For my Research Secrets slot in this month’s #244 9 June 2022 issue of Writers’ Forum, I interviewed debut children’s writer, Alex Evelyn, about her research into botany for her middle grade novel, The Secret Wild, published by Walker Books.
Alex Evelyn explained she was actually writing a time travel story set in Egypt when the idea for The Secret Wild came to her. So she filed the original idea and switched her research from pharaohs to plants. The idea for her main characters Fern and Special came to her when she was helping at a plant sale at her village primary school. The children were queueing up to buy mini cacti, and when they had their new ‘pet’ in their hands they were chatting about what they were going to call them and where in their bedrooms they were going to put them. Alex did some research which showed house plant sales were booming amongst younger people, which gave her story idea roots. Alex revealed:
“During my research I was surprised to learn that there is such a thing as botonaphobia. Fern’s friend Woody’s character was already partly based on my own journey with anxiety, and when I read about this very specific fear I had to explore more.”Alex Evelyn
She explained one of the things she has learnt about anxiety is that your own fears can be almost incomprehensible to others who don’t suffer from the same fear. This was the case for her with botonophobia – she couldn’t imagine how anyone could be scared of something she found so soothing. Fern is also very confused by it, but as she learns about friendships, she learns not to judge this unusual fear of Woody’s.
“I am very aware that writing for young children I need to entertain first and educate second – and never, ever to preach. Characters and a well-paced story have to form the backbone, the STEM is merely the flesh.”Alex Evelyn
Alex told me one of the most useful resources she didcovered during her research was a second hand collection of Kew Garden botany books from World of Books. Determined to become an overnight expert she ploughed straight in to their Latin for Gardeners but no matter how hard she tried she couldn’t remember the plants’ Latin names, and so the part of Fern’s character that drives her scientist Dad Darwin mad was created – she, like Alex, can never remember names and responds more to how the plants look and feel than by being successful at categorising them.
To see plants through a child’s eyes or to ‘think the right height’ she dipped in to the Plantopedia by Adrienne Barman, a beautifully illustrated book that categorises plants using criteria that appeal to a young child. From the ‘imposters’ to the ‘stinkers’, the ‘useful’ and the ‘healers’ to the ‘poisoners’. Alex explained the book brings the amazing plants on this earth to life as if they are characters.
Alex divulged her setting was inspired by a visit to the Natural History Museum in London when she strolled past a sign for an open garden on the roof on an office block. She wondered what was hidden away up there, beyond the reach of our eyes. The shoot of an idea began to sprout – a glasshouse in the sky that held plants from the wilder places of the world.
“I am not a natural city dweller, and so it was easy to write Fern’s astonishment at arriving in such a big, overwhelming place. Fern is much more at home surrounded by the wilds of the rainforest. The minute we could get back on to the streets of London I was there with notebook in hand. I wanted to try and show that as a Londoner you can feel that you live in a village tucked in to the greater mass of the city.”Alex Evelyn
Alex revealed that one of her favourite pieces of research was visiting the great glasshouses of Kew Gardens as this helped with writing the five senses. Feeling so hot that sweat ran down her legs, seeing water droplets on luscious leaves and feeling the texture of the plants bought them to life in a way she could never have discovered from books alone.
Alex told me she often ‘writes with her nose’ and it was the smell of the Kew glasshouses that helped her write the scene when Fern and Woody first walk in to Oleander’s glasshouse in the sky:
As they stepped forwards, they parted a cloud of butterflies which scattered like tiny pieces of torn paper being blown in the wind. A warm, figgy smell wrapped itself around her nostrils, sweet and delicious.Extract from The Secret Wild by Alex Evelyn
Alex’s tip to other writers is to let your research lead you to places you haven’t necessarily planned. She elaborated that she often finds her narrative guided by things she discovered by digging a bit deeper and a bit wider. Nothing is ever wasted, even if you don’t end up using your research directly it might inform the depth of a character or a setting. But you do have to know when to stop. Research can be a lovely black hole that stops you from focusing on the hard task of drafting words in to a story.
You can follow Alex on Twitter @alexrevelyn.
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