Writing: Visiting the Ideas Shop

“Where do you get your ideas from?” may be the most common question asked of writers. For many non-writers, or many aspiring-writers-not-currently-writing, we imagine a magical process where ideas simply arrive in the writer’s brain, unbidden. Writers, we assume, have some kind of different way of approaching the world that enables them to access this well of ideas that is not available to the rest of us.

Would it surprise you to hear that it isn’t actually like that? Ideas often come when they are looked for, worked at, or when it has become a habit to work creatively and develop ideas into writing.

I often find that I have the best/most interesting ideas when I am the busiest or most productive. The further I step away from writing, the fewer ideas I am able to have. So, if you don’t see yourself as a writer, ideas are not likely to just ‘come’. Creativity is a practice, a habit, something we do – we don’t invoke it by wishing, but by working with it.

A helpful place to start is by combining elements. These can simply be objects, people, places – a key, a girl, a beach (a castle might be a little more predictable here…), or more specific elements of existing stories: what if you put Snow White in a contemporary urban setting? You’ll find some more kinds of things to draw on and combine in the mind map above.

Yes, I know, this is using familiar things, but there’s nothing completely original to be written, you know – once you free yourself from that particular false shackle, you’re good to go. The originality comes in how you write, how you put things together. And often the ‘copied’ bits disappear as you get more involved in your story anyway, adding more of you.

Interestingly, this can work with non-fiction too – try combining form and content in new ways to find fresh angles. For example, you might think that dinosaurs are a worn-out topic for kids, but still people find new takes to publish successfully. Anne Rooney’s Dinosaur Atlas, shortlisted for the Royal Society’s Young People’s Book Prize last year – combining subject and form engagingly and educationally – is a stunning example.

So if you want to write, but feel you can’t because you don’t have an idea, what do you do? Sit down and mess about with some ideas. (yes, I know). What kinds of stories do you like? Or, what kind of non-fic do you want to work on? What would be cool/funny/interesting to put together? What would create good conflict/an interesting angle for readers (or you)? Scribble down some ideas before you commit to anything more (no, I don’t mean you have to plan if that’s anathema to you – literally just list a few different possibilities or mind map a range of stuff, before selecting what to go with). Often we have to jot down the obvious first ideas to let the better next ideas come through. You may get more than one idea out of this, but seriously, it’s worth a try – personally, I only ever get ideas after a break from writing when I put pen(cil) to paper. No magical inspiration for me – maybe it’s the same for you?

Problematic texts and reader-writer-text relationships

This is a post I’ve wanted – and hesitated – to write for some time. Like many readers (and writers), I worry about representation, about #ownvoices, about the balance between books showing diversity and getting that diversity right. Clearly, there’s a world of difference between wanting to reflect the world around you with a diverse cast, even if you personally occupy a powerful/privileged position within the world, or writing from a well-researched less powerful position and being the brat who tantrums about not being ‘allowed’ to write outside of your own experience.

There are difficult discussions to be had about #ownvoices, which at its heart is intended to validate marginalised writers and bring out stories that we haven’t had enough access to. It has, however, had the side effect of making people feel obliged to ‘out’ themselves or share personal details about identities, health conditions and background that they may not have chosen to otherwise. And, much as we may loathe the tantrummers, their claims that writing is inherently an imaginative exercise are valid: if all writing becomes autobiographical, where does that leave us?

Anyway, I intended to write about problematic texts today, not own voices (although this is related). Texts can become problematic over time as social values shift – witness the difficulties we’ve seen with rewrites to Enid Blyton to make her fit contemporary family value (less slapping in the school stories – particularly that associated with an ‘exotic’ Spanish temperament, although I’m not sure how/whether Famous Five rewrites deal with all the Gypsy-blaming). Obviously, texts can also be problematic from the start, often noticed only by some people – depending on who you are (or where you stand) – an issue of positionality. For example, personally I have issues with a much-beloved 2015 YA novel ‘about’ mental illness, which I feel does an appalling job of representing the mentally ill character: All the Bright Places. Please be aware that I am about to share spoilers for this book, so do skip to the next paragraph if you need to. In this novel, Theodore Finch has bipolar disorder and that’s pretty much his entire self. He commits suicide towards the end of the novel and there is no sense that he needn’t have done, that he could have been helped and – worse – all the kids at school who previously ignored/ridiculed him now celebrate him, so to a depressed reader, it could well look like suicide is a way to achieve love/acceptance. Highly irresponsible.

However, this book is massively popular, because it has ‘big’ characters with overwhelming emotions, which many teens can relate to, and it is emotional and romantic – many reviewers rate it highly, because it moved them. The few negative reviews tend to come from people who have had more personal experiences with depressive illnesses and are concerned with the messages created. This is similar to the issue of the ‘white default’ seen in many SFF novels and TV/film (decreasingly so, thankfully), where writers don’t think about using a diverse cast and describe all their characters based on white-skinned humans, even when they are aliens/dwarves etc. Equally, this was often only noticed by readers/viewers of colour until recently – or, more sadly, was not even noticed by them because it had become so much the norm. I have related before on this blog how my diverse-city-dwelling students will populate their stories with people named ‘Bob’ and ‘Susan’ because ‘That’s who’s in stories’, even though they are more likely to spend their time with people named Bilal or Sufiya.

My point is that often only certain groups of reader are positioned to see how texts are problematic – and we should listen to them. If enough people with a specific experience/identity are saying that a text misrepresents that experience/identity, then it probably does. Some of these examples might be explainable due to changing social context – note I’m saying explainable, not excusable/forgivable – but that doesn’t mean we keep holding them up as great examples. New texts exist that can replace these older texts (yes, Laura Ingalls Wilder apologists, I am looking at you!). At the same time, no single view of the world (and that is what a text offers – a view) can be perfect. It’s a snapshot. We need to consider how damaging that misrepresentation is. In the case I examined above, I believe it’s actively dangerous for some readers, who are in a particularly vulnerable state already. In the case of whitewashing racial representation as discussed in SFF, the damage is cumulative, so adding new texts is what’s needed, rather than getting rid of existing ones, although texts that provide obviously negative racial rep do need removal.

To end on a positive note, here are some YA novels that offer more productive representation of mental illness:

  • Highly Illogical Behaviour, John Corey Whaley (Faber) 2016
  • Under Rose-Tainted Skies, Louise Gornall (Chicken House) 2016
  • Am I Normal Yet?, Holly Bourne (Usborne) 2015
  • Beautiful Broken Things, Sara Barnard (Macmillan) 2016

Wordy Wednesday: Writing and Ritual (beware of mythologising)

Writing is fraught with danger, mostly related to myth and ritual. Obviously, as a writer I love myth and mythmaking – the lure of the woods, the charm of the chosen one – but that’s not the kind of myth I mean. In this case, I mean the dangerous myths about writing itself:

  • I can only write if my desk is arranged a certain way,
  • I need complete silence/the perfect playlist aligned to my project in order to write.
  • I must start writing by 7.30 or the day is lost.
  • I wear my lucky ring to write.
  • I have a talisman on my desk which I must never lose or I’d forget how to write.
  • I can only start writing  a novel once I’ve made x amount of notes and can hear the characters talking in my head.

All of these things may help, but they are not what makes it possible for you to write – that’s you. Really, just you. Many, many writers write on trains, in chaotic cafes, at kitchen tables, in lunch breaks at day jobs – none of which allow easy access to most of these extras or props.

For a long time, I thought that I couldn’t try my hand at fiction because I’d never had the experience of a character ‘talking’ to me in my head. You read all the time of authors saying they got the idea for a story when a character made themselves known, and I believed that was the way it was supposed to be. Eventually, I saw another author I admired saying that wasn’t how they worked and I realised that it was just one possibility. I can never visualise either – can never get actual pictures into my head, so I suppose my mind just doesn’t work that way.

Coffee and notes – always useful…

The reason these stories are reported so much more in the press is because they fit with our romanticised idea of the writer as somehow special – characters pop along and talk to them as they recline on their chaise longue. The press is less keen on the ‘just get on with it’ model of writing! Obviously, writers are special – but in that, like all artists, we dedicate time to the work. There are literally hundreds of different ways of approaching that work and while it is important to identify the tricks that will make it easier for you, it’s also crucial to recognise that they are tricks and that all is not lost if you break the ornament that symbolises your current project/delete your white noise app by mistake/drop your favourite coffee mug/have to travel for work for a week.

Writer’s Wednesday: A ‘Filling the Well’ Trip – The British Library’s Harry Potter Exhibition

Postcard with the poster image from the exhibition – now in my lovely organiser as a memory of my fab day

A few weeks ago, I went with my younger daughter to the marvellous British Library’s Harry Potter exhibition, and it was such an inspiration! I’ve always been a fan of our folkloric and mystical heritage, and that is what this exhibition celebrates – the ideas, stories and rich mythical background on which Rowling draws in her world.

It was an absolute delight to take my 14 yr old HP fan around and enjoy her amazement at illuminated medieval texts, pre-Christian oracle bones (although it’s really thanks to Abi Elphinstone’s Dream Snatcher series that she was excited to see those!) and artwork from Jim Kay (and J.K herself – who knew that she could draw as well?!).

A particular joy as a writer was to also get to see some of the early drafts of the texts. There are sections with different character names, clearly different outcomes, bits with Rowling’s and her editor’s notes on – all a great treat to get to see. I definitely felt refreshed and inspired as a result – a brilliant example of ‘filling the well‘, as Julia Cameron calls it in her seminal work ‘The Artist’s Way’.

As a writer, it was particularly fantastic to see the wealth of ideas referenced in a much-beloved series all drawn together in one place, and to see so many families in wonderment over the fact that so much of that series came from existing ideas. So many of the adults in those display rooms, never mind the children, were exclaiming over not having realised that this or that was not invented by Rowling but already existed as an idea in the world before the books. There was so much respect for Rowling’s weaving together of bits of folklore, astronomy, alchemy and so on – no-one (as one might fear) appeared to feel cheated that it wasn’t ‘truly’ made up, but combined. The whole thing was, to me, a glorious celebration of creativity as the art of re-combination: putting things together in new ways. There really is nothing new in the world.

All in all, it was a great day out, and a wonderful affirmation of the creative imagination.

Writer’s Wednesday: New Year, New Tools – The Maker’s Yearbook 2018 Review

The Maker’s Yearbook is produced by Nicola Taylor, who is a photographer and small business expert. I bought it for the first time in December, after seeing a writer friend with it and thinking it looked useful. How right I was!

Not only does it begin with a useful review of 2017 and goal-setting for 2018, followed by monthly and weekly planning pages for the year, but buying the planner also gets you a year’s membership of Nicola’s online classroom and Facebook group. This is brilliantly useful and I’ve already made major changes to the way I work on my ‘at home’ days (I teach 3 days a week, and write – in theory – 3; of course, teaching doesn’t quite sit neatly in its allocated days…).

Obviously, some of the material does not apply to me personally. For example, there is some talk about selling to galleries, buying materials from suppliers and organising post office runs, but there is an awful lot that does apply to me and many things can be translated. The messiness of a small, creative business, certainly does apply to me as a writer often working simultaneously on more than one commissioned task, a novel that I really want to write and trying to fit in pitches to expand my scope (Nicola would call that working ‘on’ my business rather than ‘in’ my business, and it’s the stuff that most easily gets overlooked – and which then leads to you getting stuck – see? she knows what she’s talking about and makes it easy for creative/artsy/non-business brains to deal with!).

Also, of course, as you would expect from a professional photographer, the yearbook is beautifully laid out and therefore easy to use. The systems and habits ingrained in it are straightforward and clearly likely to ease working and increase productivity, and the camaraderie and support in the FB group is already a highly valuable resource.

Personally, I bought the digital download as I was eager to print and get started, but the physical book is spiral bound and I’ve heard it comes beautifully packaged. To be honest, I’m already thinking I’ll buy a physical copy next year. If you want a closer look, there’s a video flick-through on the front page of the website.

All in all, I would definitely recommend this to kick-start your 2018 if you are a creative. It’s particularly aimed at people producing and selling physical objects e.g. on Etsy, at craft fairs or on their own websites, but I’m certainly finding it useful (and who doesn’t love a pretty planner!)

Writing Myths and the Damage they Do

Writing is fraught with myths, many romanticised and some downright damaging.  It’s taken me a while to spot some of the dangerous ones, and I’m probably still in thrall to some others.  Here are a couple that I can mostly remember are, in fact, false.  And as an educated and mostly competent adult writer, if these myths are harming my practice, what damage can myths do to our less confident writers in the classroom?

Writing = Fiction

Although I have been fortunate enough to enjoy some success as an educational writer, I find it all too easy to completely write off my non-fiction writing as somehow not ‘real’ or ‘proper’.  Let me be clear: this is absolutely a self-defeatist thing.  I have no problem taking other people’s non-fiction or educational writing seriously.  I found this view particularly difficult with the standard advice to write every day, as I found myself all-too-easily discounting the teaching-related work as just not writing.  So, clearly, I needed to add daily fiction work on top – which was soon too much. I’m still not completely sure whether this is really a ‘writing about teaching doesn’t count, because that’s too much like your job’ thing, or simply another version of ‘whatever you’re doing, it doesn’t count because you’re doing it’…

Real Writers Have Ideas Constantly

Y’know like when you hear writers say in interviews ‘and then this character popped into my mind and demanded I tell their story’? Having listened to and read many writers on writing over the last few things that does, in fact, seem pretty rare, so maybe it is OK that I had to learn to sit down and generate ideas.  Once I stopped hoping the muse would drop in some time and simply worked at producing ideas, everything changed.  It’s easy to believe that if ideas don’t find you, you aren’t supposed to be a writer, but the truth is rather more prosaic.

Real Writers Can Speak to their Characters

This is not a thing that ever happens to me. It’s another thing you’ll occasionally hear in an interview with an author, where they’ll talk about arguing with a character who ‘wanted their story to be different’ or chatting to their character while out and about. It all sounds lovely, but it’s an imaginative world away from mine. When I’m writing fiction, which I am at the moment, I’m like I was as a child playing with Lego – more like a stage manager than an inhabitant of that world. I don’t believe myself, even for a second, to be in that world. I’m just not capable of that kind of imaginative leap – but that doesn’t mean I can’t shape and mould that world on the page. For a long time, I allowed this perceived shortfall in my imagination to prevent me from writing fiction, but not any more. I no longer believe that this kind of ‘tipping over’ is necessary to create a world strongly enough for an audience.

So, what of the students?

I think it’s worth being aware of the mystique of the writer in contemporary society. Even if students aren’t reading about writing, they may well have some sense of writers as ‘other’, which ultimately can make writing for themselves difficult. Two contemporary writers whose works they may be familiar with, and who have spoken about the process in a useful way, are J. K. Rowling and Neil Gaiman. I always love to show students Rowling’s planning for Order of the Phoenix, which has been on the internet for a few years now and is a thing of beauty. And Neil Gaiman has literally hundreds of useful comments on writing on the web but here’s a good starting point. If you’re reading or have recently read anything by a living writer with a class (an extract, a non-fiction article…), it’s worth looking them up on Twitter to see them talking about the business of writing too – students love this!

Fifth Friday Five: Must-Haves for Writing

On months with 5 Fridays, I’m doing a Top 5 list for the fifth Friday. Here’s my first one, which you may have seen a version of before, as these are all points I’ve made before – and will probably make again – about things I need to keep me writing.

1 Timer

This really does come first. I use a timer for motivation in all kinds of work, and it really does help. When I’m struggling to focus (i.e. cataloguing socks is suddenly looking ridiculously tempting), just setting a simple kitchen timer for 15 minutes, putting the phone away, turning wifi off and doing NOTHING ELSE for those 15 minutes will get me started. It’s great for busy days too – 15 minutes each on a handful of tasks moves me further in a morning than the faffing that I would do otherwise.

Stamps

Not postage ones, but children’s brightly coloured stars, hearts, faces etc. Some people use stickers. This is exactly the same principle, but stamps are less consumable (and, I suppose, less varied). It’s a simple yet effective anti-procrastination motivational technique which becomes more powerful the more stamps/stickers you have lined up – once there are a few in a row,  it becomes more and more important (and easier) to keep going.

I use a set of Crayola pen stampers and assign different meanings to different designs, so 1 is for exercise, 1 for writing a blog, another for fiction writing and so on. When I’ve done the thing, I stamp the calendar day. It works really well to help build and maintain ‘streaks’ of good habits. Some people allocate a stamp/sticker to a certain number of words written or to pages edited etc or to time spent; I just credit for having done it at all (my standards are low, alright?).

3 SCBWI membership

The Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators is a fabulous organisation for those of us working in that area. A lot of what is offered is geared to fiction, but non-fiction writers are welcomed too. Membership is open to anyone interested in children’s books – you do not need to be published. The Society organises critique groups, a British Isles conference (which I went to for the first time this year, and loved) and many smaller events. I am drafting this on the train to a day workshop on writing series fiction for 5-8 yr olds taught by a successful author in that area, for example. There is a lot of skill-sharing, which is invaluable, and conducted with a generosity of spirit.

4 Notebook and pencil

I write on computer, but all my planning and ideas generation is carried out by paper and pencil – or occasionally an array of coloured pens. I could not write anything without this stage.  Of course, when I say notebook, I really mean my trusty organiser from Cordwain Higgler. Isn’t she lovely? I’m going to do a post all about her one day.

5 Scrivener

I am a relatively recent convert, but I have transferred all my novel plotting to Scrivener’s outline board and I love it. It allows for clear organisation of ideas; moving around (and insertion) of parts; separation into scenes/chapters/acts to clearly see turning points etc – fabulous for a structure junkie like me! You can also have character notes, older drafts, research notes and anything else you like saved right in the file but not part of the word count of the story for easy viewing – so useful! (yes, yes, I know – I should have been using this years ago and no, I’m not on commission, and I know it would be even better if I were a Mac person, but there we are…).

What are your writing must-haves?

Mothers in Hidden Among Us and The Hidden Princess – guest post from Katy Moran

Today, Katy Moran, author of Hidden Among Us and The Hidden Princess, is here to talk about mothers in YA novels and specifically in her Hidden duo. If you haven’t read these novels, I would definitely recommend them.

Mothers are often necessarily absent from YA fiction. Usually, you can’t get your heroine or hero into the truly epic amount of trouble that makes a good story with their mum in the

Hidden Princessbackground cooking tea and asking if they have done their homework. Connie has grown from being a vulnerable little sister in Hidden Among Us to a spiky heroine in her own right in The Hidden Princess, and whilst Miriam might be a bit emotionally distant with her, there is no way Connie could have planned an illegal rave with her mum on the doorstep. It’s the second party in my Hidden books to which the fae Hiddhidden among usen arrive as uninvited guests, with awful and far- reaching consequences each time around. Sometimes you just have to get rid of the mothers for these horrendous screw-ups to occur, and to give your teenage leads the chance to emerge (or not) from disaster without any adult help.

On the other hand, it’s definitely not common in YA to actually hear a mother’s side of the story. After all, these novels are about the young, the cool and the desperate, not about their mums. But in Hidden Among Us, the first of my Hidden books, when Connie is still just a little girl, I decided to narrate a few chapters from the perspective of Miriam. To really understand why she is such a different mother to each of her three children, we need to hear her side of the story and how she was led into the terrible position of getting too close to these dangerous fae creatures, and subsequently having to make a choice between Lissy, Connie and Rafe. Writing from Miriam’s perspective in flashbacks to her own teenage years and early twenties made her a more well-rounded character. I think she’d be just a textbook over-protective mum, otherwise.

The Hidden books aren’t just about the loss of children, though. The death of Larkspur’s mother sparks a revenge plot that forces all my characters into intolerable situations and leads them into situations where they are forced to make impossible choices. My fear is that I should have explored Larkspur’s mother more deeply as a character. I worry that I fridged her – that she falls into the category of the cardboard cut-out dead female who exists only to generate a revenge plot for male characters. I wish I’d been able to round her out a little more without compromising on pace.

Writing novels is a good way for authors to explore their own worst fears. The mothers in The Hidden Princess and Hidden Among Us were born from my own worst fears as a mum, not from my actual mother, who couldn’t be more different to Miriam. That desperation to protect all her children comes from a very deep and instinctive source inside me, and the fact that she can’t protect all of them is what drives the drama – a theme which re-emerges in The Hidden Princess when we learn how Lissy’s Hidden friend Iris lost her own baby son.

I do owe a little of these books to my own mum, though – well, perhaps more to my grandma. I’m not sure if Mum will thank me for sharing this, but lots of babies present a slightly odd and squashy appearance at birth, and Mum was born with both ears squashed flat to the sides of her head.

What did the midwife say to my grandma when she saw the pointed ears?

“It’s a changeling!”

Now there’s an idea…

Wow – I certainly didn’t experience Larkspur’s mother as a flat stereotype, largely because there is so much action in the novel, which would have suffered if her character were more developed. 

Thank you so much to Katy for visiting the Hearthfire today, and for giving us a peek into her thinking process. Mums in YA (and many children’s books) do tend to be absent or deficient, perhaps even more now as parents are less and less able to give their children enough freedom to have adventures. Gone are the halcyon days of the Famous Five, when kids could just roam around the countryside without anyone batting an eyelid!

Guest Post from Victoria Lamb, Author of Witchstruck

Witchy goings-on for Friday 13th at the Hearthfire today, with Victoria Lamb here to answer a few questions. Her first YA novel, Witchstruck is just out with Corgi this month, and she’s touring blogs to celebrate.

How did you go about researching/creating the magick in the novel? Are there any juicy details of Tudor witchcraft you couldn’t use that you’d like to share with us?
I’ve always been very interested in witchcraft, and know a fair amount about modern Wiccan practice in particular, so it wasn’t that tricky to research even a Tudor novel on the subject. Witchcraft really hasn’t changed that much over the centuries! I don’t think I left anything out about witchcraft, though some details about their methods of detecting, torturing and executing witches were too disturbing to use in a YA novel. I have used some though, like the Devil’s Mark which my heroine Meg is accused of bearing – this was usually a birthmark they believed was left by the devil, or some other mark (like an extra nipple) where witchfinders claimed the devil had suckled on the witch. Pretty horrible.

You’re working on both adult and YA historical series at the moment. What would you say are the most important differences between the two?
The adult historicals have far more history in them! That may sound like an odd thing to say, but my Lucy Morgan novels are far more concerned with political and historical events than my Tudor Witch series is. Witchstruck is essentially a paranormal romance set in Tudor times, rather than a straight historical where the setting is the most important element of the book. Having said that, the violent and dark dystopia of Tudor England is a vital part of Witchstruck and lends the book great intensity. Meg would have had a much easier time of it in Victorian times, for instance!

How much of a plotter are you? Do you outline in detail?
I’m a major planner, yes. I dislike starting a book without knowing more or less what’s going into each chapter, and how the story will pan out for everyone. When I first started writing novels, I had a far looser approach, often starting in great excitement only to peter out partway through because I’d lost the thread and had no real idea what was going on. Some people work like that very successfully, but I’m afraid I’m too cautious to do that anymore. I like to know the world of my story as God knows this one, to paraphrase Hollywood script guru Robert McKee.

How do you name your characters?
Well, in a historical novel, many characters are either already named for you or have names limited by what was normal for that age. (I couldn’t have called my Tudor heroine Chardonnay or Buffy!) But when I have a choice and nothing leaps instantly to mind, I tend to flick through a baby name book until I find one that’s perfect for my character.

You’ve published poetry (as Jane Holland – Boudicca and Co is great), adult historical and now YA historical-paranormal novels. Do you see yourself expanding further and writing something different again like a children’s book or something with a contemporary setting?
Well, yes. I actually have a children’s fantasy novel completely written and hidden in a file somewhere, unpublished. But that’s maybe something for the future. I’m very restless as a writer, and although I’m excited to be writing Tudor fiction, I already know what I want to write after the series finishes; in my spare moments, I’m developing an idea for a Victorian slipstream thriller. It’s all still top secret though, so I can’t say much more than that.

What would be your top tip for new writers?
Write what you’re most comfortable with, not something you think will ‘sell’. The authentic voice of a writer  enjoying him or herself is what publishers really want – even if they don’t always know it! And write every day if you possibly can. Writing is like exercising on a freezing winter’s day. You have to do it to remind yourself why you like doing it, because when you’re not actively writing, it can seem like the hardest thing in the world to start.

Thanks for having me, Beth! 

It’s a pleasure, Victoria – thanks for visiting! 
So there you have it: some great info and advice there. Do check out Witchstruck if it appeals to you at all – it’s a great read.

Meg Lytton has always known of her dark and powerful gift. Raised a student of the old magick by her Aunt Jane, casting the circle to see visions of the future and concocting spells from herbs and bones has always been as natural to Meg as breathing. But there has never been a more dangerous time to practise the craft, for it is 1554, and the sentence for any woman branded a witch is hanging, or burning at the stake.

Sent to the ruined, isolated palace of Woodstock to serve the disgraced Elizabeth, daughter of Henry VIII and half-sister of Queen Mary, Meg discovers her skills are of interest to the outcast princess, who is desperate to know if she will ever claim the throne. But Meg’s existence becomes more dangerous every day, with the constant threat of exposure by the ruthless witchfinder Marcus Dent, and the arrival of a young Spanish priest, Alejandro de Castillo, to whom Meg is irresistibly drawn – despite their very different attitudes to witchcraft.

Thrilling and fast-paced, this is the first unputdownable story in a bewitching new series.

Guest Post: How I (Don’t) Write for Children by Caroline Lawrence

Today at the Hearthfire, we’ve got a visit from Caroline Lawrence, author of The Roman Mysteries, The Roman Mystery Scrolls and The P. K. Pinkerton Mysteries. Her latest western mystery starring P. K. Pinkerton is fabulous. Anyway, without further ado, here’s what Caroline has to say:

I was at the Edinburgh Literature Festival last summer and met an old Arvon pupil for tea. She had been working on several projects over the past five years, but had been finding it a struggle. ‘How do you write for children?’ she said at one point.

I stared, uncomprehending for a few moments, the realised what she meant.

She meant how do you get into a kid’s mentality and consciously make your story suitable for them.

My answer was: ‘I don’t write for children; I write for myself!’

I think each of us has an inner child.

The Age of Wonder

For some of us our inner child is a toddler. We are still amazed by the world and especially animals. We also love poo, fart jokes, pirates and fairies.

The Age of Adventure

For some of us, our inner child is aged 8 to 11 or 12. We feel grown up and ready for anything but aren’t yet obsessed with the opposite sex. We love adventures, puzzles, working out how the world works.

The Age of Awakening

Some of us have an inner adolescent or teen. The YA category from 13 – 18, is when mortality, sex, and relationships become of paramount importance. We are happy to explore these concepts via the metaphor of vampires and werewolves.

My inner child is an 11-year-old.

I love adventures and truth-seeking quests and mysteries. I prefer a ‘concrete’ story full of objects, tastes, smells and sounds to an ‘abstract’ book full of ideas. I also write to teach myself. That’s probably why there are so many facts peppering my books. I’m slightly geeky, so relationships and all that mushy stuff do not figure as highly with me as facts and finding the truth. (It turns out my books are popular among boys on the Asperger’s spectrum. I’m guessing I’m somewhere on the spectrum myself; or at least my inner 11 year old is.) Being a bit of a geek, I write about what fascinates me, whether it’s trendy or not.

When I was agonizing about a plot complication last week one of my friends said, ‘Don’t sweat it. After all, it’s only a kids’ book.’ ONLY A KIDS’ BOOK? I put as much time, care and research into my kids’ books as if they were for adults.

Of course, once you’ve written the thing, you have to make sure it is kid-friendly:

  1. Suitable content
  2. Vocabulary appropriate
  3. Clear, fast-moving plot

And that is often where the real challenge lies.

I used to teach 8 – 12 year olds – the age group I enjoy most – and I would often read a chapter or two of my Work in Progress. After a while just getting up in front of them immediately made me see what would work and what wouldn’t. Find a willing class of kids in your target age group and read to them. Even if your idea sprang from telling stories out loud, don’t use your own children, grandchildren or friends’ children. They will either be too nice or too ruthless.

By reading to an impartial target audience, you’ll know when they get bored or confused. What is suitable and what’s not.

You’ll also benefit from showing it to librarians, teachers and editors at some point. But that can be further down the line.

Here are my five easy steps for determining what age group you are best suited to write for:

  1. Write (or map out) a story that interests you.
  2. Use your instinct to guess which age group would like it best.
  3. Does that age group match the protagonist you had in mind?
  4. Read or show it to an impartial target audience, getting feedback.
  5. Modify as necessary.
Now if you will excuse me, I must go find an impartial audience of 8 – 12 year-olds and put my own advice into practice!
Caroline Lawrence’s latest book, The Case of the Good-looking Corpse, is set in the Wild West in 1862, when a 12-year-old misfit detective called P.K. Pinkerton must solve the mystery of who killed a ‘hurdy girl’ in the lively mining town of Virginia City.