Monthly Archives: December 2018

An interview with… Jon Mayhew

Featured in my Research Secrets column this December is YA writer Jon Mayhew. He told me about the research that went into writing his supernatural adventure, Mortlock.


His initial idea came from a school production of Oliver.

I was watching the scene in which Oliver is ‘sold’ to Mr Sowerberry the undertaker and the phrase ‘undertaker’s mute’ was used. The idea of a child trudging behind funeral carriages all day intrigued me and I began to wonder what would happen if that child found that he could wake the dead. Alfie Wiggins was born and so the story began.

He spent time researching the streets of the Seven Dials in London to observe the Victorian architecture and recreate the atmosphere in his novel. A trip to Bamburgh Castle where he had the opportunity to view a funeral carriage, the Dee estuary and childhood memories of Liverpool all helped to create a realistic and evocative Victorian London backdrop.


His publisher, Bloomsbury needed Jon to check all the extracts from traditional ballads that preface each chapter were out of copyright. Even though Jon is well-versed in traditional music he was able to check the songs were in the public domain with a trip to the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library in London.

Jon’s advice to other writers is to enjoy your research but enjoy your writing more and don’t let any of those fiddly details get in the way of a good story. He said:

The research is important because it does give the book a sense of realism and it is easier to visualise characters and settings. I like to think of the research used in a book as the tip of an iceberg. Only a little of the research is actually relayed in the book but it’s there, lurking beneath the surface.

This particular interview was first published in Writers Forum in May 2010. You can read the full interview in the Dec 2018 #206 issue of Writers Forum.

You can find out more about Jon Mayhew and his books on his website: of follow him on Twitter @MayhewJ 

What if…

We have just finished Christmas and I have been watching Christmas movies since early November. I love all the old favourites, especially the different renditions of A Christmas Carol.


The man who inspired Charles Dickens’, Ebeneezer Scrooge, real name was Ebeneezer Scroggie, a Scottish merchant who died in 1836. Scroggie’s tombstone was moved during redevelopment work and his real identity was temporarily lost and forgotten. His grave, lay unmarked just off the city’s Royal Mile for many years until Edinburgh authorities put up a memorial statue in his memory.

Dickens stumbled upon Scroggie’s tombstone in Canongate Cemetery in 1842, whilst visiting Edinburgh for a lecture. It was the inscription on this tombstone that gave birth to the mean, miserly Scrooge in Dickens’ brilliant novel, A Christmas Carol.

But, in reality, the tombstone read ‘meal man’ rather than ‘mean man’, which referred to Scroggie’s job as a successful corn merchant. The real Ebeneezer was well-known for his generous nature and often enjoyed a good party.

So why was the name and personality of the now most famous Christmas character in history, changed in this way? Maybe, Dickens wanted to protect himself from possible litigation by purposely changing his antagonist’s name, or maybe he simply misread the name on the tomb. We will never know. What we do know is, Dickens wrote in his notebook:

“To be remembered through eternity only for being mean seemed the greatest testament to a life wasted.”

So, was Ebeneezer a victim of Dicken’s poor research? Or were the changes more to do with the wild imaginations of a great writer who thought, ‘What if…’?

Merry Christmas

I would like to wish all the readers of my blog a very merry Christmas. I started writing this blog hoping to share my thoughts with people world wide. I have a long way to go. But thank you to everyone who is supporting me on this endeavour.

merry christmas1

If there is anything you would like me to write about, any books you would love to see me review or any of my interviews you would like me to share, please let me know.

Here is some sparkling wine and mince pies for you.


An interview with… Miriam Halahmy

In May 2016, I interviewed Miriam Halahmy for the Papers Pens Poets blog – the place where writers and illustrators come together to share their love of stationery.


Miriam explained she always writes in pen because she worries pencil will rub out and she’ll lose something important. She prefers fibre tip pens and the Muji range are her favourite. Miriam told me:

I usually write in black or blue but sometimes I enjoy writing in green or purple. The pen has to flow easily for me and have a reasonable grip.

Miriam also likes small, lined notebooks and insists the lines can’t be too far apart. She  starts a new notebook for each novel. One of her favourite gifts is a fancy notebooks with heavy cover. She uses them as diaries when she is on holiday.

She uses a lot of plastic folders and plastic pockets to keep things in order during her writing process.

I need files for my filing cabinet to keep things in some kind of order, but when I’m working away my desk literally becomes a rising mound of books, papers, slippery slidy plastic pockets, and pens which have been discarded.

You can read the whole Papers Pens Poets interview here.

Miriam COVER HIGH RESWhen I interviewed Miriam for the blog she had just launched The Emergency Zoo, a novel which  focuses on a little known fact that during WWII there was a huge culling of the pets. Her book asks:

When war breaks out, who will save the animals?

In The Emergency Zoo the children spirit their pets away from the grownups and even end up caring for a baby cobra.

Hidden book cover

I have also previously interviewed Miriam for my columns in the national writing magazine, Writers’ Forum. The first time was in 2011 about her research secrets for her first novel Hidden, which is about racial bullying and set on Hayling Island. Hidden, has been the Sunday Times Children’s Book of the Week and was nominated for the Carnegie Medal in 2016.


Miriam told me how her Hayling archive fills a whole bookshelf at home in her study. She also said she found lots of interesting snippets of inspiration by talking to the local sailors, coastguards and lifeboat men. This also helped to develop her understanding of the beaches, tides, currents and waters around Hayling.

I have swum in the sea in summer and winter and paddled in all seasons and I have walked all over the Island, taking photos, writing notes and talking to anyone who has a moment, from birdwatchers to houseboat owners, to teenagers in the skate park near the funfair.

In the April 2018 issue of Writers’ Forum, I interviewed Miriam for my Writing 4 Children column and she told me how her YA novel, Hidden, has been adapted for the stage by playwright Vickie Donoghue.

Writing 4 Children - Miriam Halahmy1

Find out more about Miriam on her website: Facebook author page : Miriam Halahmy – Writer and Twitter: @miriamhalahmy

Writing for Children

I don’t believe writing is easy and I do believe writing for children is the most difficult of all. I have often wondered why I want to write for children. Why this market above any other?


The reason I am writing for children is partly I want to have a lasting effect on children’s lives. Yes, I remember reading the Narnia books and Enid Blyton stories when I was younger and I loved them. I look fondly back at these stories, which remind me of my childhood. But, this is only part of the reason why I want to write for children.

It is also partly the immense satisfaction I get from seeing myself published. I get a thrill when I see my words in print and I love to hear feedback that shows all my hard work is appreciated by others.

A big chunk of the reason I want to write for children is because I believe I understand children and how their minds work. I’ve always had an interest in Psychology. I did a degree with honours in Behavioural Sciences, which means I have a basic understanding of developmental stages, but it is more than this. I think I am more in tune with children’s emotions and imaginations than I am with adults.

Maybe, I have never grown up and I am still very child-like or childish myself. It is true; I’ve had my fair share of tantrums and setbacks. Again, I think it is more than this. I don’t like long flowery language and long descriptions. I find them boring. So the vocabulary I use naturally leans towards being punchy, attention grabbing and exciting, which is more suited for the younger reader. I love short paragraphs and lots of dialogue and definitely feel that dialogue is my strength.

Also, I have a very short attention span so tend to write in short, sharp bursts, which I think is more suited to writing for the younger age range. However, the most important reason I want to write novel for children is I love the challenge.

So, if you know why you have chosen to write in your particular genre or age group, whether it is for children or adults, please leave a comment and share your thoughts.

Book Review – Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales

Title: Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales

Retold and illustrated by: Marcia Williams

Published by: Walker Books

Chaucer_s Canterbury Tales

This is an innovative picture book that deserves a mention in the book review slot of my blog. Geoffrey Chaucer’s colourful characters are bought magically to life by Marcia William’s witty comic-book style. She transports the reader back to Medieval England to join Chaucer and his merry band of pilgrims on their journey back to Canterbury. Enjoy their amazing tales and judge for yourself who should win the best story competition.

The tales have been captured by Marcia William’s ingenious comic-strips, which are full of action and humour. This re-telling of a great classic in picture book format, is best suited for the older KS2 child and would be a great asset for those studying Chaucer up to GCSE level.

This fantastic picture book includes all nine of Chaucer’s tales in the correct order – the knight, the miller, the reeve, the wife of Bath, the summoner, the clerk, the franklin, the pardoner and the nun’s priest. Even the most reluctant reader wouldn’t be able to resist exploring the pictures and reading aloud the olde English to gain a fuller understanding of the story’s meaning.

An Interview with… Skylark Literary Agency

For the December #206 issue of Writers’ Forum I interviewed Amber Caraveo and Joanna Moult of the Skylark Literary Agency about their submission process.

Unlike most literary agents Amber and Jo prefer to receive the whole manuscript in the first instance. this way if they are gripped by the opening they can carry on reading. They are looking for stories that are so compelling they don’t want to put the manuscript down until they have reached the end.


They explained that sometimes it is the voice, sometimes it is beautiful lyrical writing, sometimes it is the humour and sometimes it is being transported to a beautiful world that makes a manuscript stand out.

Amber’s tip for writers who are thinking about submitting to them is:

Don’t be nervous – we want to see your manuscripts. The success of our business depends on authors like you sharing your work with us! And please tell us a little about yourself. It’s much more engaging when we have a sense of the person behind the novel.

Jo says:

Please don’t feel that you can get anything ‘wrong’ in a covering letter. As long as you’re not rude, the most important thing for us is the quality of your story, so please don’t panic too much about making sure your pitch is flawless or your synopsis is snappy.

You can read the full interview in the Dec 2018 #206 issue of Writers Forum.

You can find out more about the Skylark Literary Agency and the writers they represent on their website: or follow them on Twitter @AmberCaraveo  

My Writing Tips

Here are some writing tips I have picked up over the years. They are not in any particular order.


  • From the moment you submit your manuscript be as professional as possible, remember you are trying to enter into a business agreement.
  • The hook is what really drives the book.
  • Create plot and characters you can’t leave when you start reading about them. The aim is to draw the reader into the book and keep their attention.
  • Have characters the readers can believe in.
  • Story and character are absolute key.
  • Pace is becoming faster as a lot of things are competing for attention.
  • You have to catch the reader in the first few sentences.
  • Find one line that sums up what your book is about.
  • Good self-editing is crucial.
  • Show don’t tell. If your character is anxious don’t say so, write what they are doing because they are anxious.

Book Review – Mystery & Mayhem (Crime Club)

Title: Mystery & Mayhem (Crime Club)

Written by: Caroline Lawrence, Clementine Beauvais, Elen Caldecott, Frances Hardinge, Harriet Whitehorn, Helen Moss, Julia Golding, Kate Pankhurst, Katherine Woodfine, Robin Stevens, Sally Nicholls and Susie Day.

Published by: Egmont

Mystery & Mayhem

This innovative crime compilation is aimed at the 8-12 age range and jam-packed with big name authors. The book contains twelve deliciously, intriguing short stories by twelve renowned children’s book writers all under one cover. There are four sections each containing three mysteries to solve: impossible mysteries, canine capers, poison plots and closed-system crimes.

The featured Mystery & Mayhem (Crime Club) authors in order of appearance are: Susie Day, Elen Caldecott, Clementine Beauvais, Caroline Lawrence, Julia Golding, Kate Pankhurst, Frances Hardinge, Helen Moss, Harriet Whitehorn, Sally Nicholls, Katherine Woodfine (who has also written the introduction) and Robin Stevens.

The dastardly crime stories include murder, mayhem, poison and plot, dognapping, safe-breaking, sabotage and biscuits. Only the intrepid young detectives – and the reader – can crack the cases to save the day.

Each story is succinctly written so the reader can experience the satisfaction of putting together clues, unravelling evidence and solving cleverly designed puzzles to crack each case and discover exactly what happened and why. They are all a great read and I could not possibly pick a favourite, but I particularly enjoyed how Susie Day’s character Emily is the one to solve the crime despite the effort of the adults and similarly with Jamie Kahn in Robin Steven’s story. Both these main characters outwit the adults.

I think children will enjoy these excellent crime stories and it will encourage them to seek out more books by their favourite authors. It is good to see the crime genre hit the mid-grade shelves.

This book review was previously published on the online Armadillo Children’s Book Review Magazine.

An interview with… Tim Bouquet

I interviewed investigative reporter, Tim Bouquet, about his research methods way back in 2008 for my Research Secrets slot in Writers’ Forum .

Tim specialises in investigative narrative story telling for a variety of magazines including The Times MagazineTelegraph MagazineEsquire, Reader’s DigestMelbourne Age and the Irish Times. He is the co-author, with Byron Ousey, of Cold Steel Britain’s Richest Man and his Billion Dollar Battle for Global Empire (Little Brown). Cold Steel is about Lakshmi Mittal and an epic, dirty and sometimes racist, takeover battle he fought to take over the world’s second biggest steel company. This creative non-fiction thriller, reads like fiction.

Cold Steel

Lakshmi Mittal, a Calcutta-born industrialist, raised himself up from humble beginnings to become the world’s fourth-richest man. He proposed a friendly merger with rival Arcelor, a pan-European company whose interested parties include the governments of Spain, Luxembourg and Belgium. Arcelor’s mercurial CEO, Frenchman Guy Dolle, firmly refused the merger. The scene is set for a massive hostile takeover involving billions of dollars of finance, government and shareholder manoeuvring, and accusations of jingoism and double-dealing. Cold Steel brings to life the cut and thrust of big business at war.

Lakshmi Mittal

As part of their research for Cold Steel, Tim and Byron interviewed 55 people face-to-face in six countries. Tim told me:

I organise all my research by chronology and character. From here I sketch out the basic building blocks and tipping points of the story. These may change but at least it’s a starting point.

He always tries to talk to people in places where events in his writing take place because he feels it helps to paint a picture of the setting and reminds the people he is interviewing where they were physically when certain key events happened. I feel this is excellent advice and if possible it is worth meeting the people you are interviewing at a set location for your book or novel. Tim explained to me how he visited all the places they wrote about in Cold Steel. He said:

If you want to set a scene in an operating theatre you need to visit one. I always visit the places I write about. If you haven’t been there or somewhere like it, how can you take your reader there?

In Cold Steel, they listed people who had helped them set up interviews in the acknowledgements and they listed all the people they had talked to and  played leading roles in the story in a section called The Players.

My advice to other writers is check and double check. Don’t believe everything people tell you!

To find more information about Tim Bouquet, his co-author Byron Ousey and their book Cold Steel, visit the website: