Anita Loughrey's blog. This is my journal about my experiences and thoughts on writing. As well as news about me and my books, it includes writing tips, book reviews, author interviews and blog tours.
For more information about me and my books see my website: www.anitaloughrey.com. Follow me on Twitter @amloughrey, Facebook @anitaloughrey.author and on Instagram @anitaloughrey
Title: The Miraculous Sweetmakers – The Frost Fair
Writtenby: Natasha Hastings
Cover illustrated by: Alex T Smith
Published by: Harper Collins Children’s Books
An ingenious spooky story, full of intrigue and suspense. The book encompasses themes of family, friendship, loss, and overcoming grief.
Thirteen year old Thomasina feels responsible for the death of her twin brother Arthur. So when a mysterious, well-dressed man turns up in the family sweetshop claiming he is a conjurer and can bring Arthur back from the dead, she jumps at the chance. However, events spiral out of control putting not only her life at risk but also the lives of her friends and family.
I loved that the book was set in London 1683 when the River Thames froze over. Thomasina helps her father set up a sweet stall on the frozen river Thames. She makes friends with Anna who dreams of opening her own apothecary, which is a daring move in the 17th century for a young girl, despite the fact many young children would be expected to work at their age. I like the way Natasha Hastings’ characters challenge the male/female stereotypes that were prominent during this time. This was also evident in the way Natasha expertly tackled the subplot of her mother’s grief and neighbours wanting to lock her up as it was seen as female mental illness. I found it realistic for the times.
On the whole the plot was well researched and full of twists and turns. I would recommend this book for all middle grade readers who love history with a hint of magic.
I have previously reviewed this book on NetGalley and Goodreads.
Today you can discover what Sue Moorcroft told me about her research into the seasons for her romance novels in the interview for the #240 Dec 2021 issue of Writers’ Forum.
Sue explained writing a summer novel and a winter novel each year makes weather a consideration. When she was writing about Switzerland she used an online snow-cam and other online resources for typical temperatures and daylight hours.
She also keeps my eye out for seasonal events or traditions that she could be used in her novels and keeps a note on any posters about seasonal events – a Christmas tree competition or an artificial beach in the local town centre during the school summer holidays, etc.
“I had a Christmas wreath made last year and the florist explained it was compostable so I brought that into Under the Mistletoe and found a demonstration of how to make one online.”
She revealed when writing a Christmas book she bears in mind Christmas can affect everything. For those who celebrate the season, things are worse or better if you tag ‘at Christmas’ onto a situation. He lost his job at Christmas. She found her long-lost sister at Christmas. Christmas affects what restaurants or pubs look like, menus, what shops sell, what’s on the radio or TV and how people spend their time. Even a Christmas gift is meaningful for both plot and characterisation.
“Ideas are like gold dust. When I get one, I write it down. I can usually make my ideas fit the season with a bit of plot dexterity but definitely an ice hockey player fits nicely into a winter book and a vineyard owner into a summer book.”
Sue told me people with knowledge are key to her research and she is always interested in what they have to say and will follow up with more questions. She revealed she often uses social media to find the people she needs. For Under the Mistletoe she needed help from a teacher on the subject of bullying and help from an artist, as it’s my heroine Laurel’s occupation. She explained people can be incredibly kind.
When writing Under the Italian Sun she saw a documentary on the subject of post partum psychosis and followed the filmmaker on Twitter. He was the subject of the documentary, too, as he’d lost his mum young and didn’t understand why there was such a mystery around it. Sue told him how much she’d enjoyed the documentary and she was writing a book that covered the same subject. He offered her a video chat where she could find out more information.
In Just for the Holidays a forced helicopter landing took place. The process is called autorotation, the skill of keeping the rotors moving using pitch and yaw when the engine cuts out – a bit like a sycamore seed twirling to earth. Sue had trouble finding a helicopter pilot who wanted to help but eventually, via a friend of a friend, she found one. He took her up in a helicopter and they ‘pretend crashed’.
“It was awesome! I absolutely loved it. We shot down to earth and then he just pulled it up and landed (this is called ‘flare and run-on landing). Chatting afterwards, although it had taken ages casting around to find him, it turned out he knew my auntie.”
Sue also loves to visit the countries she write about. She regularly goes to writing retreats and courses in Umbria, Italy and has used the setting for several of her novels. Under the Italian Sun and One Summer in Italy are both set there so she was able to use her extensive photo library as a resource.
I know a lovely Italian lady and I asked her if she could help with things that were hard to research from here, or are cultural, such as what kind of beer this person would drink or how people behave if they have nuns to lunch, and she answered every email. She also put the Italian phrases right for me. It gave me a lot of confidence in the authenticity of the setting and themes.
On a visit, Sue told me she tends to eat local food, especially any particular to the region. Menus are also helpful, and available online. Settings can help an author weave a romantic spell around the reader. Her tip is to pick a setting that heightens the emotional stakes and visit it.
Title: A Year Full of Celebrations and Festivals: Over 90 fun and fabulous festivals from around the world!
Written by: Claire Grace
Illustrated by: Christopher Corr
Published by: Frances Lincoln
A Year Full of Celebrations and Festivals compiled by Christopher Corr and Claire Grace is a fantastic compendium of carnivals, festivals, historical commemorations, religious events and other special days, which are celebrated around the world. Each celebrations has a double page spread which has text on one side and a bright, vibrant illustration opposite that often bleeds across both pages. They have been collated into seasons with a brief introduction to each season to explains what that season has in common all over the world, however they mainly describe seasonal differences in the Northern hemisphere.
Each season is not organised in any particular order within the chapter. Spring opens with the Indian International Kite Festival, with the Japanese Cherry Blossom Festival Hanami in the middle and concludes with Martin Luther King Jr Day. Summer includes Palio de Siena the Italian horse race, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and finishes with a spread about the different Summer Solstice celebrations across the globe. Autumn starts with the Mid-Autumn Moon festival celebrated in East Asia, Diwali in the middle and climaxes with the Pearly Kings and Queens Harvest Festival in the United Kingdom. Winter features Hanukkah first, The African Festival of Dancing Masks (FESTIMA) in the middle and finally New Year’s Eve Countdown across the world.
Claire Grace’s text provides a brief, concise explanation of the celebrations, which includes some of the history and pageantry involved. Scattered across each spread is an insightful information bubble or snippet that contains extra fun facts about that particular celebration to stretch and entertain readers. At the back of the book is a spread of glossary words that appear in the text.
This colourful non-fiction book would be a great reference book for teachers wanting to think of ideas for a school assembly that could be expanded and for children who are curious about the world and other cultures. The ideal book for children to dip in and out of during reading times.
Today I am going to talk about my interview with YA author Tracey Darnton and her writing process and advice to aspiring children’s book writers. The full feature appeared in this months Writers’ Forum #249 30 Nov 2022.
Tracey’s novel writing career began with a short story when she won the Stripes/The Bookseller YA Short Story Prize which was published in the YA anthology I’ll be Home for Christmas.
As a result of working so closely with the team at Stripes, she was asked to pitch a novel which grew into The Truth About Lies. Tracy has always had an interest in memory so she decided to build a story around a girl who could remember everything. The Truth About Lies was shortlisted for the Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize and selected as a World Book Night title.
The short story now sits at the beginning of The Rules. Full of themes around the role of rules in family and society and the effects of preparing for disaster, The Rules is about a girl on the run from her prepper dad. This proves you never know where a competition could lead you.
Tracy’s latest novel, Ready or Not is about a Teenager Kat goes missing during a game of hide-and-seek at a late-night party on holiday. Three families have holidayed in a lovely house in Cornwall since the kids were born so the teens have all grown up together. Tracy tell the story through the eyes of the youngest, 15-year-old Millie, who’s devastated by the absence of her best friend, Kat. The remaining teenagers all go back to Creek House one year on and secrets finally begin to be revealed about what’s happened to Kat.
Tracy explained that this novel came out of a very strong image she had in my head of a girl standing by a tree with her eyes covered, counting slowly. This image triggered many what if… questions such as, what if when she opened them she couldn’t find her friend? Tracy told me she wrote a short paragraph ending with the line ‘People don’t just disappear, do they?’ and built the story from there. That line ended up on the cover as the strapline.
“I usually set off writing with the beginning paragraph and a paragraph or two of the ending. I don’t plan before I write. Having that sense of the ending helps me work my way through the middle, heading for a clear target. I always brainstorm different possible endings and then try to pick something which falls between the lines. Endings are my favourite part of my books.”
As you live and breathe a book for such a long time through the writing, editing and marketing processes, you certainly need to choose something which intrigues and interests you. Ready or Not has themes around friendship, obsession, privilege and game-playing – both the ones they sit down to play and the games played with other people’s feelings.
Tracy said engaging characters are key to a good YA thriller. The reader must really care about what happens to them for the high stakes to mean anything, and to keep turning the pages.
Tracy prefers writing in first person because it gives a more immediate strong voice and insight into what’s going on in the main character’s head. She revealed she often writes letters or diary entries in her character’s voice to get to know them better. In Ready or Not, Millie’s letters became an integral part of the story.
“I have a ‘Bible’ notebook for each novel where I set out the timelines and use this notebook to sketch out the location and collate any research notes. I used to be a solicitor and I can’t shake my attention to detail. I have a glossary of terms so that I can be consistent (over things like whether hide-and-seek has hyphens) and I pass that list on to the copy editor at my publisher.”
Tracy elaborated everyone needs to find what works for them. She believes all writers should experiment and play with their writing. Her writing tip for other people wanting to write YA is to read as many as you can – and you have a very good excuse to watch thriller films and series too. Although you’ll inevitably have adult characters, be careful that you don’t end up focusing on a heavy cast of police, forensic scientists, lawyers, teachers, parents etc. Keep agency and focus with your teen protagonists – they must be driving the plot forwards. Throw in a closed setting, a ticking timeline – and craft moments of suspense. The more secrets your characters have, the better. See where it takes you.
But her main piece of advice to aspiring writers is to get on with it, finish that book.
“I waited far too many years before getting back to my writing and I regret it now. What on earth was I waiting for? There are always excuses not to do something but, take it from me, there is no mythical date in the future when you’ll have more time and inspiration to write.”
Carve out that time now. If you need a deadline, enter a competition or set one with a friend. Finishing and polishing a complete short story or novel is where you will learn so much about the craft of being a writer.
You can follow Tracy on Twitter @TracyDarnton and Instagram @TracyDarnton
Join me today on the blog tour for Ellie Joyce and her debut YA novel, Young Eagle Rising.
Ellie Joyce was born and raised in Belfast. She holds an A.L.A.M. (Dip. Acting) from The London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. She and her husband have four children and live in Leicestershire.
Young Eagle Rising is set in Ireland in 1735. Thirteen-year-old William Baxter has a grandmother with peculiar powers – so peculiar he believes she must be a witch. Taking this secret with him, he reluctantly sails with his family to the New World and the promise of a better life.
But Pennsylvania proves to be a savage, unforgiving place rife with warring tribes, slavery and dangerous animals. When William’s life suddenly takes a terrifying turn, he is thrust headlong into a battle for survival. Consumed with hatred for those responsible, he desperately wants to return to Ireland, but the coast is one hundred miles away and the trail runs through native territory. Alone and frightened, he sets out on what becomes the journey of a lifetime, determined to survive and have his revenge.
Young Eagle Rising is a coming-of-age story, a mix of fantasy, history, adventure and the enduring love of an old Irish witch.
To follow the rest of the tour please see the dates below:
The Spectaculars is the first in a series of books about a group of magical performers with gifted special powers from the stars.
I was enticed to read this book by the beautiful cover illustrated by Nathan Collins. However, it took me a while to get into the story and feel any rapport for the main protagonist, eleven year old Harper Woolfe, but after the first three chapters I was hooked.
When three figures arrive at Harper’s window in a flying canoe, informing her that she is due to start her apprenticeship, Harper discovers she is a Spectacular. Harper is transported away in the canoe, from the rundown Theatre Borough of the Smoke to the amazing magical world of The Hidden Peaks, dressed only in her pyjamas and dressing gown. She arrives at a magical travelling theatre and boarding school, called the Wondria, which is in a tram and has a multitude of floors, an attic and a giant glass dome.
Like her mum Harper has a love of mechanics but has inherited her dad’s magical abilities to control stardust. One of the mysterious figures is blue-haired Trick who was her best friend before the ‘accident’ that killed her father but her mother had convinced her he was imaginary to spare her the truth of what she had lost. Trick is my favourite character and in a lot of the ways he carries the book. He comes across as mischievous, but he also has a calm and reassuring side to his nature. He is always very supportive of Harper.
She learns that on the day her dad died and the Spectaculars arrived through the Gateway, thirteen stars fell from the sky and were lost. These stars are being hunted for their magical powers.
This well-crafted story reminded me in places of Neil Gaiman’s Stardust and J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series but instead of a sorting hat there is a teapot, which brews the perfect tea for their character and instead of the fallen star being human they are animals.
This novel is a fascinating look at how superstition can lead to dramatic over-reactions. Harper is convinced by the spoilt Althea Reed that she is responsible for bringing Misfortune to the Wondria. The accidents and mysterious disturbances to theatre life continue until they threaten to close down the theatre for good. With Trick and new friend Thief the magician, Harper fights to save the theatre and help the fallen stars return home.
Jodie Garnish shows a real talent for creating imaginative worlds as well as some incredible, unique magical creatures, such as a ‘kobold’ called Helja, which can shape-shift into a broom and a mangle. Her world building is elaborate and impressive. One of my favourite settings is the ingenious magical library where the bookshelves look like they are suspended in the air high above their heads.
The Spectaculars is a fantastic amalgamation of the world of theatre with the world of magic. This is a boarding school story with a difference containing some exceptional twists. I particularly enjoyed the excellent twist at the end when the real antagonist is revealed with a surprising secret.
Ideal for readers 8+. This book would be a beautiful addition to libraries and school bookshelves.
For this month’s issue of Writers’ Forum #249 30 Nov 2022 I interviewed Jane Bettany about the research she does into murder and forensics when she has no police background.
Although Jane enjoys reading crime novels and watching TV police dramas she is not an ex police officer, nor has she worked in the legal profession To write her crime novels with no career background or experience to draw on, and no friends in the police force, she had to rely heavily on research.
Her debut novel In Cold Blood won the Gransnet and HQ novel writing competition in 2019. It features no-nonsense, 56-year-old Derbyshire detective, DI Isabel Blood, who is called to investigate the discovery of a body in the garden of her childhood home (the house in which she last saw her father four decades earlier). It the first in the DI Isabel Blood crime series. Book 2, Without a Trace, followed in 2021, and book 3, Last Seen Alive was published in the spring of 2022. She revealed over the course of her three books, she has learnt a lot about police procedures.
Before starting the research Jane will begin by making a note of what she needs to know. She told me that it’s easy to get bogged down and overwhelmed by researching too much information, so rather than taking a scattergun approach, she tries to be specific. To do this she creates a fictional scenario, and ask what facts she needs to check to make that scene authentic.
“I’ve found information online through websites such as www.police.uk, which is the national website for policing in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The site has a section called Policing in the UK, where you can learn about crime investigations in action. There’s also a site called www.askthe.police.uk, which has frequently asked questions on topics such as road traffic offences, criminal damage, and court proceedings.”
Jane owns a large collection of reference books for crime writers. These include The Real CSI by Kate Bendelow, Criminal Poisoning by John Harris Trestrail, and Crime Writing: How to Write the Science by Brian Price. She also owns all of the Straightforward Guides by Stephen Wade and Stuart Gibbon. Jane explained the series co-author, Stuart Gibbon, is a former UK senior police detective. As well as writing books, he also offers a crime writing consultancy, gibconsultancy.co.uk, providing authors with information to help them write authentically about police procedures.
She now has a useful store of knowledge she can use for future books. Jane said one of the most significant things she discovered was police officers and detectives can’t just go around arresting people willy-nilly; there has to be sufficient evidence against a suspect to justify an arrest. A more likely scenario is a ‘person of interest’ will be asked to attend the police station voluntarily to be interviewed under caution. Anyone brought in for a ‘voluntary interview’ will be told in advance they aren’t under arrest, are free to leave at any time, and are entitled to have a solicitor present during the interview. Each of her books includes at least one ‘interview under caution’ scene.
Jane explained a real murder investigation can involve hundreds of people (detectives, uniformed officers, civilians, forensic teams, custody officers, profilers and so on). It would be impractical (and confusing for readers) to weave all of those characters into a novel. For dramatic and pacing purposes, it’s better to focus on a detective protagonist and his/her core officers. Whilst not strictly realistic, allowing a small team to solve the murder makes for much better reading.
Jane told me ensuring this authenticity has brought all sorts of research challenges. In the opening chapter of In Cold Blood, a skull is discovered. For the purposes of the story, it was important to quickly establish whether the skeleton (which hadn’t yet been fully unearthed by the CSI) was male or female. The only problem was, she knew next to nothing about human bones.
“I searched online for the difference between male and female skeletons. The results provided plenty of diagrams and information, including how to differentiate the sex of a skull based on the slope of the forehead, the prominence of the supraorbital ridges, and the shape of the eye sockets – information I was able to use in my novel.”
The setting for the DI Isabel Blood series is the fictional town of Bainbridge, which is based loosely on Belper, the Derbyshire town Jane grew up in. The reason she chose to fictionalise the location was to avoid having to adhere rigidly to the confines of a real place, which Jane found limiting. A fictional town allowed her narrative license and gave an opportunity to embellish the setting for dramatic purposes.
Although the main location of my books is fictional, her detectives travel to plenty of real places within Derbyshire and the East Midlands in the course of their investigations. In one book, there’s a scene where they drive through Matlock Bath – somewhere she has visited regularly all her life. Her first instinct was to mention only the obvious details of the place, but she decided to include some of the features of its topography to give a better feel for the location.
“To refresh my memory, I drove to Matlock Bath and walked its main street – but instead of concentrating on the things around me (the shops and cafes with which I was already familiar), I tried to take in the bigger picture. I gazed up at the hillside above the main parade of shops. I studied the flow of the river, and noticed the way the road followed its curve. I looked for the details the average tourist might miss.”
Crime writers are constantly on the lookout for new crime scenes, or mulling over innovative ways to investigate murder (and new ways to kill people!). Jane’s tip to writers planning to write a crime novel is to join one of the short criminology or forensic science courses on futurelearn.com.
If you search the site for ‘forensics’ or ‘crime’, you will find lots of courses on offer. Created by UK universities, these short courses can be joined for free with time limited access), or you can subscribe or buy a one-off course if you prefer. It’s a great way of learning online from academic experts. Who knows… one of these course might inspire your next crime novel?
Title: Lands of Belonging: A History of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Britain
Written by: Donna and Viskesh Amey Bhatt
Illustrated by: Salini Perera
Published by: Nosy Crow
Lands of Belonging: A History of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Britain is a much needed, long overdue book that should adorn every bookshelf in all schools and libraries. It outlines the history of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh and how these cultures are entwined and shape British history. It was launched by Nosy Crow in July 2022 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the Partition of India.
This is an innovative children’s non-fiction book about belonging and celebrating the past, present and future of our complex and diverse nation written with a clear and concise writing style by husband and wife team, Donna and Viskesh Amey Bhatt. It is divided into double-page spread chapters that start with an introductory welcome, which explains how India is divided and the difference between the United Kingdom and Great Britain, to a very useful timeline and glossary at the back of the book. With a chronological overall organisation it takes us from the past, into the present and looks onwards to the future.
Each beautifully illustrated spread covers such topics as how every person is an amalgamation of different things; the ancient history of India and its many religions; the British Empire and the decisions that led to a divided independent India. It touches on some difficult topics such as slavery and racism, as well as exploring the beauty of South Asian culture, customs, food, sport and language exuberated by the bright and colourful illustrations.
Lands of Belonging would be an asset in all classrooms for stimulating discussion on diversity and the celebration of our differences and similarities. I particularly liked the inclusion of the spread on the Asian calendar of celebrations, which would be perfect for helping children clarify and discuss the different religious festivals and celebrations throughout the year, whether the children traditionally celebrate these or not.
This brilliant book provides an insightful and inclusive educational overview of the links between our cultures. Truly a book about identity and belonging.
I was lucky enough to interview Donna Amey Bhatt for my Writing for Children slot in the UK’s national writing magazine, Writer’s Forum. The feature appeared in issue #247 21 Sep 2022. To read highlights from the feature take a look at my blog post: An interview with… Donna Amey Bhatt.
You can buy copies of Lands of Belonging: A History of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Britain by Donna and Viskesh Amey Bhatt and illustrated by Salini Perera from your local bookshop, or online at uk.bookshop.org, an organisation with a mission to financially support local, independent bookshops.
I interviewed BAME author Ruby Lovell about the importance of diversity in children’s fiction for my Writing for Children slot in Writers’ Forum #200 June 2018.
She revealed when she moved to London from Sri Lanka at seven years old, the culture shock was quite something.
“I spoke very little English and my school mates had never met anyone from Sri Lanka, so didn’t really understand me or my culture. I found it hard to fit in at first and that experience stuck with me, especially when I looked at the books available to me as a child. All that was on offer were things like Enid Blyton and stories about white British children getting up to great adventures. Growing up on exotic tales from my grandmother, that lack of diversity in reading always stuck with me.”
She explained her experience made her aware of the lack of diversity in books and wanted to see more children of colour represented in children’s literature for her own children who have never been to Sri Lanka and experienced all the wonderful things she did as a child growing-up there.
This inspired her to write her Ruby series of picture books published by Lychee Books. The adventures that the character Ruby gets up to are all based on real-life experiences her boys had during their first trips to Sri Lanka. They visited an elephant orphanage where they saw how injured elephants are cared for, rode tuk tuks and they learned to play the traditional drums and see snake charmers and much more.
Ruby enthusiastically spoke about how this unique experience awoke an explosion of an exciting new culture that was part of them.
“My writing and the books I create for children all come from my heart. I had a huge amount of help from my young sons and writing something that means something to you is so much more special than an idea picked out of thin air. I want my books to not only be a ‘go to’ bedtime story for children of a South Asian background, but for children of all races and backgrounds who want a good adventure story.”
Ruby explained she was motivated by the fact you find a lot in books for kids that characters are anthropomorphised so they appeal to as many people as possible but she wants to see books with people of colour on the cover, people who are differently able, a range of genders and shapes and sizes. She elaborated children are unique, so let’s write books that are as varied as they are. A diverse book is one that explores a different point of view than those represented in the majority of books on the market. This can be a different racial/cultural point of view in the case of Ruby’s book, or a different point of view about physical ability, sexual orientation etc.
Hearing other people’s stories helps children appreciate other points of view, especially those that differ from their own. The more diverse a child’s reading experience, the more understanding, tolerant and accepting they will become as human beings. They will also form friendships with children of various backgrounds and this is healthy as when they become adults this helps them become accepting of a world filled with so many different cultures, religions and customs.
Ruby would also like to see more books featuring mixed race characters of all combinations of backgrounds and smaller racial groups and backgrounds. For example, the Disney film Moana was one of the first mainstream representations of Polynesian culture for children.
Ruby’s tip on writing for children is to run your book past real children before you send it out to agent. See their reaction, learn which jokes soar and which ones fall flat. Children are wonderfully honest critics, but don’t just rely on your own kids. See if you can go into a local primary school and do a reading of your final manuscript (with some illustrations if you can). The feedback and reaction you receive will shape your writing like nothing else.
The Hologram and Other Sinister Stories contains ten strong character-led stories that drive the plot to its dramatic and often gruesome conclusion.
Stuart Ross never ceases to amaze me with his keen insight into human nature. Each of the short stories included in this anthology, contain poignant and resonating observations into peoples’ psyche. They left me contemplating the resolution and events leading up to them. An insightful examination of human nature.
Each story is very different and each has at its core a very different form of technology that contributes to the main character’s grizzly and haunting demise – from AI’s over-riding their programming, possessed holograms and lethal apps, the stories grip you from the start. There are hints of Stephen King and James Herbert with a technological twist, so rather than rats devouring the flesh, we have images online devouring the soul.
If you enjoy menacing stories this is definitely the book to read.