Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Celebrating Teen and Young Adult Historical Fiction

by Deborah Swift

I have recently been working on a teen novel  so thought I would share with you some of the challenges of writing for younger readers. Most of my adult novels are set in the seventeenth century, and they tend to be long. My last one was 500 pages, though I hope it did not feel that long to the reader!

Of course adults' and teenagers' reading habits cannot be confined to a box - as a teenager I read all sorts of adult fiction, and adults are often tempted by books marketed as 'teen' titles - I know I am.

I am reliably informed by internet articles (which are of course always right) that teenagers and young adults favour shorter fiction, so that was the first challenge - to condense a story into a much shorter space. But how to do that without losing the vital historical detail that brings the period to life - well, there's a question. I suppose my answer was in the vein of  'don't tell me about the moon, but show me it glinting on snow' or in my case, on the moving wheels of a 17thC carriage. I had to sneak information into the text by adding a single word here, an evocative verb there. The initial draft of my teen novel came in at 60,000 words, less than half the length of my adult books.

And then there is 'voice.' A typical dialogue of a teenager today might be, 'OMG No! He's a total loser!' In seventeenth century speak, that might be, 'By my troth, nay! He's an arrant beggar and a knave!' (or something similar) But somehow this does not end up sounding like a teenager, but just like a very stilted and badly-written pastiche. The key elements here are the tendency to exaggeration and semi-shocked delight, so these are qualities I could aim for in my dialogue. Teenagers tend to act first, think later, so this impetuosity could be a way in to a teenage character too.

In historical fiction this is a lot easier in lower class characters, who actually have more freedom to move about (within their milieu) than royalty or the upper classes. A good example of this is The Quietness by Alison Rattle. This gripping novel is set in the Victorian underworld - think 'Sweeney Todd' or 'Oliver', and contrasts an upper class girl with her working class counterpart. This is a beautifully handled book, full of murky depths and insight.

Somehow it is easier to get away with exclamations with a maid than with a genteel member of the upper strata of society. Alison Rattle conveys Ellen's more privileged life by concentrating on her dreams of a different less rigidly-enforced existence. As teenagers, we often want to inhabit the realm where anything seems possible, where we can be exactly who we wish to be as a grown-up.

I hope the Anglophiles amongst you will forgive me for my excursion to France. Thirteenth century France is the setting for Troubadour by Mary Hoffman, which manages to both educate and entertain with her tale of Cathars, Crusades and courtly love. A book dense with information and history, Hoffman keeps the action flowing by breaking up the narrative into quite short chunks, often less than a double page long. Each section is separated by an illustration which makes the pages seem less daunting. This book tells the story of Elinor who is in love with a troubadour, Bertram in dangerous times. A glossary is provided at the back to help with the terminology. (Another good idea).

If you can't tear yourself away from the Tudors, try Witchstruck by Victoria Lamb. The young witch, Meg Lytton, gets teenage attention through the fascination for all things 'yuk' by starting the book with a gruesome spell, and the author keeps the narrative fast-paced and in the first person. This is a great tip, to tap into the genuinely gruesome details that are absent from today's more sanitised existence. Keeping a close narrative distance is something recommended as one of the eight highly effective habits of teen authors in this article, and something that Victoria Lamb does extremely well.

For an examination of the teenage psyche and how it has changed over time, you can't do better than this article by Eliza Graham on Historical Fiction Connection.

Her new indie novel, Blitz Kid, set in World War II is the first of a series. Teen readers love to read series because they come to know the characters, and it's a bit like getting to know your own private gang, acting out scenes in your head. This novel deals with the black market and espionage, and coming of age romance.

For more recommendations of books for Young Adults/Teen readers, try Books Back in Time

For many excellent articles on writing teen fiction try

More about my adult books and my blogs can be found on my website


  1. Fascinating article, Deborah. I don't write for the teen market (yet), but your analysis of tips to do it well, is intriguing.

  2. Debbie,
    I'd add one more feature: young characters. I didn't intend my "Boy of the Agoge" to be for teenagers particularly -- I simply had to start my biography of Leonidas at the beginning: his childhood and youth. What I see, however, is that this book is hugely popular with high-schoolers because it deals with the problems they have (in different context), making friends, winning recognition, sports, first love etc. I think it is writing about teenagers that appeals to teenagers.

  3. I am into Historical Fiction but I think YA genre is one of the best ever.

  4. That's very generous of you to mention, Blitz Kid, Deborah, thank you! One of the hardest things I find in writing anything historical is divesting myself of post-Freudian psychological assumptions. Not so much of a problem for a book set in the 1940s, but I have been struggling with the C17th.

  5. Very valid comments, Deborah. I totally agree that engaging the young adult reader of today is a difficult one and different techniques need to be used- like word length. Any good reader above the age of twelve should be able to cope with more sophisticated language, so I don't think that aspect needs too much adjustment. I like the idea of including a glossary if terms used are extremely topic specific and not too easily searched in a dictionary, or readily available on the internet. I'm right this moment at the proof stage of a YA/ Middle Grade novel that set in Severan Roman Britain (early 3rd century and target age of 12+ ) and I purposely haven't included a glossary. My hope is that all the historical detail that I've added will be clear to my readers within the text - or better still, if the novel is used a companion text during a school historical project, that the topic specific terms will have been learned in a non-fiction context) In some ways it's been easier for me to write it since ' The Taexali Game' is the first of a time-travel series. The time travel aspect has allowed me to include more formal speech for the people of the target era and more relaxed, contemporary 'youth speak' for my trio of time travellers.


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