Writing History for Kids

I believe there is a need for challenging and entertaining stories that connect children to our historical past, because our past affects society today and answers the important “why?” questions.

The challenges I draw are to understand the scope of time itself, to understand how people lived, how they contributed to our world today, and how they had the same kinds of concerns as we do.

For example, I did this in my Alexander Catt Series, where Alex observes school children in Ancient Egypt. These children had no desks, and wrote with a stick stylus in soft clay, suffering cuffs from strict teachers when they made mistakes. Alex travelled with Aramus and his family on a felluca up the river to Abu Simbel and rode on a camel on a mission to rescue a beautiful girl in a crisis.  Lexi (Alex’s son) learned the art of Egyptian medicine, and the medicines were not very pleasant. Did you know that when archeologists removed a jar of honey from an ancient Egyptian tomb. It was still sweet and tasty? Honey doesn’t spoil, and has curative powers.

Alex helped children see the medieval world. He was there in the middle of the lists when jousting was so dangerous. He was there, under the tables, benefiting from the elaborate banquets. He travelled to Paris and avoided the falling slops of the city streets but observed the royal entertainments. He benefited from the interest and study of herbs. Flea-less, he escaped the plague.

Both cats, Alex and Lexi, despised war but suffered three of them. Alex avoided the Revolutionary War by going to France with Ben Franklin. However, he was caught up in World War II in dogfights, parachuting during D-Day, and spying, always objecting to the useless violence. Lexi was smack in the middle of World War I did his best to help Marie and Irene Curie. Children who live in peace need to understand that there are children in today’s world suffering pain and loss from useless wars.

However, humans aren’t altogether useless, and Alex and Lexi lived with some fine specimens. Lexi lived with Hippocrates , Marie Curie, Joseph Lister, and Linus Pauling. Alex lived with Leonardo da Vinci, Ben Franklin, Elizabeth I, Queen Victoria, Sam Steele, and Shakespeare, et al.

Through peaceful times and wartimes, people had to eat, stay clothed and sheltered, and respect each other. Everyone wanted someone to care about them, even if it were only a cat.

Luckily my two cats had 9 lives each to connect us to former times in their “meowmoirs.”

A Teacher’s Rules — The Outline

A good teacher wants to make the curriculum easy for students to learn as efficiently as possible. The easiest way to do this is to set up rules. To write for a teacher, a student must follow:

  • the rules of spelling
  • the rules of grammar
  • the rules of composition, and
  • the rules of writing about the subject chosen by the teacher

All of this must be done within a set time period. And the student must stay away from references to sex, politics, weapons, violence, religion, and school staff (unless said subjects are part of the assignment).

Yes, indeed. It is a fine line a student must follow in order to pass an essay assignment with a decent grade and without any imposed visit to the school’s psychiatrist! Poor kids; I’m glad I’m free from those constraints.

In grade six, I remember the excitement I felt – the free exuberance – when the teacher supplied a mass of magazine picture clippings and gave us a chance to choose a picture to write a story around. There were so many possibilities! It took me so long to choose one that I was probably the last student to return to my desk. Then I sank into creative mode for so long that by the time I excitedly began my story, the teacher called, “time’s up!” – I had written only 2 sentences about a “wicked witch.” I felt so sad and frustrated. I was a complete failure in my own eyes and probably in the eyes of the teacher. But I know even now it takes time to cook a plot.

One rule I had difficulty complying with was the required outline. Nothing before or since has made me quake in my mind as I viewed the blank page. Where does a student begin when forced to write an outline for an essay entitled, “The geo-political ramifications of the cause of World War II.” Studying that history only confused me more as to how many reasons there were, and which were more important, and which happened first. Oh, me!

Anyway, I have happily realised that as far as outlines are concerned, there are no rules except one. If you make an outline, your life does not depend on your stickling to it! Some people “cheat” and write their essay, article, or story first, and then write their outline after.

But I invented the perfect method for outlining when I wrote ­Verity. I thought of what I wanted to write. I created a character upon which the story centred, and then just quickly jotted down “what happens next” in a series of imaginative thoughts. This quickly filled two pages. I set that aside, and closed my eyes. I pictured the first orientating scene, and I began to write. I never looked at the outline again, and the final result was close to, but not an exact outcome of, the outline. However, the outline gave me direction, and I’ve realised that’s all an outline is supposed to do.

Personally, I love outlines now that I know what they’re for, and how to use them. They collect thoughts and help to achieve focus, and I do recommend them.

How I Make Characters Work

Creating characters for a story is such fun that I can’t imagine why anyone would compare it to giving birth! Obviously a story character is born via imagination and doesn’t incur the responsibilities of infant care such as changing diapers and losing sleep. Well, maybe a few winks are sacrificed!

I would guess that some writers have to put in a lot of labor as they have been taught to make arduous lists of their characters’ traits, including physical appearance. What a bore that exercise must be!

My grandmother always said, “Fancy is as fancy does.” You may have heard a version of this as “Handsome is as handsome does.” (This proverb was twisted in Forrest Gump as “Stupid is as stupid does,” but I’m drifting from the point.) This first proverb first appeared in Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath’s Tale in 1387!

The point is that it doesn’t matter how handsome you are – if you’re mean and nasty, you’re ugly. It follows that we are all judged by our deeds, and so it seems in stories we learn about the characters by what they say and do, and not by boring descriptions. Least of all needed is a physical description. I might picture the old Wizard in my story Verity as looking like Sean Connery, but a meticulous description of the actor would be counterproductive if the reader pictures him as Leonard Nimroy. Unless a physical characteristic is germane to the story, I leave it out.

The Duchess in Verity never needed labeling. She condemned herself with every word and every action. One of Grimm’s tales does this graphically. In the Three Little Men in the Wood, the little men put spells on two girls, so that one kind, generous and beautiful girl becomes more beautiful, and every time she speaks a piece of gold drops from her mouth. The other girl is stingy and haughty, so she becomes uglier every day, and for every word she speaks, a toad springs out of her mouth. As a kid, I loved that!

Now I think of that when at a social occasion a woman – seemingly beautiful and sophisticated – asks another woman, “Does everyone here buy their clothes at the dollar store? Or did they – heaven forbid – make them?” She might as well have toads spring from her mouth.

The villains are easy to write.

For a character to do something “out of character,” it must be for a compelling reason – well depicted. Think of the character who shows up with bombs strapped to his body. He’s shown as a family man, faithful to his wife and satisfied with his job, and yet here he is in a crowded setting ready to blow himself and others to smithereens. It turns out his wife and kids have been kidnapped and the real villain is forcing him to this horrible behaviour. It’s well done on TV shows again, and again, and again, and again.

There are millions and millions of possibilities when one invents characters and their stories. It’s like being in a pastry shop and being allowed to choose six different sweets for free! Purr-sonally, I go more lick-smacking gaga in a stationary store. I wonder why?


How I wrote Hippocrates

Let me tell you a little history. I hated studying history in school. I couldn’t remember all those dates and wars were exasperatingly stupid to me. Now I write about history for children and I love doing it. How did that happen?

It started when I took a brief intro course on the use of a computer. Overnight I started writing a series of stories that covered history from ancient times to the mid twentieth century through the eyes of my character Alexander Catt. What fun!

Do you believe in serendipity? My good friend and son-in-law suggested a new series on the history of medicine. From the previous research I knew it would have to begin with ancient Egypt. SHAZAM! I was invited to a museum exhibit on ancient Egypt and there in the gift shop was a book on Medicine in Ancient Egypt! The story wrote itself.

Did you know that the symbol for drugstores came from ancient Egypt?

I was reading a biography of Hippocrates when (SHAZAM!) my daughter gave me a worn ragged old book on the ancient Olympics and the story “Lexi and Hippocrates Find Trouble at the Olympics” wrote itself.

Did you know that Niki was the goddess of victory?

Did you know that those ancient runners ran naked? Now that’s racy!

Did you know that Hippocrates taught medicine under a tree?

So, what’s next in my little history? I let serendipity guide me. Doctors are now required to view a program on washing hands before they renew their licenses to practice medicine. Incredible! Why? The answer begins with Lister. I can’t wait to write this one! Do you know if there is a book about the man?

So far all I know is that he took his new bride on a honeymoon to Europe to visit all the hospitals. Now there’s a story!