Category Archives: An Interview with…

An interview with… Peter James

In September 2009, I interviewed crime writer, Peter James, author of the international bestselling Detective Superintendent Roy Grace series, published in over 30 languages, spends a day a week out with the Police and has recently been made Patron of Sussex Crimestoppers.  He told me all about his research for, Dead Tomorrow, published by Macmillan, June 5th 2009. This was one of the most shocking and fascinating interviews I have ever undertaken.

Peter James 1 - Low Res

Peter told me that for him, research is as important an element in writing his novels as character and plot. He views each of these elements as an inseparable trinity.

“Each of my Roy Grace novels has its genesis in a true story or in research facts – as indeed do all of my previous novels.” (Peter James)

The central story of Dead Tomorrow is a single mother, Lynn Beckett, whose 15 year old daughter, Caitlin, is suffering liver failure.  Unless she gets a transplant within weeks she will not survive. Knowing the true fact that 3 people die every day in the UK waiting for a transplant, Lynn panics that the system will let her daughter down and goes on the internet. She discovers a German organ broker who can obtain a liver for her but at a terrible financial and human price.

He explained the spark for Dead Tomorrow came from a chance conversation at a dinner party, back in 1998. He was seated next to multi-award winning documentary film maker Kate Blewett – best known for the harrowing The Dying Rooms. She asked Peter how much he thought his body was worth as a soup of chemicals. Peter had no idea and Kate informed him it was worth about 50p. She then asked how much he thought he was worth in body parts as a reasonably healthy human being and stunned Peter by telling him the black market price for a healthy teenage or adult human is around $1m.

You can get up to $400k for your liver, the same again for your heart-lungs, $60k for each kidney, then your skin, eyes, bones, and a few other bits and pieces…. The reason being there is a world shortage of human organs, caused by improvements in transplant techniques, a reluctance for people to donate, and most ironic off all, by more people wearing car seat belts – which means they don’t die of head injuries so much any more, leaving their bodies – and internal organs – intact. As a result, three people die every day in the UK, waiting for a transplant. Around 20% of people on the liver transplant waiting lists will die before they get one – in the USA the figure is as high as 90%.

Dead Tomorrow

In the past decade a huge international market for human organs has evolved.  In some countries it is illegal in others, it openly goes on. China has been steadily lowering the threshold of the death penalty for several years running, executing prisoners with a single head-shot and selling their bodies to Taiwan. Manilla in the Philippines is now known as One Kidney Island. You can go there for an all-inclusive price of about £50k, and get a kidney transplant. In India, in some castes, women routinely sell one kidney before they get married, for their dowry, and are joyfully happy with the $250 they receive.  In Columbia, the mafia are making more money out of human organ trafficking in some parts of the country, than from drugs.

As a true example of the illicit trade, in 1990, eminent British kidney transplant surgeon, Dr Raymond Crockett, who Peter has interviewed, was struck off the medical register for nine years for illegally buying kidneys, for UK patients, from four students in Turkey.

James told me he wrote a story for HBO Television in the USA several years ago.  It was about an eight-year-old street kid called Juanita who was begging outside El Dorado Airport in Bogota, Columbia.  She was arrested by the police and handed to a care agency.  From there she was put in an orphanage, a beautiful home in the country, with other kids her age.  When she was fourteen, the parents of a teenage girl in the USA, desperate for a liver, paid the Columbian mafia $450,000.  Juanita, who was a match, was killed and all her organs were harvested. Peter said:

“I am sure you are think that as I write fiction, that story was fiction.  But sadly it wasn’t, it was true…” (Peter James)

For each novel, it is not just the lives of his villains and victims that he researches. Peter explained keeping current with the police and getting the correct police procedures right is absolutely crucial. Early in Dead Tomorrow, a dredger hauls up the body of a recently dead teenager from the seabed, just off the coast of Brighton. Peter needed to understand how a dredger works, and what it does, so he spent a day at sea on a working one, off Shoreham.  Then he needed to understand what the police would do in this instance, and was told a Police dive team – the Specialist Search Unit – would go out and search the seabed for clues. 

“The SSU kindly took me out to sea on a training exercise – and there I learned too much information…!!!  I always had a romantic notion that being a police diver must be a great gig – you get to swan around in scuba gear, getting paid to do what you love. Wrong! It was explained to me that the police almost always dive in zero visibility – in muddy canals full of barbed wire and rusting supermarket trolleys and jagged metal, or in sewers, or in weed-strewn lakes, or the bottom of the English Channel which is always churned up.” (Peter James)

In the interview Peter explained the procedure is to drop a weighted line down to the sea bed, then connected to the surface by a voice line and air line, they sink down, carrying a 200 metre cable over their shoulders, with a weight on each end of it – this is called a “jackstay”.  They then lay it out in a straight line on the sea or river bed, and swim back, holding the line in one hand and sweeping in the pitch darkness with the other.  If they find nothing, they move the weights a foot to the right or left, gridding out the bed.  When they find a body, under their strict procedures, they have to hug it, in case a current carries it away, and radio to the surface for a colleague to descend with an airbag to raise it to the surface.  They will have no way of knowing whether this body has been there for days, or weeks or months, and it is likely to be crawling with crabs.

Peter James next Roy Grace novel, Find Them Dead is due to be released July 2020.

Find out more about Peter James and his books on his website: www.peterjames.com

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #95 Sept 2009 Writers’ Forum by ordering online from Select Magazines.

To read my latest Research Secrets or Writing 4 Children interviews you can invest in a subscription from the Writers’ Forum website, or download Writers’ Forum to your iOS or Android device.

An interview with… Laura Wilson

In Oct 2009, I interviewed historical and psychological crime writer, Laura Wilson, about her research tips and techniques for my Research Secrets column in the national writing magazine Writers’ Forum #96.

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Laura Wilson explained why for both historical and crime writers research is important. she said:

“There’s a standard piece of advice given to people who are starting to write fiction – write from your own experience. I would venture to suggest that if you are, like me, a writer of crime novels, it’s not very useful. What are you supposed to do? Go out and murder someone and then say, ‘Sorry, Officer, I was just doing it for research?’ It also rules out writing historical novels, science-fiction, fantasy, and quite a lot else besides.”

She explained that if you are not going to create a fictitious town or village, you can make your task easier by choosing to set your work in an area you know well. Laura often writes about the West End of London, as she lived and worked there for a number of years and is very familiar with it. However she did make it clear, a writer should always be allowed to take liberties. For example, she once moved a whole seaside town five miles down the Essex coast, although she pointed this out in the acknowledgements so the readers, if they choose to look at them, were forewarned and didn’t write her letters pointing out the ‘mistake’.

Another tip Laura gave in he feature to make life easier was give your protagonist a job you have done yourself. For example, Dick Francis, the ex-jockey, writes stories set in the world of horse-racing. Research for him must be comparatively simple, because he has both the knowledge and the contacts. Laura admitted sometimes too much knowledge can get in the way and hold up the action. The best piece of advice about writing she has ever come across is from Elmore Leonard, who says, ‘Leave out the boring bits’.

It’s always tempting to slip in factoids because you know them, forgetting that the reader wants a narrative, not a lot of information about coal-mining or dry-cleaning or how to put on a crinoline or whatever it happens to be.

She is adamant story-line must always be paramount, and don’t let anyone tell you different, as there’s a risk that research becomes a displacement activity that holds up the business of writing.  she explained there should be two main reasons for research: the first is to ensure that your story-line will stand up, and the second is to underpin your work with authenticity and truth.

she told me there are some practical steps one can take to find things out: the police and other experts are astonishingly helpful, provided that you are specific in your questions. Go to the library, do your homework, and work out exactly what it is you need to know first. Buying drinks or lunch usually pays dividends.

It’s important, too, to confirm things you think you already know – get it confirmed by another source. There’s a lot of debate about the efficacy of the internet as a research tool they need to be checked against something more reliable. People’s memories can be faulty, too. Nothing beats a spot of physical research – as Black Beauty said, ‘Feeling is believing’.

Research can bring your nearer to the characters. Laura said: 

“While writing my fifth novel, The Lover, I had great difficulty getting into the mind of the killer, Jim Rushton. The book is set during the Second World War and Rushton is a fighter pilot, so, after consulting the genuine articles, I booked myself a trip in the nearest machine I could get to a Spitfire, a Harvard Training plane which had been modified to seat two people.

I discovered for myself the amazing adrenaline rush other pilots had described to me.” (Laura Wilson)

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To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #96 Oct 2009 Writers’ Forum by ordering online from Select Magazines.

To read my latest Research Secrets interview you can invest in a postal subscription from the Writers’ Forum website or download Writers’ Forum to your iOS or Android device.

For more information about Laura Wilson and her novels take a look at her website: www.laura-wilson.co.uk

An interview with… Michael Lawrence

For the #97 Sept 2009 issue of Writers’ Forum I interviewed children’s book writer Michaew Lawrence. Michael told me he does not like to specialise. His first book for children came out in 1995. Since then he has published around 50 more of various kinds, from first picture books to young adult novels.

Michael Lawrence

His most popular books are the Jiggy McCue novels, which include The Killer Underpants, the Toilet of Doom, The Meanest Genie and The Iron, the Switch and the Broom Cupboard. He publishes one of these a year.

Jiggy McCue books

Michael explained he does not research the Jiggy McCue stories at all, or even attempt to reflect the times the kids live in to any great extent. Mobile phones, DVDs, famous film stars and so on are mentioned, but Jiggy and Co’s school experiences are essentially his own from over half a century ago. He bases their lessons on the lessons that he still remembers so well, and some of their teachers were his actual teachers he even uses their real names. You might think this would date the books, but Micheal said that children can’t have changed as much as we imagine, because a great many of them write to him to say the books are so much like their world.

Ideas for books often come to Michael in unexpected ways and often in unlikely places. Michael told me that one very wet Sunday in August 2008, he was in Tintagel, Cornwall, walking up the hill to the site of an Arthurian battle re-enactment, when the thought came that Jiggy’s parents might be visiting or taking part in just such a show and Jiggy is either whisked back in time or a knight from the past comes forward into his time. But almost at once he dismissed this as too obvious.

Plenty of bizarre things happen in Jiggy’s world, but time travel seemed unlikely to be one of them. But then he thought, suppose someone very like Jiggy lived in a century when men wore armour, fought with swords and jousted, and by the time he got to the re-enactment the spin-off series idea was born. It will be called Jiggy’s Genes, and each book is about an ancestor of Jiggy’s who bears not only the same nickname as him, but has similar attitudes, in spite of the time he is attached to.

He bought himself a hefty hardback Le Morte d’Arthur, a new copy of Roger Lancelyn Green’s King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table (fondly remembered from childhood) plus various books and pamphlets about life and conditions in the 15th century and also trawled the Internet for alternative insights.

In the first book Jiggy’s Magic Balls, Thomas Malory has just escaped from gaol and has an idea for a saga about knights, great battles and quests. He asks for Jiggy’s help with ideas. The Arthur that Jiggy points out to Malory is a shifty little pickpocket, and Merlin is a shyster lawyer who specialises in divorce cases. Michael explained Malory uses their names but does something rather ambitious with their characters…

For the second book in the series,Jiggy and the Witchfinder, his 17th century hero meets Matthew Hopkins, the Witchfinder General, who wants to hang Jiggy’s Nan as a witch. Michael told me:

“Any Jiggy book must have a goodly quota of laughs, but the England of the period was beset by war, disease and poverty, and saw the execution of a great many innocent people at the hands of dreadful men like Hopkins, so it hasn’t been easy keeping the story light as well as realistic.” (Michael Lawrence)

Michael’s trilogy, The Aldous Lexicon (A Crack in the Line, Small Eternities and The Underwood See) and Juby’s Rook are all set in the ruined village of Rouklye, which is based on Tyneham in southern Dorset. He used his first house as the model for Withern Rise in Small Eternities: The Aldous Lexicon 2.

ML's first house (model for Withern Rise in The Aldous Lexicon) (2)

ML’s first house (model for Withern Rise in The Aldous Lexicon) (2)

“My research for the trilogy has been literally life-long, as the setting is the house and village I was born in. In the three years it took me to write the books I returned there constantly, and during the writing my desk was littered with photographs of the house, the stretch of river on whose bank it stands, and the village and attached market town.” (Michael Lawrence)

In 1943, Churchill’s War Office requisitioned the Tyneham Valley for troop training and weapons testing, evacuating everyone who lived there. They promised to return it when the war was over but never did, and today Tyneham. It is still ‘owned’ by The Ministry of Defence and is a sad, haunted ruin of a place. Juby’s Rook is set in 1999 and is about an elderly man (Juby Bench) who was a teenager in the village when everyone was turfed out.

jubys rook

He returns every August to take note of the extent of the decay and walk his old haunts. Michael has walked all of these haunts, during which, over several visits, he made extensive notes and took hundreds of photographs. Michael told me the completed book took about nine years to sell. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s because it sank without trace or a single review. Yet Juby’s Rook is one of the books he is most pleased to have got into print.

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #97 Sept 2009 Writers’ Forum by ordering online from Select Magazines.

To read my latest Research Secrets or Writing 4 Children interviews you can invest in a subscription from the Writers’ Forum website or download Writers’ Forum to your iOS or Android device.

An interview with… Jo Franklin

In issue #182 Dec 2016 of Writers’ Forum I spoke to my friend, Jo Franklin, about why she prefers to write about children who feel they are on the edge of society.

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She explained that for most of her childhood she lived on a small farm in rural Sussex with hardly any social life. When she was eleven she was sent to boarding school. It was a very strange combination – the claustrophobic all female environment during term time and the boredom of the farm during the holidays. She never felt that she belonged in either place so felt very isolated. She read books as my means of escape and this led her to Sylvia Plath.

“I totally related to Esther in The Bell Jar. It was a revelation to me that Sylvia Plath could write so openly about her deepest feelings, thinly disguised in a novel and she got recognition for it. I knew that was what I wanted to do.” (Jo Franklin)

Jo joined a creative writing class at The City Lit in London and started putting words down on paper – stories about teenagers struggling with first love and identity; taking bits of her tortured soul and refashioning them into words on paper.

She discovered the important thing about writing for children is to find your inner child and reconnect to it so that your writing is convincing and real. Jo advises authors who want to write for children to ‘write who you are’ as if you can channel some of your own experience into the characters they will be rounder.

Jo found herself writing about characters who are on the edge of the society they live in – tomboys, geeks and outsiders. Some of her misfit characters wonder what they should do to fit into the mainstream. Others are more confident with who they are and the stories show that maybe society should open their hearts to the fringe characters in our world. Exploring the issues that children face is actually a way of exploring your own issues.

In her book, Help I’m an Alien, Dan feels such a misfit that when his sister tells him he’s an alien, he believes her. In Help I’m a Genius (the second title in the series) Dan is so intimidated by the brain power of the rest of his family, that when he is selected to represent the school in a National Brainiac Competition, he is convinced he is going to humiliate himself. He recognises that he doesn’t fit in and the stories explore how he feels about that. I’m interested in the range of emotions that go with searching for your own identity.

Jo doesn’t write specifically for girls or boys as she believes children’s books should be universal . 

“I hope that my stories are accessible to everyone regardless of whether the main character is male or female.They are written with a broader outlook, but publishers sometimes get hung up on which slice of the market they are focusing on selling the books to. My worst fear is a publisher giving one of my books a girlie pink cover. I was a tomboy growing up and I still hate pink.” (Jo Franklin)

Jo told me a great children’s book needs to be written from a child’s heart and soul. The voice has to resonate as true. It doesn’t matter whether a book is funny, exciting or mysterious it somehow has to lead the characters on a thrilling journey of self-discovery and include emotional insight as well as enthralling action. Some of the facts of children’s lives are different now – technology dominates their lives – but they still face the emotional journey we all went through.

Her advice is if you want to give writing for children a go, a good way to start is to work on a memory and see where it takes you. How did you feel the first time you saw your mother/father cry? Remember that time you did something wrong and you passed the blame onto someone else with disastrous consequences? What did it feel like to walk into your new school aged eleven? Choose one of these and write for fifteen minutes. See where it takes you.  Enjoy it. Don’t worry about anything other than your joy at putting words on paper.

The next step is to join a writer’s circle, critique group or creative writing class. It’s a great way to begin learning your craft and meeting like-minded people. Perseverance is the thing which differentiates a published author from the many aspiring but unpublished writers.

You can find out more about Jo Franklin, her books and writing life on her website www.jofranklinauthor.co.uk and follow her on Twitter @jofranklin2

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of  Writers’ Forum issue #182 Dec 2016 online from Select Magazines.

To read my latest Research Secrets or Writing 4 Children interviews you can invest in a subscription from the Writers’ Forum website or download Writers’ Forum to your iOS or Android device.

An interview with… Jake Hope

Jake Hope (Chair of CILIP’s Youth Libraries Group and Chair of the CILIP Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Awards Working Party) talked to me about the importance of children’s books, libraries and children’s book awards. He talked about how stories play such a key role in shaping both who we are and the way we see the world.

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Some of his fondest early childhood memories are of being taken to the library with his mum where he would listen to stories read aloud during story times by the authors and the librarians, as well as having the opportunity to browse different books. He explained exploring and experimenting in this way is a hugely empowering and exciting way to discover and widen one’s own tastes.

Throughout his life Jake has immersed himself in exploring different themes and styles of writing. With around 10,000 children’s books commercially published every year, navigating through these to find the right book for the right child at the right time can be a real challenge. Libraries help by offering expert guidance, providing reading groups, schemes to encourage wider reading and to make reading social and creative. With increasing demands on young people’s time, reading has to be framed in a way that makes it responsive and relevant and librarians are experts at this.

Libraries can provide a safe and neutral space where this can happen and where individuals can explore their own tastes in a cost-free, risk-free environment. It is no exaggeration to say that libraries grow the readers of the future and as children’s book writers and illustrators you make this possible.

Youth Library Group

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Jake told me that the Youth Libraries Group is all about connections. They are one of the special interest groups of CILIP (the library and information association) and have over 1,500 members. The membership is comprised of librarians working with children and young people in public libraries, in school libraries and for school library services – these are organisations who tailor collections of books to meet curriculum needs and who work to provide support and advice on reading for pleasure and library provision to schools.

The Youth Libraries Group is an extraordinary collective of highly committed and knowledgeable experts who share a unique passion for reading and for library provision for children and young people. The connections the group have means we are able to support through giving advice on what has been published in the past and present, providing access to groups of young readers who can often test manuscripts or provide insight into their reading tastes. They support authors and illustrators through organising events, promotions and competitions to bring greater focus and profile to creators.

Children’s book awards

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Children’s book awards play a role in helping to make sure that certain types of book do not go unrecognised. Humorous writing, for example, does not always get the most recognition through awards, though funny books play such an important role in reading for pleasure. Awards like the Roald Dahl Funny Prize, as was, and the Laugh Out Loud awards, the LOLLIES, help to make sure these titles don’t get overlooked.

Jake has been a judge for many book awards such as: the Blue Peter Book Awards, the Costa, the Branford Boase, the Diverse Voices, the CILIP Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals (whose judging panel I’ve also chaired), the Macmillan Illustration Prize and the STEAM prize and am currently judging Oscar’s Book Prize and the Klaus Flugge award. He also helped to set up the BookTrust Storytime prize.

Having such a populous award landscape enables different types of books to gain focus and creates jumping-on points for readers with different abilities and tastes. Awards remain responsive to the culture and society that they exist within. Jake advises authors to make themselves familiar with these awards and the criteria for judging them.

“A large range of books are published now, but the awards still play a lobbying role. One of the largest areas of focus for this lobbying at the moment is in encouraging diversity and inclusion, helping to make sure that the doors of reading are wide open and are inviting for all.” Jake Hope

Jake elaborated that a great story has something to say to all readers regardless of age. Criteria are a useful way for book awards to appraise a range of different titles and styles of writing, but it’s important not to downplay the overall impact that language, characterisation, plot and style can have on a reader too.

“By working together and creating critical mass we can support one another and build new opportunities. With our combined skills and knowledge we can experiment and excite new generations of readers.” (Jake Hope)

People can easily feel overwhelmed by the huge range of choice that is available and it is easy to feel under-confident about which book might suit which person best at which point in their lives. Book awards can help to build awareness and boost confidence. In spite of the value of awards, it is important not to downplay the fact that every time a reader picks up a book and connects with it, this is the biggest win of all.

The present is not an easy time either for libraries or for authors and illustrators.  Challenging times can present real opportunities for innovation and imagination, however, and by working together and creating critical mass we can support one another and build new opportunities. With our combined skills and knowledge we can experiment and excite new generations of readers.

To find out more about Jake Hope visit his website: www.jakehope.org and follow him on Twitter @jake_hope

To find out more about the Youth Libraries Group visit: www.cilip.org.uk/ylg and follow them on Twitter @youthlibraries

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #223 2020 Writers’ Forum online from Select Magazines.

To read my latest Research Secrets or Writing 4 Children interviews you can invest in a subscription from the Writers’ Forum website or download Writers’ Forum to your iOS or Android device.

An interview with… Matt Gaw

In this month’s issue of Writers’ Forum I have interviewed Matt Gaw about his research for his second book, Under the Stars, which was published by Elliott & Thompson in February this year. It is about moonlight, starlight and how the subtle shades of darkness are under threat from an artificially lit world, exploring through a series of nocturnal walks, our relationship with natural night.

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Matt’s inspiration to write Under the Stars came from something his son said when he was trying to get him to bed one night. He was 10 at the time and pushing to stay up. His son told him the average human spends around 26 years of their life asleep and felt like this was a waste of time. Matt realised that although he had been out at night – camping or toddling home from the pub – he had never gone out just to experience night.

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So when day after a heavy snow fall, he decided to do some research and walk in King’s Forest near his home in Suffolk. Matt was amazed at the changes that happened as darkness slowly began to rise, changes that affected both the landscape and his own body.

“I think I realised then how much natural light there is at night; how night isn’t a black bookend today, but a place of subtlety and shades.” (Matt Gaw)

Matt explained walking the different routes to research the book was an organic process. He started off close to home and then started to go further afield when he wanted to explore both darker and brighter landscapes because he feels it is important for people to experience the nightscape close to home.

“It’s about being honest I guess, showing people that there are problems but there is action that can be taken and beauty to be found.” (Matt Gaw)

Matt told me he realised he felt safer the darker it was as once your senses have adapted to darkness, it is easy enough to navigate.

“It’s strange really, in some ways your world is made smaller – you operate in this reduced bubble of visibility – but in other ways it is infinitely bigger. At night you experience not only space, but time; the light from the stars has often been travelling for thousands of years before it reaches your retina.” (Matt Gaw)

Matt explained that wildlife is most active at dusk and dawn and I was lucky enough to see an otter hunting in Scotland and had some memorable encounters later with a huge, galloping herd of deer in King’s Forest and nightjar on Dartmoor. He has edited Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s magazine for a number of years so has an excellent foundation in natural history, but discovered he also needed to do quite a bit of additional research.

The main thing was looking at how artificial light impacts on different species, so he read quite a few scientific papers and also interviewed academics working in the field. For example, Travis Longcore, one of the first people to write extensively about artificial light and ecology was very generous with his time and illustrated to Matt how our perception of darkness is a world apart from that of nocturnal species. He recounts parts of this conversation in Chapter 5, while exploring the night close to his Suffolk home.

His research tip to other travel writers is to read everything on your topic or location – local guides, national stories, folk stories, blogs, scientific papers – then rip it all up and write your own. Matt tries not to over plan his trips, he has a rough idea of where he will start and where he wants to go, but he prefers to be adaptable to prevent being  closed off to the actual experience. If you’re just marching from A to B Matt believes you will lose something.

Matt’s has also written The Pull of the River where he explores Britain’s waterways with his friend James in a canoe, to give a new insight into nature, place and friendship.

Pull of the River

To find out more about Matt Gaw and his writing you can look at his website www.mattgaw.com, and follow him on Twitter @Mattgaw and Instagram @mattgaw

You can read the complete feature in #223 2020, which is available to buy from Writers’ Forum online at Select Magazines.

To read my latest Research Secrets or Writing 4 Children interviews you can invest in a subscription from the Writers’ Forum website or download Writers’ Forum to your iOS or Android device.

An interview with… Jane Borodale

In Dec 2009, I interviewed historical novelist and short story writer Jane Borodale for my Research Secrets column in the national writing magazine Writers’ Forum #98.

B Jane Borodale

She explained to me how she steeped herself in the period by reading widely, including contemporary commentary such as Thomas Turner’s diary of 1754-65 and the enclosure and rural social change, prostitution, illegitimacy, parish relief, the bills of mortality. She also listened to music; Handel, Rameau, Thomas Arne, secular street ballads and poured over maps of the period like John Rocque’s famous map of London, and images of daily life from Hogarth to Paul Sandby, to get a clear idea of clothes worn at the time.

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Whilst researching the chalk downland area for her novel, The Book of Fires, published by Harper Collins, Jane Borodale realised what a rich resource the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum was. Historic buildings, rescued from destruction and rebuilt to their original form on the Museum’s site in Sussex, demonstrate examples of vernacular homes, farmsteads and rural industries from the 13th to the 19th centuries. They’re presented in a historically precise way which also strongly evokes their individual setting and period, and they seemed ripe for exploring with the fluidity of fiction.

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“Studying the buildings closely has made an enormous difference to the scale of the way I see history – its human intimacy – and I have learnt much about using texture and atmosphere. The library for researchers at the Museum is a small goldmine – with an authentic 14th-century draught blowing over the flagstones under the thick oak door – and filled to the brim with books about vernacular architecture, building techniques and social history that relates to the Weald and Downland collection.” (Jane Borodale)

Jane explained that it was important to her to involve all the senses so she went to a butchery day one cold November, to discover what the smell of fresh pig fat was like; cooked recipes from Hannah Glasse that always seem to start ‘take a little bit of butter rolled in flour’; sat on the north scarp of the chalky Downs and looked inland, imagining her character Agnes creaking on the carrier up to London before the turnpikes had reached Sussex and grazed endlessly on the internet.

D Interior detail Bayleaf

She told me:

“I love research; it’s a huge privilege to spend time finding a trail through the wilderness of something fascinating – and call it work! I always think that looking at history is like putting your hand into a huge barrel for little fistfuls of stories – whatever comes up.” (Jane Borodale)

Researching the fireworks history was more specific, and Jane had the delicious feeling of eavesdropping on a faintly illicit scene to which she wasn’t initiated. She looked at both contemporary and modern fireworks material – the latter partly to verify the former, as many of the grubby fireworks manuals of the early 19th century were full of inaccuracies. She explained it was very exciting to order up little pamphlets at the British Library that had clearly been used over the years, blackened with thumbprints, offering recipes for detonating balls, silver rain, honorary skyrockets, serpents.

Many original documents are now digitised and searchable for free if you access them from your local library or records office – www.ancestry.com offers all census returns for England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland from 1841 to 1901, among other things, or you can subscribe for access from home.

The language of the 18th-century chemistry was also rich and poetic, with its roots still firmly planted in the work of the alchemists. Jane even had fireworks propped up in her workroom, in her desk drawers, and went to displays, rubbed gunpowder between her thumb and forefinger, visited a fireworks expert to talk about his pyrotechnic work (who also demonstrated an explosion for her in his garden).

For Jane, each of her projects has a different organising solution, but she tends to sort notes, maps and copying into a stack of variously coloured Manila folders, usually according to subject, though sometimes to place or period of time. She finds the activity of regularly sifting through helps her to remember what she has, and keeps it all current in her head when she’s working on something. She explained she has separate notebooks for different aspects – one for topographical on-site notes; one for useful scraps, and a (usually) smaller one that she always carry in case of sudden unexpected bursts of inspiration on the bus.

When a notebook is full she transcribes the best bits onto the computer, striking lines through the pages as she goes, and these notes tend to be a kind of halfway house towards the writing itself. At a records office or library she writes out her notes on sheets of unlined A4 and includes the reference of what she’s looking at the top of every page, which she also numbers as it really helps when she gets home and tries to make sense of all the pencilled, frantic scribbling. She finds the use index cards quite constricting.

Her writing tip for other historical writers is to actually go to the places your are writing about. Seeing for yourself the particular scale of an environment, the prevailing wind, light quality, smell, the tilt of the land or the narrowness of a street, where the sun goes down – distinctive things that can’t be got easily on the internet. Even a few, isolated hours makes all the difference. Also (and this is quite boring) she always tries to note down the full reference details of every tiny fragment that might be useful – it is hugely frustrating to be unable to follow up something half-remembered at a later date.

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #98 Dec 2009 Writers’ Forum online from Select Magazines.

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To find out more about Jane Borodale check out her website: www.janeborodale.co.uk

An interview with… Cas Lester

In September 2017, I interviewed Cas Lester about some of the differences between writing a children’s TV series and writing a children’s book series.

Cas Lester author picture

Cas explained for both children’s dramas for CBBC and her children’s books she always looks for a fresh idea or contemporary ‘spin’ on an existing idea. For example, Mischievous fairy Nixie wears ‘doc martin’ style boots and keeps a wand in one and a spanner in the other because she’s better at DIY than she is at magic. Her Harvey Drew books are based round the contemporary topic of space trash. 

When she is developing her characters and their world she researches the story territory and then does a huge amount of playing around with the idea – she revealed usually way more than is strictly necessary. She wrote a post-it note to make herself actually start to writing the first Harvey Drew manuscript, which she stuck to her laptop. It read: Stop mucking about and write the book.

Cas told me she plans everything as she is not one of those brave writers who can simply start writing and see where the story takes them. She believes this is because she is used to multi-episodic TV dramas where there are multiple writers and they all have to go in the same direction. All the episodes have to head towards the series finale, and the various subplots can’t conflict or be inconsistent. She also writes lots different scenes and chunks of dialogue until she can see the world and hear the characters speak. She explained she can’t write unless she can run the scenes in her head like an animation or a movie.

“I always write a series bible. For the Nixie books I included a calendar of events, the fairy realm, the fairies’ characters, jobs, and catchphrases, what their little houses were like and, crucially, the rules of magic. I am fanatical about consistency of rules. Again, I think this is because of my experience of creating multiple storylines with multiple writers. Inconsistency irks me, and I can’t bear it if rules are broken or fudged for narrative convenience. It’s cheating! My books are inspired by children – sometimes my own.” (Cas Lester)

Cas siad that one of the great things about writing children’s books is that they’re often illustrated. This can help fix the characters and the settings in your head. But not when you write the first book in any series, of course. She think in pictures. So she downloads images to help her get a handle on her characters, settings and key locations.

Cas loves subplots. She explained this is because when you’re making a children’s drama series, the UK law limits the hours a child can work on any day (and rightfully so). So you have a good proportion of scenes without your central protagonist.  Inevitably, this usually means having at least a B and probably a C plot too. Children’s books seem to be more linear.

“My writing is powered by chocolate – not always my own!” (Cas Lester)

do you speak chocolate

She told me how one of the big differences in writing children’s books rather than children’s TV is that the characters on the pages don’t age the same way real children do. She elaborated:

“The fabulous Dani Harmer was, I think, 12, when we cast her to play 10-year-old Tracy Beaker. With every following series she, and the entire child cast, grew a year older. We had to reflect this in the writing. Four series on, you couldn’t have 14-year-old Tracy behaving like a 10-year-old. It also meant we had to add some new, younger, characters in the following series in order to keep the age pitch right for the audience. It was always a nightmare when the children came to the first rehearsals of any follow up series. The boys changed more than the girls. Sometimes they’d shot up several inches, their voices had broken and they’d started shaving.” (Cas Lester)

In her book series there is no passage of time between the books. The characters don’t get older. They stay exactly the same, which Cas finds a lot easier. But she does have an ongoing story line. In the Harvey books it’s the on-going story line about Harvey trying to get home to Earth. With Nixie it’s about how Adorabella the Goody, Goody Fairy is always getting her into trouble with the Fairy Godmother.

When she is pitching an idea for a series, she drafts several story lines – even if only to convince herself that the idea really does have ‘long legs’.

“I always pitch at least two or three more books in the series.  It’s important to show that the subsequent books won’t be formulaic and that there is sufficient (ideally endless) fresh territory to plunder. Interestingly, when OUP commissioned the four Nixie books they wanted one for each season of the year, to tie in with publication dates, which isn’t something that would have occurred to me.” (Cas Lester)

Her tip for other writers interested in writing for children, whether for print or TV, is to remember to write for children as they are NOW and not as they were when you were a child.

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #191 Sep 2017 Writers’ Forum online from Select Magazines.

To read my latest Research Secrets or Writing 4 Children interviews you can invest in a subscription from the Writers’ Forum website or download Writers’ Forum to your iOS or Android device.

You can find out more about Cas Lester and her books on her website, www.caslester.com and on Twitter @TheCasInTheHat

An interview with… Eve Ainsworth

In December 2017, I interviewed award winning children’s author, Eve Ainsworth, about the issues she covers in her YA books and how she develops the different voices for her YA characters.

wf2

She explained:

“My YA books focus mainly on issues I experienced when I was working in schools, or issues I remember facing myself as a teen. I explore topics such as bullying, mental health, toxic relationships and self-harm.” (Eve Ainsworth)

In Damage the themes of self-harm, grief and alcoholism are explored. These are quite dark topics. In my child protection role, I had dealt with self-harm cases within the school and was trained in this area. I had regularly spoken to young people who had harmed and had been taught why so many chose to do so.

Eve told me how she had experienced a recent grief in the loss of her father and how this made the writing process extremely difficult. She’d also had direct experience of alcoholism as my older brother died of drink related illness.

Eve’s aim is to increase awareness and understanding by raising these themes and hopefully help to support those struggling.

“I know when I was young, I felt isolated at times and books helped me to tap into the feelings and emotions I was experiencing. It helped me and ultimately I hope I can help others.” (Eve Ainsworth)

Her favourite thing about writing for young adults is the characters’ voices. She love the way they are vibrant, questioning and constantly encouraging her, pushing herto break down the boundaries she might have set herself.

She reads her pieces out loud and if something sounds out of place or too adult, she’ll delete it immediately. In her head her characters have a total back story, she can tell how they’ll react to something or judge an action. She explained this is because they are part of her for a long time.

“It’s quite a strange process and difficult to describe to non-writers. They often look at me as if I’m mad.” (Eve Ainworth)

She told me that characters often send her in a new direction she wasn’t quite expecting – which is both an exciting and fairly stressful event. She discovered from a conversation in her head with Gabi she was even more vulnerable than she first thought and a lot of her pain and fears were hidden in a deep dark place within her. Eve knew she was going to be feisty and headstrong at the start of the book – but it was only through development and conversations she worked out this was just her ‘front’. Her way of preventing anyone coming too close and hurting her anymore. This is particularly evident in her relationship with her mum. Eve didn’t plan for it to be a difficult relationship. Gabi led me that way.

This information created more plot layers for Eve, so her novel became more than just about ‘self-harm’ – it was now also a book about identity and about relationships. Gabi’s relationship with her Mum became key – as the two are very similar in the way they deal with grief and pain. As the plot evolved it was clear to Eve that Gabi and her mum had to work through their demons together in order to move on and heal.

Eve explained:

“Voices come from having strong, relatable characters. Once you have a well-defined character in your mind, their voice should be unique –and as I mentioned before, the voice will be with me – in my head, like an old friend nagging at me.” (Eve Ainsworth)

Eve told me that to ensure her characters’ voices are different from each other she uses subtle differences in the writing – phrasing and sentence structures to make the characters stand out. She asks ‘would he say that?’ ‘how would she react to this’? The differences become magnified once the characters are fully formed. Development of character is key. Only once you have a strong character can you have a strong voice. Her tips to other writers who want to get the voice of their characters write is to either ‘hot seat’ or write out a questionnaire asking your character several questions.

Think how would they react to a given situation, or how would they feel if this happened? Consider how your character responds – tone, body language, facial expressions and make notes – all these factors will help you to create their unique voice.

Eve suggests you could get your characters to write to each other, a couple of letters each to help develop their different style. Or write a short monologue in the voice of one character – telling their version of a story (whether it be the one you are writing or something completely new). Then, get your other character to tell their version of events. Read both pieces out loud. Do they sound like two individuals, or the same person? If it’s the latter, tweak – look at the words used again, the sentence structure. The tone. Make them different and stand apart.

A final good exercise that Eve shared with Writers’ Forum readers is is to listen to other peoples’ conversations more. Eavesdrop. Notice how voices are unique and make notes about what people are actually saying to each other, how they say it and what they don’t say. Buses and trains are great places for this, and it’s the reason why I carry my notebook everywhere. You never know what you might discover or overhear. Writing is the perfect excuse to be a nosy beast.

You can find out more about Eve Ainsworth’s books on her website: www.eveainsworth.com and Twitter @eveainsworth

 

An interview with… Christopher Lloyd

For my Writing 4 Children column in the national writing magazine Writers’ Forum this month, I interview Christopher Lloyd about his inspiration for creative non-fiction books.

Christopher Lloyd1

In the interview he explains how he realised that in order for children to explore learning, their own natural curiosity knowledge needed to be stitched back together again, not chopped up into separate subjects and curriculum.

“Afterall, the brain is not divided into separate sections for maths, music, art, languages, history, science – how absurd! It is all connected! So my books became all about ways of connecting knowledge into giant narratives.” (Christopher Lloyd)

Christopher revealed he originally submitted the proposal for What on Earth Happened? as a children’s book but when Bloomsbury bought the rights, they wanted him to write it for adults, so he had to change tracks. Ten years later, the original concept has finally been published (and entirely re-written) as a children’s book: Absolutely Everything! A History of Earth, Dinosaurs, Rulers, Robots and Other Things Too Numerous to Mention.

The first Wallbook timeline books were his first children’s books and they were written as a result of his home educating experience. He stuck sixteen pieces of A4 paper together and started drawing pictures and writing captions. Three months later (and various pencil, and rubbers consumers) the blueprints for the Big History Wallbook were born.

The Big History Timeline Wallbook cover

His latest book, Humanimal, explores the connections between humans and other animals. The whole concept of What on Earth Books is to find new perspectives for looking at the real world – far more amazing than anything you can make up! Once I had finished Absolutely Everything! I was left with the dangling question in my mind – how clever are humans really? Are we so much more advanced and intelligent that other life around us? Or is that just a human arrogance fuelled by ancient religions and modern scientific traditions?

He states:

“Children have an intuitive sense that humans and animals are far closer than many professional adults realise and I thought it would be good to create a book that’s scientifically rigorous but totally accessible to younger people to explore this theme further.” (Christopher Lloyd)

The title Humanimal shows his conclusions were that the links are very strong indeed – far more profound than the differences, hence the need for a new word – describing us all as Humanimal is in many ways, far more accurate than the artificial divisions we wedge between species by using traditional scientific conventions. After all, human DNA is approximately 84% similar to dogs and 98% the same as chimpanzees.

Humanimals

He explained that during the writing process he divided the book into three themes that best characterise what most people would say it means to be human – Living Together, Having Feelings and Being Intelligent. He then researched to see what other animals have behaviours that seem similar and came up with a huge list. It was then a matter of honing them down to see which ones made the best stories and could be backed up by really reliable scientific evidence. The copy then went through a rigorous editing, fact-checking process before he received it back again to make any final stylistic changes with the editor.

His tips for other non-fiction children’s writers is to think what you want to write then think what will make the child go WOW! when they turn the page. There are plenty of triggers for this rush of dopamine in our natural reward system such as powerful visuals, finding out stuff that’s surprising, giving them different routes through the information.

“I think non-fiction had traditionally been poorly served as in terms of the priority given to it by schools in reading schemes and honestly many children find learning about the world we live in so fascinating. I hope that more focus will be given to non-fiction at festivals, in schools and generally in the field of writing for children.” (Christopher Lloyd)

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #222 Apr Writers’ Forum from your nearest good newsagents or order online from Select Magazines.

You can discover more about Christopher Lloyd and his What on Earth Books on his website: www.whatonearthbooks.com and follow him on Twitter: @chrislloydwoep and @whatonearthbook