In the latest addition to the Writing For Kids series, Claire Saxby looks at setting stories in the past.
Claire’s latest novel Haywire is set in 1939 in the NSW town of Hay.
It’s about 14-year-old Tom, whose family runs the local bakery, and Max Gruber, nearly 14, who is interred and shipped to Australia, ending up in Hay.
When the two boys meet, they become friends, and find their lives influenced by a far-away conflict in Europe.
It sounds exciting, doesn’t it? But when you’re writing about a particular period in history, it’s important to get the details right.
Here, Claire Saxby outlines her five top tips for ‘time travelling’ to the past.
How to time travel to the past
When I was writing my novel Haywire, I did lots of research about what it was like to live in 1939-1940, when the story is set.
I wanted to know what would have been the same, and what was different. I wanted to know about the houses and the clothes, the food and what the streets looked like.
One tricky question I had when writing Haywire was, ‘How did they make toast?’ (Answer: they used a pan on the stove top). It’s these details that help the reader dive into our story worlds. I found my answers in lots of places.
So how can you find those details for your stories? Strap yourself in and lets go time-travelling!
Tip 1. Look at old photos
Do you have family photo albums? Are they just your close family or are there also albums of your grandparents or their grandparents? Look at their haircuts. Look at the clothes they’re wearing. They’re so different!
If you’re lucky there’ll be some ‘action’ photos. Maybe someone is riding a bike, or a horse. Maybe they’re at a picnic, or swimming at a beach, or on a holiday. Check these photos for background details. What can you see that’s different to now?
Look out for cars. Making stories is about imagining what might happen, what could happen. Imagine sitting in a car from the past. What would the seats feel like? What would the engine sound like? Would you be in the back seat, or the driver’s seat? Now, there’s a story. Where would you go?
Tip 2. Things were different in the past
Food was much simpler, with only a few different vegetables. Hardly anyone ate pasta or rice – can you believe it?
The toilet was outside. There was no air-conditioning inside (except windows). Most houses had a fireplace. There was no television. The radio was bigger than a television. There were no pop-up toasters. How would you cook toast?
Tip 3. Things were just the same
I know what I just said, but this is also true. Some things don’t change.
Tom, in my story, has two brothers and two sisters. His older brothers teach him how to climb trees and play cricket. His older sister helps him with maths. He gives his younger sister shoulder rides and teaches her to climb trees. He doesn’t love homework. The family all eat dinner together.
Tom does the same sorts of things you might do today.
Think about the things you do with your family. Would you be able to do them in the time-travelled past? What might you do instead?
Tip 4: Talk to your family
Everyone. Your parents, aunties and uncles, grandparents, even the neighbours.
Some of them might tell you that time travel is impossible, but just you get them started – you’ll soon be time-travelling all over the place, back to their childhoods!
Ask an aunty or uncle about what your parents were like when they were your age. They’ll soon be introducing you to someone you could never have imagined.
Who could jump the highest?
Who had the best excuse for not tidying their room or helping in the kitchen?
Who was the last to finish dinner?
Who was the best at spitting cherry pips?
You’ll be amazed!
Tip 5: When you’re planning your story, think about WHEN it happens
Let’s say your story problem is about losing a ball.
If you set your story in your backyard today, it will be different to if the story happened yesterday.
Maybe it was windy yesterday and the ball flew over the fence into the backyard of grumpy neighbour, whereas today the ball goes through the window. Oh-oh!
What if you time-travelled back 50 years? Was your house even built then? Perhaps there were no houses near where you are. What was there? Trees? Bushes? So now your character has to find their ball in the bush.
Or maybe it’s millions of years ago and the lost ball is picked up by a dinosaur!
Okay so we’d have to time-travel a long time to meet a dinosaur. But why not?
In writing Haywire, I based my story on something that really happened during WWII and I had to stay as close to the truth as I could (so no dinosaurs).
But you don’t. You can write about anything and include anything you want to.
Time-travelling to the past might be the start of your greatest adventure. Give it a go!
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Are you new here? Welcome to my blog! I’m Allison Tait, aka A.L. Tait, and I’m the author of two epic middle-grade adventure series, The Mapmaker Chronicles and The Ateban Cipher. You can find out more about me here, and more about my books here.
If you’d like more writing tips and advice, why not check out my online creative writing course for kids 9-14! You’ll find it here.