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
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10 Minutes Chat with Megan Wynne

At Culture Night 2017, Megan Wynne asked for a 10 minute slot with the O’Brien Press team at our Pitch Perfect event. Two years later, I asked Megan for 10 minutes of her time for a quick chat about her forthcoming debut novel. The House on Hawthorn road is a wonderful story about two children, from different centuries who time travel through the walls of a magical house in Dublin. Here’s what Megan had to say about her Culture Night experience and her new book – in 10 minutes. 

What made you sign up for Culture Night 2017?

I signed up for Culture Night because I thought it would be fun. Also, I had recently done a workshop on ‘Pitching the Novel’ with Richard Skinner (from Faber & Faber Academy) at Listowel Writers’ Week. I had my fifty word pitch ready to send in, so I felt like it was worth a shot.

How did it feel to pitch your book directly to the O’Brien Press team?

I loved pitching my book directly to the O’Brien Press team. Kunak and Aoife listened attentively and asked really insightful questions. It was a pleasure to speak about my characters with people who understand children’s fiction and know the market so well.

Describe your Culture Night experience in five words.

Unexpectedly exciting, fun and successful!

What is the number one piece of advice you tell your Creative Writing students?

Write what excites you, and to forget about whether anyone else might like it (including parents or teachers).

What inspired you to write The House on Hawthorn Road?

I was inspired to write The House on Hawthorn Road by an extraordinary coincidence that happened when I asked my very first creative writing student for her address. I wanted to send her a Christmas card. When she told me I nearly dropped the phone. She was living in the very house that my father grew up in. I had visited my grandparents in that house when I was a child. Her mother heard this and kindly invited me over for afternoon tea. When they moved in they had built an extension onto the back of the house and while I was sitting in their new kitchen, the idea came to me: what if the extension had caused cracks in the walls that allowed Beth (my student) to travel back in time to when my Dad lived there with his brother Robin. I became very excited by this idea, as my Uncle Robin was an outrageous character and I knew he’d be brilliant in a novel. I loved the idea of the two families getting squashed together in the same time zone.

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