Lady of the Highway, the third book in my highway series for teens (and adults!) has just been released by Endeavour Press, so I thought I’d share with you some of the highs and lows of writing a historical fiction trilogy, and in particular a teen trilogy. There are very few teen books that are simple historicals with no fantasy, witchcraft or other supernatural elements, so my trilogy has a nod to the unseen in books two and three, but only in keeping with the world view of the time. It is more history and definitely not fantasy. For popular YA historicals, you can find a list here.
In terms of writing for teens, I checked that every word would be something accessible to someone under twenty, and that the pace was somewhat quicker than my adult novels. Where I needed to use historical words I was extra-careful with the context. Young people vary enormously in their reading ability and in their experience, and perhaps some would never have read a historical novel before. My test-readers were ruthless, and it was easy to be discouraged by their comments. I kept having to remind myself that I was sure I would have loved this at sixteen, when I was already reading ‘Rebecca’, but wanted something with protagonists more my own age. My (mostly female) test readers were divided about whether it was necessary to ‘like’ a character for the book to be appealing. At some point, I knew I would need to deal with the fact that Katherine was often wilful and insesnsitive to others – she was ‘the wicked lady’ after all!
To differentiate between the books I was keen to give each book a different protagonist – and try to bring their different voices to life; Abigail the deaf maidservant, Ralph who railed against authority and wanted to build a new world, and Kate the impulsive and changeable Lady of the Manor, yet I also wanted to keep them in the same general tone, and for the books to be about the same length. Having three different protagonists was a juggling act, and I worried that readers would like one character more than the others, and be disappointed when I moved on to tell the continuing story from another point of view. Surprisingly, a few girls said they never read books with a main character who was a boy, and would not be persuaded to try Spirit of the Highway – something to bear in mind, if you want to tell a story from a male point of view.
Unfortunately, you can’t bend history, and people’s knowledge of history can be very variable, so I included historical notes in all the books. Some historical notes had to be repeated in all three books – such as notes on Cavaliers and Roundheads, and the Diggers sect – but so far no-one has complained about this repetition. In terms of the timeline, the Battle of Worcester had to be in the middle book, even though the middle book is really the set-up for the end of the trilogy, but it was important for the series as it embodied, in a few scenes, what the English Civil War might be like for those caught up in the actual battle. In the end, the battle served a useful purpose for me – these few battlefield scenes helped to give plenty of action without too much highway robbery, which I was saving for the third book.
Each book has it’s own beginning, middle, and end, and must follow the theme and conflict of the series. In this trilogy about highway robbery my big debate was; how much highway action is too much? I didn’t want the theme to become repetitive. The first book was low-key as far as that was concerned because I was saving big set pieces for the last book, and needed to concentrate on the dynamics of building the relationships between the characters. But I had several reviews for Shadow on the Highway saying the reader was disappointed because they expected more highway action. When you’re still writing the same series, critical reviews can be painful, but also a learning curve. I still get those reviews for single books in the trilogy, but I did increase tension and the general pace overall to make it feel more exciting in the second book, and the whole series has nine hold-ups on the highway – which I think must be surely enough for anybody!!
In a trilogy, you need the action to increase with each book, but this can be a problem in the first book, where readers expect all the emotional pay-off of the last book in the first, yet you still have to save a twist or something bigger for the ending of the whole series. In the real-life story, the protagonists die (as you might expect – this is history after all!) and the deaths are a big part of the story, but too many tragedies all at once could sink the ending. So each death has its own place in the trilogy where I can give it enough emotional weight. (Can’t give too much away here!)
For the writer, the second and third books are not new in terms of historical setting or character, but I had to assume that although this is the second (or third) book in a series, the reader may have started in the middle. The characters and settings still need an introduction, as do minor characters and outstanding conflicts and dilemmas. The shiftng historical context can be difficult to explain if it has progressed in the course of your story. In book three I had a lot of explaining to do about the changed state of England, now that the King was in exile and Cromwell was in charge. These explanations all eat up words, and can be dull for those readers who have already understood the history by reading book one. I had to be careful for the books not to get thicker and thicker as the series went on. I hid most of the explanations in dialogue to make the pace move quicker, and inserted ‘highlghts’ of previous action with one or two carefully chosen phrases.
In historical fiction readers often know the ending so you can’t change history, but nevertheless you need to try to make the ending happen in a way that the reader doesn’t expect. At the same time loose ends of the whole trilogy must be resolved. I had an antagonist who didn’t get justice in the first book, and skipped a whole book before reappearing in the last book for his come-uppance.
Multiple protagonists are not an easy choice because each must have high stakes in the drama. This can make it hard for the reader to get a break from the tension, and give the impression that everything is over-hyped like in a TV soap opera. For three people all to have life-threatening exploits can make it feel exhausting. However I kept stability by keeping the setting – Markyate Manor, Katherine’s home, as the centre of the drama to provide a gravitational centre. If you have an action-packed series, a consistently recogniseable ‘home’ setting will help ground the book.
Fewer people will read the last book than read the first and I didn’t really consider this when I was writing. This is just natural wastage – not everyone will be hooked enough on the series to read them all. And I did make people wait to read Katherine Fanshawe’s point of view until the end, which has both advantages and disadvantages. A bit like writing about the six wives of Henry VIII and leaving Anne Boleyn until last!
If you are writing a trilogy (or have written one) do chip in with your thoughts. Here’s an extract for your pleasure!
LADY OF THE HIGHWAY
Spectres in the Dark
England. Winter 1651
The lantern on the flag floor gave only a glimmer of light. I fastened the harness by feel, remembering how I’d seen the servants do it, hoping I’d done it right. Curses. It was taking too long. All the time I kept shooting a glance over my shoulder. The dark recess behind me made me nervous; something might be waiting, cloaked in liquid shadow, just out of sight.
I shook off the sensation and climbed up onto the trap. With a flick of the whip, Pepper, sensing my urgency, broke into a fast trot. I hoped he could see more than I could, as the hedges jolted past in a blur. Dusk had melted to darkness and the narrow rutted lane was pooled with the shadows of trees. The moon was yet to rise. There was no noise except the clatter of iron hooves and the creak of wheels on stones.
Past the village green, past houses with battened windows, down a stony bridleway until I came to a cottage on its own. A one-roomed cottage with a byre attached. Through the crack of the shutter I glimpsed the tremor of movement and a glow within, from a fire. I leapt down and hammered on the door.
‘Who’s there?’ A wary voice.
‘Katherine Fanshawe. Open the door.’
Silence from the other side.
I pounded with my fists. ‘Mrs Binch! It’s about my maidservant,’ I cried. ‘Abigail Chaplin. She’s ill. She needs help.’
‘Cease your banging! D’you want to wake the dead? Who else is with you?’
‘Nobody. I’m alone. Don’t you remember Abi?’
The scrape of the bar being lifted, and then the door swung open.
Mrs Binch, her hair pulled back into a long plait under her nightcap, kept one hand pressed on the jamb to keep me out.
‘What’s this about Abigail?’ She did not curtsey to me, and her eyes were suspicious.
‘She’s been coughing these last five nights. I don’t think she can stand much more.’
‘Why? What’s the matter?’
‘She coughs like she can’t catch her breath, like it will break her bones. And she’s a fever. I’ve no skill in medicine.’
‘Five nights, you say?’ Mrs Binch pulled her knitted shawl tight across her chest and frowned. ‘So you’re expecting me to come out in the middle of the night, are you?’
‘No. That’s not what I meant,’ I said. ‘It’s just… ’ This was awkward. Mrs Binch used to be my cook, but she had left me without notice, and now I was forced into asking her a favour. ‘I’m not good with sick people,’ I said. ‘I don’t know what to do, and she’s so poorly. I know she liked you, and I’m afraid for her.’
Mrs Binch’s expression softened. She opened the door wider, and hustled me inside.
She tutted through her teeth. ‘All those deaths. It’s not natural. And now Abigail. They’re saying you’re bad luck in the village. My son thinks the Fanshawes are cursed. He won’t like it if I go anywhere near the Manor.’
‘He doesn’t have to know,’ I said firmly. ‘There’s only Abi and I living there. Won’t you hurry?’
‘Hold your horses. I’m not your servant now, and an ‘if you please’ would help. You can’t just barge in here and expect me to drop everything to do your bidding.’
‘Mrs Binch,’ I gripped her by the arm, ‘this is no time to argue. If you don’t come soon, she might die.’
That settled it. Mrs Binch fixed me with an assessing gaze. Satisfied at last, she swung open the oak cupboard on the wall and picked out jars and pots, scrutinizing their contents. ‘Have you any mint?’ she asked.
‘No,’ I said, stamping my feet, wishing she’d hurry, ‘I don’t think so.’
‘What about menthol? Or mustard?’
‘No.’ Markyate Manor had nothing. The cupboards were bare. ‘Have you everything you need?’ I said, but Mrs Binch would not be pressed. She disappeared into the back room, and emerged tying up a warm wool skirt and bodice, before counting the items methodically into her basket. Finally I managed to bustle her out and help her up onto the trap.
‘Don’t drive too fast, mind. My old bones won’t stand it,’ she said.
I gritted my teeth and set off as fast as I dare. Now she was up there, there wasn’t much Mrs Binch could do about it, and I was anxious about Abi, all alone in the big house. I’d left her sleeping, and I didn’t want her to wake up to find the house empty, and me gone.
Pepper trotted at a lick through the lane, at my urgent flapping of the reins. I didn’t know how long I’d been away, but every minute mattered.
‘Slow down!’ came Mrs Binch’s voice from behind me.
As if he’d heard her, Pepper shied, and let out a neigh. An answering neigh from the darkness ahead.
I pulled Pepper to a halt, and listened.
‘What’s wrong?’ Mrs Binch asked.
‘I don’t know, someone else on the road.’ But I could see no lights from any carriage lantern. I slackened the reins and listened.
‘Who’s there?’ I called.
‘Probably just one of Soper’s horses in the field,’ Mrs Binch said. But I was uneasy. Pepper’s ears were back. Before us, the lane was a lightless tunnel. I thought of Abi, her chamber fire dwindling to ash whilst I was gone, and clicked to get Pepper going again. But he was spooked now, and skittish. Still, I drove him forward.
The trees leaned over us; the woods dense stripes of darkness each side. Ahead, a paler light marked where the tunnel of trees ended, so I slapped the reins to Pepper’s neck to make him trot through. A flash of movement to my left and another horse shot out of the trees. Mrs Binch screamed. At the same moment, Pepper stumbled and veered, causing the trap to shudder.
In one glance my eyes took in a broad-shouldered man with a wide-brimmed hat shadowing his face. He was astride a huge horse; seventeen hands, if it was an inch. I took in all this, though something else had hooked my attention – the dull glint of a pistol, a miniature cannon, pointing right now at my chest.
Want a searchable list of historical fiction series set in a particular period? Go here