How working with children in fiction writing can ramp-up a plot

Authors often say, ‘I spend half the time working out where to put the child’, which is especially true for books that include love scenes ;D . But I’ve started using children as essential elements of the plots.

Initially, I used children for similar reasons to including pets – the children told the reader about a character’s personality. The connection with a child can help the reader to trust the character and see something different about them through their interactions with a child. In my early books I generally used sub-characters’ children which makes it easier to have them around when you want them to play a part and exclude them when you want a scene to be child free. I’m chuckling to myself as I’m imaging those weddings that say no children on the invite because people don’t want noisy children charging around the reception room and ruining the image they have of their perfect day. I suppose a book scene is the same, you can’t expect the children to be sitting quietly on a rug as easily as you can a dog, it would not be a realistic scene, and as soon as you begin writing unrealistic elements into a scene I think the reader’s mind spots it and turns them off the whole story.

So, children have to be allowed to be noisy, inquisitve and annoying, in my opinon, and bad tempered as well as happy smiling and laughing.

Actually, I say children belonged to others in my early books, but of course there is John at the age of ten in The Illicit Love of a Courtesan, broken-hearted, desperate and overjoyed to be returned to his mother. There’s a scene in that story of him that is one of my favourites – I picked it up from people watching – a friend’s son did this – John absentmindedly walks along thrashing the grass at the side of the path with a branch he’d picked up, as yet unsure of his mother’s new relationship. What is particularly lovely about John is the reader spends time with him as a boy in The Illicit Love of a Courtesan and then sees how that childhood impacts him as a man in The Scandalous Love of a Duke. He did grow up to be a very troubled man for obvious reasons when you know about his childhood. But because he was controlled and bullied by his grandfather he spends only short periods with his mother in The Illicit Love of a Courtesan, he was not a problem in scenes, which is why I didn’t think about him initially. But he plays a key part in showing you the heart of his mother’s character, and then his uncle’s in the next book, The Passionate Love of a Rake. John’s character, in his interaction with his half-brothers and half-sisters, is also defined in a different way, because they are experiencing a very different childhood to the one he had, and he struggles with that at times. In his character, his interactions with the children expresses more of the confusion, hurt and anger that he’s challenged with. With most of my characters, though, I sought to show a goodness and a reliable, steadfast, nature in people through their interaction with children.

Free me is the first time a child takes a more significant role in my books. When you write a single parent by the very nature of the character’s situation the child is with them all the time, unless they’re at school/nursery, but on those days one or both of the adult characters night be working. Of course, there are after school and sports clubs, play dates and babysitting options. But Amy’s daughter always being there plays into the story in Free me. Amy’s character has a very good reason not to trust people, so Rich has to be good with the child otherwise he wouldn’t be allowed anywhere near Amy. She and her daughter, Christa, come as a set. He has to want to give her daughter time and attention, and play with her, and take them both out to places, because Amy isn’t going to leave Christa behind. She won’t like him unless her daughter does too. The fact that he likes Christa and wants to spend time with them both was one of, if not the, most lovable feature about Rich. At times he can’t even hug Amy to say goodbye because Christa will not let her mother go. In the book you see in the scenes how he has to work to connect with Amy’s daughter and then he begins to look after her, carrying her on his shoulders when she is tired. He becomes part of the family. His interactions with Christa are a relationship and story development as much as his relationship with Amy. But Amy’s daughter, Christa, is very well-behaved, her mother’s life has been so traumatic that Christa has learned to behave and be fairly silent. But that also makes her harder for Rich to win over. Christa’s role is crucial in the middle of that couple, and I use her even right to the end of that suspenseful love story to play that part.

I discovered though, during writing Free me, that I really enjoy developing and showing that father/male partner with child relationship. When I’m people watching I love watching men’s interaction with young children – especially when the man is on his own. Men do often work a little differently with children. I think they try harder to make them happy rather than accepting sulking or anger or getting exasperated with temper tantrums, they’ll console. My love of that child and male relationship was the first spark of an idea that became my first psychological thriller, After you fell, which I think should be renamed ‘The Nanny’. The lead male is a single parent of three very young children, and the obsessive female character works her way into his home in the guise of his nanny. The children, as you can imagine, are therefore pivotal to the whole plot. Without them she’d have no reason to connect with him.

An American black man who sat next to me at a New York Yankees baseball game inspired me to come up with the single father of three in After you fell. The real man was with his wife. He had a baby asleep on his lap and a daughter and son. The chldren, I would guess, were three and five or six, fidgeting and asking questions, keeping him busy. He juggled his attention among the children and the game. I have a picture of that family that I kept to remember them by as my daughter took a picture of me and they’re behind me. It was just the way this man intereacted with his kids that made me think about a tender single male parent. Then, my brain said, what if the man had only recently lost his wife and was struggling to bring the children up through mutual greif? Throw in an obbsessive nanny who is connected with your wife’s ghost and you have story! But in a thriller the difference is she uses the children to build up his trust, rather than wanting to build up the readers’ trust. The readers know she’s there to cause trouble they are concerned for this father who is being fooled. Likewise the children’s place in the story is different, their role is to create problems and situations that generate close moments which make the reader wonder where it will go, but also conflict. The character uses them to her own ends, but children will not always do what you want and these children are grieving the loss of their mother, they do become angry and they will sulk, and they won’t do or be the nice neat instigators that the character wants. They cause trouble as well as setting decievingly happy family scenes.

All these different relationships in books show you how children may be awkward to write but then can and do take stories to different places and add important dimensions to the plots.

But in The Twins I’ve gone to another level; I’ve written the characters as children and spoken from a child’s mind. A lot of TV dramas use flashbacks, which gave me the idea of rather than talking about what a character went through in their childhood it was better to show the reader. Just to have it narrated through adult thought would have been boring. So. I have taken the reader into the twins memories and a large part of the initial chapters are scenes of the childhood that defined the girls and eventually broke them apart. When I started writing thrillers, I decided I was going to write every book in a consistent voice that would be mine, the authors. Previously I’ve written in a perspective that is almost acting the character so the descriptive narration aspects as well as the dialogue changes according to the narrative I think the characters would use. I’ve noticed that the best selling authors tend to stick to one style of voice, though, so readers seem to prefer a consistancy. But I just couldn’t bring myself to write with an adult voice for the young girls, so I have given that idea up in their childhood points of view. I’m smiling to myself again because one review said they didn’t like the writing in the narrative and stopped reading, it wasn’t very good, I presume they didn’t understand the fact that it’s children under ten talking. LOL. I’m not regretful, I think it would have sounded silly for children, even young teenagers, to speak like adults 🙂 . I really enjoyed using their voices to tell the early story, and a lot of people are really enjoying the story and the writing and saying that is largely because of the child’s-eye-view of the past. People who enjoy the stories tell me how emotionally engaged they became with those children. Those readers would not have built up the same relationship the twins if it had just been adults recalling memories. The storytelling would not be the same at all. Experiencing the emotions of the children through the awful things they experienced as children takes the reader into the rollercoaster of their early lives and means the reader understands and makes allowances for the flaws of the adults.

So, as you can tell from all of these little stories about children in my writing, my relationship with, and use of children in fiction has grown and changed through my books and now I really do make the best use of my children. Children are now at the heart of the stories and integral to the success of a story. They are a really worth while addition to explore if you’re an aspiring writer.

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Three old houses that inspired the settings and a part of the plot of Treacle Moon: House No. 3 is Townend, Farmhouse.

The last house out of the three, Townend Farmhouse in the Lake District, I only came across recently. I was in the final stages of editing Treacle Moon, reading and re-reading to sift out all the mistakes (as all my followers on here know, I have dyslexia so editing is quite a task and I don’t like sending books to a professional editor until the book is nearly perfect 😀 ). I was also still tweaking scenes I was not 100% happy with. At this time, there was a room … I will call it, a sticky room … in my imaginary house.

It’s very normal for authors to have sticky points in books, but it is usually with the plot. It is usually when the story you initially thought of ends up forcing a character to do something out of character, and so you need to come up with a different story direction. Or when you are missing the step change to take the story line from one point to another. But, no, this was a “sticky” room. I have never had that before.

IMG_3365Most of the scenes in my character’s house take place in the parlour/dining room, a room like the one in Swarthmoor Hall. A  room with different uses, unlike those found in upper class homes. There was another of these diverse rooms in Townend Farmhouse. A room where the family would have gathered to eat in the evening, where the women may have sat down to spin or sew in the afternoons, and to entertain themselves after dinner by reading or playing music and singing.

Other scenes take place in a bedchamber, like the bedchambers in Swarthmoor and Townend.

But I wanted a smaller more intimate setting for other scenes that needed to take place in a downstairs room. I wanted a room that was kept for a particular use, so that it wouldn’t be a busy space. This room could then have been deliberately preserved to keep a moment in time in place.

Initially the room was an office.

I have used offices before, but this is more fitting for a character who is steward, and the furniture I have seen in these settings in real life does not fit with intimate window-seat conversations. The descriptions just did not feel right.

DSC_0022In the Marlow Intrigues a lot of the most emotional scenes happen in the library.  Which I have always pictured as being very like the library at Stourhead. But of course this is no good for my lost-in-time manor house which was created in a different era and much smaller than the Duke of Pembroke’s Palladian Mansion.

There is a smaller room at Swarthmoor, but that isn’t really definable by any standard description. There are chairs against the wall and a writing desk, and that is it. My mind just would not turn that image into what I wanted the room to be. That room felt stark, a place for working not living in. I needed a comfortable space, where people would spend happy times but not a separate parlour because it would not be right for the period of the house.

I changed all references in the book to call the room a study, trying to think of it more like Byron’s rooms at Newstead Abbey, which I have been using as an inspiration for Lord Bridges small personal space.

But again, that just did not fit what I thought would be right for this lost-in-time manor house. It was too modern for that period, and it still didn’t feel like an intimate happy space. Again, it felt like a working room, and a masculine space, that would have been preserved for the use of the men in the house. I wanted a female character to feel just as at home there.

Then we visited Townend and yet again I am walking around a middle-class house, with dark oak panelling and rooms packed full of a preserved way of life that is whispering stories. Even before we walked into the house my thoughts were flowing with the issues of this “sticky” room. Because I had been working on Treacle Moon in the car while we were travelling.

Where as Swarthmoor added a sense of peace and happiness into my old house, Townend spoke of a busy way of life and a bustling atmosphere. It seemed to bring the people to life not just the spaces. Where that was most apparent, though, was in the very small library. It is tiny by comparison to Stourhead, probably less than a tenth of the size, more like a small bedroom. But this little library at Townend feels as if it was a family hub. It really was about what it felt like not what it looked like.

Literally in a second, just leaning in to look at the room, because you can’t even walk into the room as the books there are so rare, and I fell in love with that library. I knew I had found the perfect little room for the more intimate scenes in Treacle Moon. It had never even occurred to me until that moment that a middle class family would have built up a small library like this. But it was obviously a treasured space, where people in the house hid out to seek quiet, comfortable moments. It was the room I had been trying to, and failing to, imagine.

So there is not too much more to say about the library, because before I decided to share my figurative journey in development of the house in Treacle Moon, I had already shared the details in a post on this blog: A beautiful family library full of historical treasure.

IMG_4700But I will add that I did  allow other little things I discovered at Townend to creep into the story. For instance the weaver’s bowl lighting. I could imagine how, in a dark house, where people would not have been able to afford to burn beeswax candles all the time, and so would have used tallow/reed candles, how much of an atmosphere the light reflected by a large bowl of water would add. So you will find that light mentioned in one middle-of-the-night scene.

However, macon was too obscure, even though I loved discovering that they used to smoke a sheep’s, aka mutton, leg, just like bacon.

So, having given you an insight into the real houses and homes behind my fictional home, I hope you will feel as if you can really see my characters walking about and sitting in the rooms in the scenes in my lost-in-time middle class home in Treacle Moon.

As always, thank you for all your support, if you read these posts than I know you must be a real fan who likes to help others discover the books. I wish you well, and I hope you enjoy Treacle Moon as much as I loved writing it <3.



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