Jen Malone writes flirty young adult travel romances with HarperCollins and humorous “girl power” middle grade adventures with Simon & Schuster. Jen’s published titles include Changes in Latitudes, Best Night Ever, The Sleepover, the You’re Invited series (with Gail Nall), At Your Service, Map to the Stars, Wanderlost, and Follow Your Art (a collaboration with Dreamworks Animation and Penguin Random House on a companion story to the animated film Trolls). She once spent a year traveling the world solo, met her husband on the highway (literally), and went into labor with her identical twins while on a rock star’s tour bus. These days she saves the drama for her books. You can learn more about Jen and her books at www.jenmalonewrites.com. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.
Kristine Asselin writes middle grade fantasy and contemporary young adult. She is also the author of sixteen works of children’s nonfiction. Her debut YA novel Any Way You Slice It about a girl defying her parents to play on a boy’s hockey team has recently been re-released from Wicked Whale Publishing in both print and digital. She loves being a Girl Scout leader and serving as an Assistant Regional Adviser with the New England chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. She is a sucker for a good love song (preferably from the 80s), and can’t resist an invitation for Chinese food or ice cream (but not at the same time!). She lives in Central Massachusetts with her teen daughter and husband, and spends part of everyday looking for a TARDIS to borrow. You can learn more about Kris at www.kristineasselin.com. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.
What typically comes first for you: a character? An era? A story idea? How do you proceed from there?
Kris: For THE ART OF THE SWAP, the story of the daughter of a caretaker in a mansion-turned-museum was the first germ of an idea. I’d been visiting a property in Newport, Rhode Island (it wasn’t actually The Elms), and a docent pointed out the door to the caretaker’s apartment. I turned to my then ten-year-old daughter and said, “Wouldn’t it be cool to be the kid of the caretaker and live here?” She responded with, “That would make a great story.”
Jen: Then Kris discovered an article in Yankee Magazine about just such a girl—a caretaker at The Elms, a single dad, had raised his daughter in the former servants’ quarters on the third floor of the mansion (since converted to an apartment).
Kris: A year or two later, Jen and I were carpooling to SCBWI New Jersey together and during the trip we started talking about current projects. I told her about this idea of the caretaker’s daughter and suddenly we were brainstorming a time swap plot with two characters both living in the same house in different centuries.
Jen: Hannah is the modern times daughter of the caretaker, being raised in the museum, and Maggie is a tween society girl of 1905 visiting her aunt and uncle at their mansion for the summer and the two swap places in time. In order to switch back to their rightful timelines, they have to solve an art heist that took place back in 1905 and has remained a mystery since.
Kris: We sold the idea to Amy Cloud at Simon & Schuster/Aladdin a couple of months later with the first four chapters and a synopsis.
Jen: It’s possible I muscled my way onto this project when I fell head over heels for the concept Kris introduced. To this day I’m not sure that she was necessarily asking for help brainstorming with the explicit idea of co-writing it, but somehow she ended up stuck with me!
How do you conduct your research?
Jen: We were very lucky that our book’s setting was an easy day trip for us, and luckier still that the Gilded Age is preserved so well in Newport’s mansions-turned-museums. They let us step back in time and experience the space the same way our characters would in each of their time periods. For first-timers to historical fiction, it felt like cheating a little—or maybe it’s more accurate to say that it allowed us to take safe baby steps into writing historical. We did supplement our visits with a ton of online research and by reading books set in and around the time period and location. The most maddening (but interesting!) step for me was ensuring our word choices and phrases would have existed in 1905. There were lots of online rabbit holes involved in confirming—for instance, I now know that the expression “high five” most likely originated in 1977 during a Dodgers game when one outfielder slapped the palm of another in celebration.
At what point do you feel comfortable beginning to draft? How does your research continue once you begin writing?
Kris: After hatching the idea over the car ride and another subsequent brainstorm session, Jen and I sat down to outline. We knew that with both of us working on the project, we needed to have a clear idea of where we were going, and who was going to write what parts. We met a few times at a central spot (shout out to Bruegger’s Bagels in Andover, MA!) to outline. Amazingly, we walked away from that very first meeting with a solid understanding of the main plot.
Along the way, a few things changed, and we spent a lot of time on the phone and through email/text to work out some continuity issues. Some subplots were added, and some were revised. We definitely did a boat load of research as we wrote–one thing in particular that I can remember with the research had to do with the camera Hannah uses in 1905. We both imagined a ginormous camera on a tripod as being something that she’d have to haul around to get a good picture of the art thief—but then some research revealed that Kodak had come out with the Brownie camera in 1900, and she would have been able to hold it in her hands.
Jen: Yes! This was actually an unhappy discovery because we’d plotted a scene that would have worked better with a slow-acting camera! But what can you do?
Kris: I think one of the biggest revelations for me was how technologically advanced things were in 1905—especially for the wealthy. Electric lights. Intercom system in the house. Running water. Cars. These are all things they were familiar with—and although they’ve changed in the last 100 years, they wouldn’t be entirely unfamiliar to someone from that era.
Of course, the staff in the house did as much for the owners as technology does for us today—but even so Maggie remarks how wealthy everyone seems to be in the 2000s because of the things she sees.
What’s your favorite thing about writing historical fiction?
Kris: I loved witnessing the modern world through the eyes of someone from the early twentieth century. It definitely gives you a sense of the things we take for granted as necessary parts of our lives that haven’t been around that long—and that we can really live without. One of my favorite parts in the book is when Maggie asks Hannah’s father if he thinks people have changed much in 100 years. His answer is that while technology and language have, he doesn’t think people have changed—that emotions and love and fear are mostly the same. I think that’s one of the sub-themes, if you will, in the book. That these girls are from different worlds, but they have the same hopes and fears about their futures.
Jen: To me, that’s the crux of why historical fiction is (and probably always will be) relevant to modern readers. The surroundings and circumstances change but the human experience doesn’t.
What’s one of the most interesting things you’ve learned while researching?
Jen: The thing that hooked us on this story idea was the idea of this modern girl growing up surrounded by an opulent past and setting, and the imagined romance of what it would be like to experience such a unique childhood (living in the museum, with free run of the place afterhours) —kind of like if Claudia and Jamie Kinkaid had stayed on at The Met instead of leaving to find Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. We were lucky enough that the real-life caretaker we’d read about, Harold, is still at The Elms. He was very generous with both his time and ample anecdotes about raising his daughter there. It allowed us to experience The Elms through his eyes, offering us a perspective very different than what tourists visiting the museum could ever get, and that brought the mansion to life in an entirely captivating way we tried to pass along in our fictionalized version!
What sorts of decisions have you had to make about “muddy” historical figures or events in order for your book to work?
Jen: We actually had an opposite issue, because we wrote the first draft anticipating a future outcome that didn’t occur. One of the biggest changes we made to the story came after a much, much more recent historical event that took place between draft one and draft two. When we were writing this in mid-2016, we were clear that Maggie’s character arc was going to have her returning to her Gilded Age with a newfound passion for the burgeoning women’s suffrage movement, having experienced firsthand what the end result of that work could be, in the form of all the freedoms available to females in our modern times. She was especially awed and inspired by the fact that we had a woman as president!
We turned the draft in to our editor in late September…and then the 2016 election results came in. We knew we were going to have to make edits to address the instances where Maggie marvels about our female president and we discussed keeping that plot point in as an “alternate history,” but what we finally hit on instead—after taking our own inspiration from all the discussions of modern women’s rights that took place leading up to and after the Women’s March—was changing Hannah’s character arc so that she recognizes that, while there have been many strides made that she gets to take full advantage of in her present-day time period, there is still lots of work to be done on hearts and minds before women can achieve true equality. It instantly became a much more feminist book (which we LOVE!) and a way for us to comment that, while our historical timelines are (usually and hopefully) a march toward progress, there’s almost always room for betterment (in this case, lots of room!). Hannah returns to present times determined to further the work Maggie will now be part of in the early iteration of the American women’s rights movement. It really tied the two character’s arcs together in a way the first draft didn’t.
Learn more about Kris and Jen’s books here: