Monday, 9 September 2019

Making It Personal: Harvesting Picture Books From Real Experiences by Clare Helen Welsh

We all know that finding an original picture book idea is tough. Extremely tough. But one way of being unique, is to make your writing personal. There is only one you, after all!

Twenty authors could all write stories about bears, but what would make yours different from everyone else’s is what you bring; your experience, your style, what you notice, know and believe to be important about bears. No-one can replicate you and that’s what will help your text stand out to publishers.

So how do we cultivate our ‘You-ness’ ?  - a term I first heard author, Catherine Johnson, use at the SCBWIBI Conference in Winchester - and how do we turn it into picture book gold?

Try writing down all the experiences, people, memories, interactions that are important to you. Choose one and consider:
-                     Is it interesting to others?
-                     Is it helpful to others?
-                     Is it (or can it be) told from a child’s perspective?

This last point is particularly important. You will need to craft your emotion into something accessible for the age group you are writing for. Remember that just because something resonates with us as adults, doesn’t necessarily mean it will touch or entertain a child in the same way. Emotion is hugely important in picture books, but your text still needs excitement and tension to make children want to come back to it again and again.

It’s perhaps helpful to expand your mindset when working in this way. Your final text might not actually be the whole of the thing you experienced. Once you have taken the nub of the idea/memory/emotion and sculpted it into something children will enjoy, it might only be a snippet of your original experience; a phrase, a character or an idea that you can use as a springboard for something else.

As an example, my most recent picture book, The Tide (illustrated by Ashling Lindsey and published by Little Tiger), started life as a phrase that my children kept repeating whilst on a day trip to the beach; ‘The tide is coming in! The tide is coming in!’ I wrote whilst they played. It was very special to sit back and watch them. It was also the first time they learned about tides.

On the beach at Perran Sands, Cornwall (April 2015)

Ronnie Spry, who lived with dementia, with two of her grandchildren.

Six months later, this memory had very much stayed with me, and so I used it as inspiration for a book about dementia, told from a child’s point of view. There were already some very good books for children on the subject. I know because my children’s Grandma lived with dementia towards the end of her life. Their Grandma wasn’t with us on our beach trip. No-one even mentioned or talked about dementia on that day. In fact, the final text doesn’t bear much resemblance to our trip at all. But the emotion is there. And a few little details that make the text feel fully-rounded; my children did play in the rock pools. They did build forts and castles and they did laugh in and shower in the salty spray. Their song, ‘The tide is coming in! The tide is coming in!’ also features, as a refrain in the book. Using the tide as a metaphor for memories that come and go, was unique and original to me. It was my way in to a subject written about many times before.

                                              (c) Ashling Lindsay (2019)

                                                (c) Ashling Lindsay (2019)

Perhaps you also like working this way? It would be great to find out if you do.
If not, perhaps give it a try …and let us know if you find picture book gold!

Clare is a children's writer and primary school teacher from Devon. She writes fiction and non-fiction picture book texts - sometimes funny and sometimes lyrical. Her first book was published in 2015, and she currently has books in development with Little Tiger Press, Quarto, Andersen, Nosy Crow and MacMillan. You can find out more about her at her website or on Twitter @ClareHelenWelsh .


Juliet Clare Bell said...

Thank you, Clare, for this really helpful post. I've often wanted to write about a specific topic and I've had to wait until a completely different environment/cue comes along (like your seaside) before I can see a way to write it authentically in a way that is not too autobiographical and personal to me. I'm trying to find a way of being more receptive to it -I think we have to have done some thinking about it before the 'inspiration' comes, even though it often feels that it's come from nowhere. I'm reading a book at the moment called Rest, which talks about this process. Thank you! And really good luck with The Tide and all your other upcoming books. x

Chitra Soundar said...

Congratulations on the shortlist of The Tide for the North Somerset Book award Clare. I think journaling and mining your memories help a lot and as you say - finding equivalence to kids and to a concept is the penance of writing children's books. Thanks for this post.