HISTORICAL KNOWHOW Part One: Finding Inspiration in the Past

Have you always loved history? Were some of your favourite feeds as a child historical adventure books? What should you think about if you fancy trying your hand at historical fiction for young readers? The Time Tunnellers are here to help.

Part one: How to find inspiration in the past

CATHERINE: It’s a sweeping generalisation, but broadly true, that life just was more adventurous in the past. The kind of things in history that make us gasp "I can’t believe they did that!" or when thinking about children in previous ages – "I can’t believe they let them do that!" is the sort of thing that makes for great adventure stories. The lives that many children led in the past gave them the opportunity to get up to all sorts of things and gave them the agency to "save the day" in a way that it is harder for children to do today in their more protected and regulated lives. Even those children whose lives were regulated got to do amazing things. During the Great Fire of London, for instance, schoolboys from Westminster School were marched across the City by their schoolmaster to help fight the fire on the other side of London. They weren’t protected from this great disaster – they were involved in it!

TIP: Think about how the lives of children in the past gave them agency to save the day.

BARBARA: I will never forget the day I stumbled across the crumbling ruins of the clearance village which inspired Fir for Luck, my first published book. Within minutes, I knew I wanted to write about the villagers who dared to fight back against greedy landowners, about the women who took things into their own hands in the absence of the menfolk, and the courage of so many when power lay in the hands of so few.

In a similar manner, I stumbled across the story of the events in The Siege of Caerlaverock, and the heraldic poem which documents it. In both cases, I entered the heritage site without any pre-existing knowledge, but walked out an hour or so later, my camera roll bursting with images, clutching leaflets and literature, resolved to write a book about all of this. 

Items in museums are another avenue. I stared at the iconic Lewis Chessmen in the British Museum and wondered how these figures could have reached the Isle of Lewis. A spark was all I needed – I read obsessively and then came up with what I hope is a plausible adventure in The Chessmen Thief. Has any item, or place, or era particularly stirred your interest? Give yourself over to it and mull it over. And if you’re really stuck for inspiration, just ask a museum curator or archivist to show you "something interesting" – these people are such an underused resource! History is beneath our feet, and scores of stories are there for the taking!

TIP: Ask a museum curator to show you "something interesting".

The Lewis Chess pieces

ALLY: Like Barbara, place is very important for me. Historical sites have been the spark for three of my books – the Tudor wing of Hampton Court Palace for The Queen’s Fool, the site of the Sutton Hoo Ship Burial in Suffolk for my WWII adventure, The Buried Crownand the ruins of the grand Tudor mansion of Cowdray House in Midhurst, Sussex for my Gunpowder Plot novel, Black Powder. I find visiting the places mentioned in my stories indispensable for getting the lie of the land and really grounding my characters in their worlds. For example, a walk along the River Deben near Sutton Hoo was invaluable in helping to describe the smell of the mud and the sound of the water sucking up the shoreline as my heroes, evacuee George Penny, and German Jewish refugee Kitty Regenbogen, followed the trail to the site of the Anglo-Saxon burial mounds at Sutton Hoo. I also spotted an old wartime pillbox, or lookout, which helped me build in an extra moment of tension by having the pair challenged by members of the Home Guard on their way up to the burial site.

TIP: Visit the places mentioned in your stories.

SUSAN: Like the others, I like to write about places that I feel a strong connection to. My books are a bit like a recipe with different ingredients thrown into the mix that produce a story that is unique to my interests and inspirations. My Gracie Fairshaw series is set in Blackpool, a place I loved to visit when little (and still do!). I wanted to write a book that showcased the town and its amazing heritage, which reflected my northern working-class upbringing. The Gracie books are also triggered by real events – the Illuminations Switch-on, a children’s ballet show and the filming of a movie, and then I add a mystery and lots of adventure for my characters! Is there a place that matters to you – now or when you were a child?

My standalone book, Kintana and the Captain’s Curse was inspired by a childhood love for the old Disney film Blackbeard’s Ghost. While reading everything I could about the golden age of piracy, I learned that after Blackbeard was killed in battle, his head was chopped off and hung from his ship as a warning to other pirates. Rumours soon began to spread that his decapitated body could be seen swimming around his ship looking for his head. I also learned that Madagascar was a real-life pirate haven, and that another famous pirate – Captain Kidd – had visited, and that his treasure is believed to have been buried somewhere off the small island of Isle Saint Marie. Finally, I wanted to celebrate the fabulous wildlife of the island, including some species that are now sadly extinct. I decided my main character, Kintana, would run a pet shop with her Pa – and ex-pirate. What ingredients will you put in your writing bowl?

TIP: Write about places you feel a strong connection to.

* All images supplied by The Time Tunnellers


The Time Tunnellers

The Time Tunnellers are a group of five authors who write historical fiction for children and teens. They publish a weekly short video aimed at schools about a fascinating historical topic, and set a relevant creative writing challenge which teachers can use in class. In addition to their YouTube channel, they publish a weekly blog about digging in the past for stories. Follow them on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Check out Ally's website: https://allysherrick.com, Her forthcoming book, Vita and the Gladiator, is out in Feb 23.
Check out Susan's website: http://susanbrownrigg.com/, where you will find information about all of her books.
Check out Barbara's website: http://www.barbarahenderson.co.uk. Her new book, Rivet Boy, is out in Feb 23.


Jo E. Verrill is an enthusiastic writer of humorous books for children, an advertising and broadcasting standards consultant and Words & Pictures’ KnowHow editor.

Got an idea for KnowHow, or a subject you’d like to hear more on? Let us know at knowhow@britishscbwi.org 

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