Francesca wonders whether the WC Fields quote applies in writing also. Is creating young characters troublesome?
A couple of years ago, I received a critique for a novel that featured three-year-old twins, Elin and Rhys. The feedback was greatly encouraging, though it did call into question whether my toddlers would speak and act the way they did. The critiques are done anonymously, so I didn’t have an opportunity to say yes, they would, because they’re based heavily on my eldest grandson, Luca, himself three at the time. For that reason I felt confident I’d got them more or less right.
It wasn’t the first, or last, piece of writing where the child characters were inspired by my own progeny. Around the same time I wrote a long short story (if you get what I mean) about a cute three-year-old called Cosmo, who loved ‘woowoos’, ie, emergency vehicles. He was also based on Luca. The story was sadly commissioned for an anthology that never saw the light of day – but I’m not bitter!
It’s not only Luca who gets to hog the limelight. The third short story I had published, A New Beginning, in The Weekly News back in 2009, featured teenager Peter. It’s no coincidence that Peter is the name of my oldest son. Since then each of my four children have appeared in at least one story, though not always under their own names. Using them as models for characters has been useful though.
To date I’ve written eleven short stories and five novels that feature children or teens. My first two novels were, in fact, Young Adult. The second of those (shortlisted for the Wells Festival of Literature Children’s Competition in 2016) featured several sixteen-year-olds. While none of them were based on my children, I did use them as source material on various aspects of young adult life. There’s nothing funnier than hearing your teenage son on the phone go, ‘Yeah man, sweet, sweet. Sick!’
Peter and my younger son Jack have both been involved in the music scene, one as a musician, the other as a club DJ. This has been useful for research. Peter even made me a CD compilation of club music, to play and refer to while writing a party scene. I can tell you it’s weird hearing a sample of Thomas the Tank Engine in the middle of a drum and bass piece!
With or without your own progeny, there are plenty of other ways to research children and teens. Observe them in cafes and on trains. Children’s and youth magazines are useful. What’s in with the little kids these days? What are teens wearing, listening to, watching? Get a TV guide and see what programmes are popular. Watch a bit of BBC 3.
It also helps if you have a good memory – and a diary. I’ve long been in possession of a journal written in the summer 1971, by half-a-dozen of us who worked at my dad’s cafe. We were thirteen/fourteen at the time. Yes, it was common for that age group to do seasonal cafe work back then. We were fascinated and frightened by boys in equal measure. The diary reveals us to be crazy, bitchy, moody and inclined to stomp off and cry (the others, not me of course!). I’ve recently used the diary, along with my own memories, for a short story set in 1971 about Sandi and Steve. It was a hoot revisiting those mad days of funfairs and discos. Diaries from one’s youth are handy for recalling what it was like to be young.
As the WC Fields quote goes, Don’t work with animals and children. Animals in writing is a whole other subject I might cover another time, but I’d contest the children part. I’ve enjoyed creating children older and younger, playing out their stories on paper. They’re complex, wonderful, exasperating, worrying and hilarious. What more could you ask of a character? And I’ll let you into a secret. Despite coining that quote, WC Fields secretly admired children greatly. So there you go. Do work with children, on the page in a writer’s case. It’s fun!