Life and Hope--
Why I Write Historical Fiction for Teens
by Katherine Longshore
I knew—intuitively, viscerally—that I wanted to write for young people. A librarian friend of mine once said that when people approached her, looking to learn about life, she sent them to the YA section. Everything is there—friendship, betrayal, growth, wisdom, pain, death, destruction, first loves, first kisses, first grief. But because it is all from a teen’s perspective, there is also future, and to me, future means hope. A YA novel looks forward into life, instead of looking back (like adult novels written about youth—Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld, Old School by Tobias Wolff, even A Separate Peace, which is taught in high schools, but is really—in my opinion—not YA). Looking forward is a gift. As the Lumineers say in their song Flowers in Your Hair, “’It takes a boy to live/It takes a man to pretend he was there.” I wanted to write about life. And hope. And finding the path to the person you’re supposed to be.
I stepped into the historical part of my writing after my husband reminded me of the maxim, Write what you know. “You know history. Why not write that?”
I’d been studying Henry VIII and his wives for years, trying to figure out their motivations, their strengths, their psychologies. What drove this man to cling to his tenuous birthright so determinedly? What drove him to strive so forcefully for a male heir? What made him think he could change the world, bend it to his will? What made him believe so wholeheartedly that he was right?
And what compelled these six women to marry him? Did they leap at the chance? Stumble reluctantly toward their fates? Follow unthinkingly the reasoning of the men in their lives?
Lastly, what if the hypotheses of the historians are just that—conjecture based on limited evidence? Was Anne of Cleves truly ugly, or are those conclusions based on the hearsay of toadying courtiers? Was Jane Seymour truly just a simple, quiet, unassuming woman or was that just a ruse to trap the king? When I came to write GILT, my biggest question was, “What if Catherine Howard wasn’t an ignorant floozy, but a clever—if uneducated—girl in touch with her own sexuality?” I wanted to write for teens, I wanted to write about Henry VIII’s reign—his only teenage queen was Catherine Howard. It seemed a good character—and a good question—with which to start. My second novel, TARNISH, is about a young Anne Boleyn—before her involvement with the king. My question was, “What if Anne wasn’t a manipulative schemer but began as a girl in search of a dream—a place in a society that forced her to be a second-class citizen?”
Then comes the difficulty. How to write about a queen whose life is ended through execution for treason and write it looking forward into life? More importantly, how do I write about a girl who lived 450 years ago and make her story relevant and relatable to a modern teenager?
I start by looking back at my own teen years. What was important to me? The two things that spring immediately to mind are friendship and dreams (which, I suppose, could also translate into ambition). I wanted to be an actress and I wanted good grades, so that’s what I spend my high school years striving toward. The moments I remember best, however, are with my friends. Building a cake castle for my fourteenth birthday. Sitting on the balcony outside the stage door of the auditorium, watching the sunset. Hanging out on the beach and building sand sculptures the summer after I graduated.
And crushes. I was too busy—and too shy—in high school to pursue a relationship. But that didn’t stop me from wanting one. I was a bit of a late bloomer, so I look to after high school to remember what love and sex and heartbreak were like for the first time.
With those things in mind, I build a story around the scaffolding of history. The story has to be something to which modern readers can relate. In GILT, it’s a dysfunctional friendship. In TARNISH, it’s first love and pursuit of dreams. In MANOR OF SECRETS, coming out in January, it’s friendship again. And my third Tudor book, due out next summer, is about all of these—friendship, love, betrayal and loss. As devoted as I am to historical accuracy, my books are not “about” the history, but about the story. I’d like to think that if the story were somehow taken out of context and placed into a different setting—a modern high school, a spaceship, a future dystopian world—that the story would hold up (with a few tweaks—obviously the consequence of promiscuity in a modern high school would not be decapitation).
The hardest part about writing historical fiction for teens is finding my audience and reaching out to it. Unfortunately, historical carries the aftertaste of history, which is all too often associated with schoolwork—long dreary days memorizing dates and placenames, and “Shakespearean” language. Reading for fun should take you away from all that, right? Many teens these days turn to futuristic worlds, contemporary worlds with magical elements or contemporary books that reflect their real lives. Historical fiction is a “genre” still blighted by preconceptions. I just hope that with wildly popular television programs like Downton Abbey and successful historical hybrids like Robin LaFever’s GRAVE MERCY series or Libba Bray’s DIVINERS, that more teens will be turning to historical fiction as just a cracking good read—not something that has to be endured or tried under duress.
We all know how exciting history can be. The one time I met Julianne we must have spent twenty minutes chatting enthusiastically about Henry VIII and Francois I and the Field of Cloth of Gold. It’s great stuff—better than soap opera because it was real. Better than reality TV because it happened without the fabricated set-up.
I write historical fiction for teens because I want them to experience it, too.
You can learn more about Katherine Longshore and her novels at her website.