Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Making History Appealing to Teen Readers

By Katherine Longshore

Part of the How They Do It Series   

JH: I'd like to welcome Katherine Longshore to the blog today to chat about keeping teen readers hooked with history. Even if you don't write historicals for teens, the things she says really are applicable to all genres and all ages. Like you've heard me say a hundred times, it's all about the story. She shares tips on how to keep that in mind as you write.

Katherine earned a B.A. in Cross-Cultural Studies and Communications from Humboldt State University, planning to travel and write. Forever. Four years, six continents and countless pairs of shoes later, she went to England for two weeks, stayed five years and discovered history. She now writes novels for young adults in which the court of Henry VIII bears a strong resemblance to high school, only more dangerous. Her novel, Gilt, (out now), is the first in a series set in the court of Henry VIII, published by Viking/Penguin.

She's a member of the YA Muses, The Apocalypsies and the Class of 2k12. She tweets , babbles about history and writing on Facebook.

Take it away Katherine...

I knew when I started writing GILT that historical fiction would be a tough sell in a teen market inundated with paranormal, dystopian and science fiction titles. I knew it would be a tough sell because by all appearances teens weren’t reading historical fiction. They were reading stories of extraordinary circumstances, dark events and worlds strikingly different from the one they inhabit. They were reading about vampires and shapeshifters and lurking monsters and fallen angels.

I think historical fiction can offer all of these things. Straight historical fiction doesn’t have literal monsters, but if you look at events closely, you can find their metaphorical equivalents. For instance, Henry VIII could be seen as a shapeshifter (from glowing Renaissance man to hideous tyrant) or a fallen angel (he could have done so much good in the world!). The courtiers around him could be viewed as vampires–bloodsuckers and parasites all. The Tudor court is vastly different from modern America. And at the beginning of his reign, Henry desperately wanted to create a utopia–a place of learning and righteousness. But by the time of his death, the opposite seemed imminent–a dystopia where people were told all was done for their own good, even when it meant death and destruction.

Recently, contemporary fiction has been getting a big show in the YA genre. Look at THE FAULT IN OUR STARS by John Green, and THE RIVALS by Daisy Whitney. Look at the upcoming IF I LIE by Corrine Jackson and SKINNY by Donna Cooner. Teens are reading stories about romance, struggling against the odds and having to make difficult choices in the face of adversity. A recent informal poll of teens in a classroom revealed that readers are looking for stories about sexuality, relationships, bullies, friendship. Issues that affect them in their daily lives.

I’m an avid reader of contemporary fiction. I love stories about things I see in the world around me–injustice, body issues, grief, first love. I wanted to write a story to which modern teens could relate–and relate well. A story about relationships and personal events that could happen today. I just happened to set this story in the 16th Century.

GILT is about friendship. And betrayal. It’s about choosing between what’s right and what’s easy. It’s about cliques, gossip and bullies, about social requirements and parental expectations. It’s about love and the lack of it.

So I had a difference between the history and what the story was actually about. In order to bridge that, I tried to write in a more contemporary voice. I saw ambivalent comments about the validity of historical fiction before the release of GILT. One said, “I just hope it’s not written in Shakespeare (sic).” Believe me, I tried my best to avoid this! I love language and want to use it creatively. I have been told I “use big words.” But I believe that despite this, the actual voices–the narration and the individual voices in dialogue–remain fresh and maintain a contemporary feel. No thees or thous and not a trace of iambic pentameter.

There are several exciting historical fiction titles coming out this year. Some contain paranormal elements and alternative universe aspects–like BORN WICKED by Jessica Spotswood. Others use dialect to transport the reader back to the era in which they’re set–like SCARLET by A.C. Gaughen. VENOM by Fiona Paul adds a touch of murder and mystery. But all of these take a fresh look at history. At historical fiction. They use the historical backdrop to bring forth a story that features the same the compelling elements that teens love in paranormal, dystopian and contemporary novels.

History may not be interesting to modern teens. I never enjoyed it at that age. Dates and dry detail. Events and numbers of the dead. Political analysis. Boring.

Story and character are interesting. Love and life and intrigue. Flaws and sacrifice. People who act like people and not like icons or pollyanas. A real and believable voice.These are the things that will bring historical fiction to the attention of teens. And hopefully keep it.

About Gilt

In the Tudor age, ambition, power and charismatic allure are essential and Catherine Howard has plenty of all three. Not to mention her loyal best friend, Kitty Tylney, to help cover her tracks. Kitty, the abandoned youngest daughter of minor aristocracy, owes everything to Cat—where she is, what she is, even who she is. Friend, flirt, and self-proclaimed Queen of Misrule, Cat reigns supreme in a loyal court of girls under the none-too-watchful eye of the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk.

When Cat worms her way into the heart of Henry VIII and becomes Queen of England, Kitty is thrown into the intoxicating Tudor Court. It's a world of glittering jewels and elegant costumes, of gossip and deception. As the Queen's right-hand-woman, Kitty goes from the girl nobody noticed to being caught between two men—the object of her affection and the object of her desire.

But the atmosphere of the court turns from dazzling to deadly, and Kitty is forced to learn the difference between trust and loyalty, love and lust, secrets and treason. And to accept the consequences when some lessons are learned too late.


  1. Wow! Your book(s) sound great! I loved reading your perspective on the market and historical fiction particularly. My first novel and my current WIP are both set in Europe in a quasi-historical background.

    One is set in the alpine region between France and Italy in the late 14th century. I've mixed in some elements from the 100 years war and the family of Savoy.

    My current WIP I set in Flanders during the early Renaissance. Its turning out to be quite fun.

    Thanks for helping me feel not quite so alone on the European landscape of YA fiction, :)

  2. Sounds amazing!! I love my historicals and I think ya would be the perfect fit for them given the ages of most of the men and women back then.

  3. That sounds fantastic! I always like a good historical - I'll have to check this one out. Thanks for the advice, too!

  4. Definitely have to order this one! Fantastic premise. And you're absolutely right--themes like belonging, friendship, bullying and finding a sense of self are universal, regardless of which genre is popular at the time. Thanks so much for this post--puts me more at ease regarding the historical content in my own novel.

  5. I totally echo what Writer librarian said. APpreciate your "giving me permission" to enjoy writing historical fiction--keeping in mind the themes teens are looking for.

  6. You've sold me on this book. Especially the last line. Thank you for sharing this information with us.

  7. Thank you for stopping by, everyone! And to those of you who are writing historical fiction, or wanting to write it - keep at it! There are so many rich and exciting stories within history, just bursting to be told.

  8. I don't remember history being boring when I was in school. It always seemed like story to me! And it still does. I just keep finding more hidden history than I can possibly write about.

    I'm grateful for those of you who can write those stories from Europe and from several centuries ago. We need your storytelling!