Elaine Forrestal


Story ideas are all around us just wait­ing to be snapped up.

Be a detec­tive and carry a note­book and pencil.

Watch the peo­ple in the playground/ at the football/ in the super­mar­ket. Choose 1 per­son to describe – hair, clothes, eyes, skin.

What if that per­son sud­denly fainted/ pulled out a gun/ began to trans­form into an alien? Write a report of the inci­dent for the school newspaper.

Now pre­tend that you are the per­son you chose to describe and re-write your report as a story.

The idea for my novel Leav­ing no Foot­prints came while I was walk­ing along the beach with my dog. A boy and his dog walked past me and I noticed that nei­ther of them had left any foot­prints on the sand.

Was this a real boy and a real dog?

Or had I imag­ined them?

They seemed real, but what sort of magic allowed them to walk on the beach with­out leav­ing any trace of their presence?

Write your own answer to this puzzle.


How did last week’s sto­ries turn out?

Even if they’re not very good, don’t throw them away.

You never know when another idea is going to come along and crash into one of them.

Some sto­ries need two ideas to join together and spark each other off.

1. Think of an exotic name.

2. Describe a per­son who fits that name.

Add fam­ily mem­bers, pets.

Where does the per­son live?

3. Write a diary entry describ­ing one day in this person’s life.

Many years ago, while I was strug­gling to write The Watch­ing Lake, I read a book by Eleanor Nils­son. Her advice was to spend 10 min­utes writ­ing every day. It doesn’t sound very long but, as she said, 10 min­utes can eas­ily turn into an hour when you’re hav­ing fun. Even if you have to stop for home­work or music prac­tice, just get­ting out your story and look­ing at it will be enough to keep it fresh so that in the shower or on the school bus or any time dur­ing the day, your story will keep on writ­ing itself in your head.


Have you tried writ­ing for ten min­utes a day yet?

How many times did you have to stop to do your maths assign­ment, clean up your room or visit your least favourite relative?

Write a blow by blow descrip­tion of some­thing you often do, like, get out of bed/ eat an apple/ clean your teeth.

Now describe the same action as if you were

a three year old

a ninety three year old.

Don’t for­get to add the dia­logue. The way your char­ac­ters speak tells your reader a lot about them.

Which descrip­tion was the eas­i­est to write?

Here is a rid­dle for you to try.

The ded­i­ca­tion in my novel Graf­fiti on the Fence reads:

For Cameron and Amy whose grand­mother plays the witch”

Q. Who are Cameron and Amy?

Write it down on a piece of paper and check below for the answer.


Did you guess the answer to the riddle?

A: Cameron and Amy are my grandchildren.

Lally, in Graf­fiti on the Fence, is not exactly me but I gave her my voice. Usu­ally I have to imag­ine the voices of my char­ac­ters. Lally’s voice was already there. I had a lot of fun writ­ing that book, but I can never give a char­ac­ter my own voice again. If they don’t have dif­fer­ent voices, they don’t come to life on the page.

Imag­ine that your car has run out of petrol. The dri­ver can’t leave the sleep­ing baby, so you are sent to find out where the near­est petrol sta­tion is. You ask a well dressed lady, an old tramp, a scruffy teenager.

Write down each person’s reply using expres­sions like ‘Yeah, man’/ ‘Oh, dear me!’/ ‘Nah, mate’.

Exper­i­ment with let­ters to make sounds. ‘Aww’/ ‘Garn’/ ‘So-o-o-o sorry daahling’.

Inside those speech com­mas, you can break all the rules!


Don’t let your char­ac­ters lie down flat on the page while you tell the story. Get them up walk­ing, talk­ing, feel­ing the wind in their hair.

Change a telling sen­tence into a show­ing one.
In my novel Win­ning, Mr Crowe is the school gar­dener from hell.


Mr Crowe screamed at Pearce and Yosef because he had just fin­ished mark­ing out the lanes with his white-line marker and the boys smudged them.”


‘That’s it!’ Mr Crowe screamed at Pearce and Yosef when one of his white lines got smudged. ‘I’m going to have you boys banned from this oval!’”

Match an action with a reaction:

Mr Crowe aban­doned his white-line marker and stormed up to the office.
‘We didn’t mean to, Mr Crowe,’ Pearce called after the old buzzard.”

Try using metaphor/simile:

Early next morn­ing there was a bee hive buzz of excite­ment in the school­yard. The news passed from one per­son to another like the com­mon cold. There had been a break-in overnight.”


How did you go with metaphors/similes?

Like adjec­tives (and salt in food) too much can ruin the flavour.
Mix­ing tenses can also destroy your story very quickly.

Describe one meal that you had at the week­end — where, when, what and who with?

Rewrite your descrip­tion as if it was hap­pen­ing now.

Write about the same meal as if you are plan­ning to have it in the future.

Which descrip­tion was eas­ier to write?

Which one is the most inter­est­ing to read?

The present tense is great for get­ting inside your character:

Shut up!’ I yell.

I wait for Enya to protest. It’s the least she can do. She com­plains. I shout back. That’s the way it should be. That’s what I’d do.

(from Some­one Like Me).

But it does mean that you can only tell the story from one point of view.


Things you know about usu­ally make the best stories.

When I first tried to write my novel Straggler’s Reef, I had Karri going back in time to meet Car­o­line in the 1840s. I sent it to my pub­lisher. She sent it back. I rewrote it, sent it again – again and again it came back. I could only make it work by bring­ing Car­o­line from 1840 in to the present – the world I know best.

Describe an event that you remem­ber really well.

Per­haps the most scary or embar­rass­ing or excit­ing thing that has ever hap­pened to you.

How did it feel, taste, smell, sound?

Remem­ber to show, not tell.

Read your work again. Does the dia­logue sound real?

Would Mum say ‘I will most cer­tainly help you up,’ when she finds you have fallen off your bike and cut your knee? Or would she cry out, ‘Oh, dar­ling, are you alright?’


How did your scary/embarrassing/exciting sto­ries go?

Re-read the one you like best.

Exag­ger­ate the main event.

Now ask your­self some what if ques­tions.
What if the noises in your roof at night are not made by rats but by a lost tribe of gnomes?

What if your res­i­dent cock­roaches have been eat­ing a new GM type of mush­room and have grown as big as cats?

What if the gnomes enlist your help to poi­son the cock­roaches, but the poi­son turns them into humanoids?

Remem­ber you don’t have to return the whole world to nor­mal. Give your story a sur­pris­ing twist at the end. Or leave it open so that the reader can decide which of the pos­si­ble end­ings they believe in.

A story with an open end­ing will often stay alive in the reader’s imag­i­na­tion long after one where every­thing is care­fully spelled out.