If you work in a kids’ library, you probably know who Laurie Halse Anderson is. She writes all over the spectrum of children’s literature, including historicals like Independent Dames, Fever 1793, and the Seeds of America trilogy. She’s been around the block.
So I was excited by the opportunity to sit in on her breakout session at Alaska Writers Guild/SCBWI’s 2019 fall conference. Of course, the moment I sat down, I realized—ugh—I should have brought all our books from the library for her to sign. Oh well, hindsight’s always clearer than foresight. A little disappointed in myself, but excited nonetheless, I plunked myself down at the feet of the master and just about note-wrote my little hand off.
I’ll give you the condensed version of her tips of the trade, but if it’s at all possible, I highly recommend you get yourself to her next conference and listen in on the full meal deal. She says it so much better than I’m about to!
Without further ado, here are Ms. Anderson’s eight tips on writing historical kid lit:
Tip #1: Know why you’re choosing the story. What is your connection to this story? Why does this story and this era matter to you enough to put in the work?
Tip #2: Research as deep as the ocean, but with attention to the grains of sand on the shore. Voraciously study primary sources and squint suspiciously at secondary sources. Know about the foods, politics, beliefs, medicine, power structures, and more. You will research waaaay more than actually goes in your book. That is right and proper.
Tip #3: Find your research squad. Amid all your research, haul out new trade books on your story’s setting and carefully comb the footnotes and bibliographies. Once you’ve done your research homework and have written through several drafts, reach out to these people with specific questions. Find some way to compensate them for their time and expertise.
Tip #4: Primary sources are your secret weapon. Remember Tip #2? Stories change over time and people remember things differently fifty years down the road. As much as is possible, try to get your information from the people living through it (newspapers, journals, letters, etc). That said, also keep in mind that the sources you are reading are probably from the perspective of the elite (who are deep in their biases).
Tip #5: Organization is your best friend. Keep all your notes organized and accessible. Come up with systems for keeping your information straight. Write down every source used. This is not the place to be lazy. *glares at mirror*
Tip #6: Changes are not failures. They are part of the process. Your story will go through several drafts, changing more each time. It takes as long as it takes.
Tip #7: Details are only in your book if they move the story along. I once researched tons of information on feeding an army on the go in medieval Europe and then found a way to shoehorn in almost an entire chapter of a character excitedly lecturing (literally *lecturing*) about purchasing versus foraging versus pillaging, and how many pounds of food each soldier and every horse needs per day and like everything. It was only there because I thought it was cool. But it wasn’t. ☹
Tip #8: Just dive in. Don’t wait for the stars to align! Get crackin’ now!
Follow these steps and you’ll be well on your way to writing your historical. And while the talk was themed toward kid historicals, there’s no tip here that wouldn’t apply to any age category of historical—and many of them could apply to writing in general.
So until next week, no matter your genre, age category, or subject matter, go forth and happy writing!