Putting the Story in History: On Writing Historical Fiction for the Young

Putting the Story in History: On Writing Historical Fiction for the Young

Believe it or not, young people are actually interested in learning about the pre-iPod past. The problem is, they often don’t know it. That’s where the historical fiction author comes in. Transforming masses of archived and other written materials into an exciting, true-to-period story, these half-historian/half-storytellers deliver page-turning narratives that educate young readers (without said readers realizing they are learning something)

Torontoist recently corresponded with Young Adult historical authors Paul Yee and Hugh Brewster about the challenges of writing for their target readership. Yee and Brewster have recently contributed titles to Scholastic Canada’s I Am Canada series, a new line of historical novels aimed at young male readers. Yee and Brewster are also two of the authors taking part in the Toronto Public Library’s first annual Book Bash (the Canadian Children’s Literature Festival) at the North York Central Library (5120 Yonge Street) in Mel Lastman’s Square. The free event kicks off on Saturday morning at 11 a.m. and features a packed roster of authors for young readers reading from their works, signing books, and giving workshops.

Torontoist: What are some of the challenges of making history come alive for a younger readership?

Hugh Brewster: “Finding the story in history” is my motto. If I can find a story that intrigues me I can usually find a way to convey it to readers. One of the challenges is not losing the momentum of the story when you have to explain things, such as who Stalin was, for example. I like having a glossary and a historical note in the aftermatter so you don’t have to get bogged down with too many explanations in the text.

Paul Yee: To make history come alive, you’ve got to get the historical details right. How many days did it take to cross the Pacific Ocean in 1882? Did pencils exist then? How much could a dollar buy? Being specific on background details is important because youngsters are quick to seize on nuance, for example, you’ll hear them argue, “You said ‘Go to bed’ but you didn’t say ‘Don’t read there!’”

Torontoist: What strategies have you developed to engage that readership?

PY: Writing historical fiction is similar to writing other kinds of fiction because you need all the elements of story: compelling characters, serious conflict, and high stakes. One aspect of the past that helps in writing historical fiction is this: childhood was shorter then. Children were less overprotected and more engaged in family survival. Boys in particular entered the adult world at an earlier age. And today’s young readers accept that difference and are keen to see their fictional counterparts thrive in the adult world.

HB: I’ve written quite a few historical non-fiction titles for children and two of the pleasures of creating historical fiction that I discovered in writing Prisoner of Dieppe are creating characters and putting words in their mouths. (I’ve written plays so dialogue comes fairly easily.) If the characters you create and the words they say seem authentic, then the readers will be engaged.  Luckily the way people spoke in 1942 is not greatly different from modern speech.  I think I’d find the “Forsooth, ye varlet” style of dialogue to be a bit of a struggle.

Torontoist: What drew you to the historical events/eras evoked in your novel?

PY: Helping to build the Canadian Pacific Railway was the single most heroic event in Chinese-Canadian history. The dangerous work, the number of lives lost, the terrible working conditions—all these factors made the Chinese crews into fearless and determined workers. Yet we know next to nothing about them because the historical record is lacking. Writing this book was a way of remembering and honouring thousands of forgotten workers in Canadian history.

HB: Scholastic asked me if I’d write a war novel for their new series and I instantly said I wanted to write about Dieppe. This was partly because I’d just done a non-fiction book called Dieppe: Canada’s Darkest Day of World War II and figured I’d have a leg-up on the research. But it wasn’t just about double dipping, Dieppe is one of the most haunting stories in our war history. We still wonder how it happened. And I’d met many Dieppe veterans and heard many of their recollections about not just the raid but the prison camp years and the death march at the end of the war. From giving talks in schools I knew that kids were particularly interested in the POW stories––the tunneling, escapes, false identities, and so on.

Torontoist: How much research did you have to do for this novel?

HB: A lot! Much more than I expected. I found I couldn’t just make things up. One of the most-asked questions I receive during school visits is “Is this real?” So I decided that everything in this book would be real. The two main characters are fictional but everything they experienced actually took place. I found myself on the phone several times a week to my veterans asking questions like “How did you go to the toilet when your hands were in shackles in POW camp?” and “Do you remember what Mountbatten said when he came aboard the troopships before Operation Rutter?”

Fortunately, I had veterans like Ron Reynolds who at 90 still had a photographic memory. (The character of Mackie in the book was inspired by him.) And Ron would never, ever embroider or exaggerate. Sadly, Ron died in April and I read from the book at his funeral—a very moving experience. (FYI his family scattered his ashes on Blue Beach today, August 19th, 68 years after the day he clambered ashore there.)

PY: I did 35 years’ worth, because I’ve researched the railway since university. For this book, I went back to my notes from the 1970s. I’ve written elsewhere about the railway and even outlined a book for young readers on this same topic. That story went nowhere. What’s interesting about research over these past decades is seeing more historic photos get uncovered at the archives and trickle out to the public.

Toronto: At what point do you have to “let go” of the research and let the story take over?

PY: For me, the research goes hand-in-hand with the writing. When I saw that one railway campsite was situated near a First Nations village, I had to veer off and research it. Did the First Nations people along the Fraser Canyon stay for the winter or migrate elsewhere? What kinds of shelter did they build and inhabit? What work did they do on the railway? Often you do the research but then the story shifts and your newly-found materials become useless. Until the next book.

HB: I knew the basic story of Dieppe quite well before I started. And the two characters and the basic plot outline came to me over one weekend. But for colour and detail I would do research chapter by chapter. Sometimes Ron Reynolds or Fred Engelbrecht or one of the others, would tell me something so good that I’d use it right away.

Torontoist: What is the most challenging part of writing a novel set in an era that you did not personally witness?

PY: In historical fiction, you want to describe past sights, aromas and sounds. Many of these things exist today only on paper. You have to read and research widely to get a sense of the peripheral details of daily life.

HB: You’ll have to ask me that when I’m writing something set further back in history. The Dieppe Raid took place only eight years before I was born. And when I was growing up in the 1950s and ‘60s, ‘the war’ was still very recent and people spoke of it frequently. My mother, who is 93, nursed in the south of England and tended wounded men brought back from Dieppe. She found the book very hard to read as it brought back so many disturbing memories.

I think it might be challenging to write about the “Forsooth, ye varlet” times when people’s lives were so very different from our own. But I’ll let you know when I do.

Torontoist: Have you always been a history buff?

PY: Only since university, when I came across George Orwell’s line in 1984, “Those who control the past, control the future.”

HB: Always. I loved historical fiction as a child—authors like Geoffrey Trease, Rosemary Sutcliffe, and a host of others. But I was never a war buff, interestingly. Again, in the 1950s there were lots of boys who could tell you about the difference between a Messerschmitt and a Focke-Wulff figher and a Bren gun versus a Sten gun. I was not one of those boys. I actually preferred Anne of Green Gables.

Torontoist: Do you have any plans to continue with this series or other YA historical fiction?

HB: I’ve already delivered a second book in the I Am Canada series to Scholastic. It’s about the Titanic, with which I have rather a long history. The title is Deadly Voyage and it will be out in Fall 2011. Then I have a major historical book for adult readers coming out in Spring 2012. But after that I’d like to write a historical novel for young readers set in Tsarist Russia.

PY: Scholastic’s forthcoming Dear Canada: Hoping for Home anthology features diary and journal entries about “arriving” somewhere in Canada’s past. My entry is loosely based on my father’s arrival (as a young boy) in small town Saskatchewan in 1921. For Tradewind Books, I’m writing a book set in San Francisco’s Chinatown during and after the 1906 earthquake.