Taking Creative Writing Workshops into Schools

Historical novelist Michael Wills on running Creative Writing workshops in schools...

Historical novelist Michael Wills on running Creative Writing workshops in schools...

I have long wanted to write an historical novel for children. I stumbled into an opportunity to do this when a story became evident to me as a by-product of research for another book for the adult market. After spending some time in my local Waterstones finding out what they stock for children I decided that I would target the age group 11-13. I wrote the first third of my Viking story and then stopped. I had become increasingly aware that I was writing for an audience I did not know! The words of the editor of another novel, which I am re-working at the moment, rang in my ears - "See the book from the view of the reader!"

A large dose of reality was needed and I decided that the only way to get this was to find a group of disparate school children of the right age range and try out my story on them. However, I could not expect a school to do something for me without something in return. Helen Hart, Publishing Director at SilverWood Books, suggested that I might run a creative writing workshop in a Bristol school and thereby meet my prospective readers. Publishing Assistant Emily Heming drafted an approach and then made the initial contact for me. When positive responses came in, she handed over to me to make arrangements.

On Thursday 6th February my career turned full circle. In the sixties I taught for two years in an English secondary school, before my career took a different turn. Now I found myself, fifty years later, back in the classroom. I had sent the first three chapters of my story to the school librarian two weeks earlier so that the students could read them before the workshop.

My (optimistic) lesson plan for the 90 minutes looked like this:
  1. Introductions and general chat about writing. Any questions?
  2. Check comprehension of the text and general interest in it. Show how I had melded real history with the lies which are the fiction and give the students a True/False exercise identifying which things in the text were real and which I had made up.
  3. With a descriptive narrative, show pictures of people, events and scenery which had inspired the plot. Encourage as much discussion as possible, highlight the use of adjectives.
  4. The students to be asked to write a description of a person from a photograph.
  5. Same exercise describing scenery.
  6. General writing tips.

As soon as I started I realised that disaster was in the offing. Some students had read the three chapters assiduously, some had read one chapter, one had read one page and one nothing at all. Deft footwork was needed. I solved the problem by putting the students in small groups all of which included someone who had done their homework. Nevertheless, Step 1 was of limited success. Steps 2 and 3 worked well. Step 4 was best of all. There was no time for Step 5.

Lessons learned:
  • Take blank stick-on labels for the children to write their names on and post on their jumpers. (There is no way that I could learn the names of 15 children in 90 minutes, especially since there were a lot of very unusual ones).
  • Don’t let your lesson depend on the faint hope that they will have all down their (voluntary) homework.
  • Use plenty of pictures. They should be as dramatic as possible.
  • If you are going to make geographical references be sure to have a map. (I had and it was essential, their lack of knowledge of geography caught me off guard a bit).
  • Even if you are offered a longer time slot, (I was), don’t go on for more than an hour and a half, even with a break.
  • Most important of all - have plenty of audience participation both formal and informal
  • Kids get a bad press these days. I found them to be polite, courteous and interested. No doubt this is not always the case, but it certainly was here.

Did it give me what I wanted?

Very much so, but I would like to try a few more workshops before I finish the book.

Did it give the children anything?

I like to think so. Just as I was leaving, one of the boys came up to me and said that he had started a petition to get me back again for another talk! (See picture top right.)


Read about the session on the school website: Discover Centre CAB

Explore Michael's website: www.michaelwills.eu

Find out more about Michael's recently-published historical novel Three Kings One Throne

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Nicholas King