Episode 3 – The Story Thief Challenges – How to write from experience!

Written by Liam (yeah, ok, Aoife helped me a little) & just one photo by Liam

Featuring top author ER Murray.

Note: You should always start every story at the start so if you haven’t already, go and read Episode One now! You can also check out the author profile for ER Murray  Oh and if you’re a teacher or librarian or work with kids in any way then don’t forget to check out the guidance for educators including recap questions and advice on how to do this month’s Story Challenge with kids!


Grownups are weird. They’re always talking about the weather as if they had some control over it. They tidy all the time even though everything just becomes messy again. But writers are the weirdest of them all.

Some writers say a Story Thief steals their stories if they don’t write them down or tell them quick enough. They say the Thief’s got a pen as big as a sword and a giant ledger on its back for writing them in and a secret library where hundreds of years of wonderful, stolen tales are hidden.

Me, I thought this was just forgetful writer nonsense, but then things got strange. First my writer Dad couldn’t write anything or even tell us a bedtime story. To fix this, me and my sister Aoife got writing advice from authors to help him, but then last night he told us the Story Thief was stealing his stories.  We didn’t believe him until this morning he couldn’t remember mentioning the Thief to us. It was like someone had stolen his memories of talking to us.

Now me and Aoife stood in her bedroom after school. We stared at the reply the Thief had left for Aoife inside her favorite book to her note demanding Dad’s stories back. It was written in old fashioned writing. It said

Garden. Darkness. Tonight.

‘Huh?’ Aoife peered at it. ‘What does that mean?’

‘I think it wants us to meet it after dark tonight in the garden.’

‘I knew that.’

I stared her down, ‘We’re not going out. Too dangerous.’

‘You’re just scared.’

‘No. I wrote a message to another author this morning. I – ‘

‘No more authors -‘

‘It’s ER Murray. She’s the best, she -‘

Aoife glared at me. ‘I’ll go out alone!’

‘Aoife -‘

‘I don’t need your help!’ She stuck out her tongue at me and shoved me out of her room, slamming the door behind her. I told myself. I’m not the boss of her. Dad was fine so far today. He’s just forgetful and his writing’s not going well and that note, well, I’m not scared. Not scared at all.

I snuck up to Dad’s computer to check the message I’d written to ER Murray before school this morning:

Dear Elizabeth, how do you use your memories and the stuff that happened to you to help you write stories? Please answer. It’s urgent. Liam.

I clicked the computer on. Yes! I rushed into Aoife’s bedroom. ‘ER Murray replied to my question!’

‘Good for you scaredy pants.’

‘Come on. Let’s see what she said!’

She grunted, ‘Okay!’ and followed me out to the office where I read outloud the Writing Advice from ER Murray, author of the Nine Lives Trilogy:

 

 

Dear Aoife and Liam,

What a brilliant question – it really made me think!

Whenever I read or write a story, I have to believe in the characters, place and situations completely, and there’s no better resource than our own real life experiences. Things that have happened to me – both from the past and day-to-day – regularly filter into my books. Even when I don’t mean them to! Sometimes, it’s good to let stories surprise you and take you in directions you don’t expect.

I’m not a very observant person – I feel atmosphere and mood more than I notice factual details – and so I write my stories focusing on the emotional journey of the characters and their adventures, then I fill in the particulars later. Memories are deeply ingrained and can burn very brightly and I often draw on memories of feeling a certain way – good and bad.

Can you remember feeling left out? Or bursting with excitement at opening a surprise gift? Or what it’s like to fail at convincing people you’re telling the truth? You can draw on memories like these to add colour, music, and magic to your stories – it doesn’t have to be 100% exact, it just adds a flavour.

For example, I didn’t realise it when I started writing but my main character in the Nine Lives Trilogy, Ebony Smart, is the feisty, brave and bold girl I wish I had been when I was younger. I liked being a show-off when I was good at something but was terribly shy when I wasn’t and I never felt empowered to make decisions. So I created a character that could be really brave, but doesn’t always make the right choices.

So my characters are also made up of memories and people I’ve met. I don’t copy people in their entirety, but fuse different elements to create my own realistic characters. As a result, I have lots of real secrets hidden in my books, both on purpose and by accident. Grandpa Tobias is loosely based on my father; he loved animals and countryside and was much older than other people’s dads, so he made a good starting point.

You can also draw on stories and events that interest you, but don’t involve you directly, through memories and accounts from other people. For instance, retelling a favourite fairytale from a different character’s perspective, rewriting something your parents or grandparents told you about growing up, turning a newspaper story into fiction, stories from history such as the suffragettes or the Egyptians or a war. There are lots of letters and diaries out there that can bring a period of history to life. If something interests you it will show in your writing and will interest the reader.

If you’re wondering how best to capture details from everyday life and memory to use in your stories, I recommend lots of listening, reading and a notebook. Read anything that grabs your interest and don’t limit yourself – I still read picture books and they’re very inspiring! Sit and observe the world and people around you. Make notes of sounds, smells, tastes, and how things feel. How you feel. The memories that stir. Try to remember important details. Watch how light, weather and noise affects your mood. How they affect other people’s moods. It’s like being a professional spy and really fun – and will make your stories better!

PS: Here’s a Story Challenge for you! What memory from your own life is really important to you? Why? Now try to imagine it as a story and write it down or tell it. Change as much or as little of it as you like.

We leapt up to our feet, spoke in sync, ‘Dad!’

As we ran down the stairs, I said to Aoife, ‘This’ll fix everything. You won’t need to meet the Story Thief.’

She grinned, ‘Maybe.’

Dad was in the kitchen playing on his phone as usual. Aoife yanked the phone out of his hand, ‘Dad, what’s your top memory?’

‘Huh?’

I joined in, ‘It could help you make a story! What’s the coolest thing that ever happened to you?’

He smiled, ‘That’s easy.’

‘What?’

‘Meeting your Mam.’

Aoife jumped up on his lap and ordered him, ‘Tell us. Tell us again.’

He’d told us this story a million times before. Aoife always asks to hear it when she’s missing Mam. Normally it’s boring, because it’s all romantic, but today I wanted to hear it too.

Dad started, ‘So it was a..’and then I felt that cold wind and Dad’s eyes went blank.

He stared into the distance with those scared eyes. ‘I don’t remember.’

Aoife shook him, ‘Dad! Remember! It was in the pub and -’

Dad pretended nothing had happened. ‘It doesn’t matter.’ He stood up, knocking Aoife off his lap and hurried upstairs. ‘You two need to do your homework.’

Aoife sniffed away tears. I hated it, but knew what I had to do.

I said, ‘Okay. I’ll meet the Thief with you tonight.’

Once it was dark and Dad had finally gone to sleep, we stood in the upstairs hall and shivered in our pyjamas, but not from the cold. I asked her, ‘Did you do -‘

‘No.’

Someone or something had placed a book on every step of the stairs.

We nervously followed the trail of books that had been left for us. It continued down the stairs and then along the hallway through the kitchen and all the way to the open back door. Aoife’s hand slipped into mine as we stepped into the garden.

IMG_20180226_213954435

We stood in the middle of our little garden. I could hear traffic in the distance and the hum of the motorway far off. The shadows by the wall or under the trampoline seemed to be moving. My teeth were rattling in my mouth.

The leaves on the trees around us shook. It was suddenly colder and a massive shadow was cast across the garden between myself and Aoife.

Something was behind us.

I cried out, but all that came out of my mouth was a squeak. I squeezed Aoife’s little hand. I felt cold breath on my neck. We listened without saying a word, without daring to look behind at it. Its voice was slow and dark and proud.

‘Your father’s stories I have not stolen,
The truth of what happened I’m now unfolding.
I won them fair and square in a deal,
That if you wish I will now reveal.’

My mouth was dry. I couldn’t speak. Aoife’s whispered, ‘Tell us’ and the Thief continued.

‘Your father he asked me for just one story,
To pretend it was his own, to attain false glory
Money, success and fame he did wish to see,
Once he completed three story challenges from me.’

The Thief’s voice grew darker still

‘But if he failed then all his stories would be mine
And I would possess them till the end of time.’

Aoife spoke up, ‘But you didn’t just take his stories. You’re stealing his memories too!’

The dark Thief sighed heavily, the sound like gravel pouring into a pit

‘A wise man, maybe your father, his words did once behold
The truth that stories are not just those which are told.
They are all that on which a man’s life is made,
His dreams, his memories, his hopes, his plans best laid.’

‘Soon your father as you know and love will disappear
As one by one I place his stories in my ledger here,
And you both and your mother, love you again he will never
For his heart and soul’s locked in my library forever.’

We heard the tap of its hand touching its ledger. And I don’t know if it was the thought of everything that I loved about father rotting in the shelves of the Thief’s library or if it was Aoife’s eyes glistening with tears, but something awoke in me.

I shouted, ‘Thief, you said you’d make us a deal. If we complete your challenges, will you give Dad back his stories? His memories? Everything?’

The Thief replied,

‘If it is agreed, if this deal we make strong,
And to one of my challenges, your answer is wrong,
You will both lose yourselves to me like your dad,
Are you willing to risk this? Are you so mad?’

I was mad, but not just in the sense of crazy. I was angry. No one was going to steal our father from us. Aoife nodded fiercely. She was in full agreement.

‘We’ll take your deal Story Thief!’ I turned around to face it, ‘but don’t cheat us because -’

A cold wind blew and by the time I’d turned there was nothing there. The Story Thief was gone and my fighting spirit disappeared with it.

Aoife was still ready for anything.‘Three of its story challenges then Dad gets all his stories and memories back and life goes back to normal, right?’

‘But -’

‘Easy Peasie! You’ve read loads of books and we can ask authors for advice. ’

I grinned. ‘Yeah. Yeah! With their help, it’ll be a cinch.’

But we couldn’t have been more wrong.

It wasn’t easy.

It almost destroyed us.

Go on, go on, read Episode 4 of The Story Thief Challenges featuring Caroline Busher!

Here’s the stuff Dad told me I had to tell everyone…

The Story Thief Challenges is a twelve part series published on the first Monday of each month. Each episode includes writing advice from an Irish children’s fiction author and a Story Challenge activity. To subscribe to The Story Thief Challenges to ensure you don’t miss an episode please click here.

If you would like more information on ER Murray and her books and how to contact her, including for school and library and other visits click here.

If you’re a teacher / librarian / educator or parent and you would like advice on how use The Story Thief Challenges and this specific blog post and it’s Story Challenge with children to promote reading, writing, story telling and creativity please click here.

Also if you want to check out the work done by kids on this series and want to get work featured on it then click here. 

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