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English teacher interested in language and culture, and also in fiction using magic, myth, folklore and the supernatural. Now teaching part-time in a Leicester Upper School (ages 14-19) and also writing for children, teens and teachers.

Friday, 15 June 2012

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.

1 comment:

  1. What a super post, and I totally agree with getting feedback from children who aren't related to you. I think my inner child is about 11 or 12 too.

    Thanks to both Beth and Caroline for this great post.

    ReplyDelete

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