History offers us settings grounded in reality, perfect starting point for compelling fiction. The authors of two adventures set in the past share their back stories

Words Libby Norman

History can be stranger than the wildest imagined kingdom. And for children who don’t do dragon slayers or aliens, historical novels offer a direct path into believable fictional worlds. These ‘lookableuppable’ places and events add deep roots and interesting tangents that encourage us to read on.

For Rhian Tracey, author of I, Spy, Bletchley Park was the starting point. Tracey had the most compelling of all reasons to set her new novel there – her Great Aunt Audrey. She was one of the women of Bletchley Park – clever, stoical and extremely brave. Indeed, her story is so amazing it deserves a brief reprise.

Audrey was making her own way in the world after she was orphaned. When WWII started, she joined the Wrens – and there she was spotted and put on a train to London (her first time out of Wales).  “As far as we can tell she was driven into Bletchley in a blacked-out bus and then made to sign the Official Secrets Act, in a quite threatening way,” says Tracey. Audrey was just 17 when she arrived and she worked as a code stripper (she was taught both Japanese and Italian).  Yet she never told her husband or children a thing. Years later, and mostly after the official medal came, she let a few snapshots slip, although she ‘kept mum’ on a whole lot more. “And we tried!” says Tracey. “Many women like her will have taken those secrets, in the magic phrase, ‘to the grave’.”

Rhian Tracey
For Rhian Tracey, it was her great aunt’s wartime experiences that provided a starting point for I Spy

For young readers, some of that thrillingly secretive world is uncovered through I, Spy. Of course, it’s a fictional account, but in a place children learn about at school and can visit. The novel’s protagonist, 12-year-old Robyn, has grown up in Bletchley Park, and when the war begins, she’s assigned a job looking after the carrier pigeons (signing the Official Secrets Act first). But then she becomes convinced of sinister goings on – an enemy in the heart of this most secret of wartime operations.

There’s much about the era that is so dark it can’t be told, but Rhian Tracey says when that’s carefully handled children love it. “If you think about the original fairytales, the Brothers Grimm, there is a lot of darkness in there and that is appealing to children, as long as it’s balanced with light. So I was hoping to strike that balance,” she says.

“You put in as much history as you need to build a believable world that your reader can visualise”

Tracey is a seasoned writer (this is her eighth novel) and a schoolteacher, and has also taught children’s literature courses for Open University, so she already knows what lures them in. One is that you have to give protagonists agency (in this case important jobs to do), and another is that big things have to happen (finding the enemy). “They are looking for excitement, peril, an element of danger and probably more than one character. The historical, particularly in the case of I, Spy, is a bonus.”

This does not, of course, mean skimping on historical research. “You end up not using so much, but at the same time it gives you the confidence to write knowingly and with authenticity, even if you’re not using 80% of the research.” Great Aunt Audrey has a namecheck – brave heroine Robyn’s middle name is Audrey – and Rhian Tracey has been assured by her family that she would have given her blessing to this gripping fictional account, first inspired by her incredible wartime contribution.

Like Rhian Tracey, Barbara Henderson is a teacher (she still teaches primary-age children part time), and she too is convinced of the power of the past to create great fiction for young readers. Rivet Boy is set during the construction of the Forth Bridge – that great Victorian feat of engineering.

Henderson moved to Edinburgh in her teens and now lives in the Highlands, but retains a deep affinity with both the city and the landmark bridge – so it was always on her radar as a possible location. While doing some research she found a newspaper account from the time of its construction. A 12-year-old boy called John Nicol had fallen from the bridge, dropping around 80 feet. He was fished out and examined by a doctor. “It said that he sustained nothing worse than ‘a wetting’. As soon as I read that newspaper article, I thought: ‘he’s my guy’!”

Barbara Henderson – like Rhian Tracey – does enormous amounts of research, although much of it doesn’t make it into print. “A sprinkling is enough,” she says. “You put in as much history as you need to build a believable world that your reader can visualise and then get on with the story and focus on the things that are universal – the universal concerns of a child – love, defending those we care about, seeing justice done, coming through tricky situations.”

Living history – novels that bring the past to life
For Barbara Henderson, the incredible history of Forth Bridge and a real boy’s dramatic experiences inspired Rivet Boy

John Nicol has been immortalised as hero of Rivet Boy, and she found out a lot more about his back story along the way. There was a likely birth certificate, a parents’ marriage certificate and also the discovery that his father had moved to Australia – probably with a view to sending for his wife – but died within a week of arrival in an unlucky accident. There’s even a record of a widow’s fund being set up in Australia for the mother of the boy who would – 12 years later – have a remarkably lucky escape after another accident.

Henderson says one good ‘in’ for any historical novel is moral compass. “Children nowadays have got very well-developed sense of justice – what is fair and what isn’t. They really respond to the fact that Victorian children were so often put into very dangerous positions because they have a sense of outrage. And that, in itself, catapults them towards the story and makes them feel more engaged with it”.

Another is to make the characters feel contemporary and believable. Our hero who falls from the Forth Bridge has a a terrible fear of heights – a fabulous tension builder and also entirely believable. He has a female friend, Cora, who is desperate to be an engineer and doesn’t fit stereotypes of the Victorian age. “Someone who is a rebel in their own time is far easier to relate to in our time,” says Henderson.

“Children are looking for excitement, peril, an element of danger and probably more than one character”

Alongside John, there’s another real character in there – Margaret Moir – who later went on to co-found the Women’s Engineering Society. As with Rhian Tracey’s novel, there are male and female characters to get behind. And here, there’s even a red squirrel John Nicol has befriended. “It’s a shortcut to making your character likeable. If you make an animal dependent on this main character and he’s kind to the animal then that’s an instant cue to your reader,” says Henderson.

For both Barbara Henderson and Rhian Tracey, setting a novel in the past does not mean setting things in aspic. Henderson believes you have to keep the central characters relatable. “You really want modern young reader to identify with whatever historical character you’ve created.” The rewards, when this works, are wonderfully rich landscapes and the promise that a work of fiction grounded in time and place inspires children to keep on reading and learning more about our shared past.

I Spy: A Bletchley Park Mystery by Rhian Tracey is published by Templar. Rivet Boy by Barbara Henderson is published by Cranachan. UK.bookshop.org

Further reading: Hurst College on why we need humanities