Historical fiction, fantasy novels, graphic novels, narrative nonfiction—writing for middle-grade can mean many different things. So, middle-grade authors need to take different approaches when crafting manuscripts for their genres. I talked with middle-grade authors Payal Doshi (fantasy novel) and Cristina Oxtra (historical fiction) to learn more about their craft and processes for writing two very different kinds of middle-grade books. Here are their thoughts on research and plotting, teen character development, and cultural representation in their books.
About the Authors
First, a bit about the authors and their books.
Payal Doshi noticed a lack of Indian protagonists in global children’s fiction and one day wrote the opening paragraph to what would become her first children’s novel. She was born and raised in Mumbai, India, and currently resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Her debut middle grade fantasy novel, Rea and the Blood of the Nectar, is the recipient of the IPPY Gold Award. Her young adult short story will be published in the forthcoming YA Anthology, My Big, Fat, Desi Wedding by Page Street Kids in Spring 2024. Visit her at https://www.payaldoshiauthor.com.
Cristina Oxtra is a Filipino American children’s book author. Her historical fiction middle grade novel, Tara and the Towering Wave: An Indian Ocean Tsunami Survival Story, tells the story of Tara and her mother’s survival of the tsunami that slams into the coast of Thailand and the resort area where they are staying. Her first picture book, titled What Lolo Wants, will be published in 2024. She was awarded The Loft Literary Center’s 2019–2020 Mirrors & Windows Fellowship for indigenous writers and writers of color and is a teaching artist at The Loft. Cristina is also a full-time public relations professional, military veteran, and former journalist and educator. Visit her at www.cristinaoxtra.com.
Research and Plotting
Payal: Fantasy stories usually require lavish settings, a magic system, magical creatures, and often a political and social system in which the story takes place apart from the basics of needing main and secondary characters as well as plot. So, when I have an idea for a story in my mind, I need to plan the story well before I begin writing.
Being a 60% plotter and 40% panster, the first thing l do is jot down a bulleted summary of the plot/outline to see how the story unravels. Then I enter into research mode which sends me down multiple rabbit holes, but I usually come out of them with twists and details that I couldn’t have concocted myself! I’m a big fan of well-described settings and I love reading books in which the setting feels like a character itself and plays an integral part of the story. This sends me off into researching strange and beautiful landscapes, magical creatures that might inhabit such lands, and using simple tools like a ‘fantasy name generator’ on Google to create unique names for my characters and settings.
This is also the point in my outlining when I tend to spot plot holes, places where I need to add more tension or a plot twist like a red herring, for example, and I begin to have a better sense of the setting, what my characters look like, what their internal motivations are, and what obstacles they might face. I like to create well-rounded characters so each of the characters, main or secondary, have their own strengths and weaknesses. I then try to put these characters in situations that will test their weaknesses and insecurities, which I find not only ties in well with their personalities but also makes for nail-biting plot and emotional progression. I also remember to maintain two arc trajectories for them—first that is plot-driven (i.e., how the character grows and changes based on the obstacles they face) and second is emotion-driven (i.e., how the characters’ feelings develop through their experiences in the story).
Cristina: Great research is the foundation of any historical fiction. As part of my extensive research, I read books, articles, studies, and news reports. I read not only about the tsunami in 2004, but also about the meteorological phenomenon itself and about the country of Thailand, its history, geography, culture, and people. I also watched documentaries and personal videos from those who lived through the tsunami and the devastating aftermath. These were the most emotionally powerful resources. I even followed social media pages for vacation sites in Khao Lak to view pictures and get an idea of what the area is like.
As for plotting, I’m a firm believer in outlining. If I have to quantify it, I’m at least 75% plotter and 25% pantser. I usually have an idea of how the story will end and I work backwards to determine how it will reach that conclusion. I outline what will happen in each chapter and I use this outline as a road map to move the plot along. However, oftentimes a detour suddenly appears on the road map. Perhaps it’s the possibility of introducing another character I had not thought of at the start of the writing journey or a different plot twist. I always explore any detour to see whether or not it works well with the story. As I do so, I ask myself, “Does it make sense? Is it believable? Does it work with the facts?” It’s one of the challenges of writing an historical fiction. You can choose whichever path you’d like, but you have to stay true to the historical facts while building your fictional story around them.
Teen Character Development
Payal: A question I often get asked is how I write for a middle grade audience being in my late 30s! For one, I keep an ear out for how teens talk (this can involve some embarrassing eavesdropping!), watching teen TV shows, and also remembering my own childhood experiences—how we spoke, how we dressed. I try not to date my
characters’ dialogue by using very specific colloquialisms, keeping them more generic instead. An excellent piece of advice I received from my editor regarding writing for middle grade kids was to give a peek into the main character’s inner monologue especially when they are about to make big, important, or conflicting decisions. This helps
even a reluctant reader understand the nuances of a character and story.
Also, a tool I use to ensure my plot and character arcs are progressing well is to check if in every chapter the reader and main character learn something they didn’t know before i.e. new information about the plot, the introduction of a new character, new obstacles, grappling with new emotions.
Cristina: I created Tara to be a relatable character. Like many young people her age, she eats mac ‘n’ cheese, loves spending time with her best friend, is uneasy in new situations, prefers to stay in her comfort zone, and is unsure about trying new things. My experiences as a mom of a teen and a former educator at the middle school level helped. Tara is also a child of divorce, like many children in the United States. My mother and biological father separated when I was a child. I drew from that experience of learning to come to terms with the separation, feeling the loss, recalling fond memories, and wondering about the future. Just as Tara did.
As with any character, I enjoy building a backstory for them before I start writing about them. For example, what are their likes and dislikes, who are their friends, what are their hobbies, what do they want to be when they grow up, have they always lived in the same place, etc. This information may be useful later in the story. But even if I don’t use all of this information, it still helps me gain a better understanding of the characters and how they would feel or act in a given situation based on who they are. In addition, I make sure my characters learn and grow through their experiences in the story, and I prefer to end a story in a way that leaves readers with the feeling of hope.
Payal: I’m from India and South Asian representation in children’s books is incredibly important to me. I love weaving in details about my culture and heritage into the fabric of the story. I want South Asian kids see themselves as main characters in books and know that they are worthy of going on exciting adventures and being heroes.
Being human is a universal experience and what bonds a reader to a character is not their outward appearance but their hopes, dreams, failures, successes, insecurities, strengths, and how they navigate through life. That’s what I like to focus on when writing a book. Similarly, I want kids from other cultures and countries to relate with my characters and see that despite their different backgrounds, they share the same hopes, dreams, and fears. It is my hope that South Asian kids feel seen when they read my books, know that their stories deserve to be celebrated, and feel joy and pride for their culture.
Cristina: Representation matters. Growing up, I didn’t see myself in the books in the libraries or at school. Therefore, I write stories that feature diverse characters and uplift diverse voices. I wanted to do this in Tara and the Towering Wave as well as reflect the immigrant experience. This involved not only a tremendous amount of research, but also delving into my memories. Although I’ve never been to Thailand, I learned it has some similarities with the Philippines, where I was born and raised, so I drew from my personal experiences. For example, the scene wherein Tara and her mom rode in a tuk-tuk is based on my experience of riding in a similar vehicle as a child in the Philippines. As inspiration for the market scene, I recalled walking in the open-air markets in the Philippines and combined those memories with what I learned from food TV shows featuring Thailand. In addition, I consulted with two friends, one who lived in Thailand for several years and another who is a native of the country, to make sure I portrayed Thailand, its people, and its culture accurately and with respect.
Through Tara and the Towering Wave, I wanted to show the power of the human spirit and the good each individual can do. I also wanted to explore the theme of identity, the desire to belong, and what ties us to our family and our heritage. Tara’s story highlights the bond between a mother and daughter as they learn about their Thai heritage and themselves. As a Filipino American who was born and raised in the Philippines, I wonder what it would be like if I went back. I have not returned since I left as a child. My son was born and raised in the United States. What would it be like if we visited the Philippines? Would we feel awkward and uncomfortable, like Tara? Would we feel like Filipinos or strangers in a foreign land?
I hope this story inspires readers to discover their inner strengths, help others, and learn more about their family and heritage. I also hope it helps ensure that those who died, lost someone, or survived the tsunami are never forgotten.
Thank you so much for joining us on the blog today and sharing your insights, Payal and Cristina! Hope their insights into crafting historical fiction and fantasy novels will help you on your MG writing journey. Be sure to check out their wonderful middle-grade books Rea and the Blood of the Nectar and Tara and the Towering Wave. Happy MG writing and reading to all!