For my Writing for Children slot in the #239 Dec 2021 issue of Writers’ Forum I interviewed Sita Brahmachari about how she develops her characters and setting for her young adult books.
She told me how When Shadows Fall grew out of an interaction she had in her first workplace at the Royal Court Young People’s Theatre with children who had been excluded from school. They were children full of potential who had already decided that education wasn’t for them. She worked on location and they had a small space to work in and the adjacent outside area was not ‘safe’ because people threw things from the flats above. ‘Missiles miss,’ one girl explained.
“Certain children I’ve met in my work as a writer and through arts education have stayed with me. I think about them and hope they’ve found a way to untap their potential. This book is a symbolic passing of the pen to all of them.”Sita Brahmachari
Sita elaborated how when writing about life – grief and loss is always a constant presence. It’s always been a central theme in children’s literature and she likes toweave them into her stories. She believes keeping stories and realities from children is what creates monsters and nightmares. The task is to find the right tone and holding place for the age of reader who might find your story.
She explained this is why she writes ‘rites of passage’ novels about grief and loss. In an exploration of loss she is also interested in diverse beliefs in what comes after. The timing of the publication of When Shadows Fall is one in which young people have suffered so many losses, not only of loved ones but also to their own liberty and potential.
Sita revealed her characters grow the story.
“The longer I live with the characters the more they become part of my life. I have met and worked with thousands of young people during my work in community, youth theatre, novel writing and education. Aspects of character: a phrase, a look, a comment, a steely stare, a leaning back, a leaning in, a discovery that a child that won’t speak is a gifted artist… these memories glimmer as I write and ignite something in a character I’m exploring.”Sita Brahmachari
She elaborated that at a certain point of writing the character emerges like a figure from clay, the features form and then everything in them speaks to you and drives the narrative. Working with and writing for Young Adults requires curiosity, honesty and to be open to their realities. Sita likes to connect with the feelings of the young person she was. So whatever age character she writing will do a little writing exercise where she imagines meeting them when she was the same age and they have an imaginary conversation.
“As a child I longed to see the diversity of characters who were my family and the people I met in life in the stories I read. So my stories have featured Diaspora characters from many cultures, histories and beliefs. I’ve seen how powerfully young people have wanted and responded to these stories.”
Her advice to other writers is don’t wait for the story to come whole. Keep a sketch book. Doodle, daydream, and write any thoughts, ideas, imaginings that come. Leave your ideas to prove and come back to them later to look for jewels. Writing is a layering process. Have patience. Don’t rip work up but do be prepared to start again and re- layer, re-voice and re-write. Question. Be open to what editors and first readers say. Test material. Listen deep. Pay attention also to the twist in your gut that hasn’t untangled what you need to in the story yet. Enjoy growing characters and let plot find you through them. Enjoy the flow when it comes like white water rafting or being in perfect balance on an imaginary high wire.
When it happens it’s exciting! Accept that sometimes there’s just a lot of heavy rowing to do. Keep going till you feel that what you’ve written could make some sense to someone else but don’t show your work too early. If you feel it has a force of its own that could convey, feel the fear of putting it out in the world and do it anyway. Never react to feedback or start re-writes straight away… let the thoughts and comments mull. Whatever changes you make have to be true to your characters and story and to yourself.
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