Category Archives: An Interview with…

An interview with… Katya Balen

In the #232 May 2021 issue of Writers’ forum, I talk to Katya Balen about the way she uses emotion in her novel, October, October.

October, October is a story about a girl who grows up wild in the woods. She lives with her dad in a house he built, and her first friend is a baby owl she rescues. Her mother couldn’t handle the wildlife and left when October was four, but on her 11th birthday she returns. Tragedy strikes and October has to face life in a bright, loud city with a parent she barely knows.

Katya explained to me how children are brighter and braver than adults sometimes give them credit for – I love writing stories that appeal to that. She loves having the space to explore big feelings and deep meaning but also just have fun with stories and language. If you ask people which book has had the biggest impact on them, she has discovered most people say a book they read as a child. It’s wonderful to be a part of that.

Katya has very strong memories of being a child and she believes this ability to draw on her own memories makes it easier to create characters children can identify with – those small moments that feel so huge when you’re young – the things that mattered and the way those things made me feel. Those memories are so helpful in creating convincing characters.

Katya told me she thinks using a range of emotion in writing is important. She likes to use quiet moments to show the depth of complex feelings. She illustrated this for me with quotes from her novel, October, October.

‘The school term ends with an assembly where everybody sings songs without needing to read the words and I have to keep quiet until the same words start to catch in my brain and I whisper them into the swelling voices that reach up the roof.’

Extract from ‘October, October’ by Katya Balen

She also uses longer, uninterrupted sentences as my character races through a feeling – an almost stream of consciousness style.

 ‘I burn and scream and stamp and shout and I know why she told me when I was already in the car and I still try to claw the door open until my nails are ragged and raw just like my voice but I can’t unlock the handle and I throw myself at the window and scream and she stares ahead with bright eyes.’

Extract from ‘October, October’ by Katya Balen

Katya explained she prefers to focus on how the character feels bodily at that time – so many emotions give a physical reaction, especially in children.

‘I can feel a little spark of something start to fizz inside me for the first time since the crack and the suddenly empty sky and the whistle of Dad falling.’

Extract from ‘October, October’ by Katya Balen

She loves writing stories about quiet children. Children who are a bit different, interior, sensitive and perhaps even strange. I love exploring the way they see the world and telling their stories. Katya told me she doesn’t think there’s any ‘one size fits all’ approach to writing. What works for one person might not work for another.

Her tip for other aspiring children’s book writers is that it’s important not to try to chase a trend. If there seem to be lots of books being written about dragons or unicorns or pigs, don’t change tack and start writing one of those books too. By the time it gets near a publisher, the trend will be gone or the market will be saturated. Write what you want to write – books that mean something to the writer are always much better. Set yourself a word count every day, or three times a week, whatever fits. It’s really motivating to get a draft done.

You can follow Katya Balen on Twitter @katyabalen

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #232 May 2021 Writers’ Forum by ordering online from Select Magazines.

To read my future Writing 4 Children or Research Secrets 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… Claire Culliford

In the April issue of Writers’ Forum I talk to Claire Culliford about her series of climate-conscience children’s book, The Little Helpers

The Little Helpers series combines the different threads involved in my work, over almost a decade of writing and taking the books out to their target audience worldwide. The first few books have been translated into twelve languages (including Spanish, Chinese, French, Arabic and Portuguese) by incredibly supportive translation colleagues around the world. Early in 2020 I assigned worldwide rights for the series to London publisher University of Buckingham Press, which is a part of Legend Press. The series was relaunched in Autumn 2020. There are 30 books in total.

The books are designed to raise awareness of global environmental and social issues through fun, fictional stories in which animal main characters come up with a creative solution to a real-world problem. Claire’s aim is to foster children’s creativity and problem-solving skills through the medium of story, which is extremely powerful. She told me fedback from teachers and parents has consistently demonstrated the books can be used not only to promote a love of fiction and reading, but as a holistic learning tool, for everything from language acquisition to the teaching of geography, science and maths.

The first few stories in the series came along whilst Claire was working for a period with teenagers and young adults on charity projects combining education in the creative industries and on environmental and social issues. It became apparent through dealings with large organisations and governments there was a lack of means to raise awareness among young children about the same topics.

Claire revealed that her animal main characters ensure inclusivity and have the added benefit of enabling me to introduce species from around the world which are endangered and in need of protection. Her intention was to create a series with global appeal. She envisioned an environmental and social brand with an extremely positive message that would unite children everywhere for all the right reasons. She explained that with this in mind, it seemed logical to use the series to support the United Nations and its Sustainable Development Goals, which are designed to address the three dimensions of sustainable development worldwide – economic, social and environmental.

“I love creating characters that are novel and intriguing, and innovative and engaging solutions to the problems that they are presented with. I also focus on including age-appropriate language and subject-specific vocabulary and introducing linguistic features that children will come across in books as they get older: tools such as alliteration, repetition and onomatopoeia. It’s never too early to fall in love with language and what it can do. Think about what keeps you engrossed in a story and aspire to introduce the same into your writing.”

Claire Culliford

There is a different character for each book of Claire’s Little Helper series, as the stories are designed to represent settings, species and issues from all over the globe. In terms of consistency, which is important for a series and a brand, she take into account things like all the main character names having just two syllables in them and beginning with the same letter as the animal species concerned. She choose names which are authentic to the part of the world in which the story is set. The names are also tested to ensure they are easy for children to pronounce in most countries.

Claire told me the physical attributes of the characters are based on their real life traits. Both the story content and the illustrations are based very much on an accurate depiction of facts relating to the species involved and the issue being addressed, as well as the natural landscape in the part of the world concerned.

Her tips for writer’s who aspire to be children’s book writers are:

“Firstly, remember that in storyland anything is possible. Get rid of the restrictions and limitations that we place on things in the adult world. Secondly, make every line count. Children’s books, particularly picture books, are short. There’s no room for non-essential words or sentences. Simplicity is everything. You need to be able to say in ten words what might take a hundred or a thousand in a story for an adult. And thirdly, use your life experience, existing skills and knowledge to identify your niche then get as much feedback on your writing as possible – especially from children – along the way. Becoming a proficient writer in any genre is a journey and we all start somewhere. The best way to improve is to get your target audience to help you.”

Claire Culliford

Claire told me anything you write for children needs to be filled with creativity, light-heartedness and fun to read because good stories that fuel their imagination will make children smile .

Readers can find more information about Claire Culliford and her writing at:

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #231 Apr 2021 Writers’ Forum by ordering online from Select Magazines.

To read my future Writing 4 Children or Research Secrets 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… Christina Jones

I interviewed chick lit writer, Christina Jones about her ‘method writing’ approach to research in the #100 Feb 210 issue of Writers Forum.

Christina told me she always researches her character’s backgrounds to make sure they’re accurate. She revealed at first she used backgrounds that she knew well – horseracing (her granddad was a jockey), lorry driving (her husband was a trucker), fairgrounds (her dad was an ex-circus clown who then travelled with fairs).

However, once she’d run out of her own life experiences, she explained it was quite a challenge to start writing about things she didn’t know so well. To do this she turned to books for basic facts (the library was her second home), the internet for a quick-fix (God bless Google), but her favourite way of researching is to meet and talk to people who really know.

Christina explained experts are definitely the most helpful. She spent hours on the road with lots of lovely lorry drivers while writing Running The Risk learning all about transport law and how the haulage industry really works – and so that she’d know how Georgia, her lorry-driving heroine, carried out her job. Christina was even taught to drive a 42 ton lorry – but in the safety of a lorry park!

When researching Heaven Sent (about fireworks) Christina told me she had one of the best times of her life with the lovely pyrotechnicians from Fantastic Fireworks – they even taught her how to set-up and fire her own remote-controlled firework display.

With Moonshine Christina joined a local winemaking group to learn how to make homemade wine (such hardship!) and since adding a touch of practical magic to her novels, she had lots of help from various lovely white witches.

Before she meets her experts she puts herself into her heroine’s (or hero’s) shoes and make notes about everything they’re going to encounter or experience in the book and ask questions from their point of view. She write everything she think she’ll need to ask down.

During the interview she uses a dictaphone to make sure she gets all the facts correct, but she also take notes if something interesting crops up. When she gets home she transcribes both into a notebook like a long essay, then go through it and red-pen everything that isn’t needed and highlight everything that is. Christina told me:

“I think, without exception, I’ve become friends with everyone who has ever helped me with research, but I always write a thank you letter immediately afterwards, always acknowledge their help and expertise in the front of the books, and always send them a signed copy as soon as it’s published.”

Christina Jones

Christina’s explained it is vital to list your sources and acknowledge your experts. It’s only good manners if people have been kind enough to give up their time to help then this is the least you can do. And it’s good publicity for them, too – and they all love seeing their names in books.

When she was writing Walking On Air she spent weeks with the Utterly Butterly Barnstormers to learn all about wing-walking (and spent lots of time with the pilots of small planes and had several flying ‘experiences’. She even did a wing-walk so she knew exactly how Billie would feel in Walking On Air.

“…strapped to the wings of a tiny wood-and-fabric bi-plane, hundreds of feet up in the sky, travelling at a hundred miles an hour, feeling the almighty force of the wind, and the cold, and the insects that get EVERYWHERE and stay there, and how much your arms ache, oh, and your face flaps.”

Christina Jones

Christina revealed like Billie, her heroine, she wasn’t great with flying, and the thought of tiny planes with no escape routes terrified her. But once she’d met the pilots and wing-walking girls from the Utterly Butterlys and spent time with them both at their base and at air shows, and scrambled in and out of the Boeing Stearman bi-planes and teetered on the fabric wings ahw explained it was exciting, exhilarating and amazingly different. In fact, she LOVES flying now. She has even spent time watching them strip down a radial engine so she knew exactly how it worked and sounded.

Christina’s research tip for other writers is be prepared to listen to EVERYTHING you’re being told and then listen to a lot of other conversations going on around you as well. These little insider snippets – the things they don’t think are important – are sometimes the hidden gems that can spark off a whole new subplot.

“When I was researching Heaven Sent (fireworks) I had no idea until I listened to the pyrotechnicians chatting over a cuppa that no-one in the firework world has ever managed to create a dark green firework – and that this is the pyro world’s holy grail. This gave me a whole new area for Clemmie and Guy (my h&h) to explore and actually became one of the main plotlines in the book.”

Christina Jones

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #100 Feb 2010 Writers’ Forum by ordering online from Select Magazines.

To read my future 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… Nancy Campbell

In this months issue of Writers’ Forum I have interviewed Nancy Campbell about how her experiences as a writer in residence inspired three books.

Nancy wanted to write a universal compendium of snow: looking at words for snow in fifty very different world languages to show how different peoples around world celebrate, and use, snow. Fifty Words for Snow builds on that fascination, looking at cold climates around the world, through fifty different words. This book is the accumulation of a decade of research and travel in the polar regions, which began in 2010 with a winter residency at the most northern museum in the world, Upernavik Museum, Greenland.

Nancy has been appointed as Writer in Residence by many places: the English canal network (as Canal Laureate for the Canal and River Trust), a fishing museum in Iceland, an ecological research centre in Denmark, a state-of-the-art modern library in the Swiss Alps, and most recently, a year in an 18th-century water palace in Bavaria. These appointments, usually for a relatively short duration of time, are an intense and immersive way of growing to understand a community and culture, and producing new work.

The residency at Upernavik Museum was her first role of this kind, during the winter of 2010, and she said she learnt a lot from it. Her role there was to write about the museum collections and the wider life of this small arctic community.

“I got to know the hunters and fishermen on this tiny, rocky island, and began learning Greenlandic from them. Learning the language was an important step in understanding the culture (few of the islanders spoke English). I lived in a tiny wooden cabin down by the sea, which when I first arrived, was completely covered in snowdrifts, and my desk looked out over the icebergs of Baffin Bay.”

Nancy Campbell

Nancy drew largely on encounters and observations on the island. She found a few old books on archaeology in the museum and followed up with more reading at the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge when she got home.

“It was a life-changing experience. I had expected to write just one book as a result of that winter, but in the end it started a fascination with the Arctic that took me through a decade, and several book projects, including The Library of Ice and How to Say I Love You in Greenlandic before culminating in Fifty Words for Snow.”

Nancy Campbell

Nancy told me that a sense of place drives her work, as well as her encounters with people in the landscape. It’s important for her, to gain a personal experience of place. She explained how early on in her writing career, when she was in a library in Switzerland, tweeting a dilemma: Should she go out for a walk in the mountains, or continue with her research? One writer responded: ‘But going for a walk is part of your research!’ Nancy proclaims she was absolutely right. Research is not only about reading. Being in a place allowed her to understand the atmosphere which she evokes so visually through her words.

Nancy revealed that as she travels she likes to take photographs and make sketches in her notebook. She prefers the speed and sensation of writing by hand and find it allows observations to transform more readily into thoughts than typing or using a dictaphone.

During the lockdowns, she has been using academic sites which offer online journal access such as JSTOR (https://www.jstor.org), especially for scientific research on climate change and glacial ice. But her writing is driven by her imagination, she these texts are used as a jumping-off point for her own ruminations, rather than quoting from them in her work. She also found https://publicdomainreview.org a great inspiration for researching images, as are libraries’ digital collections, such as the British Library https://www.bl.uk

“Even under lockdown in a pandemic, it was still possible to voyage around the world through books, and online. I read the environmental coverage in The Guardian and the New York Times. I am especially keen on amateur YouTube recordings as a substitute for my own direct experience.”

Nancy Campbell

As a writer who interweaves memoir and nature writing, Nancy said she relies on memory a lot, infusing her books with past experiences from her life. While the Arctic words for snow obviously relied on her travels in, and knowledge of, the region, she also returned to early childhood memories of the Netherlands. She believes personal experience to be the richest research of all.

“My father was an art historian who was researching 17thC Dutch painting in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, and on visits to see him I grew fond of the chocolate hail which is commonly eaten by children at breakfast-time – Over 750,000 slices of bread topped with hagelslag are eaten every day in the Netherlands. Hagelslag became my Dutch entry for the book.”

Nancy Campbell

Nancy’s research tip is that it is valuable to share your research topics with your friends, always. They may come up with some surprising leads. Nancy hadn’t realised there was snow in Hawaii until a friend in Munich, who is originally from Hawaii, told her about Poli’ahu, the Hawaiian Goddess of Snow. This revelation inspired her story for the Hawaiian language.

To find out more information about Nancy Campbell and her writing see her website: www.nancycampbell.co.uk Twitter: @nancycampbelle and Instagram: @nancycampbelle

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #231 Apr 2021 Writers’ Forum by ordering online from Select Magazines.

To read my future 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… Sophie Kirtley

In the latest issue of Writers’ forum I talk to Sophie Kirtley about how she created the fictional worlds in her debut novel, The Wild Way Home, which came out with Bloomsbury in July 2020.

The Wild Way Home tells the story of two very different children: Charlie, who is from our time, and Harby, a boy from the Stone Age. It’s a story of friendship, courage and adventure as Charlie and Harby journey together through the wild green Stone Age forest in search of Harby’s missing baby sister. You can read my review of this mid-grade novel here.

Sophie told me The Wild Way Home was inspired by her own childhood. When she was little she often played with her friends in a wood near where she lived; it was called Mount Sandel Forest. She vividly remembers the feeling of the place – its sense of mystery and seclusion… and wild freedom. Only years later did she realise that in this very forest archaeologists had found the remains of a Stone Age settlement, it was in fact the oldest human settlement in all of Ireland.

The idea that she’d played somewhere where children had been playing for millennia was the spark which ignited this story; it made her curious about the Mesolithic children who’d played in that forest so many years before she had. She started to imagine what might’ve happened if she’d actually met one of those Stone Age children and that’s how the story-spark ignited and the story-flames raged to become, eventually, The Wild Way Home.

Sophie told me creating a fictional world can be a bit of an overwhelming ask. She explained she works her way outwards from very small details towards creating a bigger picture or building a world. She love interesting objects or strange place names or curious graffiti or fascinating gravestones.

Once something small like this has caught her eye, she let herself interrogate it; asking lots of questions about the possibilities that the small-strange-something might have thrown into her mind.

“Little by little I build all these little details together into something bigger, kind of like creating a story patchwork. In The Wild Way Home I did this with Stone Age small things that fascinated me – artefacts from museums or from ancient sites.

The intricacies of the time-slip elements of The Wild Way Home took a lot of work in order to make the shift in time smooth and believable. The setting of the story really helped me; when Charlie ends up in the Stone Age a lot of the natural features in the landscape remain the same – the river, the cave, the cliff – these physical links plus having Charlie’s consistent narrative perspective helped to carry the story between worlds.”

Sophie Kirtley

Sophie revealed writing a book set in a specific period can be tricky. You’ll feel the weight of responsibility to ‘get it right’. She did oodles of reading and researching about pre-historic life, but even within that different sources can offer contradictory angles and Sophie is adamant that you should not to tie yourself in knots with the pressures of absolute accuracy.

“At the end of the day, this is fiction, and we’re writers aren’t we? And we’re definitely allowed to make stuff up. Well that’s what I told myself anyway as I picked through my research, magpie-like, choosing what I found fascinating and eschewing the less fun bits.”

Sophie Kirtley

Sophie explained when you’re writing for children anything really is possible. Children are accepting of adventures in a way that adults aren’t – it’s very liberating as an author. Child readers are also incredibly judicious and deserve the best – they’re a hard audience too, because if they’re not gripped they simply won’t read on. Just like they simply won’t eat peas or cheese or whatever the foible may be. Sophie loves the challenge of writing for children – delivering them something they like the taste of.

If you want to write for children then there are two main pieces of advice Sophie offered: Read and listen. Read as many contemporary children’s books as you can and read them as a writer, learning along the way. Also listen to kids you know, how they talk, what makes them laugh, what makes them grump… or even think back to you as a child and squeeze your big feet back into those small shoes.

And one final thing, writing is always going to have its ups and downs, its good days and bad days. Just keep writing and don’t give up.

You can discover more about Sophie Kirtley on her website: www.sophiekirtley.com and follow her on Twitter @KirtleySophie.

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #230 Mar2021 Writers’ Forum by ordering online from Select Magazines.

To read my future Writing 4 Children or Research Secrets 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… Anna Ellory

In the March issue of Writers’ Forum I talk to Anna Ellory about the research for her historical novel, The Puzzle Women, and how she combatted travel restrictions.

Anna explained her books always start with a character.

“My characters talk to me, often annoyingly, and once I have their voice firmly planted in my head I can find their time and place in history. The story develops from there as a collusion between history and voice.”

Anna Ellory

She first encountered her character Rune, whilst she was editing her first novel The Rabbit Girls. At that time, he was a small boy, younger than when we meet him in the THEN sections of The Puzzle Women, he had a story to tell and Anna was listening. It wasn’t until Lotte found her too that the book made some sense and she knew she was on to something. Lotte was cheerful and unaffected by the abuse their mother endures, she was protected and lived within her own bubble.

It took Anna many full drafts before she realised Lotte had Down’s Syndrome. Anna revealed Lotte had hid this from her and she wrote her entire character without this knowledge – she was her full complete person, before the ‘label’ of Down’s Syndrome and Anna hopes this comes through in the book. The Down’s Syndrome does not in any way define who she is or what she has to say.

Anna used to be a children’s nurse and has worked professionally with children and young people with Down’s Syndrome during her career. She was able to draw on this experience as part of her research. She had also read a number of novels that feature a character who has Down’s Syndrome including children’s literature and YA books. Many adult novels feature Down’s Syndrome as THE character, a mother who gives birth to a child who has this diagnosis and the journey they go on thereafter. Anna did not want that to feature in her book.

Lotte is her own person, offered love and support and a great deal of time and space by Rune and Mama to be able to be very independent. Anna told me:

“I think a great deal of literature out there is highly negative of Down’s Syndrome and with screening and abortion options available now, it is important to understand the power of language we offer women at the time of diagnosis and, I hope, seeing fictional characters offers an alternative way to imagine a child who has Down’s Syndrome rather than the leaflets which list possible ‘health complications.’”

Anna Ellory

The Puzzle Women is also about domestic abuse, but seen from the child’s perspective. Anna explained that everything the children in her novel witness has been done to a woman, many women, maybe even a woman who lives next door. Anna felt it needed to be treated with the sincerity of refined and clear research so readers were not jolted away from the story by the uncertainty of facts. Anna wanted her research to be accurate and then to fade into the background so the characters could take the stage.

It is set in Berlin during the cold war. There is a theme of survival, of fragmented knowledge and of overcoming trauma that is still relevant now as much as it was during the cold war. As part of her research Anna watched many German movies, including The Lives of Others, Goodbye Lenin and Barbara, staring Nina Hoss. She found that a national trauma can be translated into art, informing and inspiring further creativity too.

At the time Anna was living on benefits, a full-time single mother with a part-time job that made almost nothing. She had no ability to go to Berlin, to see these places. She had a small child and a house she could barely afford, relying on food parcels from family and friends to keep us going over many months. Anna told me:

“I think it’s a luxury to be able to travel and now due to the coronavirus, there is a universality to restricted movements. I made do with what I did have and used all the information available.”

Anna Ellory

Anna’s research consisted of speaking – via google translate to many people at libraries and museums in Berlin for the small details she wanted to know. She also used her local library. She found maps and old documents which she used google translate to read. She used trip advisor for places she would have loved to have gone to, but couldn’t. A one-star review of Teufelsberg gave her the noise of what it must be like on the roof of the old listening tower in Berlin where Rune sits and contemplates his future.

And many documentaries, YouTube videos, books and art allowed her the insight into a world of Berlin, torn apart by a wall, that she had no access to. Anna highly recommends not writing a book set during a turbulent time in history, where street names are changed regularly, before technology and in a completely different language to your own as it was a real challenge. There are easier ways but Anna just didn’t have access to them.

“I wanted to offer the truth to the history I was re-creating in my novel. I wanted it to be as close to real as I could possibly make it, because I wanted the reality of the characters’ lives to become real to the reader.”

Anna Ellory

Anna explained that being very clear on what you want from your research enables you to fill in the blanks when you reach them. But not just ‘what does it look like?’ but ‘what aspects of this would my characters see?’ Each character would see the same building completely differently. To some the Berlin Wall was a monstrosity, to others it was a blank canvas. Knowing who is walking around your world enables the world to be rich in the eyes of your characters and therefore the readers too. 

You can discover more about Anna Ellory on her website: www.annaellory.com and follow her on twitter @AnnaEllory

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #230 Mar 2021 Writers’ Forum by ordering online from Select Magazines.

To read my future 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… Michelle Robinson

This month for my Writing 4 Children slot in Writers’ Forum I talk to Michelle Robinson about her latest picture book The World Made a Rainbow, about a young girl’s experiences of being in lockdown.

I reviewed this beautiful picture book written by Michelle Robinson and illustrated by Emily Hamilton on the 5th of January. You can read my review here. Michelle explained to me the idea came after a hectic book week visiting schools and suddenly being told to stay at home. She couldn’t stop thinking about how they all the children must be feeling. .She has two young children of her own and found helping them stay confident and happy through these very sudden, very huge changes to our lives was extremely challenging. Michelle said:

“There have been times when I’ve found myself wanting a grown up to tell me everything’s going to be okay. The World Made a Rainbow is basically me trying to embody that grown up — calm, confident, reassuring and soothing.”

Michelle Robinson

The book is essentially the ink-and-paper version of the rainbows that appeared in windows throughout lockdown. It’s a way of showing children that behind closed doors we’re all in the same situation, and what really matters is to feel safe and loved. Michelle hopes young children will recognise their own lives and feelings within the book’s main character. Her protagonist really demonstrates all the emotions we encounter are legitimate: it’s okay to not love every minute of being stuck indoors with your nearest and dearest, and it’s okay to admit to missing more carefree times.

Michelle revealed she loves writing picture books; she loves the whole process, playing with language, curating words on a page and seeing what direction her stories will take. She never starts with a plan. She explained that she prefers to write in the morning and if something’s not working she just chuck it out and have another go until she is happy.

“Writing early in the day is like running on rocket fuel. I can achieve much more in a couple of premium hours than I can in a whole day of distractions and mind-clutter.”

Michelle Robinson

She explained problems often resolve themselves when you’re not looking directly at them. She also believes that when writing books for children you need to change the scene frequently. No one wants to stay still too long. The best books surprise and delight, take us out of our ordinary worlds and put smiles on our faces.

She also believes that the most difficult part of writing a picture book is getting published. Even as a successful author, with multiple publishers actively seeking texts there are still so many hurdles to leap. This is particularly true since the COVID-19 crisis. Texts now need a really clear message or selling point to get backed — they can’t just be ‘fun for fun’s sake’. It’s a shame. Without the odd leap of faith we’re never going to create miracles.

Great picture books have a magic somewhere you can’t quite put your finger on. It happens between the words and the pictures, and in the idea at the book’s heart. Ideas are what it’s all about. We all enjoy discovering fresh ways of looking at tried and trusted themes.

“Writing for children is a total privilege. Children are the very best humans around, and they deserve our very best work. I love knowing that I still haven’t created my best books.”

Michelle Robinson

If you’re trying to write picture books, Michelle’s tip is to try copying out the text of a few great ones into Word documents. Stripping away the art lets you focus on the skill of writing. Leave breaks for page turns, take note of how many words there are per spread, not just the overall word cunt. How does the document look compared to yours? Most picture books land on editor’s desks in this form, they never arrive fully realised. Is yours truly strong enough to make someone want to work on it for two or three years?

You can find out more about Michelle Robinson and her books on social media:

Website: www.michellerobinson.co.uk

Twitter: @micherobinson

Facebook:  @micherobinsonbooks

Instagram: @michellerobinsonbooks

YouTube: @michellerobinsonchildrensauthor

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #229 Feb 2021 Writers’ Forum by ordering online from Select Magazines.

To read my future Writing 4 Children or Research Secrets 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… Aliya Whiteley

In my Research Secrets slot in February issue of Writers’ Forum Aliya Whiteley told me about her debut non-fiction book, a fascinating insight into fungi entitled, The Secret Life of Fungi: Discoveries from a Hidden World.

Aliya usually writes speculative fiction such as her horror short stories Fearsome Creatures from Black shuck Books (Oct 2020) and her novel Greensmith from Unsung Books, which deals with seed banks and viruses and the current global threat to diversity. (Nov 2020). She explained she had no plans to write a non-fiction book on any subject.

Her novel, The Beauty, imagines a future in which fungi and humanity combine, and since its publication in 2014 people have sometimes sent her photographs and news clippings about fungi. She has always been interested in the subject, but the way it resonated strongly with readers really struck home.

Aliya was contacted by an editor at Elliott & Thompson who had read a few of her novels and thought she might be able to bring something unusual, elements of strangeness and surprise, to a non-fiction book about fungi they had planned. This interest from an editor just gave her the push she needed.

As can be imagined fungi is a huge area of knowledge – fungi are connected to all aspects of life and death on this planet – and Aliya knew there was no way for her to approach an expert level of understanding in the time she had available for writing the book so she looked for what she could bring to the project. She started with an overview from Oxford University Press’ A Very Short Introduction To… series, and made loads of notes.

“I decided to concentrate on different angles that would allow me to concentrate on using language in a lyrical and involving way. I wanted to get readers excited so they might go and read further if they wanted to find out more.”

Aliya Whiteley

She split the information she discovered from her research into three main areas: ‘Erupt’, ‘Spread’, and ‘Decay’. ‘Erupt’ dealt with new life and new beginnings, futuristic and ongoing scientific developments, and people who have found a growing love for fungi through cooking and foraging. ‘Spread’ loosely covered all sorts of fungi from around the world. ‘Decay’ dealt with their role in death, in illness, and in dark literature. These categories really helped Aliya to get her thoughts together and turn it into a cohesive book.

Aliya revealed she found fungi in space a fascinating area of study, and the NASA website helpful. She said:

“Just searching for ‘fungi’ uncovered so many interesting articles, developments and proposals. One of my favourites involves plans to grow habitable shelters on Mars from radiation-resistant fungi.”

Aliya Whiteley

A tip for other non-fiction writers which she found useful was to take notes by hand. She explained created a better link between the vast subject of fungi and her brain, and enabled her to get a handle on some very challenging material, such as scientific or medical papers. A few days after taking those notes, she would try to describe what she had learned in her own words, just to see how well she had grasped the information and if she could do the trickier aspects of the subject justice. This enabled her to concentrate her thoughts, and also develop some confidence in them.

Aliya’s latest science fiction novel Skyward Inn published by Solaris Books is released on 16th March 2021. To find out more about Aliya and her books take a look at her website: www.aliyawhiteley.wordpress.com and you can follow her on Twitter: @aliyawhiteley and Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/aliyawhiteley

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #229 Feb 2021 Writers’ Forum by ordering online from Select Magazines.

To read my future 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… Cliff McNish

In April 2009 I interviewed children’s novelist, Cliff McNish, about his love of research and how he believes it is essential for writing fantasy novels.

Cliff told me he loves research because it can spin stories in utterly new directions. He believes research is truly the ultimate lateral-thinking tool. He explained as writers we mostly tend to find our thoughts tethered to more or less the same highly travelled and well-worn themes, plots and characters, but research can shatter that dismaying truth.

For example, in his ghost story, Breathe, he needed to know what the average early 19th century rural English family ate. Whilst searching online he found some information about rural poverty in the 1820’s and how families in that era routinely saved one fifth of their wages purely to pay for funerals. This fact influenced the direction of his ghost story.     

“The big problem for fantasy writers is that as soon as you depart from the real world readers forever teeter on the edge of disbelieving your creation. Fantasy writers have a whole host of techniques to make our made-up things feel authentic and believable, but good research is probably the main one.”

Cliff McNish

For example, in The Wizard’s Promise he sent gangs of children to modern Tokyo. The children can fly and create spells, and terrorize the magic-less adults but was grounded in the reality of the urban city. To ensure this Cliff checked the street layout, the tallest buildings, other landmarks and even the food.

He explained that fantasy authors and readers have an immense hunger for details that are or at least feel real.

“It’s part of the fantasy author’s contract with his/her audience, really – I’ll make things up, but dear reader you will understand the rules, and I’ll keep them consistent, and when I do refer to real world facts I’ll have done my research, the information will be reliable, depend on it.”

Cliff McNish

In his novel Silver World there is an alien attack starting in frozen Antarctic waters.  To make it feel authentic Cliff checked which islands/ice floes the attacking creature would reach first and what animals and species of birds lived on them. This research personalized the story and gave him focus.

He discovered albatrosses live in those seas and they fly faster than any other bird over great distances. He then put himself in the position of those albatross and imagined he knew what was coming: death, unless they could outfly it. Cliff revealed he ended up becoming very absorbed in the lives of these birds, but the spark for the scene was research.

“Facts become emotions in the end, if they’re dwelled on for long enough by an active imagination. And research + imagination = creativity.”

Cliff McNish

Cliff’s teenage moral drama Angel, has non-religious guardian angels beating their wings across the skies. Research into angel ‘sightings’ showed one of the most commonly held beliefs amongst Angelologists is that when they visit us our guardian angel leaves as a calling card one of its feathers. Cliff decided that for his novel even after an angel dies (in his novel they are mortal), the feathers outlast them a little, and can still provide comfort for a short time to someone who needs it. Without research, he would never have thought of that.     

For his novel, Savannah Grey, he created a creature that arrived on our world three billion years ago. It was a predator and was seeking to hit the apex of the food chain to become the dominant animal, the ne plus ultra. He decided nature should battle this creature throughout time, which has meant a lot of evolutionary research. Not only to discover what natural enemies this creature would come across (starting with single-celled organisms), but what order those species would arrive in, when the first plants come to light, the first backboned fish, the first telescopic eyes.

In contrast his heroine has to a throat weapon and extraordinary eye-sight. To find out how throat consultants and optical technicians would investigate such aspects he interviewed hospital specialists in those fields . The result was a dark fantasy novel, for which the bedrock of the research makes it feel real.

To find out more about Cliff McNish and his books look at his website: www.cliffmcnish.com

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #91 Apr 2009 Writers’ Forum by ordering online from Select Magazines.

To read my future 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… Jackie Marchant

In the March 2018 issue of Writers’ Forum, I interviewed Jackie Marchant about her Dougal Daley series and how it was revived from the dead. Jackie told me her inspiring story of how the books were given an incredible face lift by changing the name of the main character and using a new illustrator, after meeting Louise Jordan at the London Book Fair. 

Jackie explained the idea to write for children came by accident, after her son asked a question about writing a will, which left her wondering – why would a boy need to write a will?  Who would he leave his possessions to and why?  Later, while standing knee deep in his messy bedroom, the following words popped into Jackie’s head –  To my mother I leave the mess in my bedroom, to put into bin liners and throw out of the window – I know that has always been her greatest wish.  That is how Dougal Daley was born – and those words are in the first book.

Her idea and first draft got her an agent and a two-book deal with a major publisher.  This was all hugely exciting. The original Dougal did not have the surname Daley.  He was called Dougal Trump.  The author on the cover was D. Trump.   Her first published book was called I’m Dougal Trump – it’s NOT my Fault!  This was before a certain other D. Trump became quite so well known. 

“I was unsure about doing school visits and my publisher thought it would be a great idea to make out that Dougal was the author of the books himself.  His name would go on the cover rather than mine, but I wouldn’t have to face the angst of standing before a bunch of kids to explain myself (honestly couldn’t think of anything more terrifying).  So, the series was launched and all was well.”

Jackie Marchant

Then disaster struck.  She lost my wonderful editor, who went freelance, her editor’s boss, who loved Dougal, her publicist, the marketing person and most of ‘team Dougal.’  At the same time, Book Two was coming out, with fewer pre-orders than Book One and Book Three was turned down. 

“I can’t say for sure this is why Book Three was turned down and the series killed, but I have heard that this is not unusual.  And I know a few authors who have had the same thing happen to them. It’s horrible.  It makes you feel as though you’ve failed as a writer. That nagging doubt that your agent and publisher were deluded in taking you on comes and whacks you where it hurts most – in your author’s already fragile self-esteem.” 

Jackie Marchant

Jackie revealed to me she felt like a failure. Then she went to the London Book Fair.  That is where she stumbled across Wacky Bee Books. After talking to Louise Jordan, founder and owner of Wacky Bee, Louise ordered the first book of the Dougal Trump series online.  A few days later, she contacted Jackie to say she loved it and would like to publish all three books with new titles.

“Things are looking up and I feel like a proper author again.  I hope my perseverance inspires others not to give up hope.”

Jackie Marchant

You can read a review of Jackie Marchant’s third book in this series, Dougal Daley II’m Phonomenal, on my blog here.

Find out more about Jackie Marchant and the Dougal Daley books on her website: www.jackiemarchant.com and on Twitter: @JMarchantAuthor

You can read the complete interview in the #197 March 2018 issue of Writers Forum.