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I’m not saying you have to do a formal writing course to produce a good children’s novel. But every time I think about how naïve I was when I started writing my historical time fantasy, The Serpent House, I thank my stars that I did.
As any author will tell you, inspiration is the easy bit and I had a great idea for a novel set in two periods of the past: 1899 and the eleventh century, with a little time travelling magic to make the link.
This was my first attempt at writing for children (aside from telling my own kids some very basic bedtime stories) and it was also the first time I’d set any writing in the past, rather than the present day.
I soon discovered – thanks to the wisdom of my PhD supervisors – that not only is writing for children full of all sorts of considerations that don’t arise when you are writing for adults, but once you throw history into the mix then a whole new set of ethical and creative questions come into play.
Writing about any period of history brings responsibility with it – arguably even more so when your readers are young. There’s a need to be as accurate as possible, even while bearing in mind that total historical accuracy is an illusion. So I threw myself into some intensive research.
This research threw spokes into the wheels of some of my planned storylines. For example, I was very keen on my character, Annie, having to undergo a sort of funeral service known as the ‘leper mass’. Some historians claimed this was inflicted on people who were thought to have leprosy and that it effectively declared them dead to society. Only more recent experts say these ceremonies never happened – they were a myth. So I scrapped the episode.
On the other hand, the same research unearthed some real gems about the kind of weird medicinal ‘cures’ that were used in the distant past, from hedgehog spines to hare’s blood. These facts are some of the ones that always go down well in talks to schools!
What about the danger of giving your characters too modern an outlook – like making them a little too liberal or feminist, which may be implausible? But if you don’t, will their views be remotely relevant to readers today? Thankfully, research came to the rescue again and I was able to have Annie taken under the wing of a forward-thinking woman of a type who would have been around in the late nineteenth century, even if she was unusual.
I’m now pretty sure that I can back up every historical element in the novel (with the exception of the time travel, of course!), with sound research, so I can’t be accused of playing fast and loose with the facts. I know that I would not have been quite so aware of its importance if I’d written this outside the confines of the PhD.
I’m also much more aware of what other children’s writers have done with the same periods of history, so I can be sure not to overlap too much.
And now, as I start another historical novel, I’m excited about the research process all over again. What will it add to my planned story? I can’t wait to find out!
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Bea Davenport is the writing name of former journalist Barbara Henderson. Bea worked in newspapers and broadcasting for a long time, including seventeen years at BBC North in Newcastle, where she worked on TV, radio and online.
She left journalism to study for a Creative Writing PhD at Newcastle University. The children’s novel written as part of that, The Serpent House, was published by Curious Fox in June 2014. It is a historical time-fantasy inspired by the medieval leper hospital once sited in the village where Bea now lives. Before being commissioned by Curious Fox, it was shortlisted for the 2010 Times/Chicken House Award.
The Serpent House was Bea’s first novel for children, although she has two adult crime/suspense novels published by Legend Press.
In 2014, Bea worked with Fiction Express on an interactive e-book where school pupils read a chapter each week and chose what should happen next. Bea then wrote the next chapter in time for the following Friday! The paperback version of the book, My Cousin Faustina, is now published by ReadZone Books.
She is programme leader in creative writing for the Open College of the Arts. She lives in Berwick-upon Tweed on the Northumberland-Scottish border with her partner, children and a naughty cat.