More than words on a page

Nicky Schmidt
Morag and Nicky
Everyone keeps reminding us; writing is tough, as is getting published. For those writing short stories and poetry it can be even tougher. So when I met Morag Caunt, of the SCBWI-BI’s North East region, I was fascinated to hear what she was doing with her short stories. As I listened to this unassuming but enthusiastic woman I knew Morag’s story had to be shared.

Morag, I’m so glad you agreed to this interview. You’re doing something remarkable and heart-warming - something that other SCBWI members might consider too. Could you start by telling Words & Pictures readers what you write, where you draw your inspiration, and why you write what you do?

I started writing three years ago after retiring from a career spent working with children, primarily as a paediatric nurse, and latterly as a family support worker for Social Services. A lot of the young people would not, could not or had never been given the encouragement to learn to read. I write short, quite gritty stories aimed at reluctant teenage readers. My stories are always taken from my own personal life experiences. My hope as a writer has always been that a teenager would read one page of my stories, then, want to read on.

You told me you were finding it tough to find a publisher for short stories – but that hasn’t put you off – instead you’ve done something really enterprising… 

Eighteen months ago aided by a grant, I was fortunate enough to attend an Arvon Residential Course - Writing for Young People. My fantastic tutors, Celia Rees and Martyn Bedford, encouraged me to continue writing short stories but also suggested that I involve myself with a youth group. Shortly afterwards I had a cold call from West Yorkshire Playhouse, telling me about a Youth group called First Floor. I asked if I could donate - and volunteer. They agreed. The minute I entered the door at First Floor, I knew I had found the right place to be. At First Floor young people can attend a variety of creative workshops, drama, writing, music, art, learn new skills, and make friends. Most importantly they can feel safe and supported by the amazing staff who work there.

Tell us a little bit about the teens you met at First Floor.

The young people who attend come from many different backgrounds, and abilities. Some lead difficult lives. Quite a few have left school early without gaining any qualifications, and First Floor offers programmes which help them get onto training schemes. Everyone is respected and treated as an individual, and newcomers are always made welcome. To watch them blossom from shy, nervous, sometimes angry youngsters, to confidently performing on stage when they realize they can be good at singing, acting or writing poetry, is a mind-blowing experience.

Morag with some of the young people from First Floor

What sort of work do you do with the teens at First Floor?

I volunteer weekly with the Tuesday Night Drama Group. We often have 20 per session, so it’s quite lively - and I love the way that they look out for each other if someone is upset or ill. We split into groups to act out scenes or themes, and I help with a group, encouraging them to explore their feelings and make up stories.

You were invited to read your short stories to the young people - how did it feel the first time you did that?

I was invited to read one of my stories to a mixed group at the end of my first term. I was very nervous, but the young people never made a sound and listened intently for fifteen minutes. Then they were split into three groups and acted out the beginning, middle and end. As a writer it was the most incredible moment to see them act out their interpretation of my stories.

The children who participate in the First Floor drama programmes also make videos which are posted on YouTube. They’ve recently taken two of your stories and begun dramatizing them in this way, and the first one was recently posted to YouTube. What were your thoughts on seeing the dramatization of your story?

I've watched the clip, called A Night in the Park, several times. It took a while to fully appreciate that it really was my work as interpreted by the young people who produced it. But it was such a thrill to see what they’d done, and to see my name on the piece. All I can do is sit back and say, “Wow!” and I realise how lucky I am to be able to volunteer with such an amazing group of young people.

A Night in the Park, by Morag Caunt, as scripted, directed and produced by First Floor 

I’ve often said, and I blogged about it recently, that everything is first and foremost about story rather than the specific means of telling the story. As a writer whose work has gone off in a somewhat different direction than you first anticipated, how do you feel about there being more than one way of presenting a particular story?

Who needs to be published when you can actually see your work being acted out, and know that for some of the youngsters, they are acting their real life experiences?

Any final thoughts?

Volunteering for First Floor has been an incredible learning experience for me, and I have been very privileged to have become an accepted member of the team both by the amazing young people and their dedicated staff. I’m also really delighted that at the end of January this year, First Floor won the title of best place for children and young people, in the Child Friendly Leeds awards, receiving many nominations for the activities and support they provide!

In true SCWBI Tradition, my lemon drizzle cake and brownies, will once again be part of our celebrations!

I asked Morag if she’d be willing to ask the young people she works with a few questions – and here’s what they had to say:

What made you join First Floor?
  • I joined because I already had friends there.
  • My Mother found it on the Internet - I am interested in becoming an actress.
  • I wanted more experience in drama and singing.

What do you like best about First Floor?
  • I can be myself; nobody is judgemental - and I love drama and singing.
  • Everyone is very accepting and friendly - and there’s cake!
  • Performing and chilling out with friends.
  • The opportunities that you don’t get normally.
  • The staff are very supportive.

What surprised you most when you first read/heard Morag’s stories?
  • I was surprised, because I thought they’d be boring, but they were amazing!
  • I liked the style of writing, I thought it was good.
  • I thought a professional had written them.
  • Amazing!

What did you like about Morag’s stories picked for YouTube and how did you relate to them?
  • They’re all based on real life. They’re amazing and easy to act because you liked the characters.
  • We related because they were about our age group.
  • At least one person in the group could relate to a real life situation.
  • I liked that Zac met the tramp.

What do you think Morag’s stories offer teens and what will your YouTube video give other teens not involved with First Floor?
  • Lots of teens can relate because it’s true.
  • They don’t feel so alone.
  • They can do real stories and enjoy it.
  • They help teens relate to similar problems.
  • Great music!

And a final word…
  • Morag, you can’t leave Tuesday Night Drama!

A huge shout out to Morag for the wonderful work she is doing! 

For more information about First Floor, you can watch their promo video and you can visit their page on the WY Playhouse website.


Born and raised in South Africa of central and northern European heritage, Nicky is an ex scriptwriter, copywriter, and marketing, brand and communications manager who "retired" early to follow a dream. Although she still occasionally consults on marketing, communications and brand strategies, mostly she writes YA fiction (some of which leans towards New Adult) in the magical realism, realistic and supernatural genres.
When not off in some other world, she also writes freelance articles - mostly lifestyle and travel - for which she does her own photography. Her work has been published in several South African magazines and newspapers. As well as being a regular feature writer for Words & Pictures, Nicky also runs the SCBWI-BI YA E-Critique group.
Nicky lives in Cape Town with her husband and two rescue Golden Retrievers.


  1. A wonderful article to read, Nicky. Morag is very enthusiastic about her work, and the reactions from the young group speaks volumes. Well done, Morag.

  2. Morag you are a star and I'm not surprised the children don't want you to leave. Your determination to get your work to your readers is amazing and I applaud everything you do. Big hugs.

  3. Wow, amazing article to read. Very proud daughter!

  4. What a wonderful thing to do. So glad you found such a fulfilling outlet for your writing, Morag.

  5. Aunt Morag, we are all so proud of you! Keep at it - and don't forget us when you are famous! :-)

  6. This is inspirational, Morag!
    It's really lovely to see what a great relationship you have with the young people at First Floor and exactly - "Who needs to be published when you can actually see your work being acted out". Brilliant.


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