m all ears, or eyes…

    Historical fiction blends the freedom of creating your own story with the responsibility of getting the non-fiction parts right, so it requires a lot of research and dedication. JoAn pulls a lot from her own family history, but I’ll let her explain…

    JoAnMartinSeveral years ago, I discovered An Uncommon Soldier, a non-fiction book that told the true stories of young women who fought in the Civil War. They disguised themselves as men to escape their dreary lives and earn $13 a month.

    I had such admiration for those three hundred brave women from both the North and the South, who were under threat of death if found out. I based my historical fiction novel, Yankee Girl, on a composite of these women. Much research about battles, historic events, and real men was required to weave authentic, historical events into my protagonist’s story.

    Historical fiction is written by authors who think in terms of “what if” or “could have been.” Everything in the book is not documented. We use conditional wording: probably, likely, perhaps, no doubt.

    The battles were very difficult for me to write, having had no experience in a war. My research included movies, non-fiction books, novels, travels, Internet, geneology, personal stories, and photographs. The difficulty for me and for my teen audience was to put ourselves back 150 years. I drew on story writing techniques and strategies used in any genre:  set the scene, build the character, invent possible emotions and create interesting dialogue.

    Yankee Girl begged for a sequel. After the Civil War my protagonist takes advantage of the opportunity to go to Montgomery, Alabama, hoping to “bind up the wounds of the nation.” For Alabama Girl, I researched how the Alabama towns would look during Reconstruction. What kind of clothes would they wear? Hairstyles. Transportation. Reading about the scarcity of food following the war, what provisions were available? The characters’ social life and manners had to fit the times. What were the politics – the medical beliefs?

    I have inherited my Alabama family’s genealogy papers which had a wealth of material: stories about my grandparents or more distant ancestors, whether funny, tragic, interesting or ordinary. If possible I reveal secrets and scandals. Your ancestors’ mistakes and misdeeds make them human.

    I include a true family story. During the Reconstruction the cotton that belonged to the family was confiscated by the Yankees and stored in a warehouse over on the Tombigbee River. Against their father’s advice, three brothers raided the warehouse and floated the cotton down the river to Mobile and sold it. Thus the family’s disclaimer handed down to present generations: “You can’t steal something that was stolen from you.”

    I discovered incidents about my grandmother I never knew. Beginning with documented facts, I gently fictionalized the known facts. I tried to use the story to transport my audience into another era so the reader can actually experience the life of my ancestors. I had the freedom to fill in the gaps by researching an event.

    When my family restored the log house my grandmother was born in, I wrote Homeplace. “I rested on a red clay hill completely covered with thick vines.” Thus begins the tale, told in the cabin’s voice, of a log cabin built in 1840.

    I have found historical fiction a genre for experiencing the joy of really digging  out information and satisfying my curiosity about events of the past that fascinate me.

    2 Responses

    1. This was delightful, thank you for sharing. I was hoping you might like to introduce your readers to a new company called Grandchild Connection. We allow distant grandparents and grandchildren to develop close, meaningful relationships by utilizing today’s technology of video conferencing. As part of the “VideoVisit” experience, we coach grandparents in educational and social activities that deepen the bonds they share with their grandchildren, and we provide the tools to achieve that end. Parents benefit from the service by getting some much needed downtime while the Grandparents play with the kids for hours at a time online.The site has been up since this past National Grandparents Day, September 13th, 2009. Looking forward to hearing back from you soon! Come visit us at grandchildconnection dot com

    2. jennylbailey says:

      JoAn, thanks for sharing your experience of writing historical fiction. Your post so inspired me that I look forward toreading your books.

      Samantha – great post! I love the look of your blog.

      Jenny Bailey
      Fellow SCBWI Houston member and hope-to-be published author.

    What do you think?