Frances Watts: historical YA, Rome & Japan

Frances Watts’ YA novels hit all my buttons: thus far, she’s written about Rome and Japan, and they’re historical YA novels to boot (apparently, that’s a button of mine too!). Frances first worked as an editor for 10 years, before she wrote her first children’s book, Kisses for Daddy and hasn’t looked back. Her YA novels, The Raven’s Wing and The Peony Lantern feature strong girls in a historical setting and were the novels that piqued my interest in her work.

Here, she talks about her writing process, and what was most important to her while writing about these foreign locations — and it wasn’t the research…

What would your readers be surprised to learn about you as a reader?

I suspect they wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that I’m a voracious reader! Mostly I read contemporary literary fiction. I don’t know whether or not that’s surprising…

What is the first thing you do when you get an idea? Do you write it down immediately, or do you let it percolate a bit?

the peony lanternMany of my ideas start from a single image, or perhaps a line of dialogue that has popped unbidden into my head. I write down the line or image straight away, but at that stage it’s far from fully formed. It might be weeks or months or even years before the shape emerges. That said, I’ve also had times where a setting or a character’s voice occurred to me while out on a walk, say, and by the time I get home to write it down I’ve virtually written the first chapter in my head.

What is the best and the hardest thing about writing for preschool to upper primary?

The best thing is the variety, the opportunity to express myself creatively in so many different ways. Where writing for an older age group allows me to work with more complex plots and character development, I also love the sheer joy of writing humorous junior fiction or the challenge of working with the very particular requirements of picture books, where the storytelling must be very concise yet still satisfying and the language is all-important. The hardest thing, always (and I think this goes for writing in any genre), is achieving the potential I envisage for each book.

What did editing teach you about writing?

I’d have to say my editing has taught me the questions to ask myself as a writer; questions about pace, about character development, about structure, about story arc. I have a heightened awareness of the elements of a narrative, I suppose. I’m also aware of the quality of work I want to present to the world (or, in the first instance, my publisher). I would never, ever send off a first draft, or even a second draft. No manuscript leaves my house until it is as strong and polished as I am capable of making it.

The Raven’s Wing and The Peony Lantern are set in Rome and Japan, respectively – far flung lands for someone in Australia, I think! How did you approach the research for these two books? What did you know you’d have to get right for readers to fall in love with these books?

The research required can be quite intimidating, but I let my own curiosity drive me. I studied Roman history at uni,

frances watts author

Frances Watts

then went on to major in literature. Ancient Rome continued to fascinate me, however, so I was almost looking for a reason to return, as it were. The idea for The Peony Lantern was sparked by an interest in ukiyo-e, Japanese woodblock prints. I became curious about the culture that created them. And the more I read about Japan’s Edo period—the history, the society, the culture—the more my interest was aroused. I’ve always loved history, not just for the big significant events (though that’s an important backdrop) but for the details: omens and superstitions, art forms, food, dress, furnishings…So I read and read and read—and then I travel: for museums, for experiences. For The Peony Lantern I spent several weeks in Japan. I stayed in Tokyo (formerly Edo), visiting museums, having an ikebana lesson and going to the kabuki, then I travelled to the mountain village where the book opens and hiked the road Kasumi, the main protagonist, walks on her way to Edo. The sound of the wind in the trees, the number of steps to the shrine, the shape of the hills—these are the kinds of details that bring a setting to life.

But you’ve asked a really important question: what did I have to get right for readers to fall in love with these books? The most important thing I had to get right was the story. It’s easy to get carried away by the research, to want to pour all the new knowledge I’m so excited about into the manuscript—but that’s not what the book is about: it has to work as a story first and foremost, with a compelling plot, engaging characters, a vivid setting.

Did you ever find yourself going: What am I doing? While writing about 19th century Japan?

Ha—good question. YES! And without doubt writing a book set in 19th-century Japan has been the biggest (writing) challenge I’ve ever undertaken. It has also been the most enriching, opening up a whole new world to me that I have grown very passionate about.

It occurred to me both these books revolve around very strong women in two very different eras – what did you want your readers to learn from these two girls and the times in which the stories are set?

ravenswingWhile there’s no deliberate didactic intent to either book, I am interested in prompting girls and young women to think about the place of women in society in different cultures and historical periods—and to extrapolate from that to think about women in contemporary society. So, yes, there’s a bit of sneaky feminism there. Or not so sneaky…

Is there anything you wish you’d known before venturing into writing?

This isn’t exactly an answer to your question, but I’ll share what is perhaps the most important thing I have learned in my years as a writer…There are so many aspects to writing and publishing that you can’t control. You can’t control whether a publisher will love your manuscript. You can’t control whether readers and critics will love your book. You can’t control the sales of your book. So focus on what you can control. Do the very best work you can. Write and rewrite and edit and refine and polish until you know in your heart that you have given it your all. Then: be proud of your work. And take your pleasure and satisfaction in writing from your own efforts.

What would you like to see more of in the preschool to upper primary and YA genres?

Nothing! I get a little disappointed when I see interviews with writers saying: ‘I wrote this book because I couldn’t find a single good book to read with my children’ or ‘I decided to write this series because there are no strong girl characters in books for kids’. There are lots of great books. And I’m always excited to see more great books.

What’s up for you in 2015?

After writing two big books—The Raven’s Wing and The Peony Lantern—in two years, I’m thinking I’d like to have a bit of fun. Maybe some humorous middle-grade fiction. And I have a picture book or two bubbling away…But first there’s Book Week, so for the next few weeks I’ll be in Sydney and Queensland sharing my books with kids—definitely one of the most fun aspects of writing kids’ books.

Do you agree that getting carried away by research is dangerous? Where do you hope Frances’ next book will be set?

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