A creative writing exercise – The childhood book in your brain by Moira Butterfield

 I am a member of the Scattered Authors Society – a very friendly, relaxed,  supportive and creative UK group run by and for children’s and YA writers. We get together online and occasionally in person – with two weekend retreats a year. These comprise creative workshops of all kinds run by the attendees themselves - and some content from one of the recent workshops is here in this blog. If you live in the UK and you are a traditionally-published children’s author do consider joining. It’s a small one-off payment (about the value of 4 or 5 coffees) and well worth it. You can find out more through the link at the end of this blog.


I recently took part in a weekend retreat run by the Scattered Author's Society and I offered some of this content as a workshop for my fellow attendees. I thought you might like to try some of the writing exercises for yourself. It’s based around books that you loved as a child. These influences can be very powerful for writers, and by accessing them we might find some creative wells, or at least food for thought. Try it for yourself in a notebook one day! 


I thought about doing this when my Mum recently asked me and my sister to sort out our childhood books and take them away from her house (which I suppose is fair enough!). We didn’t have that many books compared to kids today but that was because we were regularly moving. We used the library mostly but the relatively few books that we owned were read again and again and again. And my theory is that these early books lodge in the brain forever – and they might possibly affect our creative life forever – like a sort of flavouring that’s been added to us. 


Obviously illustrations are likely to play a very strong part in our memories, too. They might be very integral to a book but for now we’re going to concentrate on the writing – because if we are writers it’s more likely that the influences we uncover will be writerly ones, perhaps. 


A) Start by doing a warm-up 3 minutes writing about your memories of you reading a book, as a child. Where are you. What are the sounds, the smells? Are you on your own or are there people with you? 


B) Next I want you to think about the plot of the book you’ve chosen and why it appealed to you in particular. (For example, I loved a quest story. Thinking about it, I moved with my family every year or two and I had to regularly find ways to fit into a new place - so perhaps that fed into my love of journey/quest books).


So let’s focus on the plot of the book you’ve chosen. I want you to answer a few questions – just quickly. 


1.    Is your favourite book set in the real world or is it in imaginary realm, or both? 

2.    In the plot of your favourite book, who is the main character.  

3.    In your plot did your character have a family present throughout the book, or not. 

4.    Does magic play a part or is it human agency. 

5.    Write down a location you strongly associate with your book. It might not have a name. It could be ‘treehouse’ or ‘seaside town’ or ‘garden’. 

6.    Write down a certain sound that your book brings to mind. 

7.    Write down a certain smell that your book brings to mind. 


8.    In about 5 sentences or so why do you think that this book appealed to you so much as a child? Nobody else – not why it was popular or whatever – why it chimed with you. 


C) Ok, let’s move on to overarching themes of society.  I’m from a generation born in the 60s – and looking back I can see how wartime was very much a theme of the books we were encouraged to read by adults –and by that I mean good v. evil, monsters at the gates, societal chaos (revolution, perhaps) as a bad thing. There are the out-of-control weasels upsetting the order of things in Wind in the Willows and also the really intense overarching evil of the Hobbit and the moral dangers of the Narnia books. These were all set in fantasy realms – so although they had obvious allegory (to us now) it was filtered – perhaps to make it less awful and scary, perhaps because people didn’t want to talk directly to kids about what had happened – I find that societal connection very interesting. 


Do a little bit of thinking about the overarching themes in your chosen book and whether you think it was of its time. For a minute or two, write down your thoughts about that. 


D)  I want to focus in on the hero or the heroine – or if there is a group of characters choose your favourite. Do a couple of questions to help you focus. 


1.    Is the character human or something else – an animal or a magical being for example. 

2.    Who is your character’s best friend in the book, or perhaps they don’t have one. 


Now spend 5 minutes writing about why you loved this character. 


E) And now think about a scene in one of your childhood book that you remember to this day – the one that made you happiest.  Write down why it made you happy. Or if it’s not one scene then what scenes in general made you happiest? 


And was there a scary scene that was full of peril – that has stuck with you from your childhood books? Or if it’s not one scene then what scenes in general made you scared? What aspects scared you? 


Spend, say, 5-7 minutes writing down what made you happy or scared in these favourite books. 


Do you think you’ve used any of these influences in your own writing? 


Ok. You’re at the end of your peek into your bookish psyche! Perhaps some of the notes you’ve made will get you thinking more about where your influences come from – many and varied as they are – and, who knows, they might trigger something that inspires you. And let us know about your childhood faves in the comments below. 

To find out more about the Sassies go to  https://scatteredauthors.org

Moira Butterfield writes early years non-fiction and poetry and mixes the two and adds in stories and generally tries to push the boundaries of what a kid’s fact book is! Look out for her many books around the world.  


Moira Butterfield


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