Finding an imaginary friend
Children often ask me how I invent the characters in my books. It’s really just like making up an imaginary friend.
I’m sure you had a special teddy when you were little that went everywhere with you and became real, even though part of you still knew it was only a toy. It’s exactly the same when I make up a character. I see them in my head, I listen to how they talk, I watch them have adventures. It’s as if I have my own private television inside my brain, switched on nearly all the time. It must even stay on when I’m asleep because I often wake up with my character talking to me, giving me a brand new idea.
Some characters fade away as soon as I’ve finished writing their story, but a few hang around, begging for more adventures. Tracy Beaker wouldn’t leave me alone for a long time! But now it’s Hetty Feather. I’ve written five books about her, and yet she’s still there inside me, tossing her red hair and demanding more of my time.
Hooked by a defiant grin
I never set out to write a book about a Victorian girl. I liked to write very modern contemporary stories. But then I was made a Coram Fellow by the fascinating Foundling Museum, and I met with the then director, Rhian Harris, to see how we could work together.
We discussed various talks and events, and then Rhian said that of course what they’d really like would be for me to write a book about a foundling child. I wasn’t at all sure at first. However, I’ve always been fascinated by the Victorians, so I considered writing a 19th century foundling novel. I didn’t fancy doing months of historical research but when I thought about it I realised I knew quite a lot about the Victorians already because I’d read so many 19th century novels and pored over so many illustrations of the period.
I told Rhian I’d think about it. On the train journey home, I found I couldn’t concentrate on my reading book. I stared out the window, imagining what it would be like to be a child growing up in the forbidding atmosphere of a foundling hospital. I thought of all those children in their uncomfortable brown uniforms – and then I saw one child, smaller than her peers, with bright red hair peeping out of her white cap. She grinned at me defiantly and I knew she was my girl, my feisty little Hetty Feather.
I covered her first ten years in Hetty Feather, I wrote about her life after she left the foundling hospital in Sapphire Battersea, I reunited her with her father in Emerald Star, I dwelt on her life as a circus performer in Diamond, and told of her adventures as a music hall artiste in Little Stars.
I thought that was the end of her story – but now I’m not so sure!