Writing Historical Fiction for Children
My last two novels have been set in early 20th century Ireland so here are some tips about historical fiction, though they can apply to any fiction.
Know What You Write About
“Write what you know” is the adage always given to authors. But for historical fiction, I would stand that on its head and say – know what you are writing about. It seems obvious, but researching your period or your setting really matters. It helps you garner those authentic details that get lost in the passage of time. But don’t get bogged down in the research. It’s important to put it all aside as soon as you can and just write. History is just the entry point. The aim is to soar above the facts and invent your own world to get to the emotional truth of your story.
Spread Your Net Wide
This is a fun bit and is the nearest you can find to a Time Machine. So wade into the primary sources, which include diaries, journals, newspaper reports. But also art, historic buildings, memoirs of the time. It all helps flesh out the past and furnish rooms for your imagination to inhabit.
I have also made documentaries for British Television, and I am very influenced by visual sources. Luckily, the period I write about coincides with the beginning of photography and cinema. I love pouring over old photographs to get the tenor of the time, including the clothing. Looking at photographs also gave me clues as to what children were doing when Dublin became a war zone in Easter week. A lot of the time they were hanging around the streets. There are photographs of children scavenging firewood from shelled buildings, little girls carrying jugs looking for milk.
The next best thing can be watching plays and films of the period. Costume and set designers usually take great pains to get authentic details correct. I remember once filming at the Globe Theatre in London about child actors and the costume designer there had completely reconstructed how Elizabethan clothing was made. It was astonishing to see the pleating of the ruffle the whole length of a room and the use of pins.
Or ask an expert. Many historians have encyclopedic knowledge that they love sharing. Send them an e-mail or arrange a telephone call. They are often only too happy to help.
My study often resembles a low budget Police Incident Room, with post-it notes, photographs, postcards, maps, etc. I often write out a master timeline with the major dates, so I know I have to work the plot around key events. I draw or print out maps of key locations. I also blue-tac postcards of major artworks from the period into a collage.
When I was recreating the fishing village of Ringsend near Dublin city centre, I found a painting by an Irish artist called Harry Kernoff of the shop in Whiskey Row where a lot of the action is set. This shop was owned by my ancestors, so I was able to marry the depictions with memories of my grandmother who worked behind the counter as a child.
Have a First Aid Kit
If you get stuck have some strategies in your back pocket to kick-start your imagination. I write a scene from the point of view of another character. Or pen a letter from one character to another. Both my novels The Easter Rising – 1916, Molly’s Diary and Deadly Shot – Dan’s War of Independence 1920-22 are written in diary form. Sometimes I write an entry that isn’t going to make it in but frees my imagination to let me get a handle on a scene.
This helps tone up rhythm and pace particularly for young readers who are still mastering reading in their heads. Also I know my books are often read aloud in class or by parents. Giving them a run through helps me cut out any slack or unclear sentences or passages.
Writing is a Marathon Not a Sprint
Being an author or doing anything creative is a long-term process. Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers calculated that it takes at least ten thousand hours to achieve mastery. But even acknowledged geniuses admit they are still learning and honing their craft. So don’t feel you have to put everything into one book. Or if a novel keeps getting rejected or an idea refuses to cohere – move on. The main thing is to keep writing. Cross-fertilize with other creative projects that might spark your imagination and make you feel less lonely, such as writing for theatre or making a short documentary. Creativity can take many forms and its all storytelling. Keep the words and ideas flowing and the brain active!
Patricia Murphy is an award-winning children’s author and Producer/Director of documentaries. Her most recent novel is Deadly Shot – Dan’s Diary - the War of Independence 1920-22. Previous works include the critically acclaimed Easter Week 1916 – Molly’s Diary, described as “brilliantly imagined”, “beautifully written and compelling” and “ fantastic at bringing history alive for children”. She is also the author of The Chingles Celtic Fantasy trilogy. She was the winner of the Poolbeg “Write a Bestseller for Children” Competition 2004.
She is also an award-winning Producer/Director of primetime documentaries for BBC and Channel 4. These include Children of Helen House on the Oxford children’s hospice for BBC. She created and filmed the launch programmes of Born to Be Different the Channel 4 flagship series following six children with disabilities through the 21st century. Other films include Behind the Crime about criminals and Raised by the State on growing up in care. She has also made Worst Jobs in History with Tony Robinson for Channel 4.