Writing historical fiction for young readers

Writing historical fiction for young readers provides opportunities, challenges and ultimately great satisfaction for an author.

In recent years, I’ve been working my way through twentieth century Irish history in my historical fiction. To date I’ve written four novels: Across The Divide (set during the 1913 Lockout), Taking Sides (set during the Irish Civil War), Secrets and Shadows (set during the Second World War), and Stormclouds (set in 1969, during the first year of the Troubles in Northern Ireland).

Although my books have a historical background, I’m always at pains to point out that they’re not history books – rather they’re stories about ordinary children who live their lives against a backdrop of major historical events. This can provide an environment that is rich in excitement and suspense, and which provides opportunities to force the characters into making big moral choices. But the history is always in the background, with the emphasis firmly on the characters and their lives.

However, by seeking to make the books page-turners, with fast paced, gripping plots, the history ends up being absorbed as a by-product – an approach that many teachers say works well with their pupils, with the result that children often enquire about historical events in which they would otherwise have shown little interest.

So, what’s the process in creating a novel of this kind? Firstly, I try to find a major event that has life-and-death elements involved, as this will provide possibilities for drama and conflict. Then I ask, “Will the historical event provide enough mileage?” A single incident that might make a good short story won’t have enough twists and turns to sustain a book that is a few hundred pages long. So the subject matter has to lend itself to playing out over a period of time, during which the readers invest emotionally in the characters. That way when historical events conspire to present the characters with difficulties, the readers really care about what happens to them.

Having chosen my era, I then carefully populate it with interesting people. This is critically important, and I spend a lot of time writing out many details of their imaginary lives before I write any scenes for them. But as well as being interesting characters they must be characters of their time. So if it’s Dublin in 1922, there can’t be Waynes, Crystals, Jordans or other modern-sounding names. It has to be Maureens, Liams, and Eileens – names that match the era.

As a historical novelist, I think that recreating the era successfully is the most challenging thing. But if you’re going to persuade the reader to suspend disbelief and enter your make-believe world, then that world really must ring true.In order to do this I try to find out what was going on during the period involved, from the songs of the day, to books and films that were popular, to the news stories that were breaking, and I weave these into my unfolding plot.

So, for example, when writing about the Lockout in 1913 I had my choir characters singing popular songs of the day, like “Has Anybody Here Seen Kelly?” and “Shine on Harvest Moon”. And when I found out that the Panama Canal opened during this period, I used that as part of a sub-plot to the main story.

Likewise, in trying to recreate the atmosphere of Belfast in 1969, I used songs such as “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” and “Where Do You Go To, My Lovely?” I also wove into the story the fact that during the summer of 1969 the first men landed on the moon – something that my fictional characters would clearly have been discussing.

In doing my research I visit libraries, use the internet and, where they are still alive, interview people who lived through the events. This can be the most rewarding form of research as it’s sometimes the smallest detail – like an old woman telling me that as a child she hated the smell of porter when the swing doors opened at her local pub – that can really bring a scene to life and make it feel real.

One of the dangers of all this research, however, is that the writer can be tempted to get too much value from it. Swamping the reader with your knowledge must be resisted, as must the inclination to become too nostalgic for the past.

The final challenge in historical fiction is artistic licence. Are you allowed to shape events to suit your story? Certainly I feel it’s acceptable to have your characters rub shoulders with real individuals. But actual history mustn’t be tampered with, and real people shouldn’t have words put into their mouths that they wouldn’t have said.
And so, having chosen my period, created my characters, done my research and worked out a plot, all that remains to be done is to write the novel. Just fifty thousand words to go then…

(c) Brian Gallagher