Category Archives: An Interview with…

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.

An interview with… Anne Clarke

In February 2017, I interviewed literary agent Anne Clark about her children’s book agency and the kinds of books she would love to find in her submissions inbox for Writers’ Forum.

The Anne Clark Literary Agency started life nearly eight years ago. Before then, Anne worked in children’s publishing as a commissioning editor and editorial director for twenty years, at Hodder Children’s Books and Piccadilly Press. Her first jobs were in publicity and educational publishing.

She told me that she started the agency because it was the right time for new adventure, one which meant she could still do the things I like doing most – working with authors and publishers to get new books out into the world for children and teenagers to read and enjoy.

She explained children’s books are a joy because there is such freedom and variety in terms of subject and style. In a typical morning she might be dealing with a clumsy fairy, a shapeshifting cat burglar, a boy who thinks he’s an alien and a girl struggling with her body image. Children’s writers can draw on magic and fantasy without finding themselves stuck in a particular genre. She enjoys rigour in getting things right for a particular age group – the right language, right content. She said foreign rights are also an important part of children’s publishing giving it an international feel.

Anne revealed the best children’s books get the fundamentals correct: memorable characters you want to spend time with, and gripping stories which keep you turning the pages. Successful children’s authors don’t talk down to kids and they often show young people taking control of their worlds in some way, whether it’s a four-year-old with a tricky witch or a teenager with a bullying boyfriend. They may tackle difficult subjects but they offer hope. Her favourite books also stretch readers’ minds, taking them somewhere new and interesting – maybe to a Tokyo where mythical monsters roam, wartime London or inside the head of a refugee.

“An agent needs to be a talent-spotter, able to spot a promising newcomer at a hundred paces; a nurturer of authors, offering editorial direction, honest feedback and encouragement in wobbly moments; a market expert, in touch with trends and editors’ wish lists and pet hates; a shrewd salesperson; a negotiator of deals; and a champion of her authors.”

Anne Clarke

When she opens a manuscript from a new writer, she first looks for the author’s voice, and that comes over very quickly – in the first few lines and certainly within the first page or two. If she like the voice – if it feels confident, distinctive and fresh – she’ll keep reading. But she won’t be sure I want to work on a project until she has read the whole manuscript, because she is also looking for an author who can shape a whole story and take it to a satisfying conclusion.

Anne’s tip to children’s writers is to spend time identifying and sharpening your book’s unique hook – it could be an unusual setting, an original style, a unique character or perhaps a surprising combination of familiar elements – and how best to express it. You might need to make some changes to bring your hook to the fore, and it’s a good idea to reflect the hook in the title if you can.

When you are ready to approach an agent, her advice is: be focused. Keep your letter short and to the point. Start with a very short pitch for your book, briefly summing up the story and the hook, and follow up with relevant information about yourself. Be friendly but business-like – mention any courses, prizes and other experience, and don’t go into detail about your family unless it has a direct bearing on your writing. Don’t be apologetic or claim to be the next J K Rowling. And of course: make sure your manuscript is as good as it can be; and follow each agent’s submissions guidelines!

Check out www.anneclarkliteraryagency.co.uk to find out more about the agency, my clients and the submissions policy. You’ll find the latest news at www.facebook/anneclarkliterary or twitter at @anneclarklit.

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #184 Feb 2017 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… Nikki Marmery

Last year, in the #224 Sept 2020 issue of the national writing magazine Writers’ Forum, I interviewed Nikki Marmery about some of the primary sources she used during her research for her novel On Wilder Seas: The Woman on the Golden Hind.

Nikki revealed she was pregnant when she first read about her protagonist Maria, the only woman on board the Golden Hind during Francis Drake’s circumnavigation voyage. A throwaway line in a popular history book referenced the ‘Anonymous Narrative’, an eye-witness account of the voyage, which states:

“Drake tooke out of this ship a pilate to cary him into the harbor of Guatulco and also a proper negro wench called Maria which was afterward gotten with child between the captain and his men pirates and sett on a small iland to take her adventures.”

She explained that pregnancy focuses the mind on the unique vulnerability of pregnant women, so perhaps this is why she found myself haunted by Maria’s story: a woman alone among men in the extreme environment of a tiny Elizabethan exploration ship, who was ultimately abandoned, just before the ordeal of childbirth, on a waterless desert island in the East Indies.

“I wanted to know everything about her. Where had she come from? How did she end up in this situation? How did it feel to sail into the unknown; to cross the Pacific – heavily pregnant? What happened to her after she was abandoned?”

Nikki Marmery

But she discovered the facts of her life are really scarce. Maria is not mentioned at all in the earliest published accounts of the voyage. All we know for sure is that she joined the Golden Hind on April 4, 1579 from a Spanish merchant ship off the coast of El Salvador, and that she was abandoned nine months later near the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.

With so little to go on, her investigation started more as a crusade of curiosity than a writing project. No historian had written in any detail about Maria. Miranda Kaufmann later published an excellent book, Black Tudors, which discusses her – but more often in histories of Drake, she was unnamed or erased altogether. Nikki realised if she wanted to know more about the possibilities of Maria’s life, she would have to research it herself.

From the secondary sources, she discovered the original manuscripts of Drake’s voyage are kept at the British Library. But it never occurred to her she could visit the library to read them – until friends took her on a tour of the library for her birthday. This was a turning point for Nikki.

“After having read about Maria for so long, to see the handwritten testament of someone who knew her was incredibly moving. The browned and barely legible manuscript has pinprick holes where sparks from a candle have burned the parchment. Marks are drawn in the margin to emphasise key passages. “

Nikki Marmery

Nikki explained that Maria is objectified and dehumanised by every man who has written about her: from the two surviving eye-witness accounts, to 17th century historians such as William Camden – via William Shakespeare, who may have been inspired by her story when he wrote of the witch Sycorax, an African woman who was abandoned pregnant on a desert island in The Tempest – all the way through to modern historians.

Nikki in contrast wanted to imagine what Maria would say about herself – but examples of women’s voices from the 16th century are vanishingly rare. She was delighted to discover the book Afro-Latino Voices: Narratives from the Early Modern Ibero-Atlantic World, 1550-1812, edited by Kathryn Joy McKnight & Leo J. Garofalo, which reproduces the archival records of African women in the New World – crucially, in their own words.

Another book that helped her was Dangerous Speech: A Social History of Blasphemy in Colonial Mexico, by Javier Villa-Flores where she learned how slaves used blasphemy as a strategy of resistance to fight their oppression. By renouncing God, and denouncing themselves, a slave might invoke intervention by the Holy Office, which had the authority to remove a slave from an excessively abusive slave-owner. By threatening to blaspheme before a master inflicted punishment, enslaved people practised a form of ‘moral bribery’, by holding the master accountable for the sin of blasphemy.

Nikki’s novel unfolds against the backdrop of an enduring mystery of Drake’s circumnavigation voyage: where was his colony, Nova Albion. Drake and his crew lived there for five weeks in the summer of 1579. But when Drake returned home in September 1580, details of his American exploration were suppressed. The Queen did not want the Spaniards to know how far north he had sailed – nor that he was seeking the Northwest Passage, which would give the English a shortcut to the vast riches of Spain’s Pacific-coast New World colonies.

When researching Drake’s voyages, Nikki discovered that secondary sources that discuss the globes are misleading: they claim there are few differences between the two models. But the 1592 globe shows Nova Albion at 46˚N, while the 1603 globe shows it further north at 48˚N, with a redrawn coastline. This is hugely significant. Molyneux had made changes to his globe to receive royal sanction for publication in 1592. But the 1603 globe was made in Amsterdam – not London – thus free from interference.

This discovery, in addition to other unpublished 16th century maps, all showing Nova Albion above the 40th parallel north, gave her the confidence to set Nova Albion in her novel on Vancouver Island, rather than California. It also offered her the freedom to fictionalise more fully what happened there, which led to my suggestion of a far more shocking end to the colony than the sources suggest.

On Wilder Seas by Nikki Marmery

Find out more about Nikki Marmery on her website www.nikkimarmery.com and follow her on Twitter: @nikkimarmery and Instagram: @marmerynikki

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #224 Sept 2020 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… Caro Ramsay

In my Research Secrets column this month, I interview psychological thriller writer, Caro Ramsay, about some of the research techniques she has used for her crime novels.

Caro explained

“I always like to do something different with a book, which is not easy within the constraints of a long running series. So I wanted to try a story line that covered two novels while each novel in itself can be read as a standalone; The Suffering of Strangers and The Sideman.”

Caro Ramsay

The inspiration for her main storyline struck her when she was sitting on the side of a Scottish mountain, in torrential rain, gale force winds – it was the height of summer – watching a single walker on the other side of the hill tackling the West Highland Way. She had a feeling the walker was female. Caro was aware in that glen, you are a long way from a mobile phone signal.

For her research, she uses location visits, then the internet, then newspapers on the internet. With regard to research and police procedural her job as an osteopath means she treats lots of police and criminal lawyers. She often asks them for truthful answers about work conditions i.e. short staffed, too much paperwork, inter office politics. Caro said it’s these seemingly mundane minutiae which lends a sense of realism, not the procedures being correct (within reason).

Her advice would be to ask a lawyer about how the cops work and vice versa, then you will get the nitty gritty truth. She explained saying ‘I’m novelist and I’d like to know x, y and z,’ will get you the textbook version, not what happens in reality.

For Caro, the location fires the imagination for the story. She lives in the west coast of Scotland so the scenery is very dramatic. But Caro revealed that she steals setting ideas from elsewhere. For example, she was at Prince Edward, Lake Ontario, Canada looking at the water, slowly just walking along the scrub on the shore, through a hedge with long grass and wild flowers, when she realised my feet were hitting something hard. When she kicked back the soil it revealed a black and white tiled dance floor. A quick internet search and a few questions in a local café uncovered the sad story of the hotel that used to stand there. Caro used incorporated this into Durness on the North West tip of Scotland for The Sideman.

Caro told me sometimes it’s more prudent to write it and then find out what you need to know. Although she admitted to driving around in her small campervan looking for body deposition sites.

“There’s a famous road in Scotland called the Bealach na Ba, the pass of the cattle. It has hair pin bends at altitude, steep drops etc. The top is like a remote moon landscape. While having a coffee in a pub close by I saw the insignia of the SAS above the bar and a little research told me they did indeed train there, and that’s an important part of The Sideman story. So I got somebody to lie down at the top and pretend to be dead! I also ask friends to act dead then I move them around until they can’t be seen.”

Caro Ramsay

Sparks of stories also come to Caro through ‘incidental research’. The best thing is to ‘reverse research’. Find out what you need to know, use it, end of. Avoid information dumps. Keep away from the rabbit hole of the internet. Good research peppers the story with authenticity, it should never be obvious. Bad research bogs the story down. Caro said:

“A good tip is to not stop typing when you feel you need a particular word. I type in the word ‘wombat’ and get to the end of the draft. I believe Ian Rankin does the same but he uses capitals. Then when the draft is complete do a ‘find’ and fill in the detail.”

Caro Ramsay

Chatting to people, anybody, eavesdropping on conversations, people watching, are good ways to inform your characters. Caro’s tip to other writers is to keep your ears open. Everybody has a story. Never throw away anything, buy books of lovely post it notes, never be without your notebook. The most inconsequential fact or photo can percolate at the back of a writer’s mind and become the germ of a novel. Caro said:

Find out more about Caro on social media:

Facebook: Caro Ramsay

Twitter: @caroramsaybooks

Website: www.caroramsay.com

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #228 Jan 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… Peter Kerr

Check out the December 2020 issue of Writers’ Forum, for my Writing 4 Children interview with best-seller Peter Kerr. He talks about how he adapted his screenplay for children into his debut children’s novel, Goblin Hall.

Peter told me that he originally wrote the Goblin Hall story as a 90-minute screenplay before his first book was published, purely on spec as a self-imposed writing ‘exercise’, then he filed it away and forgot about it until transferring old files into a new computer a couple of years ago.

Goblin Hall really exists. It is a large, remarkably well-preserved subterranean chamber that lies hidden beneath the ruins of Yester Castle, near the village of Gifford, about five miles from where he lives in East Lothian. Legend has it that it was built in the 13th century – with the aid of ‘demonic forces’ – by Sir Hugo de Giffard, a Norman nobleman, who, because of his reputation as a practitioner of the ‘black arts’, was dubbed the Wizard of Yester. The legend is well known locally (Gifford’s village inn is even called The Goblin Ha’ Hotel), but has never been used as a basis for a novel until now, although Sir Walter Scott did mention it in his poem Marmion.

When Peter was twelve, he was taken on a visit to Yester Castle by a school chum who lived in Gifford. He told me what little of the ruins that still exist are well hidden by the surrounding woods, and it would have been difficult to find them without a local ‘guide’.

“I was immediately struck by the spooky atmosphere of the place, and I never forgot my immediate thought that it would make a great setting for a creepy movie. That’s probably why it became the inspiration for my experimental screenplay some forty years later.”

Peter Kerr

His idea was that the script would feature two children, a ruined castle and a haunted underground chamber. And as there weren’t any historical ‘facts’ that had to be adhered to, he had a fairly blank canvas to work on. This was not the case when he came to adapt it for the novel. Peter revealed he prefers to go with the flow when he writes rather than have a pre-conceived plan to adhere to. As he had already completed the screenplay he found that for the first time ever, he had an existing storyline to stick to, and a detailed one at that.

“It took a bit of getting used to, but it was a worthwhile exercise and another step on the learning curve that’s always in front of us, no matter how experienced we think we’ve become.”

Peter Kerr

Peter explained the main practical difficulty he discovered in converting the film script to purely narrative form was how to adjust the balance between action and dialogue. In the script, only an outline of the actual scene locations and the physical actions/reactions of the characters was required, with it being left to the film’s ultimate director to provide the visual detail.

To a certain extent the same applied to the dialogue, which was written with a view to it complementing, or being complemented by, what would be seen on screen. In other words, a sort of shorthand was employed in both regards. For example, a simple ‘Yes’ might be all that was needed to answer a question on screen, whereas a fuller response would inevitably be required in the book version.

The other major challenge was presented by the fact that the screenplay involved a lot of quick changes of fairly short scenes, which also meant changes of location and characters. Via sympathetic film editing, this could add to the tension/excitement of the movie. However, this feature could easily have become confusing and annoying to the reader of the book, so great effort had to be put into providing a more expansive narrative without losing the essential ‘pace’ of the story.

Peter’s tip on writing for childrenis to establish the characters of your main protagonists early, and then they’ll help you carry the story forward. But keep an eye on what they get up to. Stay in control, or they’ll lead you a merry dance. He says, the greatest aid to writing is reading. Read, read, read, and not just the type of books you want to write either. But above all, be original. Don’t try to squeeze yourself into other authors’ shoes, no matter how much you admire their style.

To find out more about Peter and his books go to his website: www.peter-kerr.co.uk You can also find him on Facebook @author.peter.kerr and Twitter @AuthorPeterKerr