Bringing the Past Alive: Writing Historical Novels for Children

This week, Sarah Webb chats to us about her experience writing her wonderful new children’s novel, The Little Bee Charmer of Henrietta Street.

My new book, The Little Bee Charmer of Henrietta Street, is about Eliza and Jonty Kane, who are aged thirteen and ten. When their father loses his sight and can no longer work, they have to move from their red-brick home in leafy Rathmines to a tenement flat in inner city Dublin. Here they find new friends and start working for a travelling circus in the evenings. Set in 1911, it’s the first historical novel I’ve published for children and in this blog I will talk about the research and writing of the book.

So how did I go about writing a book set in 1911? And where did the original idea come from?

A couple of years ago I visited 14 Henrietta Street, the Dublin tenement museum. I thought it would make a fascinating setting for a children’s book but I couldn’t find a way into the story. Then I attended a conference for festival programmers in Amsterdam (pre-Covid!) and met a Professor of Circus. She told me about the history of circus in Ireland and a bee charmer who visited Dublin with her circus, Patty Astley. I was intrigued. The night after meeting the Professor I spent the night in my hotel room reading articles about the history of the circus.

I discovered that travelling circuses often visited Dublin in the early twentieth century and bingo, I had my story. By adding a circus to the tenement setting I could balance the hardship of the tenement life with the drama and sparkle of the circus.

Illustration by Rachel Corcoran

Now that I had my story, I needed characters. I knew my main character would be a girl of around thirteen – as this is an age I’m fascinated by and love writing about and revisiting over and over again. That’s a blog for another day! I began to create Eliza. I knew what she looked like in my head; long dark hair, a rather earnest face, and I knew what she was like; brave, strong, impulsive, kind. I also knew I wanted to write it in the first person, through Eliza’s eyes, as for me writing this way allows me to get really close to the main character. Most of my children’s books have first person narratives.

I tried the present tense to start with and, as it seemed to work, I kept going. I felt it gave an immediacy to the writing.

At the start of the book, I knew there would be a life changing event for Eliza and her brother Jonty: a journey or transition from their old life in Rathmines to their new life in Henrietta Street.

So now I had the bones of the story:

  • Idea
  • Characters
  • Setting
  • Opening
  • And how I was going to write it:
    1. First person narrative
    2. Present tense

Next, I needed to do my 1911 research. I chose the year 1911 as there was a census that year which is available online. The census forms for Henrietta Street in 1911 told me exactly who lived in each building, their ages, jobs, how much rent they paid, if they spoke Irish, how many rooms they lived in, their religion – it was fascinating!

I also read novels set or written around this time and studied their language and dialogue, like Strumpet City and The Charwoman’s Daughter, and newspapers from the time (the ads were so interesting), books about the tenements, books about fashion at the time, all kinds of books. The staff at my local library, Dún Laoghaire, were so helpful, ordering me in books like Darkest Dublin, about the tragic Church Street tenement collapse of 1913.

The research fed the story and I included a tenement collapse in my novel. I also listened to podcasts about Dublin history like ‘Three Castles Burning’.

I researched until I was reading information I already knew (from previous research) and then I started writing in earnest. The story came quickly, Eliza was all set to tell her story, and by the end of summer 2020 I had a first draft written.

I sent it to The O’Brien Press – the only publisher I considered for the book – and they came back quickly to say they would be delighted to publish it. Phew! I’d previously submitted another historical novel for children which had been turned down so I was nervous about this one. I’ve had many book ideas and novels turned down over the years by various publishers, it’s part of every writer’s working life. It’s hard but you have to take a deep breath and move on to the next book.

Then the editing process began. I worked with Helen Carr who is kind, smart and very patient. My edit notes were excellent. In the first or ‘structural’ edit there was work to be done. I needed to make the tenements darker and grimmer, and one of the secondary characters wasn’t working (Mrs Pennefeather). I also needed to look at Eliza’s father, his motivation and behaviour. What I had got right was Dublin in 1911, my research had paid off!

During the editing process I also asked a bee keeper and a historian to read the book and make sure all my bee and history facts were correct. I was relieved to find they were.

The Little Bee Charmer of Henrietta Street is now published and I’m delighted to say that the feedback from readers, both young and old, has been very positive.

Fallen Stars blog said it’s ‘Filled with heartbreak, quiet determination, kindness and triumph … and bees. Charming & uplifting.’

I enjoyed the experience so much that I’m writing another historical novel for children next year, after working on a non-fiction book for children which will be out in autumn 2022. Watch this space!

Sarah Webb, October 2021

The Little Bee Charmer of Henrietta Street by Sarah Webb and illustrated by Rachel Corcoran is out now and available from your local bookshop or here.

Sarah Webb is an award-winning children’s writer.