Michelle Magorian on the writing process behind Goodnight Mister Tom

On the 40th anniversary of her beloved all-time classic, Magorian offers her advice for putting pen to paper and what inspired her to write it.

A black and white photo of author Michelle Magorian alongside the 40th anniversary edition of Goodnight Mister Tom on a red background

It’s been 40 years since Michelle Magorian first introduced us to young evacuee Willie Beech and his grumpy but endearing carer, Tom Oakley, in Goodnight Mister Tom. Despite the bleak backdrop of the Second World War and being strangers when they first meet, Willie and Tom soon find they are kindred souls, each helping the other to thrive in ways they couldn’t before.

In the ensuing years, Goodnight Mister Tom has earned Magorian the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize, and has been adapted for stage and, in 1998, the silver screen. It’s now widely regarded as a classic.

To celebrate this beloved book’s monumental anniversary, we asked Magorian to answer the questions she is most often asked.

How long did it take you to write Goodnight Mister Tom?

The first draft took me three years interrupted by acting jobs when I would spend six days and six nights a week rehearsing and performing plays and musicals. The second draft took me a year.

Did you like to write when you were little?

Yes. When I was in what you now call Year 6 some of my classmates would ask me to read my stories to them. By the time I was 11 I had decided that my perfect life when I grew up would be to spend half the year acting and half the year writing. However, when I was in secondary school, writing stories wasn’t encouraged, though I admit I was a bit naughty. I wrote them when I should have been writing essays!

Please can you give me some advice about writing?

As well as scribbling down any ideas that come into your head, daydream about your characters. See the world through their eyes. What makes them laugh? What frightens them? If they could wave a magic wand, what would they wish for? Do they have any friends? Who are they? If not, why not? What are they good at? What are they hopeless at? Perhaps you could write about an experience they have and maybe this will lead to a short story.

All writers are different. Some enjoy writing dialogue, others love to write descriptions, some like to draw pictures, others like to tell their stories through animation, through the lens of a camera or dance, or with music. Find out what works for you.

It’s through getting to know my characters that I am led to the plot of my books. And while I am carrying out my research my characters keep appearing in my head, and they inevitably lead me to the end of the story. Once I know that I begin to write, so that if a certain character takes me on a detour (and sometimes they do!), I still know where I am heading.

And when you don’t have time to write stories, observe people, listen to how they talk, watch how they move. Actors have to understand what makes people behave in a certain way. Writers need to do the same.

Do you ever get bored writing?

No. But writers have good days and bad days. This is normal. On some days it can be like writing through porridge. Other days, the characters are so vivid in your head that you can’t write fast enough and are even surprised by what they say!

What inspired you to start writing books?

For years I liked writing poetry, lyrics, scripts, short stories, and diaries, and then one day after completing one particular story I had to know what happened next. That led me to Goodnight Mister Tom. A photograph I came across while carrying out research and a scene in that book led me to write two more books, Back Home and A Little Love Song. Back Home led me to write Cuckoo in the Nest. A scene in that book drew me to write A Spoonful of Jam. In Impossible! 12-year-old Josie, who was born in A Spoonful of Jam, helps a nine-year-old boy, who was born in another book called Just Henry. Two men who turn up briefly in Just Henry and Impossible! led me to write about them when they were younger in Looking for the Diamond, and the mother of my main character in Back Home moved me to find out more about the women in the WVS who helped victims of the flying bombs in Kent during the Second World War, leading to Broken Soil.

What has inspired me to write books have been the people who turned up in my other books. In fact, a certain person who has appeared in three of my books will be the main character in my next novel, but that’s all I’m telling you!

How did you get the idea for Zach in Goodnight Mister Tom?

When you are writing a story, some characters grow slowly but other characters appear out of the blue and you know all about them instantly. When I was busy taking notes for background research for Just Henry, a boy kept popping up in my head, smiling optimistically, even though I knew he came from a difficult background. I would say, ‘Go away! I’m trying to concentrate.’ But he kept on reappearing, until, in the end, I said, ‘OK. I give up. You’re in.’ And as soon as I had made that decision I realized how important he was in the story. His name was Pip. It was just like that with Zach. There he was.

If you were not an author, what would you be?

Before I was an author I earned my living working in theatres, playing different roles in plays and musicals, comedies, and dramas. I have used my acting side reading Back Home and A Little Love Song on audio recordings and I like playing the different roles as I read extracts from my books during talks.

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