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Author Building young adult fiction requires a set of strong characters

Sam Blake has had much success with novels in the past and now she has a new YA series hitting the shelves.

THERE IS NOTHING more daunting for a writer – whatever stage you are at – than the blank page at the start of a story.

I don’t sit down to start a book until I’ve got a strong sense of direction – an opening scene, a character, or perhaps a first line. Thinking, drawing plot mind maps, working out who my characters are and what’s going to happen is vital to avoid that big scary white space.

I’ve written seven adult thrillers (all bestsellers, THANK YOU readers) but tackling a Young Adult (YA) novel is a totally different, and much more specialised, challenge. And that makes that blank page an even bigger hurdle.

For Something Terrible Happened Last Night, I had an idea for a mystery that started at a house party, set in a girls’ boarding and day school close to the sea. But that meant it was going to have a big cast, which can be hard to handle, and even more of a struggle for a reader who has to keep tabs on everyone. Right from the get-go I wanted all the characters to be distinctive and that meant a lot of prep work before I even started writing.

Building characters

Story is all about character, so I began with our sleuths. Frankie comes from a family of five – Ollie (20) her big brother is on a very long gap year and runs the bar in her parent’s hotel when he’s not playing guitar in his band – the only decent one in Kilmurray Point.

Cian and Kai (18) come next in the O’Sullivan family – high-achieving twins who want to study medicine. Then comes Frankie (16), and then the embarrassing bonus child Max (8) – think a junior Gerald Durrell. Frankie’s family own the Berwick Castle Hotel in Kilmurray Point overlooking the sea.

Hotels are wonderful places for stories because of the confluence of people who pass through them.

Frankie’s love interest (except she doesn’t know it) Danny, is the part time kitchen porter, and mad keen to become a TV news cameraman when he leaves school, characteristics that became important later as the plot hots up.

While I was thinking about the characters, I wanted to get a real blend of nationalities, ethnic backgrounds and types of family – Frankie’s from a big one, but her cousin Sorcha who is new to Raven’s Hill 5th Year is the only one at home – her sister Beth has gone to Edinburgh University and her parents are both scientists who are away a lot. She’s also a competitive swimmer, and moving school means she can put in more training time as well as ace her Leaving.

Jess is the character who allows me to show non-Irish people what’s going on – Gill is an Irish publisher so the focus for this book is very much the Irish market (although if we all shout NETFLIX at the same time, who knows what might happen…) Jess is English and an only child. Her Dad is Irish, and she’s just moved over from London because her Mum has recently died.

Her Dad is a war correspondent and can end up anywhere at short notice. Going to Raven’s Hill means she can move in to the boarding house if he gets held up somewhere (hopefully not literally). Because Jess is English, Irishisms can be explained to her, which means that readers in other parts of the world won’t be left behind.

Something_Terrible_Happened_final_RT APPROVED

I want readers to be able to relate to all the characters. Everyone is distinctive in one way or another – Maeve has a platinum blonde bob, Tara is half Asian, Caitriona has wild red hair and glasses, Viv is transgender. And to add to the mix, the school has a recently launched confession site that adds to the drama.

With this book, once I had the cast and the plot when I sat down to start, the story was bursting to be told and I just started writing. That first draft is not something anyone is going to see, and whatever goes down onto that blank page will be reworded many times – I’m aiming to string enough words together to find the story.

The process

With all my books, I begin each new chapter by writing the dialogue. Each chapter is a scene and I know what needs to happen before I begin. I think about the best way to deliver the key information – who the main players are, where they might be (location) and what they are doing. That’s my scaffolding.

I then go back to add detail: what people are wearing, what they look like. I bring in small details that show the reader who they are.

Every chapter has to have a purpose – the reader needs to learn something new plot-wise, or learn something new about the character.

At this point (two drafts in) the chapter still isn’t finished, but with a third pass, it should be in good enough shape for me to move forward to the next one. Anything can change, I may need to go back to add or tweak detail, to change a name, or add in foreshadowing for a plot detail that comes later.

I always think building a new story is like building a house. Character detail is the scaffolding. The different subplots are the bedrooms, and they can each look quite different, but they are all within one world and need to connect – even the secret room behind the fireplace has to be accessed via the main house somewhere.

And unless your house is properly built it could fall down – you can’t have a room with no door or a door that opens into fresh air with no steps up to it. The windows each have a different view, will bring different information to your story – and could provide a means of escape!

My latest story house has hit the bookshelves this month where you can step inside Raven’s Hill and go along to Katie’s party, and see if you can work out what happened that night…

Sam Blake is the No 1 bestselling author of seven adult thrillers and has been shortlisted for Irish Crime Novel of the Year three times. Something Terrible Happened Last Night (Gill Books) is her YA debut. Visit to find out more and join Sam’s Readers’ Club or follow her on social @samblakebooks.

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