3 Tips On Writing Historical YA – Frances Watts

Frances Watts’ bestselling picture books include Goodnight Mice! (illustrated by Judy Watson), the winner of the 2012 Prime Minister’s Award for Children’s Fiction; Kisses for Daddy (ill. David Legge); and 2008 Children’s Book Council of Australia award-winner Parsley Rabbit’s Book about Books (ill. David Legge). Frances is also the author of the fantasy/adventure series, the Gerander Trilogy, and the medieval Sword Girl series (ill. Gregory Rogers). Most recently she has written two YA novels: The Raven’s Wing, set in Ancient Rome (read a review by Read3R’z Re-Vu here) , and The Peony Lantern, set in nineteenth-century Japan.

I met Frances at The Sydney Writers’ Children’s Festival, where I was the bookseller. I naturally asked her within minutes of meeting Frances if she’d guest blog on my website and she generously agreed to share her insight on writing historical YA

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Tip 1: Be prepared to develop an obsession!

I didn’t know much about the world of the samurai before I started researching The Peony Lantern, which is set in nineteenth-century Japan. The idea for the book grew out of an interest in ukiyo-e, Japanese woodblock prints. I became curious about the culture that created them. And the more I read about Japan’s Edo period—the history, the society, the culture—the more my interest was aroused. My fascination is not just with the big significant events (though that’s an important backdrop) but for the details of daily life: omens and superstitions, culture, food, fashion, furnishings…I spent months reading—and then I travelled in Japan for several weeks. I stayed a couple of weeks in Tokyo (formerly Edo), visiting museums and gardens, taking an ikebana class and going to the kabuki. From there I travelled into the countryside, visiting the mountain village where the book opens and walking the path through the forest that Kasumi, the main protagonist, followed on her way to Edo. The shrouds of mists covering the valley, the rattle of the wind in the trees, the number of steps to the shrine all found their way into the book. And now, having immersed myself in the world of 1857 Edo for the year it took me to write the book, I have a full-blown obsession with Japan and Japanese history and culture. I have already returned once since I finished writing, and I am already dreaming of my next trip. The whole experience of writing and researching the book has proved extraordinarily enriching.

Tip 2: Always remember that the story comes first.

I love the research process, but I soon realised when I began writing historical YA that the most important thing I had to get right was the story. It’s easy to get carried away by the research, to want to pour all my new knowledge into the manuscript—but that’s not what the book is about: it has to work as a story first and foremost, with a compelling plot, engaging characters, a vivid setting. It is not a history lesson.

Tip 3: Find fulfilment in the process

This is a general tip about writing—and probably the most important thing I have learned in my years as a writer…There are so many aspects to writing and publishing that are beyond your control: whether a publisher will love your manuscript, whether readers and critics will love your book. So focus on what you can control. Write and rewrite, edit and refine and polish, until you know that you have done the very best work you are capable of doing. Then: be proud of the result. And take your pleasure and satisfaction in writing from the act of creation itself.

You can find out more about Frances Watts by visiting her website

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