Never Work with… Children?

Francesca wonders whether the WC Fields quote applies in writing also. Is creating young characters troublesome?

The original ‘Cosmo’.

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 in his ‘Bluestone’ days.

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.

Dear Diary…

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!



They came, they queued, they pitched.

With pitches and first pages of novels in hand, Elaine and Francesca travelled up to London last weekend for this year’s Discovery Day at Foyles bookshop, to speak with agents from Curtis Brown and Conville and Walsh.

IMG_0166 cropped ERElaine: Saturday the 27th February 2016 had arrived. The nerves had suddenly come to the fore. Hundreds of unpublished writers travelled to the Curtis Brown Discovery Day at Foyles Bookshop in London. Everyone of us excited to have the first page of our novels critiqued by one of their agents.

I sat, with paperwork in hand, and spoke to the lovely Sophie Lambert who is an agent with Conville and Walsh Literary Agency. I give my thanks to her because my nerves disappeared and I was able to talk about my Victorian Saga with ease. Sophie showed a great deal of interest in my novel and pointed me in the direction of another agent, Rebecca Ritchie of Curtis Brown, whom she thought would be interested in my genre.




A glimpse into the pitching room.

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Were they trying to tell us something?

IMG_0780Francesca: I must admit, I wasn’t as nervous this year, maybe because I knew the agents weren’t there to snap people up but to give sound advice. I was lucky to land Clare Conville of Conville and Walsh. Although not representing my genre, she had some good suggestions about what to add to the opening. She also said it was ‘sharp and funny’, which was encouraging. She gave me the name of two agents from Curtis Brown, so I’m storing those up for when I’ve finished the novel.

After the one-to-one, we were sent in groups for the surgery session. Here we had an opportunity to ask any questions about writing, submitting and publishing. 


Claire, on the stairs ahead of us.

Rosemary, pitch in hand.

Rosemary, pitch in hand.

Elaine: At the end of the pitching and surgery sessions, Francesca and I, along with our writing friends, Rosemary Goodacre and Claire Verillo, stayed for the panel talk. This was chaired by Anna Davis.  Also on the panel were Emma Healey, author of Elizabeth is Missing, Karolina Sutton, Emma’s Curtis Brown agent, and Venetia Butterfield, from Emma’s publishing company, Viking. Anna informed us that the agents had spoken to over seven hundred writers, which is a staggering figure.

The panel discussion was mainly about how everyone has to pitch to sell the novel, from the author, agent and the buyer of the publishing company, who then has to try and sell it to the Sales Team and the Marketing Department. They also talked about what attracts them to a novel. The answer can probably be broken down into three words; Emotion, Characters, and Plot, but not necessarily in that order.

All relieved now it's all over. Surgery session in the background.

Relieved it’s all over. Surgery session in the background.

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Giovanna, asking which queue she should join for YA.


Anna Davis, MD of Curtis Brown Creative, introducing the speakers.

Francesca: I think the location within the store and the queueing system worked a lot better this year (Foyles has been refurbished since we were there last). We didn’t have to wait around for so long and there was a cafe to hang out in until your time slot arrived.

I understand the experience of those pitching Young Adult novels wasn’t quite as smooth. My daughter, Giovanna Burgess, was there to pitch a YA fantasy and her queue did move a lot slower. To speed it up, some of the writers ended up seeing non YA agents and even an agency reader. Despite this, Giovanna was more than happy with the advice she received.


It’s pretty safe to say we all had a good day and it is definitely something we would recommend. The opportunity to meet with agents and get feedback on your first page is priceless.

Were you there? What was your experience?

Twitter: @RobertsElaine11            @FCapaldiBurgess


Hay Days

Francesca Capaldi Burgess has just spent a couple of days at the Hay Festival.

x6385 smI was going to call this post ‘Make Hay while the sun shines’, but unfortunately the sun was mixed with a good deal of wind and rain. Nevertheless, I spent an enjoyable Wednesday and Friday at Hay Festival.

On Wednesday, I went with my good friend Catherine Burrows, who like me has had short stories published and is now writing novels. We sat in on an interview with Victoria Hislop, author of The Island, talking about the whys and wherefores of her latest novel, The Sunrise, set in the deserted town of Famagusta in Cyprus. We then did a tour of the festival itself, mostly under huge marquees, before taking the shuttle bus (£1 return) into the town, which is full of new and second hand book shops – well worth a visit. We enjoyed our day but decided that next time (yes, we want to go again!) we’d book more talks, of which there were many on offer.

x Catherine Book 2015-05-27 17.29.06

Catherine was thrilled to find her book in Richard Booth’s famous bookshop!


The Make and Take Tent

The Make and Take Tent

Onto Friday, and a very different day with my daughter-in-law and the three children. Apart from a full programme of entertainment, Hay has much to offer children in the shape of a ‘Mess’ Tent and a Make and Take Tent, where children can partake in various activities. Eleven-year-old Ben enjoyed attending a talk with Michael Morpurgo and a story telling session with Daniel Morden and Oliver Wilson-Dickson, while two-year-old Phynn was thrilled with the Peter Rabbit puppet show.

In the morning I attended a recording of the Radio 4 programme Front Row. The debate was ‘Do we publish too many books?’and covered, among other things, ebooks, diversity and how to engage young readers. You can listen to it here: Radio 4 Front Row debate at the Hay Festival

Samira Ahmed talks to Philip Jones editor of the trade journal The Bookseller, Crystal Mahey-Morgan Digital Sales and Marketing Director at Zed Books, Alexandra Pringle, the group editor in chief of Bloomsbury and Ali Sparks author of 41 books for children.

Samira Ahmed talks to Philip Jones, editor of The Bookseller, Crystal Mahey-Morgan, Digital Sales and Marketing Director at Zed Books, Alexandra Pringle, group editor in chief of Bloomsbury and Ali Sparks, children’s author

Meg Rosoff on the Starlight Stage

Meg Rosoff on the Starlight Stage

In the afternoon I attended a talk by YA author Meg Rosoff, a favourite of mine. She talked about how she gets ideas and her own writing process. She reckoned a writer could either pull a story along, like dragging a tyre on a beach to the destination they wanted, or follow it to see where it went, which she felt was the ideal method. She likes to write in thin layers, so that draft after draft she adds a new layer. She never thinks about an audience when she’s writing (which writers are usually advised to do) but asks herself a question and attempts to answer it. Meg was highly entertaining as well as informative and I’d certainly like to hear her talk again if I got the opportunity.

My daughter-in-law’s father went to see Marc Morris, an historian who’s new book looks at King John and whether he was the king we think he was. I’d love to have attended that too but it clashed with Meg Rosoff. Typical!

Along with some awesome and diverse eating places, there was, of course, the huge book tent. Signings were held in here (I couldn’t hang around long enough for Meg  sadly), along with books already signed by attending authors.

The book tent, or marquee, more like.

The book tent, or marquee, more like.

All in all we enjoyed our trips out to Hay and agreed we’d definitely attend again next year.


Hay Montage


You can still see the huge programme on offer at Hay HERE

Hay Festival general website HERE. There are ‘Hay’ Festivals all over the world at different times of the year.



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