Therese here. Today’s guest is author Meg Mitchell Moore, whose debut novel, The Arrivals, releases tomorrow! What’s the book about?
It’s early summer when Ginny and William’s peaceful life in Vermont comes to an abrupt halt. First, their daughter Lillian arrives, with her two children in tow, to escape her crumbling marriage. Next, their son Stephen and his pregnant wife Jane show up for a weekend visit, which extends indefinitely when Jane ends up on bed rest. When their youngest daughter Rachel appears, fleeing her difficult life in New York, Ginny and William find themselves consumed again by the chaos of parenthood – only this time around, their children are facing adult problems.
Said Publishers Weekly:
Moore finds a crisp narrative in the morass of an overpacked household, and she keeps the proceedings moving with an assurance and outlook reminiscent of Laurie Colwin, evoking emotional universals with the simplest of observations, as in “the peace you feel when you are awake in a house where children are sleeping.
I’m thrilled Meg is here today to discuss something we don’t discuss here very often: capturing the voice of a child in adult fiction. Enjoy!
Children Are Better Seen and Heard (Take Good Notes)
In 2010, at the fabulous Muse & the Marketplace conference put on by Grub St., a Boston-based nonprofit writing center, I attended a workshop led by Lauren Grodstein. The workshop was called “Writing the Child” and in it Grodstein, author of A Friend of the Family, talked about the challenges of creating a child’s voice on the page.
This all struck a particular chord with me because my debut novel, The Arrivals, has one character who is a three-year-old girl. The novel isn’t about this girl, whose name is Olivia: it’s much more about her parents, her grandparents, her aunt and uncle and how they coexist, both peacefully and not, over the course of one long summer in a very crowded house in Vermont. But for all that to ring true to the reader this little girl had to ring true too.
Luckily for me I have three young daughters. One advantage of this from a writer’s standpoint is that they talk a lot. (A disadvantage from a general peace-of-mind standpoint: They talk. A lot. They talk all the time, over each other, under each other, in the bathtub, at the bus stop, in the car: all the time.)
One thing Grodstein addressed in her session was the importance of listening to children—really listening, so that you can capture the cadences of their speech, their subject matter, their verbal tics and quirks. I don’t remember everything Grodstein said, but one example that sticks in my mind is that most children do not say “pisgetti,” though that has somehow become the default mechanism for portraying a child’s speech. Similarly, not all children lisp or turn a “th” sound to an “f.” Some do, of course, but not all, and when you reach beyond the clichés of children’s speech you tend to do more for the reader.
In my everyday life, I do a lot of listening. I do the usual listening that all parents do (who wants what for lunch, who needs what in her backpack, who has a playdate or a birthday party or a skinned knee). But I also listen to my children as a writer. What do they worry about? What makes them laugh, really laugh, in that delightful, surprising, deep-belly way? Does my youngest, who recently turned four, speak in full sentences all the time or occasionally in fragments? How do they respond to questions from an adult? Older children? Younger children? The non sequiters my children produce can be maddening when I’m trying to find a lost mitten or get to the school bus on time but pure gold when I sit down at my computer. All of this chatter is fodder for writers who are also parents. Fair game; call it repayment for mountains of diapers changed and predawn hours spent banishing nightmares.
Which is not to say that I based Olivia on any of my children. But, sure, I borrowed here and there. The way she sucks her thumb. The way she trades in a plum she’s just been given for a better model because the sticker has caused a piece of skin to peel off (“This one’s broken,” she says). The astonishing speed with which she picks up new, maybe inappropriate words in grownup conversation and inquires after their meaning.
When I began writing The Arrivals, about three years ago, my middle daughter was the age of the fictional Olivia. Then, as I completed the book, found an agent, went through editing, sold the book, went through more editing, my children were growing (they tend to do that). The youngest stealthily became the fictional Olivia’s age, and has recently surpassed it. That’s been a funny thing to witness because my baby has unwittingly grown into some of the Olivia-isms I gave to the character; without knowing it she has Olivia-ed herself.
Childless? Fear not! You can write child characters without ever having to put a single dollar in a 529 plan. All you need is a pair of working ears, maybe a notebook. Kids are everywhere. There’s nowhere better than the aisles of a grocery store, when parents and children are at their most vulnerable, with their anxieties and their stressors most nakedly on display, to observe. There’s always, always a five-year-old boy with his eye on a particular kind of cereal. How does he ask for it? What happens if he gets his way? More important, what happens if he doesn’t? There’s always a burgeoning walker trying to climb out of the cart, a sullen adolescent texting, an infant crying for his next meal. Same with Starbucks, the mall, the park: anywhere where people gather there are children. Sidle up (not in a creepy way, please). Listen. Take notes.
How about you? How do you write child characters?
Photo courtesy Flickr’s woodleywonderworks