Story ideas – where do they come from?

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A long time ago, when I first started thinking about ideas for a children’s book, I knew that I wanted to set my first story in a nursing home. I’d worked for years as a Social Worker in an older people’s team, which had involved visiting many different nursing homes, and I’d also visited my own relations in nursing homes, so I felt that I knew a fair bit about the setting. I liked the idea of a friendship developing between a girl and a very old lady; people separated by an entire generation, but with plenty of common interests, upon which they could build a friendship. It was obvious what the old lady would be doing there – she would be living in the nursing home – but what about the girl? I decided that her mum would be the matron who was in charge of the nursing home, so she would live in a flat on the top floor. As an only child without siblings to play with, she would get to know the old people, and form friendships with them.

I also knew that I’d like the book to involve some type of magic; but what type? I toyed with the idea of a magic tree, out in the nursing home’s garden, or should the old lady be a witch of some kind? But when I tried to put these ideas down on paper, it didn’t seem right. I put the story away in a drawer and left it alone for a while.

Years later, I was watching a TV programme about the Romans. The presenter was wearing a gold pendant in the shape of a crescent moon, and she mentioned in passing that it was a genuine, Roman pendant, two thousand year old, that she had bought in an antique shop. This amazed me; until this point in my life, I had always assumed that such things were so rare and so outrageously expensive that they were all kept under lock and key, in museums or in private collections belonging to the very rich. I had a chat with the dog about it, and he also found it hard to believe that normal people could possibly buy something that was two thousand years old. In fairness to him though, he was hampered by the fact that he can only count up to two.

The next day, I started googling ‘Roman pendants’, and found that although gold ones were indeed pretty pricy (I think TV presenters probably get a decent wage), silver and bronze ones were not only available for sale, but were quite affordable. After a bit more research into which outlets could be relied upon to sell genuine items, I found a pendant I could afford, and bought it. When it arrived, I held it carefully in my hand. It was amazing to think that I was holding something so old! I put it on a chain so that I could wear it, and started wondering about what the original owner had been like. Had it been a gift? What had happened when she’d lost it? Had she been upset? If she was young at the time, had she got into trouble? Had she searched for it? Had she bought a new one to replace it?

I wished I knew more about her. Although there was no way for me to find out any more, I felt that in some way the pendant was a connection between us, even though we were separated by almost two thousand years. If only I could use the pendant as a way of contacting her, how amazing that would be!

Suddenly, it occurred to me that here was the magic I needed for my story. The mysterious old lady would own an ancient Roman object that would allow my main character to contact a person from the distant past; maybe even a girl of her own age. The story all started to fall into place in my brain, and I talked it through with the dog, who agreed that it sounded like a good plan.

Okay, I had my story; I was ready to start writing it down…

Post script – although it is true that the dog is only able to count to two, he was able to give his own answer to the question in the picture. Can you guess what it was? If you think you know, post it in the comments. I’ll tell you his answer, in my next blog post in two weeks’ time.

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A loud slamming noise…

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Now that my children’s book is published, a few weeks ago I decided that I’d like to have a go at setting up some school author visits. I spoke to my local primary school about the possibility of visiting, and had a chat with one of the teachers, who said that they’d be very happy to have me come in. She identified that year five would be the best group for me to speak to, and we talked about the book in general, and then I went away to think about what I might do.

How should I structure it? I asked around, and got some great tips from more experienced writers, who advised me that children like listening to adults read, but also like to do an activity as well. Slowly things started to fall into place, and I designed a plan for the visit; I would spend about five minutes telling the children why I’d decided to write the book and how I’d gone about it, and then I’d read a section of the book to them, for maybe about twenty minutes. After that, they could ask me any questions they had, and then we’d do an activity related to the book for another twenty minutes. As there are references to the Ancient Romans in my book, I decided that it would be fun to get the children to decorate Roman-style pendants made out of shiny card. After that, I’d have a few minutes left at the end, in case any of the children wanted to buy a book from me, although I’d give a copy to the school library, as well. Just before I left, I’d give them all a bookmark. All in all, it would take about an hour, and the children would have the pendants and bookmarks to take home with them, at the end of the day.

It all sounded like a good plan, and I ran it past the teacher, who agreed. The next job was a trip to the stationary shop to buy plain white card for the bookmarks, and shiny gold/silver card for the pendants. Then back home to design the bookmarks, print them off, and cut them out, and finally design and cut out the templates for the pendants. Until that moment, I had no idea that cutting out thirty, card pendants with curved edges, one after another, would be so painful on the hands, but now I definitely do. It might well be that I need to invest in some proper craft scissors if I want to do many more school visits; possibly the old kitchen scissors just couldn’t quite cut the mustard (excuse the pun!).

Right, I had a pack of thirty bookmarks, an envelope with thirty pendants in it, a bag with thirty copies of my book in it (always be optimistic!) and a copy of the book for me to read from.

Next, I selected the section of the book that I would read to the class and timed myself reading it aloud, to make sure it would be twenty minutes long. The dog sat next to me as I read, offering moral support in exchange for treats, and listening with his head on one side. I looked at his sweet little face – was there any chance at all that a class full of children would sit that nicely while I was reading? Clearly I couldn’t bribe them with treats; I was just going to have to keep my fingers crossed, on that one.

The day before the school visit I was slightly apprehensive; by the time the actual day dawned, I was really nervous. How would it go? Would they sit still and listen? Would I get a massive fit of hiccups or coughing? Would they ask questions I couldn’t answer? Would they hate it?

I put on my lucky socks and drove to school, feeling very much on edge.

How did it go? Well, amazingly, everything went according to plan and the kids were great. They listened quietly in all the right places (even without the treats), they asked thoughtful questions, and they seemed keen to know what would happen next in the story. Several of them bought copies and one even told me that he had now decided to become an author. I went home for a celebratory cappuccino, very pleased with myself.

It was a couple of days later, when I was collecting my daughter from the playground, that a group of boys ran up to me. They had bought the book, stayed up late reading it to the end, and wanted to tell me what they thought.

‘I’ve finished your book!’ one shouted.

‘Yes, we all have!’ his friends joined in.

I was a little uncertain; it looked like I was going to get some feedback, and I hoped I could handle it. But it seemed I had nothing to worry about. ‘We loved it!’ they burst out.

One stepped forward. ‘Thank you for making it!’ he said.

Another took up the reins. ‘I loved it from the first four words!’ he told me happily. I felt a bit dazed; they liked it! Then they were gone, dashing off across the playground.

Wow! What a result.

When I got home, I thought about how enthusiastic children were. I was pretty sure that if they didn’t like it, they would be equally forthright, but when they liked something, they really let you know all about it, in no uncertain terms.

And what were those amazing first four words, I hear you ask? I had to look it up myself, to remember, but here you go –

‘A loud slamming noise’.

I’ve done two more school visits since then. It’s definitely a great way to connect with potential readers, but mainly, it’s really good fun. I’ll definitely do more!