Writing Historicals for Children and Teens: HNS Panel Summary.

For the 2015 Historical Novel Society Conference Lynn Carthage and I proposed a panel on Writing Historicals for Children and Teens.

This Historical Novel Society is an organization founded in the UK in 1997. At the time historical fiction was considered to be in the doldrums, and the organization founded a magazine, Solander, and another magazine, The Historical Novels Review. The two magazines were merged in 2011 as the Historical Novels Review. Many of the articles and reviews that appear in the print issue, along with additional reviews, can also be found online. You can find the latest issue here. I joined the organization in 2010, on the advice of my then-mentor, David Anthony Durham.

In addition to the much-needed and much-appreciated magazines, The Historical Novel Society organizes a series of conferences, in Australia, in the UK (both mini-conferences and major conferences), and the US. The next major Historical Novel Society Conference will be in Oxford, in the UK, September 2-6, 2016. The UK and US conferences take place every other year. In 2013 the US conference took place in St. Petersburg, FL; I wrote about it here and was interviewed here. A summary, with instructions, on the panel I gave with Mary Burns on how to produce your own book trailers is here.   In 2015 the conference took place in Denver, CO, on the 26th to the 28th of June. The Guest Speaker was Diana Gabaldon of Outlander fame, and special guests were Chris C.C. Humphries and Karen Cushman, who was also on our panel. David Blixt led a full day of stage combat and historical weapons workshop, which are never to be missed. Diana Gabaldon led the evening of sex-scene readings, a tradition she herself began some years ago.

Karen CushmanKaren Cushman

Our panel took place on Sunday morning, not the most auspicious time, but even so, well attended. Here is the description:

Writing Historicals for Children and Teens: Karen Cushman, Erika Mailman (Lynn Carthage), Alison McMahan (moderator)

Alison, Lynn, and Karen at HNS 2015Alison, Lynn, and Karen at HNS 2015

YA historicals have always been with us: “The Midwife’s Apprentice” by Karen Cushman, “The Book Thief” by Marcus Zusak and “Code Name Verity” by Elizabeth Wein. This panel will address the challenges and rewards of writing for children and teens. How accurate does the history have to be? How do you write in a way that appeals to teens but stays true to your historical period? How do you handle differences between then and now, such as how marriages were arranged or how children in the past interacted with adults? Finally, what’s the best way to get your historical children’s novel published?

We started out with definitions of Middle Grade, Young Adult, and New Adult fiction.  The Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) of the American Library Association (ALA) defines a young adult as someone between the ages of twelve and eighteen.  Middle Grade is defined as 9-12   and New Adult as 18-25 or 30. Editors don't consider historicals written for and about New Adults as a separate category; they are simply considered adult. But young adult historicals have been around since at least 1812, when The Swiss Family Robinson was published.

We then discussed the difference between books aimed at young adult and middle grade readers. Karen Cushman, the author of classics like The Midwife's Apprentice and Catherine, Called Birdy,  talked about how when her books were first published they were considered young adult books, but now they are considered middle grade. The children themselves have changed.

Lynn Carthage, the author of the YA Trilogy The Arnaud Legacy, talked about adults in young adult novels, both the characters and the living adults who read YA. The most important adults in YA novels, of course, are the parents of the heroes. And a 2012 article in Publisher's Weekly noted that 55% of readers of YA novels are actually over 18 years of age.

The big challenge to writing young adult historicals, and for young adults generally, is marketing. We can't all be John Green with our own youtube channels. Reaching our target readers through social media means using media spaces like tumblr, Pinterest and Wattpad that represent an additional learning curve. Most of the panelist's marketing efforts were focused on influencers, the parents, librarians and teachers who help choose the books that young adults will read, using traditional marketing methods. We also pursued book store appearances and gave talks at schools.

The Saffron Crocus Cover by Mishi BellamyThe Saffron Crocus Cover by Mishi Bellamy

We discussed several issues that relate to writing historicals for children. First, all of us agreed it was important to be scrupulous about historical accuracy. However none of us believe in letting our research get in the way of a good story. Afterwards were invented for those moments when our stories have to deviate from what we know of the facts.

Lynn CarthageLynn Carthage

We also discussed the difference between historical facts and historical myths. Sometimes we authors, having done our research, know that certain ideas about historical time periods are simply myths, but when we write our stories using the facts readers will think we have it wrong. For example, Karen Cushman pointed out that it was a myth that everyone in the middle ages considered it desirable to get married in their mid-teens. She said that was only true of royalty who were diplomatic pawns. But the average person in their middle ages was married in their early twenties, much like us.

Haunted by Lynn CarthageHaunted by Lynn Carthage

What is  the role of fantasy in historical fiction? Karen is writing a historical fantasy for the first time, and Lynn's trilogy, The Arnaud Legacy, is also a ghost story.

We discussed our preferred points of view for historical fiction. All of us use close third primarily, though Lynn, writing as Erika Mailman, used first person for her historical mystery for adults, Woman of Ill Fame.

We wrapped up the session by talking about character voice in our historical novels.

Our panel went well overtime because there were so many questions from the audience and no one seemed to want to leave.

I had the pleasure of going to a Koffee Klatsch with Karen where she encouraged everyone attending to discuss their own work and gave us sage advice. The perfect ending to a great conference!