The Storyteller’s Tool Kit

Where do I get my ideas from? 

Here, There and Everywhere. 

Random image of tentacles taken at Pompeii

Welcome story geniuses. I thought I’d write a post about the storyteller’s tool kit. Like most toolkits, you’ll see that my toolbox is filled with the usual tools. You know, the common ones like inspiration, structure, research, tech. I add a couple of personal ones in there too like music, movies, and people. 

#Tool 1 Inspiration

As you know, all stories come from an idea. Yes, just the one. This one idea can fragment into many. Think of a lightbulb with dozens of light rays spreading out across a dark room. Imagine a mosiac art work, the whole made up of  splintered ceramic or stone pieces, and if you isolate one section, there is another story there. What about a kaleidoscope and as you turn the dial, the fratal changes into another pattern. 

But as a writer, you mustn’t forget your central idea for that story you’re writing at the moment. 

So, I am working on a YA novel, my first. I was inspired by a central idea of the master and servant relationship. I wanted to explore this through the lens of an indentured servant. 

#Tool 2 Research

It all started with my curiosity about how societies treated their help. From that broad question, I narrowed it down to a culture and heritage I know well: I wanted to explore an oppressive system that originated in China, where poor girls were sold to wealthy families as servants. 

Indentured servitude is not uncommon as there are many forms of slavery as well as different notions of perceived freedom. Indentured servants have existed in Southeast Asia for the longest time in various forms and guises. In particular, I wanted to find out more about mui tsai or young girls working in the homes of wealthy Straits Chinese or Peranakan-Chinese. Then, this got me thinking about migrant workers and their plight, which led me down the rabbit hole of finding out as much as I could about the migrant worker situation around the world. 

My mind was going full speed everywhere but to nowhere. So, I reigned myself in. What is my central idea?—the master and servant relationship. What was my focus?—indentured servitude. 

#Tool 3 Setting 

Since all stories have to take place somewhere—real or imagined—I picked British Malaya because I know this landmass far better than Hong Kong or China. I am a Peranakan-Chinese because my ancestors braved monsoon winds and sailed across the South China Sea to Malaya, so what better place to start from than examining the cultural history and lives of the Straits Chinese, my ancestors? 

But Malaya was connected to the Empire, with its headquarters located on an island situated between the the  North Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean. 

My mind was going places again. But hang on, I need to focus. So I returned again to Malaya, in particular Singapore, country of my birth. 

#Tool 4 Structure

All stories have a structure. This Aristotelian idea is an ideal and as storytellers we must let structure guide us. There’s a beginning, middle and an end to every story—always. 

My novel starts media res—in the middle. Funny how the middle became my beginning, hey? I only came to this decision after redrafting the initial structure and I can tell you, it wasn’t funny because I had to rewrite almost 10,000 words of the original manuscript. This consisted of my making a developmental change and then rewriting the parts to fit in with the change. Mind you, developmental editing is what editors do for authors all the time. So I switched a couple of parts around, rewrote some bits, and the story took another shape of its own. 

Think of structure as a squiggly line that moves up to a point of climax and drops again and ends at the point of resolution which leads us to what is known as the denouement. That’s French for the final outcome and it’s a literary term used by industry wigs to show off their prowess. Literary theory and criticism aside, we need to remember that all journeys must come to an end and it’s no different for stories. But where is the end? Most would consider the end as the part whre the hero of the journey finds what they were looking for or found the answer to their quest/search. Now, solving the problem (resolution) in the story is not the same as the outcome, denouement, of the story. The denouement can end in a catastrophe (think Wuthering Heights) or it can end happily ever after (think Cinderalla). 

To get structure in order, I needed to think of a sequence of events that will move my story forward. I had to know that this happaned first, then this happened next, then that happened after, so on and so forth, until I come to the end of my tale. 

The best way to see your sequence of events is to write them out. Illustrators do a storyboard. There’s nothing stopping those who can’t draw from doing the same. You can use stick figures, if you want. 

But all story structures or shapes are based on the central idea: the Main Character’s journey in the book. 

#Tool 5 Tech and the Muse

Technology is a great tool for any writer. I use a MacBook and organise my writing into files. Some people swear by Scrivener. I haven’t dabbled there yet because it requires that I learn how to use the tool. But I’ve been told that once you’ve learnt to, it’s no sweat. 

But the best tool of all is YOU. As a writer you’ve just got to turn up. Here is a previous post on what my day looks like. As I write for a living and not always fun stuff, I am forced to turn up. My favourite author said this, ‘turn up, turn up, turn up and the muse will turn up too.” She is none other than Isabel Allende. 

For extra help on inspiration, structure, setting and research, I turn to Netflix fo plot, characterisation and the 3-Act Structure. I just watched Pieces of A Woman. It’s not for everyone, I will say. But it was superb acting and I was thoroughly convinced that the main character was really giving birth. I wanted to see how the script writer had used the 3-Act Structure to plot her story. And, I tell you what, it’s there—the beginning, middle, end, with everything in a writer’s took kit thrown in—inciting incident, sub-plots, small crises, big crises, the crisis—resolution, and outcome. 

Music makes its way into my daily routine too when I’m feeling the blues and get stuck on a plot point. My latest is listening to covers by Carly Rose (Sonenclar)

And last but not least: People. My favourite people is my family. So I turn to them for sustenance. 

Writing Believable Characters

If you’re tired of hearing that your character must be believable, I don’t blame you. I’m tired of reading it, too, in ALL the writing blogs I read on how to write believable characters. So, I’ll spare you what you already know and talk about why credibility is important. 

What makes people want to read your story is character-driven. I know that there are people who love plot-driven stories. But this is the picture book we’re talking about. 

Who is a believable character is character-driven. 

What makes people love your character is character-driven. 

Take MRS ARMITAGE ON WHEELS, by Quentin Blake, for example. Don’t you just love her? She’s an old-er lady, for goodness sake; hardly a child at all. But just look at her, just watch how she behaves, and you’ve fallen in love hook, line and sinker. Mrs Armitage didn’t set out to deceive you. No! No! She set out to capture your heart. 

1. Believable characters have flaws. They’re not perfect. Mrs Armitage is a flawed character. She is socially dysfunctional—just look at the loud horns she’s fixed to her bicycle and then tooting away like there’s no tomorrow. Only a child would do that. 

2. Believable characters aren’t flat. Mrs Armitage is immensely complex. Look, she is an old-er woman who thinks she can do all the things children can do: build a dog seat for her dog, Breakspear, for example. And, that name alone is only one that a child would think up. A dog named Breakspear. What was she thinking? And, her imagination is just explosive. Literally. All children can relate to that.

3. Believable characters have quirks and eccentricities that make them memorable. Mrs Armitage is just one cray-cray old-er woman. But wouldn’t you just love to hate her? She can roller skate like an energetic child on speed. And, boy, do children love whizzing about, zip-zapping here and there on wheels. Every child can relate to being speed devils at some point in their lives.

Mrs Armitage, although an adult, is what every child relates to immediately. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a million times: it’s ok to make your picture book character an adult, but this adult must be someone a child can relate to. This is how you can make your character believable–Mrs Armitage’s behaviour is consistent throughout this hilarious picture book:

  • She has the innocence of an angel. She smiles while tooting her loud horn. Naughty!! 
  • She is obsessed with minute details: a seat for Breakspear; a basket to carry food and treats [all kids know that inventing and creating makes them hungry and it’s best to feed them before they get hangry + hot coco—yums], umbrellas for when it rains. There is a thing for everything. Imaginative!!
  • She is terribly rebellious. I mean just listen to the racket she makes while on her wheels. Unconventional!!

These are three very important reasons why credibility is crucial when you’re planning your character. Jot all these characteristics down in your character profile logbook. And build your character up from there. 

Writing Believable Biographies

Is there a difference between a real character and a made up one? That’s a great question.

When we work on biographies, we are dealing essentially with character; believable characters at that. 

A good biography is character-driven. Who is the subject and why are they worth reading about? 

A good biography is also plot-driven. A writer must balance the two well. 

A biography is essentially a window into the world of the character. All the elements that make characters believable apply just as well when writing picture book biographies. 

Take Tun Siti Hasmah, for example. She was a child before she became a doctor. So, the story started when she was a young girl. It charts her childhood when she played with her brothers—carefree, mischievously. 

  • She has desires like any child. 
  • She faced obstacles, like any child. She found ways to work out her problems, like any child. 
  • And, she has quirks like any child—catching labah-labah? That has got to catch any child’s attention. 

Unlike in Blake’s Mrs Armitage, which is not a biography, in The Accidental Doctor, we watch Hasmah grow up. War struck when she was a teenager causing pain and anguish. War popped her bubble and her dream of becoming a journalist got dashed. She almost failed at medical school. 

All these trials and tribulations that the character, Siti Hasmah, faces in this biographical story make her a believable character. What’s more—she’s a real person. 

The one major difference to note between Mrs Armitage and Siti Hasmah is in the execution of the story. Blake’s has a comical voice while mine is serious. 

The subject of the story is character-driven, after all. And although Tun Siti is a funny woman herself, her story requires a serious voice. 

Anyone can write a picture book biography. If you’ve always wanted to write one, read this blog post for more information.

If you’re itching to get a copy of Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Mohd Ali: The Accidental Doctor, it’s available here. If you live in Singapore, Malaysia and/or Southeast Asia, get your copy here. In America, it’s here

For teachers, I can visit your school virtually to talk to your students about reading picture book biographies. I can send you an activity pack for The Accidental Doctor ahead of time. Please contact me for more details.

It doesn’t matter how old you are when reading picture books because picture book stories are still stories. I read picture book biographies to find out more about other people. It’s a great way to start reading up about other people. Here are a few people you can read up on. This one made me cry. This one inspired me to use my words to affect changes. This one resonated with me because it’s about moving countries and finding roots.

Picture Book Matters

For those interested in creating picture books about and of real characters, Picture Book Matters can walk you through the process. Contact them here for more information.

Writing About Other People

I love reading biographies, don’t you? A biography allows us a small window into the minutiae of someone’s life. Why only a small window? Well, if you think about it, life is short but the journey is long. I know this may be an oxymoron but I’ve given this phrase a lot of thought for many years now. 

When reading someone’s biography or autobiography, we’re not reading everything about that person; only those things that the person wants to share or those things that you, the author, feel are important to share. And, a book must come to an end some time. It could be 320 pages long or 32 pages short. So, the writer must choose the bits to put in that would keep the reader turning the pages. 

As biographies go, there are those endorsed by the subject and those that the subject refuses to acknowledge, they may even shun the book. Not all biographies are written with permission. 

This is similar for children’s picture books. 

But first, the writer needs to know that permission is not necessary to write about someone. Second, anyone can write about the same subject/ person. There is no such thing as someone copying your idea for a biography. Just look at how many Frida Kahlo picture books there are or picture books about Malala Yousafzai. Third, even if you want to write about a particular person, the publisher may not think that this person is worth their publishing budget. This could be for many reasons and here are three: the subject is controversial, like Aung Saan Su Kyi, for example; the person is too obscure—who would want to read about them?; the market is already saturated with bios of the subject. Repetition may be good for children but too much of one thing is never good.

Who To Choose Then?

There is a parade of people we can write about. So, choosing the right one can be challenging. 

First, write about someone you want to read about—this person may be well known but not famous. Second, do your research—are there books out there about them? In your case as a picture book author: are there picture books about your subject? Third, pick a theme—why are you writing about them? 

How Did I Come Up With The Idea of Writing About Asian Women for Children? 

I had the idea of writing about Asian women for a very long time. This idea germinated in Paris when I was living there. I was the Chair of Memberhship for a society called the Asian Women’s Association in Paris (AWAP). This was the brainchild of a few Asian women, friends of mine, who were interested in starting a community for Asian women living in Paris. The group was made up of Asian women from all over the world. They were a global  diaspora of women who could trace their roots back to East Asia and Southeast Asia. And, many were leaders in their fields and doing wonderful things while juggling motherhood and a career. 

Having the opportunity to meet and speak to some of AWAP’s members made me think about the Asian women whom I wanted to know who have shaped Asia in so many ways. But as life goes, I was a mother of two—one toddler and the other a teen—juggling learning a new language—Oui, Je parle français—and navigating an expat life in the City of Light. I was too mesmerised by Paris—it’s Paris!!—to think about writing about other women’s lives. I concentrated on writing about my life instead—how selfish, non? So, I started a blog writing about what I know and love best—food, Asian food—which took me down a rabbit hole searching for veritable Asian grub, which took me down another warren looking for female chefs, particularly Asian ones. That blog turned into a memoir of sorts and helped me cope with major homesickness for Asia. And, before I knew it, I found myself in Singapore. The blog is now on a hiatus. 

Navigating Singapore became the next step in my expat journey. In Singapore, I was both an insider and outsider. I sought books for my then 6.5 year old with Asian themes, on Asian heroines and Asian aesthetics. Books that I wished I’d read when I was a child. Books that made me look up to women for leadership. I was disappointed to find none of the latter, and the few I found that ticked the boxes on themes and aesthetics were copies or pastiches of western children’s books like ‘The Diary of Adrian Mole’, ‘Katie’s museum adventures’, or stories written through a western lens. [These are books written in English.] 

There was nothing on Asian women. No biographies that I could show my young daughter that reflected the wonderful achievements by Asian women, and we have so many great women too. But at the same time, I found many written and published in America.

As Toni Morrison once said, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”

And Maya Angelou reinforced it when she wrote, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” 

And so, I found myself proposing a 6-book series to publishers on Asian Sheroes. [I was pretty gung ho about it too as at that point, I only knew I wanted to write about 6 Asian women, but did not know who yet.]

It was a hard sell, to tell the truth. Asian Sheroes? Who are they? Why would American and British children want to read about them when they have nothing to do with “us”? 

I worked alone for some time researching and finding out who I can write about. I sent out feelers and got some great answers back. The problem is in the lack of information (more on that in another post) about many of these women. I even thought of self publishing at one point.

Working alone is fine and fun but as life is short and the journey is long, I wanted to share this journey with people I love. So, I roped in two sheroes: June Ho and Debasmita Dasgupta. We discussed it and furnished a proposal and sent it out, closer to home.

World Scientific Publishing who was in the midst, unbeknownst to us, of starting a new imprint, World Scientific Education, acquired the series on proposal. 

The Birth of A Series

Meetings were held. At that time, we could still meet face-to-face. And names were proposed. And that was how Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Mohd Ali: The Accidental Doctor was born.

Did I follow my own rules on writing about lesser-known but known-enough Asian women? Did I write a book that I wanted to read because there is none out there? Did I condense a long journey into a short book of 32 pages? 

I would say, yes. WE did it because the creation of ‘Women Who Shaped Asia’ takes a team. The creation of sheroes takes a family. 

And just like this, the seed that I germinated in Paris grew into a plant that now needs constant watering and feeding. It won’t eat you, I promise. But it’ll feed you and your kids with knowledge and pride of the women who shaped Asia. 

Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Mohd Ali: The Accidental Doctor is available here. If you live in Singapore, Malaysia and/or Southeast Asia, get your copy here. In America, it’s here