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Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Child Whisperer

My first job out of grad school was working with children and adolescents who were dealing with a variety of challenges. It was the best first job I could ever imagine, and I met the love of my life, a colleague, during my five years working for the agency.

So, considering my brave venture into the world of children early on – Think loud, impulsive and off their ADHD medications all day in the Arkansas summer heat – one might expect I’d be better prepared for the Sock Hop at our daughter’s elementary school last Friday. WRONG. What a nightmare! It was pandemonium, a blur of pink poodle skirts and nerve-shattering screams. All those kids hyped up on cotton candy and adrenaline?

Good grief! I could have used a gallon of chamomile tea. Okay. Forget the tea. A shot of brandy would have worked even better. I was a wreck and my husband sprawled on the chair beside me with a relaxed smile. I learned a few things from that experience. 1) My husband was right to continue his work with children. He's fantastic with kids. 2) He needs to be the one chaperoning field trips. And I'm not just buttering him up with that remark about him being fantastic in the hope he might take over chaperoning responsibilities. However, if it helps... 3) Life with children is nothing like a romance novel.

In a romance novel, the children make cameo appearances and then play quietly in a corner. In regency, they even have a nanny or governess to feed them, wipe their noses and corral the little darlings at bedtime. There’s never any child barging in when the hero and heroine are on the verge of kissing, insisting they want to be in the middle of the “sandwich”. They never interrupt the couples' witty banter with knock-knock jokes that make no sense. And, thank heavens, there’s no rap on the door when the hero and heroine share an intimate moment, unless it's my kid interrupting my reading.

Is this realistic? No way! But I don’t think any reader is going to have a problem with this complete fabrication. A little escapism protects our sanity. However, the children in stories still have to be believable in other areas, which mean the writer needs to know appropriate behaviors for the age they are writing.

Lady Whimsy’s Guide for Creating Child Characters:
1. Know your subject. If you have no children of your own, you need to spend time with children the age you are writing. You can certainly go to a public place and observe them, but just know parents might call the cops if you’re watching their child and taking notes. Ideally, you would have opportunities to interact with a child. Spend time with your nieces or nephews, or volunteer to babysit for your friends with children. Believe me, your friends will love you for it, and some day you might want the favor returned.

2. Know the basics of child development. There is a vast wealth of information via the internet. Check out the development of language, Jean Piaget (how children are able to think about their world and reason) and Erick Erickson’s life-stages. You don’t need to do in depth research, but you should know that a two-year old couldn’t carry on an adult conversation unless he or she is a child prodigy.

3. Access your resources. If you have child character doing something, ask a parent with a child that age if it is realistic. Parents love to talk about their kids. Just don’t ask the parent of an eleven year old what he or she was doing at age two. I thought I would remember forever, but I don’t. Good thing I took good notes.

4. A little bit of baby talk goes a long way. A word here or there is all right, but reading made up words throughout a scene is hard work. “Me unna toochie.” “Tisie got shak toes.” See what I mean? Translation: “I want a cookie.” “Kitty got shark toes.” Our son used to say that about the cats’ claws. Even though I find it cute, this baby language could get very annoying for a reader. Don’t give the reader any reason to set your story aside.

5. Give the child purpose. There is a reason actors say they never work with children or animals. Either can steal the scene by adding the cuteness factor. Yet, cuteness alone shouldn’t be the reason a child is included in a story. As with any character, make sure the child contributes to the romance in some way by increasing the conflict, teaching a character something about life or showing a different side to your hero or heroine.

What are your thoughts about children in romance novels? If you are a writer and have included children in a story, what purpose did they serve ?




  2. Samantha,
    What great information! Until recently I had never had any children in my romances that had more than one line. I may have had a baby appear or a young child say one line, but that was it. Maybe I was unconciouly taking a break from my own bundles of joy! However, in my latest novel, I start with two young sisters whispering and conspiring. What fun I had writing these scenes, and I modled their conversation after my own two children. I will say, personally, I don't like to read baby talk or nonsense words in a romance, so you can be sure you will never see that in one of my books. This is just my opionion, but I find it hard to beleive a reader would get much from baby talk. Thanks for the great post!

  3. Julie,

    I agree with the baby talk. I'd rather not see it at all, but I can picture a funny scene with a misunderstood word. :)

  4. Those are some great points. After years in the child-care industry, however, I think I will keep the kiddies to a bare minimum - LOL! As I write more stories that involve the same family, however, those little nieces and nephews are sure to pop up sooner or later. I'll definitely keep this post in mind!

  5. I am about to write a baby into my mid-grade novel series. Thanks for this advice.

  6. I loved this blog. Writing children's characters is very difficult to do well and yet it's something we rarely talk about in romance writing workshops and classes. Those little darlings can make or break a story. You did a great job summing up what works. Thanks!

  7. Great post, Samantha! I'm still LMAO over "Kitty has shark toes." Freakin' hilarious!

    I started babysitting when I was about 11, so I've spent a good amount of the last 20 years with children from newborn to 12 years old, and what I've found is that kids are most definitely products of their environments...and I don't just mean their homes, I mean, where they grow up. The 9-year-olds in NYC are NOTHING like the 9-year-olds where I come from. They talk about politics and religion and think about things like getting into a good middle school or how they can help save the environment. Why do I bring this up? Because it makes me wonder what influence Regency society would have had on kids. How and why would they be different from kids today? If kids vary so drastically from state to state, how must they differ from century to century.

    All that said, I think I take bits and pieces of the personalities I've met over the years, a hodge-podge of their best and worst qualities, and a dash of 19th Century culture, put it in the blender of my mind and see what pours out. I hope my kids are realistic, because they play fairly sizable roles in my next book :)

  8. I think you do a great job with kids in your books. :) I agree that children in the 19th century would be different from children today in their culture and values. However, from a developmental stand point, there are certain milestones that all children reach around the same time frame, although there are variations of "normal", for lack of a better word.

    What would stand out to me as a reader, and has in other books, is a huge discrepency between the average age a child would do something and the child's age. So, for example, a child at age 2 will have a vocabulary of around 150-300 words.

    Cognitively, he would be at the beginning of the preoperational stage, which means he would see the world from his view only. He'd be oriented to the present, but have difficulty with the concepts of time. And he'd personify objects, which is why a child that age will freak out if there is a pinata that looks like a familiar character being beaten by other partygoers. :)

    Therefore, unless the writer intends to make the child especially gifted, it is unrealistic for a 2 year old child to have a conversation about parallel worlds like my 7 year old daughter brought up when seeing our family's reflection in our picture window. That requires a higher level of functioning that is biologically based on our brain's development.

    It is interesting how in our culture we try to keep our children dependent a lot longer than people did during the past.

  9. Ah, the kiddos. LOL. Like Jerrica, I babysat from a very young age. Actually, by the time I was 9, in many ways I was the primary care giver to my three younger siblings, plus I would sit for neighborhood kids, etc. These days, I work with teenagers a lot more than with the younger kids (I will be a high school English teacher here at some point). But the child I love to spend time with the most is my nephew. He is priceless. At two and a half, he is learning new words every day - including all the ones you don't want him to learn!

    The nephew monster has always loved my cats, so when I brought home a new kitten about a year ago, he got the privilege of naming her. At that point, he would try to say "kitty" but it came out "Kiki." Hence my kitten being named Kiki.

    It is so funny to me hearing how he would learn to pronounce new sounds. For a long time, he could pronounce a T sound at the beginning or end of a word, but in the middle of a word, it became an L. So the kitties were then called killies.

    As far as children in romance, I haven't shied away from writing them in. If anything, I'm trying to limit how many children I put into my stories, for many of the reasons you listed above. LOl. One of these days, I'll find the right balance.

  10. I have written children in one story and while I think they were cute, and necessary to the plot, I hope they didn't steal the show. I like children in novels - they can help a reserved hero appreciate the little things in life. Much like todays new fathers, I imagine. Men do change when they get children of their own - especially after the shock of witnessing childbirth. LOL.

    A published book that springs to mind (from my keeper shelf) is Karen Hawkins ~ An Affair to Remember. The kids created havoc, brought the characters into conflict (governess v's guardian) and forced the hero to unbend.

    The problem I have now - is that I want to read that book. Great post, Samantha!

  11. Thanks, Samantha....and, of course, you're absolutely right about cognitive abilities. I would never argue that...or anything you say. LOL! I've never come across a kid in a novel that seemed "off" in that way, but I'd have a problem with that, too.

  12. Fun topic, Samantha!

    I do use children in my novels. I always have. And the reasons for their existance varies.

    I'ved used them to bring the hero and heroine together. I've used them to show a softer side to a main character. I've used them to show the growth of a character in how the deal, rescue, or converse with a child.

    Children are honest. "Out of the mouth of babes." Sometimes it's just really fun to have a young person blurt something out that needs to be said.

  13. Lydia,

    I completely agree. I love what children can add to a story. And they definitely address the pink elephant in the middle of the room. In fact, I believe you have a very unique young man in your debut novel. :)

    Where is that blushing emoticon? LOL. You can disagree with me any day. Your original comment was very valid and added another dimension to the conversation. It made me think further. I wanted to clarify my original blog, but didn't mean to come across as dismissing your very insightful comment. :)

  14. Sheila,

    I imagine you probably have some tips of your own about writing child characters being a mid-grade writer. Thanks for stopping by today. :)