A common struggle for middle-grade or YA historical fiction writers is making a character from another time period relatable to teen readers. It’s not like sixteen-year-old women today have to wear rib-squeezing, oxygen depriving whalebone corsets. (And thank goodness, right? OUCH!) But if you choose to write young adult historical fiction, you do have the burden of making your characters’ dialogue and time period feel historically authentic as well as relatable. Bottom line: your readers MUST at some level be able to relate to your main character or they won’t care about her.
Yes, your readers might not be complaining about uncomfortable corsets or how they are forced into marriage with a Duke just because Mom and Dad want titled heirs. However, teenage girls are pressured to maintain a certain body type due to societal pressures, specifically those photoshopped magazine images. Furthermore, how often do young people always date the exact boy or girl Mom and Dad would pick out for them?
What I would suggest is to keep the main “tensions” of the time period: Victorian-era Lucy scorns her corset, so highlight a universal teenage tension: she doesn’t understand why she must maintain a sixteen inch waist just because society expects this of her. Bring out her feelings for a boy who she’s not supposed to love. He might not be rich, he might be rebellious, but he might be more nuanced than the wealthy or titled “Sir Perfect” her parents want her to marry. Weaving real, relatable teenage tensions neatly and organically throughout your story, will help your readers connect more to your characters.
Chances are if your young adult readers are buying historical fiction books, they are also avid watchers of Downton Abbey and most certainly fangirls of the dark and brooding Mr. Rochester and dashing, wealthy Mr. Darcy. (And no judgment here from this fangirl!) But they’ll be quick to notice if your character feels out-of-place for her time period. At the same time, you shouldn’t bore readers with lengthy, overly-weighted dialogues. It’s all about striking a balance.
If you don’t watch PBS historical dramas—brew up some strong English tea and start watching! Binge-watching these are great ways to see how delightful but lengthy novels like Jane Austen or the Brontё sisters’ books are condensed and reworked for modern audiences. Also, read, read, read. If you haven’t already, dust off your classics such as Wuthering Heights or Persuasion and rediscover what made them “sparkle” for you. By immersing yourself in the language and dialogue of these books and movies, the time period’s “feel” should become more real and natural for you as you write. Finally, read other YA historical fiction works to get a good grasp of what’s currently appropriate in the YA historical fiction market. You can also see what others do that works or, in some cases, may not work so well.
Amy Carol Reeves has a PhD in nineteenth-century British literature. She lives in Columbia, South Carolina where she works as an Assistant Professor of English at Columbia College and writes young adult books. Her most recent book, Resurrection (Flux 2014), completes a trilogy about the Jack the Ripper murders in Victorian London. When not teaching, writing, or spending time with her family, she likes jogging with her Labrador retriever, Annie, and daydreaming about Brontё novel hunks.
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I love the connections – one girl’s corset is another girl’s stiletto heel. Why are women never allowed to breathe or walk?
Thanks for the advice on making the historical themes relatable.
I’m writing a historical middle grade novel, these tips come handy. Thank you very much!
Thank you for the tips!
Thank you Amy for this blog post. Although I’ve never written historical fiction I’d like to try it some day. Now, I realize be before I attempt it, I need a cup of tea and some TV time.
Wonderful ideas! Your book sounds wonderful as well. 🙂
Thanks so much. It does seem that no matter the era, basic human needs and emotions are the same and can be empathized with.
Including real, relatable teenage tensions in a historical setting is excellent advice. I just started researching for a historical novel, and appreciate this advice.