Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Venturing into teen historical fiction: A guest essay by Deborah Swift

I'm glad to welcome Deborah Swift to my site today for a guest post.  I've positively reviewed three of her earlier novels here: The Lady's Slipper, The Gilded Lily, and A Divided Inheritance, all set in the 17th century.  With her latest release, she stays in the same time frame but has moved over to the Young Adult arena, although I'm told adult readers will enjoy Shadow on the Highway too.  I've already bought my copy and look forward to reading it.  In the following essay, she explores the adjustments that were needed to gear her writing to a teen audience.


Venturing into Teen Historical Fiction
Deborah Swift 

I’ve been writing novels set in the seventeenth century for adults for quite a few years. During my research, I’ve often come across young women aged between fourteen and eighteen, and yet expected to run a household, accept adult responsibilities, marry and bear children. That was the way of life back then. When writing for adults, these heroines of 14 or 15 years of age seem unlikely – far too young to have such maturity. Yet for today’s teen readers of that age, the same characters can appear too mature, too ensconced in an adult life.

As Eliza Graham points out in her excellent article on Historical Fiction Connection, teenagers were not a separate group with their own rules and identity until the twentieth century.

I pondered on this on and off, as I’m sure it is a problem many historical fiction writers have grappled with, but I came to no definitive answer. Usually, if the character is too young to be behaving in a certain way by our modern standards, I’ll try not to mention her age in years, but just refer to her as ‘young’, for example. Or better, try to make sure the milieu in which she lives, supports and describes such a maturity.

When I came across the history of Lady Katherine Fanshawe – married at fourteen, and a highwaywoman (if we believe the legend) by eighteen, I was attracted to the story, but unsure exactly who would read it. The theme sounded as though it might be attractive to teenagers so I thought I would try writing for a younger age-group. I looked in my local bookshops for examples of historical fiction designed for readers 14 plus, and could find very few. This year at least, readers of that age, according to the bookstore owner, want fantasy and sorcery. To my relief, my local library (hooray!) yielded a much better and more varied stock, and I was able to plunge in, and try to see what creating a younger ‘voice’ might mean for me as a writer. Teen readers, like adult readers, I’m sure are of all different tastes.

What was immediately apparent was that the tone would have to be different from my adult novels. To create a younger voice, my characters would need to be more vibrant, less world-weary and more impetuous. Old-fashioned language would need to be replaced with something more direct. Shadow on the Highway feels more ‘modern’ than my other books, not least in the fact I had to find creative ways to reproduce seventeenth century versions of ‘OMG!’ I hope I have still kept some period authenticity. Immersing myself in the idealism of young people in the 17th century, led me to the Diggers – an early example of an alternative lifestyle, and one I thought might resonate with ecologically aware young readers today. (Read more about them here.)

An added difficulty for me was that the book would need to be shorter – it would be a rare teen that made it to the end of one of my other 500 page books (though I’m sure there are exceptions, including most of us writers when we were younger)! Fortunately the historical material neatly divides into three sections, and there are three main characters, so I thought the story might work as a trilogy. But a trilogy has its own three act structure, and the first book is necessarily quieter, building the bedrock for the rest of the action. With this in mind, the risk is, that if nobody enjoys the first book, it might founder at first base, and then I’d feel awkward spending time writing two more that nobody wants!

Books where I admired the creation of the teenage voice were Phillip Pullman’s Ruby in the Smoke, where the voice was lively and opinionated, something I wanted for my character Lady Katherine. I very much admired Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein, but was aware that my book was not going to be quite so literary and was set a lot further in the past. I turned to Cassandra Clare’s books such as The Clockwork Princess, which had the right tone, but these books veer away from a purely historical setting with their steampunk approach. Here are some other authors with historical settings I enjoyed: Brian Jacques, Eva Ibbotson, Victoria Lamb, Celia Rees, Ann Turnbull, Anna Godbersen amongst others. If I was to highlight one I particularly liked, I would go for The Madman’s Daughter by Megan Shepherd, which had an outstanding sense of time and place.

Writing historical fiction for teens is every bit as demanding as writing for adults, more so, as my teen beta readers were frighteningly direct in their assessment. Some quite frankly didn’t like it. Some got bored. An immense amount of world-building has to go on in the head of the reader for historical fiction to work, and not all readers have a mental image bank yet that they can draw on to help them create the scene in their heads. But when you get a great response it is equally direct – and immensely rewarding. Especially when you have introduced them to a whole new genre of reading. I hope many adults will try some of these books too, after all, as Veronica Roth, author of the Divergent trilogy says, “I think everyone’s got a little teenager inside of them still, and you just have to work to help yourself access that teenager.”


Deborah Swift used to work in the theatre and at the BBC as a set and costume designer, before studying for an MA in Creative Writing in 2007. She lives in a beautiful area of Lancashire near the Lake District National Park. She is the author of The Lady’s Slipper and is a member of the Historical Writers Association, the Historical Novel Society, and the Romantic Novelists Association.

For more information, please visit Deborah’s website. You can also find her on Facebook and Twitter.

Shadow on the Highway was published in July in paperback and as an ebook (see Amazon UK or Amazon US). 


  1. Great guest post. I found it interesting. When I was a pre-teen and a young teen, my love for historical fiction developed because of my love for fairy tale retellings, most of which have a historical setting. Then in ninth grade, when I picked up a Victoria Holt novel in my school library that was about Marie Antoinette did I started reading straightforward historical fiction.

    1. I'm glad you mentioned Victoria Holt because she was a favorite writer of mine when I was a teenager too. I read through all of hers in high school, then her Philippa Carr novels, then Jean Plaidy - which got me hooked on historical fiction about royalty.

  2. I am currently reading it with a view to reviewing it. I absolutely love it though there was one spoiler above. Ok since this article is directed at the adult audience . I think the reveal come up very soon as I am half way in, almost. Lady Katherine is a great heroine. This is a period I love and studied. I was passionate about it myself as a young adult devouring books by Jane Lane. So good luck with the new YA venture. This novel is as always excellent. I taught history at High School level. It works for the 12 to 14 year olds I suspect, maybe 15 at a push. Verdict so far. And for adults great fun.

  3. Glad to hear others were inspired by Victoria Holt. It took me ages to realise that lots of the novels I liked were written by the same woman, but under different pseudonyms. Thanks for your insightful comments about age groups, Carol, and I'm glad you are enjoying it!