Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Dianne: Writing Historical YA

When beta-readers told me the main character of my WIP seemed older than his 17 years, I was worried. “What gave you that impression?” I asked, hoping it was fixable. “Is it his voice, his behavior, his attitude?”

None of those things, they said. He acted like a 17 year-old, but: “He has a job.”

And I didn’t know what to say to that. In 1908, it would have been strange if my 17 year-old protagonist didn’t have a job.

For me, the most challenging aspect of writing historical YA is that the target audience doesn’t exist in my settings. Modern teenagers, whose days revolve around high school and their social lives, evolved only in the last half of the 20th century. Before that, Young Adults were … well, young adults. They had jobs and adult worries. They married young—and girls often married older men. (Not 100 year-old vampires who look like teens, but twenty-something frontiersmen and thirty-something explorers!)

How quickly we forget the way it was! Only one of my grandparents graduated from high school. The others had to work in their family businesses or raise their younger siblings. The one who graduated did so because she was the youngest in her family and her older siblings had already quit school to run the farm. Their sacrifices allowed their little sister the luxury of an education – and that’s what education was in those days, a luxury.

Of course, entering the workforce was often the cusp of a grand adventure. Harry Houdini quit school at 12 to get a job; so did Thomas Edison.

And they weren’t alone. Boys built the transcontinental railroad and the Empire State Building. Girls fought off wild animals with a rifle, defended the homestead, and one really talented gal became the most famous sharpshooter in the world! If you want to go back a little further in time, teenagers led armies (think Joan and Alexander) and ruled empires (Nefertiti and Amenhotep).

I keep hearing that historical fiction is a hard sell with teens. Yet the growing popularity of science fiction and dystopian fiction tells me YA readers are looking to break out of a world defined by school and social cliques. They want to expand their horizons, explore their destinies, lead revolutions -- and save the world.

As a YA historical writer, I hope to prove they can look backward as well as forward for their inspiration.

20 comments:

  1. I'd never drawn the emotional parallel between dystopia, sci-fi, and historical fiction, but it's a great one! How cool to start my day (6 AM) already thinking differently. Thanks, Dianne!

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  2. You've made a great comparison between dystopia, sci-fi, and historical fiction. I, too, believe that today's teens are looking for an escape and why not look back in history? It's true that the youth of today are more caught up in themselves than any generation before them. So much more important to give them a window in to what was and how far 'youth' has come.

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  3. I'm actually attempting my first YA historical and these questions popped into my mind. If the main character is seventeen will the reader understand that it was the norm for her to be engaged. But I think you are right. Historical is very similar to dystopian's and sci-fi because us as the writer need to create the world so the reader can understand the differences from then to now.
    Great post.

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  4. What I love about writing young adult historical fiction is that though society changes, the emotional changes teenagers experience stay largely the same. Thank you for an interesting article!

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  5. I had a similar experience with my own work. My historical middle grade started with my MC out hunting, and preparing to shoot an animal. The CPs went nuts, saying I shouldn't put such grown up thoughts into an 11 year old mind. It amazes me how out of touch we have gotten with our past

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  8. Sorry, the editor part of my brain isn't working today. But I just wanted to say that I agree that historical books have much of the same kind of appeal as speculative ones.

    Also, one way to bridge the more "adult" responsibilities of teens of the past with those of the present might be to highlight (in a presentation) those among today's YAs who do work and/or have kids, etc.

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  9. Thanks, everyone! I think some young adults are beginning to realize that the "teenage life" we've given them not only frees them from responsibility, but also delays the start of the grand adventure we call adulthood. One way or another, they seek to broaden their horizons, and I like to show in my work that the opportunity has always been there.

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  10. I agree that readers today do not understand what the lives of young adults were like way back when. That's why they need to know history, and there is no more pleasurable way to learn it than through well-researched, authentic historical fiction. (Is authentic historical fiction an oxymoron?)

    I recall one of the first presentations Robin McKinley gave after her first book was published. She was extremely nervous, so much so that her publisher's rep asked people not to approach her before she spoke. During her talk, she criticized severely a writer who had published years before (I wish I could remember that author's name), because in his books the women were limited by the writer to certain roles and behaviors due to their gender. It was an authentic treatment. That's the way women behaved and were treated back then. (It was a good talk. I remember it after all these years, even if I did take issue with her premise.)I chalked up her opinion of the other author to Robin's youth and to her fervor for her subject.

    If you write historical fiction, however, even if your character is out of sync with her times, you have to be true to those times and not have him or her step too far out of that reality. Not without getting into trouble for it at least. Otherwise, like Robin, write fantasy, where you create your own world and set your own rules.

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  11. Diane, I loved this post! The common thread you mention between dystopian/sci-fi and historical is spot on. As readers, I think we sometimes find a character's actions unrealistic or outlandish simply because they are so different from our present way of life. You're right -- how quickly we forget that just a few decades ago teens had all sorts of responsibilities and skills that most today do not! Great post!

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  12. Great post! I'm working on a historical MG, and my 12 year old bookworm is fretting because his father is going to pull him out of school at 14 - the earliest they were allowed to by law. And none of his older siblings had finished school, either. As a genealogy buff, I have learned a lot about the way earlier generations lived - and it was not until my parents' generation that all or most of the kids went to high school and college (if they chose).

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  13. A 17-year-old with a job seems normal to me. I'm 28 and have worked full-time since I was 18. I worked part-time for over two years before that.

    I can't wait to read the new story!

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  14. Great post! That's exactly why we need more YA historical fiction! If more kids read it, they'd have a better appreciation for how good they have it now! It's so sad that so many don't have any interest in history.

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  15. Great post, and I hadn't thought of modern teenagers having that kind of trouble with the differences. My YA historical was largely about (married) teenage girls who desperately want to get pregnant, because I thought it was an interesting contrast (plus it provide the opportunity for graphic descriptions of childbirth etc!)

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  16. Thanks again, everyone! You know, steampunk is another genre that brings back the era when teens had adult responsibilities while still exploring the fantasy/science fiction elements readers love. I just started reading Kenneth Oppel's Airborn to my class today and was quick to point out that 15 year-old protagonist Matt Cruse works full time as a cabin boy aboard an airship -- and has been for 2 years when the story opens.

    They mulled that over in stunned silence for a bit. (Honestly, I think some were a bit envious of him.)

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  17. Wow. I didn't really think of this as I read WE HEAR THE DEAD. I guess because I kind of think of historical as a completely different ballgame.

    Like Elizabeth said, it's the same in speculative. Look at Katniss kicking butt and taking names. Her concerns are also completely different from those of the contemporary teen.

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  18. Amazing post. I have started a YA book about a woman who meets a Holocaust survivor with the exact same name. They become friends and see how much else they have in common even though one of them was deprived of a normal adolescence. I'm going to pick up your book and see if I can learn more about writing historical YA. Thanks!

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  20. The one who graduated did so because she was the youngest in her family and her older siblings had already quit school to run the farm.
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