Saturday 17 October 2015


At the moment, I’m in the writing zone, so my post today is about that subject rather than any historical visit, research or knowledge.

Twenty years ago – can it be? – an American author called Karen Cushman wrote a historical novel for teens, Catherine, Called Birdy. Written in simple, short-chaptered “teenage diary” style, the book was much praised by school librarians because the central character is charming and the book is very “readable”.
After the cover and the blurb, the opening lines are what lures the readers in, encouraging them to spending time on this very particular story. Birdy echoes a modern teen, unwilling to do her homework, but yet conveys a very different time, place and society:

12th Day of September.
I am commanded to write an account of my days. I am bit by fleas and plagued by family. That is all there is to say.

13th Day of September.
My father must suffer from ale-head this day, for he cracked me twice before dinner instead of once. I hope his angry liver bursts.

Ever since coming across Birdy, I’ve tried to make my own writing as directly readable too, though in my own style. Right now, I’m head-down in revision, trying to untie the knots in the plot and make my story cleaner and clearer. It’s not easy. On one hand, I want to create a “past time” experience for my young reader. On the other, I don’t want to make a historical prose-porridge that’s indigestible – knowing my natural style isn’t as sparse as Cushman’s – and especially on that crucial first page for the reader.

Hoping for guidance - or at least a fresh eye -  I decided to look at the openings of six teen and young teen novels, picked almost randomly from my bookshelves. Did these openings have any features in common, and how were the “historical clues” laid in for the reader? How were the unfamiliar settings made understandable right from the start?

Here are the passages, followed by my own very general observations on the way these opening lead the young reader into the time of their story.

When we reach the river landing, I can’t get off the ship fast enough. A storm hit us during our voyage up the coast, which is no fun if you’re tethered in a dung-spattered hold with a hundred terrified horses slipping and neighing around you.

------- rode out early while the dew was still wet on the grass. The grooms had not risen when she stole from the stables, and thin layers of mist wound themselves round her horse’s legs like skeins of discarded muslin as she crossed the bridge over the lake.

“Oi! Meshak! Wait up you lazy dolt!” The sound of the rough voice set the dogs barking.“Can’t you see that one of the panniers is slipping on that mule there? Not that one, you nincompoop,” as the boy leapt guiltily from the wagon and darted in an agitated way among the overloaded animals,“that one - there - fifth one back! Yes. Fool of a boy. Why was I so cursed with a son like you?”. . . .A man and his boy were coming out of the forest with a wagon and a train of six mules. They were heading for the ferry at Framilodes Passage, which would take them across the River Severn and on to the city of Gloucester.

 Charles Finch closed his eyes and winced as the knife dug into his skin. He bit down hard on the handkerchief and tried to think of good things: his daughter, Loveday, entering the vanishing cabinet with a flourish; the crowd at the Alhambra, Paris, cheering on their feet. The heat from the footlights, the smell of tallow and rouge, a crescendo of applause.
The sting of the knife seared into his reverie. He wanted to turn his head, to get up off the table, but the surgeon’s boy held him down tight, his head wedged sideways.

I didn’t hear my cousin’s voice at first. It wasn’t until the library door was flung open with a bang, making me jump, that I came back down to earth.
            “There you are, Sophia,” exclaimed my cousin Jack loudly, bursting into the room. He was a tall, gangly young man with laughing blue eyes, ruddy-faced from many hours spent outdoors. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere. Didn’t you hear me calling?”
“Vaguely,” I admitted. “But I didn’t realise it was me you wanted.”
“Well, who else would it be?” demanded Jack, exasperated. “If I’d wanted the servants, I’d have rung for ‘em.”
“Sorry. This arrived this morning.” I showed him the play I was reading, knowing he’d understand.

The first day of my new life began with ice and ended with flames.
            As soon as I woke, I was wide eyed awake. Under my badger-skin it was warm, and for a little while I lay as still as a huntsman in a covert. I stared round me at the high hall where I have slept and woken almost every day of my life. I tried to waken my brother and sister by making faces at them. I listened for a moment to my grandmother Nain snuffling, and one of the hounds groaning and grinding his teeth. Then I leaped up. The whole world was waiting for me.

How do these openings work? Reading them though, there’s an over all sense of living closer to animals, and living much closer to the outdoors and weather than the modern teen might experience.

There’s an emphasis in the sounds and senses and scents, suggesting that “then” was a very different physical experience and possibly a dangerous and painful one. Not one opening, however, feels too far a step. All the scenes are “imaginable.”

The writers use just enough “historic” words – dung-spattered, pannier, discarded muslin, vanishing cabinet, tallow, nincompoop – to intrigue and to suggest another vocabulary, and a hint of unusual phrasing: “why was I so cursed?” that suggests different forms of speech, even though the place names make it England.

There’s often a glimpse – note that “If I’d wanted the servants. . .” - into the status of the central character among the group, and the social relationships of the time. There are also omissions, such as school and education, and the rich girl reading in the library is obviously not doing quite the expected thing. The last passage, in particular, subtly lets the waking narrator convey both the expected sleeping conditions of the hall, and his mischievous, rebellious nature. 

All the authors keep the reader close to the main character. Three have already chosen “first person” narratives, binding the reader and character close together. In “c” and “d”, where third person is used, we aren’t quite into the story yet. Note how Loveday the daughter because of the interesting worries about her, becomes a more central character than the father facing the knife, while “c” grows into a complex tale involving a greater variety of characters than the boy Meshak.

It’s also clear that each opening offers movement and suspense and a strong sense of an overarching emotion – flight, fear, secrecy, expectation – all dramatic feelings that make the reader want to read on and find out “why”, no matter the nature of the “hero”.  The reader is enticed in, and page one becomes page two and onwards.

I would not be surprised if you could point out more tricks hidden in these short passages.

Now if only I can make use some of the same skill. Back to the words.  . . .

If you want to know the books I chose, here are the titles, and thanks to the authors for the loans. A. I am the Great Horse by Katherine Roberts; B. Sovay by Celia Rees; C. Coram Boy by Jamila Gavin; D: Sawbones by Catherine Johnson; E. The Girl in the Mask by Marie-Louise Jensen; F. Arthur: At the Crossing Places by Kevin Crossley Holland.


Marie-Louise Jensen said...

Very flattered to have one of mine chosen, Penny. And it shows how much historical fiction I've read in the last years that I recognised all of the extracts as I read them.
I usually try to open with a memorable/dramatic incident in my character's life, but also something that shows us something about the character straight away - the things they enjoy/fear or a talent they have. The historical context was subconscious, I think but I can quite see, looking at the other extracts, how important it is. I love the Birdy extracts you've quoted - that one I've never come across. It's a great talent to be so steeped in the era that you can ill-wish authentically!

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

And I meant to add GOOD LUCK with yours! I'm sure it'll be great.

Ann Turnbull said...

Oh dear, I've read four of these books and didn't recognise any of the beginnings! And I'd always thought I was an attentive reader.

Birdy is an old book - I'd have thought it was nearer 30 years ago? - and I do remember it made a huge impact at the time as its style was so different and lively. This is a very interesting post, Penny. It's well worth thinking about these things from time to time, and looking at how other writers do things. I just anxiously checked the beginning of my own teen historical WIP and was relieved to find it passed the tests. Now I'll get back to struggling with the middle...

Joan Lennon said...

A very interesting post - thank you!

Penny Dolan said...

I wasn't thinking of these as tests at all, Ann, rather as some interesting opening extracts. I could have gone on and picked very many more, including any of yours, I'm sure, Ann. Thanks for your comments & good wishes, Marie-Louise. (Sorry I'm a bit late responding but I read my blog earlier today in Spain and am only now back to my own computer.)

Celia Rees said...

I'm also flattered to be included, Penny. You are far too modest a writer to include one of your own openings. You have the rare ability to connect immediately with young readers in your own historical fiction but I agree that sometimes it helps to see how others do it. I, too, remember Catherine, Call me Birdy. it was one of the novels which re-ignited interest in historical fiction for young readers. We all owe a debt to Karen Cushman.

Catherine Johnson said...

Everyone's said everything! Another thanks for including Sawbones - very grateful - and yes loved Catherine Called Birdy, a lovely book which opened my eyes to so much xc

Ruan Peat said...

despite having read some of these and having most of them I found the blind reading of the opening to be a really good way to get interest, I have been looking for a way to do a blind date in the high school for the books in February, and I see that putting the opening on the front may be the best way to get the readers to choose books not by cover only! or even by thickness! Thank you