A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.

Borrowing from life

One of my least favourite questions during school visits, apart from How much do you earn, and Why do you look so much younger in your photo, has to be Are your stories based real people?

I don’t like answering this because if I admit that they are, the students will think I’ve cheated and am not actually a genius author person after all.

The truth is that writing for kids almost always involves writing about kids. And of all the children in my acquaintance there are three who I know really well, and who *might* at some point have given the literary equivalent of a kidney or two to my writing, and they are the ones I’m proud to call my own.

This is not new. Before I was an author I was a journalist writing about parenting. I exploited my experiences with my children when they were tiny for articles on everything from nappies to nits, and it kept them in sippy cups, but as they got older, and could potentially read what I wrote, this became seriously uncool.

So, now I write fiction. But the old spectre of writing what you know can still creep in, particularly when you’re tempted to write a novel about something that’s happening to your own loved ones in real life. As a parent you get a birds eye view of the full range of childhood and teen experiences, good and bad, and it’s hard to ignore them when you’re writing. But you just can’t use them in your fiction. Well you could, but your kids get to choose your old people’s home, so it’s really not wise.

I struggled with this recently. I had a story idea that came directly out of something very difficult that happened within my family. The emotions that led to it were so strong that I couldn’t not have written the book. But at the same time I knew that I couldn’t compromise anyone’s privacy.

So I just wrote it. And as I did the story grew and changed, and here’s what I realised.

All issues and experiences evoke an emotion and a variety of reactions. And for me as a writer, it’s not what happens, but how it feels that’s interesting; the situation that provokes it is interchangeable; it’s the emotion that contains the universal truth, and that’s the thing to go after when you’re writing, like a ratter down a hole.

Although she denied it, Judith Kerr’s Tiger that Came to Tea is a great example of this. As a little girl she lived in dread of the Nazis. The fact that in the picture book, written many years later, it’s a tiger who knocks at the door doesn’t change the power of the message. Because in fiction the truth doesn’t need the details to be right.

So, go back to my least favourite school questions, here are my answers.  a) not much, b) don’t be cheeky, and c) yes, my characters are based on people I know, but never quite in the way you might think.

Screenshot 2015-05-10 18.56.29

Nikki Sheehan
Nikki Sheehan is the youngest daughter of a rocket scientist and went to a convent school in Cambridge where she was taught by real nuns in habits. Her writing was first published when she was seven and her teacher sent a poem she had written into a magazine. She always knew she wanted to be a writer, but, for some reason she can’t remember she did a degree in linguistics followed by psychology. Nikki’s first job was subtitling the Simpsons. She then retrained as a journalist and wrote features about child psychology for parenting magazines and the national press. She is married and lives in Brighton with her husband, three children, two dogs and a cat.

Screenshot 2015-05-10 18.58.48

  • WHO FRAMED KLARIS CLIFF? (OUP, February 2014)


This entry was posted on May 12, 2015 by .

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