Monthly Archives: May 2020

Book Review: The Pirates are Coming!

Title: The Pirates are Coming!

Written by: John Condon

Illustrated by: Matt Hunt

Published by: Nosy Crow

The Pirates are Coming

The Pirates are Coming is a captivating tale about Tom who climbs the hill each morning to watch for pirates to arrive at the village. John Condon uses knowledge of eh classic story The Boy Who Cried Wolf to its advantage to set up a humorous and satisfying twist ending.

Unlike The Boy Who Cried Wolf story, Tom is not being naughty when he cries, “The Pirates are Coming!” as he really does believe he has spotted a pirate ship. Tom’s dad explains what a pirate ship looks like with patience and understanding, which gives the text a heart-warming feel.

I like the ingenious ways the villagers hide from the [pirates in the illustrations by Matt Hunt. Young readers can explore the pictures to see if they are able to find where each villager is hiding providing an interactive reading experience.

This book could be used to extend observation skills by looking at a selection of different silhouettes and asking the children to guess what the object is. An ideal book for stimulating discussion on families and relationships.

An interview with… Laura Wilson

In Oct 2009, I interviewed historical and psychological crime writer, Laura Wilson, about her research tips and techniques for my Research Secrets column in the national writing magazine Writers’ Forum #96.


Laura Wilson explained why for both historical and crime writers research is important. she said:

“There’s a standard piece of advice given to people who are starting to write fiction – write from your own experience. I would venture to suggest that if you are, like me, a writer of crime novels, it’s not very useful. What are you supposed to do? Go out and murder someone and then say, ‘Sorry, Officer, I was just doing it for research?’ It also rules out writing historical novels, science-fiction, fantasy, and quite a lot else besides.”

She explained that if you are not going to create a fictitious town or village, you can make your task easier by choosing to set your work in an area you know well. Laura often writes about the West End of London, as she lived and worked there for a number of years and is very familiar with it. However she did make it clear, a writer should always be allowed to take liberties. For example, she once moved a whole seaside town five miles down the Essex coast, although she pointed this out in the acknowledgements so the readers, if they choose to look at them, were forewarned and didn’t write her letters pointing out the ‘mistake’.

Another tip Laura gave in he feature to make life easier was give your protagonist a job you have done yourself. For example, Dick Francis, the ex-jockey, writes stories set in the world of horse-racing. Research for him must be comparatively simple, because he has both the knowledge and the contacts. Laura admitted sometimes too much knowledge can get in the way and hold up the action. The best piece of advice about writing she has ever come across is from Elmore Leonard, who says, ‘Leave out the boring bits’.

It’s always tempting to slip in factoids because you know them, forgetting that the reader wants a narrative, not a lot of information about coal-mining or dry-cleaning or how to put on a crinoline or whatever it happens to be.

She is adamant story-line must always be paramount, and don’t let anyone tell you different, as there’s a risk that research becomes a displacement activity that holds up the business of writing.  she explained there should be two main reasons for research: the first is to ensure that your story-line will stand up, and the second is to underpin your work with authenticity and truth.

she told me there are some practical steps one can take to find things out: the police and other experts are astonishingly helpful, provided that you are specific in your questions. Go to the library, do your homework, and work out exactly what it is you need to know first. Buying drinks or lunch usually pays dividends.

It’s important, too, to confirm things you think you already know – get it confirmed by another source. There’s a lot of debate about the efficacy of the internet as a research tool they need to be checked against something more reliable. People’s memories can be faulty, too. Nothing beats a spot of physical research – as Black Beauty said, ‘Feeling is believing’.

Research can bring your nearer to the characters. Laura said: 

“While writing my fifth novel, The Lover, I had great difficulty getting into the mind of the killer, Jim Rushton. The book is set during the Second World War and Rushton is a fighter pilot, so, after consulting the genuine articles, I booked myself a trip in the nearest machine I could get to a Spitfire, a Harvard Training plane which had been modified to seat two people.

I discovered for myself the amazing adrenaline rush other pilots had described to me.” (Laura Wilson)


To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #96 Oct 2009 Writers’ Forum by ordering online from Select Magazines.

To read my latest Research Secrets interview you can invest in a postal subscription from the Writers’ Forum website or download Writers’ Forum to your iOS or Android device.

For more information about Laura Wilson and her novels take a look at her website:

Resolve the problem

In any story there will be a problem the character has to face and those problems have to be resolved by the end of the story. Often readers will be anticipating the ending they hope to see. They will have recognised the strengths and weaknesses in the characters and they will want them to overcome their problems and solve them in a satisfying way through their own resolve and intelligence.

problem solving2

A common mistake for many new writers, writing their first children’s novel is to have an adult whether it is a parent/carer or in some cases a total new character who is actually a stranger to the reader, storm in a save the day. This is not a satisfactory ending and in a lot of cases it feels as if the author has cheated, in the same way as waking up and finding it was all a dream. I know as a reader I want the resolution to be because of the actions of the hero of the story.

This resolution should be built up in a series of stages throughout your plot so it does not come out of the blue. It needs to make sense to the reader. Satisfying story endings use elements from the story’s beginning and middle. Here is one idea for a step by step approach, which I use in my own writing:

steps to solve the problem

Step One

Clearly describe what the problem is so it is clear to the reader and state why this is an issue for your protagonist. Make it clear to the reader why it is your hero’s problem not anyone else’s and why they are the only one able to solve it.

Step Two

Initially the problem is going to cause some anxiety or fear. Ensure you make it clear in your writing how your character feels about the problem. They may be frustrated or angry or need to employ techniques to help them calm down and think clearly. It should be clear to the reader why they feel upset, annoyed, scared, etc.

Step Three

Show your hero’s thought process as they work through the problem. As a writer, it is helpful to brainstorm as many different solutions to the character’s problem as possible. In your brainstorm write why each idea will or why it will not work. Remember effective story resolutions come from the protagonist’s actions. Not every solution will work and not every story has a happy ending but they do have to make sense.

problem solving

Step Four

Write short scenarios to describe what would happen if your character undertook each of the solutions you came up with. Think:

  • Was the solution safe? A safe solution means no one will be hurt or upset.
  • Was the solution fair? How do the other characters in your story feel about each idea for the solution.
  • Did the antagonist get his comeuppance? In children’s books especially the reader wants good to overcome evil and friendship to prevail.

Step Five

Have the problem escalate as the story progresses. Each time they attempt to solve the problem it either becomes worse, or they are confronted by another obstacle. They may think they have solved the problem then realise the effect it has had on others and need to fix this. A solution may create a totally new and larger problem.

Step Six

Finally your protagonist is able to resolve the problem by learning from their mistakes and through their own determination and intelligence. Your character should have grown in some way and the other characters should be satisfied with the way the problem was resolved and any loose ends are tied just like when knitting a jumper.

The ultimate aim is to have a happy reader.

happy reader

You want them to keep reading to find out if your protagonist solves the problem and most importantly your reader should feel something at the end of the story. I hope this helps.he problem.

An interview with… Michael Lawrence

For the #97 Sept 2009 issue of Writers’ Forum I interviewed children’s book writer Michaew Lawrence. Michael told me he does not like to specialise. His first book for children came out in 1995. Since then he has published around 50 more of various kinds, from first picture books to young adult novels.

Michael Lawrence

His most popular books are the Jiggy McCue novels, which include The Killer Underpants, the Toilet of Doom, The Meanest Genie and The Iron, the Switch and the Broom Cupboard. He publishes one of these a year.

Jiggy McCue books

Michael explained he does not research the Jiggy McCue stories at all, or even attempt to reflect the times the kids live in to any great extent. Mobile phones, DVDs, famous film stars and so on are mentioned, but Jiggy and Co’s school experiences are essentially his own from over half a century ago. He bases their lessons on the lessons that he still remembers so well, and some of their teachers were his actual teachers he even uses their real names. You might think this would date the books, but Micheal said that children can’t have changed as much as we imagine, because a great many of them write to him to say the books are so much like their world.

Ideas for books often come to Michael in unexpected ways and often in unlikely places. Michael told me that one very wet Sunday in August 2008, he was in Tintagel, Cornwall, walking up the hill to the site of an Arthurian battle re-enactment, when the thought came that Jiggy’s parents might be visiting or taking part in just such a show and Jiggy is either whisked back in time or a knight from the past comes forward into his time. But almost at once he dismissed this as too obvious.

Plenty of bizarre things happen in Jiggy’s world, but time travel seemed unlikely to be one of them. But then he thought, suppose someone very like Jiggy lived in a century when men wore armour, fought with swords and jousted, and by the time he got to the re-enactment the spin-off series idea was born. It will be called Jiggy’s Genes, and each book is about an ancestor of Jiggy’s who bears not only the same nickname as him, but has similar attitudes, in spite of the time he is attached to.

He bought himself a hefty hardback Le Morte d’Arthur, a new copy of Roger Lancelyn Green’s King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table (fondly remembered from childhood) plus various books and pamphlets about life and conditions in the 15th century and also trawled the Internet for alternative insights.

In the first book Jiggy’s Magic Balls, Thomas Malory has just escaped from gaol and has an idea for a saga about knights, great battles and quests. He asks for Jiggy’s help with ideas. The Arthur that Jiggy points out to Malory is a shifty little pickpocket, and Merlin is a shyster lawyer who specialises in divorce cases. Michael explained Malory uses their names but does something rather ambitious with their characters…

For the second book in the series,Jiggy and the Witchfinder, his 17th century hero meets Matthew Hopkins, the Witchfinder General, who wants to hang Jiggy’s Nan as a witch. Michael told me:

“Any Jiggy book must have a goodly quota of laughs, but the England of the period was beset by war, disease and poverty, and saw the execution of a great many innocent people at the hands of dreadful men like Hopkins, so it hasn’t been easy keeping the story light as well as realistic.” (Michael Lawrence)

Michael’s trilogy, The Aldous Lexicon (A Crack in the Line, Small Eternities and The Underwood See) and Juby’s Rook are all set in the ruined village of Rouklye, which is based on Tyneham in southern Dorset. He used his first house as the model for Withern Rise in Small Eternities: The Aldous Lexicon 2.

ML's first house (model for Withern Rise in The Aldous Lexicon) (2)

ML’s first house (model for Withern Rise in The Aldous Lexicon) (2)

“My research for the trilogy has been literally life-long, as the setting is the house and village I was born in. In the three years it took me to write the books I returned there constantly, and during the writing my desk was littered with photographs of the house, the stretch of river on whose bank it stands, and the village and attached market town.” (Michael Lawrence)

In 1943, Churchill’s War Office requisitioned the Tyneham Valley for troop training and weapons testing, evacuating everyone who lived there. They promised to return it when the war was over but never did, and today Tyneham. It is still ‘owned’ by The Ministry of Defence and is a sad, haunted ruin of a place. Juby’s Rook is set in 1999 and is about an elderly man (Juby Bench) who was a teenager in the village when everyone was turfed out.

jubys rook

He returns every August to take note of the extent of the decay and walk his old haunts. Michael has walked all of these haunts, during which, over several visits, he made extensive notes and took hundreds of photographs. Michael told me the completed book took about nine years to sell. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s because it sank without trace or a single review. Yet Juby’s Rook is one of the books he is most pleased to have got into print.

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #97 Sept 2009 Writers’ Forum by ordering online from Select Magazines.

To read my latest Research Secrets or Writing 4 Children interviews you can invest in a subscription from the Writers’ Forum website or download Writers’ Forum to your iOS or Android device.

Creating suspense

Over the years of my writing career I have been on many courses and workshops for different aspects of writing by a wide variety of well known published writers not only those who write for children. Some of my favourite writing talks are crime ‘noir’ conferences where I have discovered a wide range of writing tips and techniques.

writing suspense

One of the main things I have realised is that suspense, tension and conflict are all finely linked. You create one by ramping up the other and have to balance these factors with the final resolution. Here are a few of the things I have learnt and have found useful, which may help you to achieve this.

  1. Make achieving their goal a race against time. There is nothing like a deadline for keeping the adrenaline pumping around the body. The greater the need to achieve the goal and the less time available to achieve this the higher the stakes, the tension and the suspense.
  2. Lull the reader into a false sense of security by using longer sentence just before you reveal the shock of the unexpected.
  3. In contrast, short, sharp sentences mimic the disjointed thought patterns of fear and urgency.
  4. Make your readers root for your characters safety by ramping up the danger.
  5. Using the present tense at the highest points of tension will make the narrative more immediate.
  6. Make the source of the fear a surprise to the reader.
  7. To make your readers care and worry about the main character make your protagonist vulnerable in some way.
  8. Use foreshadowing to rank up the danger by letting your readers know of these vulnerable attributes such as allergies or phobias early on in the story and then make it inevitable they have to face these situations later in the story.
  9. In a similar way, give your character a desire, wound or internal struggle your readers can identify with and then use your reader’s empathy and concern for the impending danger to escalate the tension.
  10. View the world though the protagonists eyes so the reader can identify with your main character and experience what they are feeling.
  11. Use all the senses to get your readers to hear, touch, smell and taste the action.
  12. Initially the less people who believe the protagonist and who do not understand their fear of the antagonist and the seriousness of the threat, the more suspense is created.
  13. As you progress through the story more people should become worried, afraid, sad or curious. This will increase the tension.
  14. Strip the protagonist of something essential to their safety.
  15. Use the power of three. Have small alarming things happen three times to reinforce the conflict, so the concern is mentioned, then it is reinforced and then people begin to realise there is a problem.
  16. Use familiar things, people and situations in different contexts to make your readers feel uneasy.
  17. Let the reader know more than your characters do. So they can see the villain metaphorically creeping up behind your main character before the main character is aware.
  18. Use superstitions even if your character is not superstitious to rank up the suspense and tension, such as making the meeting at number thirteen, accidentally walking under a ladder or a black cat crossing their path.
  19. Delay what is really happening by having a small worrying event which your character ponders and tries to fix this when something bigger happens they need to solve and then have a final climax at the end of the chapter. This will help keep the readers turning the pages to find out what happens next.
  20. Think carefully about your word choices. You can create a dark, spooky atmosphere by using gloomy and macabre words rather than happy, sunny words.

I hope these ideas help you and if you have any more ways of creating suspense, you would like to share, please leave a comment.

Keep it simple

Writers need to interest and entertain their readers. To do this, they have to make sure every word is understandable by using plain, simple language and concrete words. Obscure technical terms, foreign phrases, long unpronounceable names and jargon may make sense to those in the know but not to the majority. It puts up an unnecessary barriers that will deter your readers.

barrier brickwall

Inspiring some children to read is difficult enough as it is, so why make it more difficult for them? My advice is don’t hesitate to break the rules if the alternative is to write something that looks and sounds contrived or ugly. To avoid badly constructed sentences that grate on the ear read what you have written aloud. Record it if you have to and listen back.


Your aim should be to get the meaning across directly without using artificial and over literary sentences. This will help your stories understand the turn of events and keep your readers turning the pages. To achieve this try to put yourself in the shoes of the readers. 

boy reading cartoon

Before putting your pen to paper ask yourself:

  1. What am I trying to say?
  2. What words will express it?
  3. What images will make it clearer?
  4. Is this image fresh and original enough to have an effect?

Choose precise words and invent your own images to make your meaning clearer. We have been told by countless people that the use of hackneyed similes, metaphors and other phrases is pure lazy writing. So when editing your work check if you are using original descriptions.

child editing

Metaphors like: ‘you win some, you lose some’, ‘a fish in troubled waters’, ‘hard as nails’ and ‘snow-white’ are over-used and dull. It is better to invent your own metaphors and similes to add colour and imagination to your writing.

Avoid using long words where a short one will do. If it is possible to cut a word out then cut it. You can often find words that can be cut without losing meaning. The word ‘that’ is the ideal example. Cutting adverbs and adjectives can also strengthen your writing.

Book review: Farmer Falgu Stays at Home

Title: Farmer Falgu Stays at Home

Written by: Chitra Soundar

Illustrated by: Kanika Nair

Published by: Karadi Tales

Farmer Falgu Stays at Home

This superbly written story will help to encourage both children and adults to find fun things to do at home during the pandemic.

Farmer Falgu’s daughter, Eila, is fed up of staying indoors as she misses her friends and wants to play and explore outside. She doesn’t understand why everyone has to stay at home. Through a simple to read and easily relatable text, Chitra’s main character, Farmer Falgu, explains sensitively that staying home is the only way we can keep everyone safe.

I particularly like how Chitra has included the fact that sometimes the adults have no choice about going out, as in when they need to buy, or sell food. The book could be used to trigger discussion on why they can’t go with them. I know from experience this has been a difficult issue for lots of young children to understand when they are used to accompanying their parents to the shops and now they are not allowed.

I also like the message for children that we are also trying to avoid making other people ill too. In this way, Farmer Falgu Stays at Home promotes empathy and understanding of how we can all do our little bit to help and it does not need to be boring. Eila discovers there are fun and exciting things she can do at home without having to travel further than her front door. The final spread gives useful advice for parents to encourage their children to wash their hands, maintain social distancing and avoid getting ill.

The ideal book to read to your child during the current lock down. You can find details on how to get hold of this free e-book here

An interview with… Jo Franklin

In issue #182 Dec 2016 of Writers’ Forum I spoke to my friend, Jo Franklin, about why she prefers to write about children who feel they are on the edge of society.

Jo Franklinwood_0100

She explained that for most of her childhood she lived on a small farm in rural Sussex with hardly any social life. When she was eleven she was sent to boarding school. It was a very strange combination – the claustrophobic all female environment during term time and the boredom of the farm during the holidays. She never felt that she belonged in either place so felt very isolated. She read books as my means of escape and this led her to Sylvia Plath.

“I totally related to Esther in The Bell Jar. It was a revelation to me that Sylvia Plath could write so openly about her deepest feelings, thinly disguised in a novel and she got recognition for it. I knew that was what I wanted to do.” (Jo Franklin)

Jo joined a creative writing class at The City Lit in London and started putting words down on paper – stories about teenagers struggling with first love and identity; taking bits of her tortured soul and refashioning them into words on paper.

She discovered the important thing about writing for children is to find your inner child and reconnect to it so that your writing is convincing and real. Jo advises authors who want to write for children to ‘write who you are’ as if you can channel some of your own experience into the characters they will be rounder.

Jo found herself writing about characters who are on the edge of the society they live in – tomboys, geeks and outsiders. Some of her misfit characters wonder what they should do to fit into the mainstream. Others are more confident with who they are and the stories show that maybe society should open their hearts to the fringe characters in our world. Exploring the issues that children face is actually a way of exploring your own issues.

In her book, Help I’m an Alien, Dan feels such a misfit that when his sister tells him he’s an alien, he believes her. In Help I’m a Genius (the second title in the series) Dan is so intimidated by the brain power of the rest of his family, that when he is selected to represent the school in a National Brainiac Competition, he is convinced he is going to humiliate himself. He recognises that he doesn’t fit in and the stories explore how he feels about that. I’m interested in the range of emotions that go with searching for your own identity.

Jo doesn’t write specifically for girls or boys as she believes children’s books should be universal . 

“I hope that my stories are accessible to everyone regardless of whether the main character is male or female.They are written with a broader outlook, but publishers sometimes get hung up on which slice of the market they are focusing on selling the books to. My worst fear is a publisher giving one of my books a girlie pink cover. I was a tomboy growing up and I still hate pink.” (Jo Franklin)

Jo told me a great children’s book needs to be written from a child’s heart and soul. The voice has to resonate as true. It doesn’t matter whether a book is funny, exciting or mysterious it somehow has to lead the characters on a thrilling journey of self-discovery and include emotional insight as well as enthralling action. Some of the facts of children’s lives are different now – technology dominates their lives – but they still face the emotional journey we all went through.

Her advice is if you want to give writing for children a go, a good way to start is to work on a memory and see where it takes you. How did you feel the first time you saw your mother/father cry? Remember that time you did something wrong and you passed the blame onto someone else with disastrous consequences? What did it feel like to walk into your new school aged eleven? Choose one of these and write for fifteen minutes. See where it takes you.  Enjoy it. Don’t worry about anything other than your joy at putting words on paper.

The next step is to join a writer’s circle, critique group or creative writing class. It’s a great way to begin learning your craft and meeting like-minded people. Perseverance is the thing which differentiates a published author from the many aspiring but unpublished writers.

You can find out more about Jo Franklin, her books and writing life on her website and follow her on Twitter @jofranklin2

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of  Writers’ Forum issue #182 Dec 2016 online from Select Magazines.

To read my latest Research Secrets or Writing 4 Children interviews you can invest in a subscription from the Writers’ Forum website or download Writers’ Forum to your iOS or Android device.

The diversity of writing for children

The great thing about writing for children is that the jobs are always varied and interesting. You never know what varied work you will be asked to write. The idea is to keep your options open make yourself available, even if it means tight scheduling on your side to get it done. All the examples below are ideas for opportunities which you could also pursue to add that extra arrow to your quiver.

Over the years, I have written school text books and homework books, picture books, activity books, text for sticker books, graphic novels, photocopiable worksheets, science investigations, maths puzzles, a children’s booklet for a local wildlife park, book reviews, encyclopaedias, non-fiction books, comprehension and model non-fiction texts for online teacher resources, early readers for reading schemes, high-low readers and my poetry has been featured in teacher resource packs and poetry books.

poetry anthology

A couple of years ago, I was commissioned to write 27 differentiated play scripts that can be used for guided reading or for performance on stage. They cover the themes of childhood experiences, traditional stories and stories from other cultures. Each play is accompanied by detailed teachers’ notes that provide suggestions for making costumes and props as well as performance ideas.

PUP 9-10

I have also been commissioned to write audio book texts, including six discs of classic fairy tales where I adapted twenty much-loved stories by Hans Christian Andersen, The Brothers Grimm and Carlo Collodi for young listeners.


These stories are read by Tamsin Greig (Green Wing, Episodes, Friday Night Dinner) and Stephen Mangan (Green Wing, Episodes, Dirk Gently).

Other writing jobs include writing story adventure books and online resources for toy companies.

A really fun and exciting project to work on was the Adventure Passport series designed to inspire ages 5+ with a love of our culturally diverse world. Each of the four mini suitcases represents a different continent and contains six letters from six different countries the main characters have visited, a passport, six stickers sheets (one for each country), twelve photos, two finger puppets, a regional map and six fun activity sheets for your children to complete. 

Adventure Passport project

These suitcase would be an entertaining way to keep KS1 aged children happy and amused during long rainy days at home or during the lock down.

You can find out more about the books and writing I have done on my website: