Writing with Jane Yolen

Bob shares his thoughts on working with celebrated American author Jane Yolen. Together, Bob and Jane have written some successful young adult novels, including the Scottish Quartet, the Young Heroes and the Young Legends series.

Q. Some people would think it was very difficult for two people to be writing the same novel. How do you and Jane Yolen go about collaborating on a novel?

A. We discuss the basic plot first. In the case of our historical novels this involves talking about the events we will cover and how our main characters will be involved. I then write the first draft of each chapter, passing it on to Jane, further developing the plot as I go. Jane writes the second draft, polishing, adding and imp[roving as she receives text from me. She then has another run through of this second drafts then sends it to me to look over. I then make various comments and recommendations for Jane to incorporate into the third draft which is the version we send to our editor.

Q. Can you tell us how the aspects of the story are divided up between you?

A. Very generally speaking, my first draft covers the plot and the dialogue. Jane adds more atmosphere, description, and fills in the interior voice of the central character.

Q. How do you go about the research?

A. I mainly research the events and the people. Jane handles the cultural aspects such as clothing, food and customs.

Q. How important is historical accuracy in your Scottish novels?

A. We work very hard to make them as accurate as we can, especially since all of these books have been taken up by schools . There are time, however, when you do need to be a storyteller first and a historian second. For example, in The Queen’s Own Fool’ we have a scene where our heroine Nicola is running away from the murderers of the Queen’s husband. In writing this scene it occurred to me that it would be very dramatic if John Knox, the great Protestant reformer, came to her rescue. Up until this point in the book, Knox had been presented as a grim, intolerant bigot, and I thought this would be a good chance to show a very different side to him. He rescues Nicola and take here to his home where she meets his wife and children. When I checked later I found that Knox was not in Edinburgh at this time, but we decided to keep this part of the story, since it was important to show him as a fully rounded character and thereby make the novel much richer.

Q. What role did research play in mythological stories like ‘The Young Heroes.’

A. We decided that the stories would fit in to the actual history of Bronze Age Greece, so we made details of clothing, weaponry etc accurate. We also delved deeply into the Greek myths. In fact we almost prided ourselves on not making things up. Rather we took elements from different myths and rewove them into new stories. For example we made Odysseus’ adventure a sequel to the tale of Theseus and the Minotaur, and the monster Ladon we had Odysseus fight in the Labyrinth was taken from the legends of Hercules.

Q. Do you ever have any disagreements?

A. We are the very best of friends, so we certainly never get into arguments. However, we do sometimes come at a story from different angles. For example when we were planning our novel about Hippolyta, the future queen of the Amazons, Jane had an idea that Hippolyta’s mother gives birth to a boy whom the other Amazons are determined to sacrifice. The story would be about Hippolyta rescuing the baby and taking him to safety. I frankly didn’t want out heroine to be carrying a baby around for the whole book. I wanted to tell the story of Hippolyta going on a quest to find the lost city of Arimaspa which would hold the secret of the origin of the Amazons. What we did was weave both elements together into a very rich and exciting tale.

Q. What are the differences in your working methods?

A. Jane generally likes to just start a story and see where it will go as she writes it. I like to have a clearer idea of where I’m going in the first place. In our historical novels this is less important, in that the story is woven around actual historical events. In the Young Heroes series, however, the stories were entirely invented by us. In ‘Odysseus In The Serpent Maze’ we began writing, having only worked out the first third of the plot. So when we got to the point in the story where Odysseus and his companions are adrift at sea in a small boat, we had absolutely no idea what was to happen next. We spent a few days drinking coffee and tossing around ideas until we came up with the notion that they would find a ship drifting at sea with no crew aboard. This felt very promising, but it took us a couple of days more to work out that this was a clockwork ship, built by the legendary inventor Daedalus, and that it would carry them to the island of Crete. From there the whole of the rest of the story fell into place.

Q. Which is your favourite of the Young Heroes books?

A. I would pick ‘Odysseus In The Serpent Maze,’ the first of the series. After writing ‘Queen’s Own Fool,’ where the characters and events were determined by history, I really enjoyed the freedom of coming up with a completely original plot. The book took on a tremendous energy and momentum which then carried on to the rest of the series.

Q. Which is your favourite of the Scottish novels?

A. I would pick ‘Girl In A Cage.’ Jane’s idea for the novel, about Robert the Bruce’s daughter being imprisoned in a cage by Edward I of England, was so inspiring, I did some of my best work on it. Reading it over again now, I am still very moved by the girl’s personal struggle against tyranny.