HISTORICAL KNOWHOW Part 3: story, history and the modern reader

Have you always loved history? Were some of your favourite reads 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 three: Story, history and the modern reader

As historical fiction writers, we face a challenge: balance accessibility, language and an authentic flavour of the past with those universal issues that modern readers can relate to. Young readers will quickly drop a book if they don’t make an immediate connection with it. If we want to engage their imagination, we need to present a world which, while exotic-seeming and strange, is still relatable. But how?

CATHERINE: Don’t believe all the cliches about the past! Cliches are usually there because there is some truth in them, but they never tell the whole story. So, if you are writing about a period when people had views we now recognise as unacceptable, you can nearly always find someone who held a different view which people today can relate to more easily. When I was researching my MG novel about the Great Fire of London, The White Phoenix, I found that the London mob blamed the fire on foreigners and Catholics because the general population in the 1660s were xenophobic and strongly anti-Catholic. But I also discovered that Samuel Pepys, the great diarist and one of my main sources of information, did not share this view, which gave me confidence to believe that others would also have seen things differently. So not only does my main character, Lizzie, have views more in tune with a modern perspective, but I also believe they are believable historically. It also gives the book a source of conflict, which is essential in stories. 

Catherine with Great Fire of London-inspired The White Phoenix

SUSAN: When writing my Gracie Fairshaw books, I have to be alert to the fact that my knowledge of things is very different to a 10-year-old’s now. When I was a child in the 1980s we were still using tools that were either commonplace or quite new in the 1930s. Will my readers be able to picture a typewriter, an old-fashioned phone, a cinema projector? My main character, Gracie, is 14. In the 1930s it would have been normal for teenagers to be entering the world of work. In Trouble at the Tower, Gracie becomes a journalist – a job I used to have myself! In some ways Gracie can seem younger than a modern 14-year-old and yet she has more responsibilities and more freedom. In my new Gracie book (due out early 2024) Gracie becomes more aware of the world of work. She realises there are expectations on what women can and can’t do, but luckily those expectations are changing in the interwar years. She also discovers that women are often paid less for their work. Themes that were key in the 1930s are still very relevant today!

ALLY: Great chunks of anachronistic-sounding dialogue are a turn-off for most adult readers of historical fiction let alone children. But you can still give a flavour of how differently people may have spoken in the time your story is set. For example, in both The Queen’s Fool and Black Powder – set in Tudor and Jacobean England respectively – I honed in on creating a particular, slightly more formal rhythm of speech with a sprinkling of ‘T’wases’ and ‘T’wills’, though not too many! I also added in a few moderate expletives of the day, such as ‘Zounds’ and ‘God’s teeth’. Including the occasional colloquialism of the day can also add a sense of authenticity, for example ‘clodpoll’ or ‘jackanapes’. Using a resource like etymonline really helps with this.

Ally's historical books

BARBARA: I agree with Ally, a sprinkling of old-fashioned words is enough. The same goes for languages, like Gaelic in The Reluctant Rebel and Fir for Luck, or Old Norse in The Chessmen Thief – I think young readers can handle small portions of this providing it does not get in the way of the story. Your character will have a distinctive voice, and like any new person who speaks a little differently, readers will get used to it the more time they spend with that character. I think it’s important to find universal themes that are timeless: seeking justice, needing to belong, overcoming fears, choosing allegiances and finding our place in the world… The challenges which young people face haven’t changed all that much. Find the balance: in portraying our main character, I think it helps to major on things a modern reader will relate to and spend less time on what sets them apart.

*Header image: in-house collaboration between Ell Rose and Tita Berredo; 
all other 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 TwitterFacebook and Instagram

Check out Ally's website: https://allysherrick.com, Her new book, Vita and the Gladiator, came 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, was 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 


Ell Rose is the Illustration Features Editor of Words & Pictures.
Find their work at www.fourfooteleven.com/
Follow them on Instagram and Twitter
Contact them at illustrators@britishscbwi.org

Tita Berredo is the Illustrator Coordinator of SCBWI British Isles and the Art Director of Words & Pictures. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter or www.titaberredo.com
Contact her at: illuscoordinator@britishscbwi.org

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