Tag Archives: #amwriting

On Writing: Characters in Children’s Fiction with Kim Slater

Writing with a voice that feels authentic and distinctive is one is one of the key elements of a great book. It’s something that all writers strive to hone and need to nail in order to hook the reader.

It’s a long process and that process becomes more complicated when you are writing for a younger reader and, perhaps, even harder when your protagonist is also a younger character.

On the publication day of her new novel The Boy Who Lied, multi-award-winning YA author Kim Slater gives advice On Writing younger characters for a younger audience. Kim has been nominated for the prestigious CILIP Carnegie Medal three times and has won and been nominated for numerous other awards for her outstanding novels Smart, A Seven-Letter Word and 928 Miles From Home . As someone who clearly knows what she’s talking about, we asked her how she manages to create such authentic and convincing young characters and voices.

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How do you write a teenager that feels authentic?

I use the same method as I do to get inside any character’s head; I imagine I am that person. I think about challenges they may face and how it might feel. And after all, most authors are at an advantage when it comes to writing for children and young adults . . . we have all been there! So, for me, it is taking some time to think back, to put myself in that younger mindset once more and think how certain issues or events might feel.

So in my latest book, ‘928 Miles From Home,’ there is a character called Sergei who comes to live in the UK from Poland with his mum. I invested some thinking time and put myself in Sergei’s shoes; he didn’t care about making a better life in another country . . . a detail that was important to his mum. Sergei was more concerned and upset about leaving his best friend, his pets, his grandfather.

I think these things would be uppermost in any young person’s mind and I think the reader would agree that these considerations would be authentic to young people leaving their home.

 

Are there any touchstones you use to make your characters come alive first for you and then your reader?

I’d say thinking time is my first rule of writing a new story. I always begin by setting aside some space to become the character and I begin by thinking in first-person, even if ultimately I know I’ll be writing them in third-person POV. I begin by free-thinking and then graduate to free-writing where I just write about anything at all but from my main character’s POV.

That really finds their voice for me and once I have the voice, everything else – like back story – soon follows. I like to get to know my characters well and, even if I don’t use all the information I ‘know’ about them, I feel it gives a depth and authenticity to the writing which the reader can somehow sense.

 

Do your characters appear three dimensional with a story in your head immediately, or do you have the character then work on their story, or vice versa?

The character voice always comes first for me and the main character is usually strong from the outset, although I wouldn’t claim they are immediately three-dimensional. That takes extra thinking time, ‘simmering’ as I call it, prior to starting to write. Once I feel I have a handle on the character, the next stage, for me, is to think about some of the things that might happen to them.

In my second book, ‘A Seven-Letter Word,’ Finlay, the main character, has a debilitating stutter. When I felt I had a good sense of his character, I began to think about some situations he might find himself in.

The only way you can hide a very bad stammer is to not speak, so I asked myself, what would be the worst place you might have to go? And the answer came; school. Because it’s a very difficult not to speak at all. So I have lots of scenes in school with challenges that Finlay is forced to face on a daily basis; stuff that most young readers can identify with.

 

Your protagonists are all around 14 years old – what is significant about this time of life?

I think it’s quite a profound time in a young person’s life. It’s an age when they begin to form their own opinions and maybe question others’ opinions too. Maybe they start to think about what they’d like to do in the future for the first time when choosing subjects to study at school.

Without doubt, around this age can also be a frustrating time; difficult relationships at home and school and feeling more grown up but still getting treated like a little kid. For an author . . . very interesting material!

There is also the consideration that younger readers tend to like to ‘read up’ a couple of years. I’d say my books are probably most popular with 11-12 year olds, so having a 14 year old protagonist fits just about right.

 

Is it important for the reader to like the main character in a children’s book?

For YA, I think that ultimately, the answer is yes. I tend to naturally write flawed characters who often have facets of their personality that are not so likeable – on the plus side, I feel this makes them rounded and more realistic.

I want the reader to understand the protagonist, empathise with them; even if they don’t necessarily condone or agree with some of their behaviour.

But one should remember that young readers tend to place themselves in the shoes of the main character. So, for this genre, there must be a lot to like in the protagonist, I think.

 

The Boy Who Lied is published by Macmillan Children’s Books today. Follow Kim on Twitter: @Kimslater01

On Writing: Family Dynamics with Annie Murray

The dynamics of a family always make for a good story. You probably think your own family is not very interesting and that you’re just like any other. But it’s the small idiosyncrasies of each family member and the relationships between them that never cease to pique people’s interest – and makes for excellent reading.

In this On Writing post, the Sunday Times bestselling author Annie Murray talks about writing family dynamics. As a prolific and successful author of over 20 sagas, she knows how to write a great drama and tells us why it’s always interesting to keep it in the family.

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How do you do justice to the complexities of family dynamics in fiction?

 That’s quite a question. While it’s true that very often people feel typecast in their family – she’s the clever one, or the one who’s always in a mess and so on – this is fatal in fiction if that’s as far as it goes. It’s important to be able to identify characters and not get them muddle because they are too similar, so of course they need defining characteristics. But I think the main thing is to introduce characters in a way so that you can recognize them readily, but to add layers, contradictions, cross-currents – above all in the main characters. If a character is always an ‘angel’ and sickly sweet, never thinks or does anything anyone could disapprove of or dislike, they are unbelievable and in the end, how can anyone else identify with someone like that?

I often write books in which there are large families. If the book covers a long period, there may be a child born near the beginning who, until they have grown up a bit, I have no idea what their personality is or their role in the novel, but a role for them arrives later – like watching a ‘real’ person develop. And in being born into that particular family, they have found a place in something that is like a constellation. Family members occupy a space that makes a unique pattern for that particular family. That pattern is held in place by the ebb and flow of the way personalities interact and how people forge their identity differently from each other. All this gives energy to the family as a distinct shape, which may shift over time – people leave or take on a different role – but the characters need to be held distinct in it. I’m not sure if that makes sense!

 

 Novels often depict families – how do you take a fresh angle?

I think any family is a fresh angle of itself because the dynamics of each are unique. When I’m planning a novel I don’t look for ‘issues’– I like to write books about life in the round which necessarily includes quite a variety of events and moods and often covers quite a long period of time. What makes any family interesting is its very particular character, which, as Tolstoy pointed out, makes it ‘unhappy in its own way.’

 

 Do you have a clear idea in your head who each character will be and what their role in the family/novel will be?

No – hardly ever. I find it’s a matter of focus and time. Once you start thinking about a novel, characters seem to present themselves as the figures you are going to spend time with. Something comes through, a kind of energy that says, I’m the one this time. They are not in any way fully formed – that has to be worked on, and thought out consciously as well as intuited. Sometimes I have to do a Q & A with a character, often asking them really basic questions. It always helps to know where they have come from and something of their birth family’s dynamics – even if that is not in the story itself.

I have tried many times to plot and plan everything because it seems like a way of alleviating anxiety in writing the novel, but it only ever works up to a certain point. I find that the only way to know characters is to write them. It’s very like getting to know a person you have newly met. As the number of encounters you have grows, as you talk more and see that person forced up against challenges, you get a feeling of what motivates them. You work out what it is they want, what their underlying emotional complexities are. The more major the character is in the novel, the more time you spend with them. Once I’ve reached the end of the first draft I usually feel, aha, I’m really beginning to see who you are now. But it takes re-writes to get that better in place. A bit like turning the colour up in a black and white photograph.

 

 Do you use story circles or any other kind of story-boarding device to help you fine tune your ideas?

 I really don’t. Obviously I make notes but it’s more about doing the writing and thinking in between, asking yourself, ‘who is this person?’ What are the things that have marked them, what drives them, what do they fear and long for?

 

 Why do you think that stories about ‘the family’ continue to be popular and interesting?

 ‘Home is where we start from’ as Donald Winnicott said. That’s one of the things that make orphans so fascinating and touching – because home in that way is missing for them. But in general, it’s an experience everyone has in common – in an endless variety of ways. And the more we learn about the impact of early years experiences on infants, the more true it becomes that family is absolutely the cauldron of who we become. I sometimes think the ‘saga’ genre should be called the ‘Family Album’ genre as there’s going to be something in these stories that nearly everyone can relate to.

 

What other authors, in your opinion, have nailed family drama and why?

There are so many. One that springs to mind in terms of what I’ve been saying, is in a book most people have read; the way Jane Austen differentiates the characters of the Bennett daughters in Pride and Prejudice and shows the family dynamics at work through them. It’s even harder when all siblings are the same gender (Barbara Kingsolver does something amazing with this in The Poisonwood Bible with all the main voices being female.) Writers of regional/family sagas also have to do a lot of it as we often write about large families!

 Annie’s new novel Sister’s of Gold, the first of a trilogy set in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter, is out now, get it here. Follow Annie on Twitter: @AMurrayWriter

On Writing: Historical Setting with Margaret Dickinson

The latest blog in our On Writing series looks at Historical Setting with bestselling author Margaret Dickinson. Today marks the publication of The Poppy Girls, the 25th novel from the Queen of Saga. 25 novels? Most writers struggle to finish one! Huge congratulations to Margaret and thank you for taking the time to share your incredible author wisdom with us.

The Poppy Girls

When I found Darley Anderson in 1991, it was he who suggested that I should try to write a regional saga and he gave me three very useful pieces of advice, which I still do my best to follow with every book I write.

  • A strong woman as the central character, whom the reader can visualise from the first page
  • The story should ‘breathe’ the place you’re writing about; your readers must feel that they’re walking down the same streets that your characters are walking down.
  • A satisfactory ending so that the reader closes the last page and says, ‘yes, that’s a good ending to that story.’

And that’s all there is to it, really…  Well, not quite!

Regional sagas are traditionally set during the first half of the twentieth century, though I did once go back to the 1850s with Pauper’s Gold so that the background of the pauper apprentice system in the cotton mills was historically correct.  Sagas, too, are usually spread over several years, so consequently the author is always running into one war or another!  However, that can be a very useful way of getting rid of an unwanted character!  And also, there is ready-made conflict in a war situation.  For example in The Clippie Girls, set in Sheffield, I already had the tension of the Second World War; the rationing, the bombing, the blackout, women doing men’s work and the constant fear for the soldiers fighting overseas.  But I wanted more conflict so I invented a household of women; the grandmother, who owns the house and never lets anyone forget it, her widowed daughter and three granddaughters, all with very different personalities.  Once the time, the setting and the characters are all in place, then the story begins to flow.

There is no right or wrong way to write a novel, but this way works for me.  Before I write anything down, even notes, I have my central character and probably one or two more around her.  Then I know when the story takes place, where it’s set and the background; i.e. farming, fishing, tulip-growing, lace-making and so on.  I know how it is going to start and I already know how it will end and I also have a vague idea what will happen through the story, though this may change as the plot develops.  At this stage I don’t do detailed research.  I may make a preliminary visit to places and talk to a few people to make sure that when I do want to do in-depth research I know where to find it.  I also collect numerous books on the subject in readiness.

Then I write the story, going straight through a first draft to the end without pausing to edit or to refine.  This works for me to keep the pace going, though I do make ‘notes to self’ throughout reminding me where more details need to be filled in during the research stage.  (By the way, editors always talk about ‘pace’!)  At the end of a very rough draft that is fit for no one but me to see, I then go back to the beginning and work steadily through the script, doing detailed research and filling in the blanks.  At this stage I will visit museums and speak to experts as well as reading non-fiction books on the subject and researching on the Internet.  Newspapers of the time are a great resource, giving not only the news of the time but also an insight into people’s lives from advertisements as well as articles.

Another read-through of the script will concentrate on the characterisation asking myself questions such as, are all my characters fully rounded so that the reader will believe in them as real people?  Have I got enough emotion into the story?  Is the plot line credible?  Everything that happens must have sound reasoning behind it; editors do not like plots that hang on coincidence or chance!

I believe it is important to get the facts right, especially if you are writing about a real occupation.  For example, if you are writing about a mining community, they have always been very special people and not to represent their lives accurately could be insulting to them.  Even though it is fiction and all my characters bear no resemblance to real people, I like to think I am paying tribute to the kind of people I am writing about.  And, of course, it’s vital to get historical facts right.  Your readers are intelligent, well-educated people, who will soon spot a glaring error and lose faith in your accuracy and therefore probably in your novel too.

As regards the amount of research needed, this will vary with each book and it’s quite a difficult decision to know how much to include.  You want to give a realistic and accurate background and yet not overload the reader with facts that detract from the plotline.  I have heard readers say that if they come to a page of description, they skip reading it!  What I try to do is weave in descriptions and facts amongst conversation and action.  That way, the reader will absorb it without really being aware they are doing so.

But the most important thing to get right is to create a ‘page-turner’ that will keep your readers wanting to know more about your characters and what happens to them until the very last page!

Margaret’s new novel The Poppy Girls is published by Pan Macmillan today, get it here.

On Writing: Dialogue with Kerry Fisher

It’s easy to talk, for most people. On average, we speak around 20,000 words every day. But trying to replicate the ease and nonchalance of conversation with your best friend is tricky. Dialogue is, notoriously, one of the harder things to get right when writing a novel. How often have you read a piece of dialogue in a book and thought that it didn’t sound right or was pointless? It can often be tough to nail the style, delivery and keep it useful to the story.

Today, on the publication of her ‘layered and poignant’ new novel, The Secret Child, bestselling author Kerry Fisher gives us her top tips on writing dialogue.

The Secret Child - amazon

1. Listen to how people speak – in shops, on the train, on TV. Dialogue is influenced by background, age and where you live, as well as the environment the character finds himself/herself in. People speaking in a job interview or making a complaint on the telephone will sound more formal than when they are at the pub with their friends.

2. Teenagers are a tricky age group to write dialogue for because their favourite/current words are constantly evolving. Keep checking with someone in the right age group that the words you’ve used are not from the 1990s.

3. The biggest lesson I’ve learnt about dialogue is not to be too formal. This is where listening to how people really speak comes in. Don’t overthink it – just imagine your character is rushing into a bar to tell his friends what he’s just seen in the street – ‘There’s a right old commotion going on outside. Some bloke just fell off his bike in front of a lorry and everyone’s getting out of their cars to have a good old stare.’ Which is much more natural than ‘There’s been an accident outside. A man’s fallen off his bicycle in front of a lorry and lots of people have got out of their cars to have a look.’

4. People do swear, so if you have a character who would use colourful language, you just have to forget that your mother might be reading (anything, ever). In my experience, most readers will tolerate moderate swearing even ones who don’t like profanity if it’s in keeping with the character. I’d be reasonably sparing with the F-bomb and think very carefully about whether the C-word is absolutely necessary unless you really want to shock or expect your readership to be fairly young.

5. Dialect or an attempt to convey an accent onto the page can be tiring to read. Give your character a couple of words to give a flavour of the accent and leave it at that. Readers hate having to decipher what’s written before they can enjoy the story. In my debut novel, The Not So Perfect Mum, one of my characters had a Basque name, Etxeleku, and I got more complaints about that than anything else in the book because people didn’t know how to pronounce it.

6. Most people don’t often use other people’s names in conversation once they’ve been introduced, unless they are calling them over or trying to get their attention so keep the ‘Would you like a cup of tea, Paul?’/ ‘Where are you going tomorrow, Sandra?’ to a minimum.

7. Usually people don’t speak for very long without someone chipping in or interrupting. Try to avoid huge paragraphs of speech without any action in between.

8. Dialogue should help you distinguish between characters in a book. There are lots of ways to do this but it could be that one character speaks very informally with lots of slang, gives everyone a nickname. Another character might use long, rather pompous words. In my novel, The Silent Wife, I tried to differentiate between two women from different social classes by using specific vocabulary for each one e.g. sitting room/drawing room/lounge/front room, sofa/couch/settee. If, like me, you’re not sure which is the ‘posh’ word, the internet is alive and kicking with forums to debate these things!

The Secret Child by Kerry Fisher is out now, get it here. Follow Kerry on Twitter: @KerryFSwayne

On Writing: Supporting Characters with Phaedra Patrick

While some books can hold their own with a solid, unshakeable protagonist (ahem, Jack Reacher), most books need to have an array of interesting, fully-realised supporting characters. Where would Bridget Jones be without her chain-smoking, straight-talking friends and family? Or where would Frodo be without the Fellowship? Probably wouldn’t have made it past his front garden, if we’re being honest.

Phaedra Patrick is an author who knows the value of an eclectic group of supporting characters. Her outstanding debut novel, The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper, wowed critics with its ‘oodles of charm’. Now she’s back with her highly anticipated follow-up, Wishes Under the Willow Tree, which once again is brimming with a number of unforgettable characters. We want to know how she does it.

Wishes Under the Willow Tree cover

Both of your novels have a fantastic array of supporting characters, how do you create supporting characters who are three-dimensional and with distinctive personalities?

Main characters have space and time throughout a novel to grow and develop, whereas supporting ones enjoy a more fleeting appearance. So it’s important that they are memorable for readers.

I always try to think of a couple of distinguishing attributes for each minor character, a little like a caricaturist might select strong features to exaggerate in a drawing. Or it might be something about the way they walk, or talk. I try to make them a little out of the ordinary – a llama keeper who ties up his long hair with a child’s pink bobble, a lonely lady who cares for others by baking cakes and who wears rhinestones on her fingernails, a lord of the manor who dresses only in cobalt blue and who hand-raises tigers.

It also helps to give minor characters a passion, obsession or duty. It doesn’t have to be anything big, just something that allows them to have a journey or goal of their own. They may love trying out different flavours of crisps, or be hunting for a place to live. They might have a secret unrequited love, or be trying to save a floundering relationship. It’s great if it’s something readers can relate to or recognise.

 

What should good supporting characters contribute to the story?

We all have other people in our everyday lives, even though not all of them are helpful! Some have large parts to play, and others have smaller ones. Main characters need people around them too, whether that’s friends, family, neighbours, work colleagues, strangers…or even enemies and rivals.

Supporting characters are there to encourage and help the hero or heroine on their journey. Or to throw hurdles in their way.  They can add variety to the story, offer solutions, or a bit of humorous relief. They should help the main character to shine, rather than try to hog the limelight themselves.

 

Are the supporting characters initially vehicles for the plot or do they come to you first and you figure out a way to fit them in?

In both my novels the supporting characters often showed up unannounced, as I wrote. It’s a little like a casting call for extras and you never know who is going to turn up on the day.

 

Has a supporting character ever found its way into a more prominent role, if so who/why?

In The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper, Arthur’s interfering neighbour, Bernadette, initially had a smaller role. She was there to bother and provoke Arthur. However, the more she turned up on his doorstep with her home-made pies, the more it became apparent that they both needed each other, in order to move on with their lives.

 

Which book/film/play has outstanding supporting characters? What do they have that makes them special and what can writers learn from it?

One of my favourite introductions comes from Tony Stark, the main character in the film Iron Man, when he introduces himself as, ‘Genius, playboy, billionaire, philanthropist.’ These four words give us such a clear picture of his character. I actually think it’s brilliant film too, one of my top three. All the characters are distinctive, their interaction is exciting, the main character has an interesting journey full of highs and lows, plus there’s a great bad guy.

Describing your friends and family in four words can be a great writing exercise to try out. Or, why not ask them to describe you? It’s a useful trick to apply to the cast of your book, to give you a strong framework for their characters.

Once you have four words to describe your main character, you can think of contrasting or complimentary ones for your supporting ones, so you have a real mix. If you have a workaholic protagonist, try giving her a lazy assistant and see what happens. Or if you have an unlucky-in-love bachelor, give him a flat mate who’s an expert on Tinder. The combinations are endless.

 

How do you know when to cut a minor character out? Have you ever had a ‘kill your darlings’ moment?

I’m guilty of committing a few murders when necessary. If a minor character doesn’t contribute to your main character’s journey or quest, then they should leave or change. You can often ‘feel’ when they aren’t quite working. My second book, Wishes Under the Willow Tree (known as Rise and Shine, Benedict Stone in the US), featured a Yorkshire hairdresser who just wasn’t doing her job. It’s only when I turned her into an Italian florist instead, that she came to life.

Wishes Under the Willow Tree is out now on e-book: get it here. Paperback will be published April 2018. Follow Phaedra on Twitter: @phaedrapatrick