I have a secret other career.
Though I’m most known – insofar as I’m known at all – as a writer of contemporary YA, I have since 2006 (four years before my first novel was published) been writing, and publishing, short stories for adults, mostly historical, almost all about World War One or its aftermath.
Now I’m having the chance to combine my two great writing passions – realistic YA and historical fiction – as I have a story included in Walker’s forthcoming anthology The Great War (pub. 3 July 2014). All the stories are inspired by actual artefacts, and my story, ‘Each Slow Dusk’, is inspired by a collection of 1914-19 school magazines, from the school where I taught for nineteen years. I curated an exhibition based on these magazines in 2004, so in a way this story has been ten years in the making.
|school magazines from WW1|
I fictionalised details of the school’s war effort, foregrounding the experience (often overlooked in war literature) of a schoolgirl, sixteen-year-old Edith, whose dreams of higher education are shattered when she has to leave school to care for her older brother, invalided out of the army with rheumatism. It’s very like the rest of my World War 1 stories, apart from the fact that the main character and the intended readership are younger.
Historical fiction always produces tension between wanting to evoke the period so that it comes alive for the reader, but not recreating it so systematically that it lapses into pastiche. The story must work as modern fiction, so it has to feel fresh, especially to a teen reader, who is likely to baulk at anything that feels worthy or schooly. This was a big challenge for me: there are no battles, no gore; the story takes place in a single day in a Belfast suburb. How could I make duty and quiet desperation interesting to a modern teenager?
|music from the period|
Unlike the intended readership, who are likely to have a prolonged period of young adulthood, the teenage characters in ‘Each Slow Dusk’ are children at school one minute and adults the next – not only leading men into battle, but, in Edith’s case, taking an adult caring role. Notions of duty are much more pronounced than they would be today, and Edith seems both older and younger than a modern sixteen year old. How could I make her voice and choices accessible to a modern teen reader without compromising the sensibilities of the 1917 narrator?
In trying to evoke the Zeitgeist of 1917 I was scrupulous, but not heavy-handed, about period detail, and about ensuring these details are used only when it is natural to do so – when it would be equally natural to mention them in a story set in modern times, rather than have them come blazing signs shouting Period Detail. Being a geek, getting every detail exactly right matters to me, but accuracy isn’t always enough. In ‘Each Slow Dusk’ Edith and her friend Maud pass notes in class, and in one note they use the @ symbol – Meet you @ break. I spent some time checking that this sign was in common usage in 1917, and was pleased to find that it was. I liked the fact that it looks so modern, and hoped it would be one of the many small details to help bring 1917 alive for my reader. My editor agreed – but in the end the @ sign had to go. Why? Because, although I and my editor knew it was correct, it was flagged up at the copy-editing and proofing stages as looking anachronistic. And it only takes one little detail to break the reader’s trust in you. On the night before we went to print, @ was replaced by at.
I once started to read a novel set in the thirties, where the characters’ sexual attitudes were anachronistically modern. When they gathered round a television to watch the coronation of George VI, I flung the book away in disgust, saying ‘Wrong coronation! Can’t even get that right!’ Later I discovered that it was technically possible, if highly unusual, to have watched the 1937 coronation on television, but by getting the tone wrong in other areas, the writer had compromised my trust. Once that compact between writer and reader is broken, all the accurate period detail in the world will not restore it.
|the first in Wilson's excellent Victorian series|