Category Archives: An Interview with…

An interview with… Sarah Aspinall

For my Research Secrets slot in Writers’ Forum issue Sept 2021 #236 I interviewed Sarah Aspinall about her memoir Diamonds at the Lost and Found: A Memoir in Search of My Mother, published by Fourth Estate and inspired by her glamourous, yet eccentric mother, Audrey Miller, later known as Audrey Aspinall.

Sarah knew she had to find a way of writing this book as every time she told the story of her childhood adventures people would gasp and say, ‘you have to write that, it’s such an incredible story.’ The word incredible always worried her a little, as she’d sometimes wonder if it all really happen as she remembered it.

“My memories were vividly of a wild harum-scarum life, travelling the world with my glamorous but eccentric mother, Audrey. We wound up in various strange exotic destinations around the world; sometimes we were in luxury hotels and fantastic mansions, other times we lived in cabins of cruise ships, or a cheap scruffy motel in the Killdevil Hills of North Carolina. We often stayed with people we’d just met. Many of these people were men, as the purpose of these trips seemed to be for my mother ‘to find true love.’”

Sarah Aspinall

Sarah revealed when she started writing she had no contacts as she knew most of the people as ‘Auntie Sadie’ or ‘Uncle Les.’ She had no idea how to start her research and all she had to go on was a big chocolate box full of photographs, some had dates and names scribbled on the back. There was also a battered address book held together with rubber bands, in which nothing was in order in its alphabetical pages. It was stuffed with scraps of paper with barely legible names and numbers. Yet, Sarah had spent most her childhood listening to her mother regale people with her amazing stories. These people would have heard them all and may be able to fill in the blanks.   

“I think even a simple memoir is a way of passing on something precious as everyone has a story to tell.”

Sarah Aspinall

Audrey’s own childhood in Liverpool was easy to write about, as Sarah told me she had already vividly conjured the sights, sounds and smells of the coal-yard belonging to her Uncle Charlie where she and her mother lived after being deserted by her father. Memoirs such as Helen Forrester’s story of her desperately poor childhood in Depression-ridden Liverpool of the 1930 were brilliant for details of daily life.

On Facebook there are pages such as Liverpool Hidden History, which has 42,000 members. Her queries about the lives of a bookie’s runner got many helpful responses from people whose own parents told them stories of illegal back street gambling.  She used some of these personal for moments such as Audrey’s description of running back from the pubs with all the bets and hiding under the big tarpaulin in the yard when someone had tipped off the police. Similarly with accounts of the evacuees getting on trains Sarah borrowed from real memories of people:

‘…as the train crowded with children pulled out of Lime Street station, some of the little ones were screaming for their mothers. I saw one mother being sick on the platform, but mine managed to stand tall.’ 

Extract from Diamonds at the Lost and Found: A Memoir in Search of My Mother

Sarah explained she was aware of Audrey being very much the family star from the photos of her at the time in dance clothes, or leading the Orange Day parades or as the May Queen. She found accounts of these big celebrations of a working-class Liverpool childhood on social media. Watching archive from Pathe news on YouTube was useful gave a sense of the crowds watching a horse parade and the nodding heads of the horses. Sarah said there are hundreds of wonderful Pathe news clips online which really transport you to the past and spark the imagination. 

For her mother’s eventful voyage to America just after the war when she was twenty, Sarah bought James Steele’s book Queen Mary, which is rich in images that show the fabulous décor of the ballrooms and cocktail lounges and gives you a sense of daily life for the different class of passengers. She also signed up to ancestry.co.uk to look for clues to her parents’ family histories and was thrilled to find it has passenger lists for sea voyages. 

“Discovering her name handwritten on the list was magical. Revealing she had written in one column she was a ‘journalist’ I’d known she had a social diary in the local paper, Talk of Many Things by Audrey Miller but was disappointed to find no records for those years.”

Sarah Aspinall

Sarah told me that travelling back to places in the book was the most powerful way of reaching back to the past. Scents and smells are amazing at unlocking memories. Walking the streets of New York helped her to write about the city Audrey discovered in 1946. Although the air would have been a little different then, many things would not have changed. Sarah knew she would be dreaming of something more thrilling than her godmother’s small flat in the suburb of Jackson Heights. Using this memory, she wrote:

‘Of course, in my fantasies I was in the New York of the Movies.. off sipping Martini at the Copacabana Bar with Cary Grant, not sitting each night in Mike and Sadie’s little apartment with our TV dinners on a tray.’  

Extract from Diamonds at the Lost and Found: A Memoir in Search of My Mother

A lightning bolt of memory came when her childhood friends reminded her of the stuffed snake toy she’d named Sabet Sabescue. Sarah divulged she suddenly remembered this was the name of the man who had taken them on the felucca boat down the Nile. HIs smile remained like the Cheshire Cat, long after the rest of him had vanished, hovering at the edge of my memory, along with the thrill of driving too fast in his open car with the wind in my hair. This is perhaps the most exciting thing about researching a memoir – the finding of these tiny keys that unlock a secret storehouse of forgotten memories.

For writing any book, and particularly a memoir Sarah’s advice is to get a good editor, or friendly reader to find cuts to make in your writing. Every line of a memoir can feel precious to you, because it is so intimately your story. She rarely read drafts of people’s books which wouldn’t benefit enormously by a tough edit. Writers must invite it, or even insist on it, as friends hate to tell the awful truth. You need to insist ‘be brutal, find me whole sections to lose, not just a few lines here and there’.  

Trims and tightening can help a lot, but the painful truth is often whole chunks of story just need to go even though they may have taken a lot of time and be beautifully written. Sarah elaborated that she cut three last chapters out completely, although they represented months of work because two trusted friends both said the same thing ‘it is better without them; the story really ends earlier.’ They were right. This is when she found a publisher.

Her research tip is to interrogate friends and family about tiny details of what they remember, as the name of an old toy can bring so much flooding back. Use the sense of smell to unlock the past. Sarah explained that if she smells Youth Dew her mother’s perfume whole scenes come back to her. If you can revisit places close your eyes and breath in, as it may allow you to time travel.

Sarah is happy for anyone wanting writing tips or advice to contact her via Facebook or Instagram. She doesn’t use twitter much. 

You can find Sarah Aspinall on Facebook @sarah.aspinall.355 and Instagram @sarahjaspinall

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of Sept 2021 #236 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… Delores Gordon-Smith

For my Research Secrets slot in the February #251 8 Feb 2023 issue of Writers Forum I spoke to Delores Gordon Smith about how she researched her radio play based on the mysterious death of Charles Bravo in 1876.

Delores told me writing a story set in 1876 was a bit of a new venture for her, as all of her novels are murder mysteries set in the 1920’s. Murder, Charles Bravo: A Radio Play, published by Williams & Whiting, is very different.  

In the phonetic alphabet ‘Charlie’ stands for the letter C and ‘Bravo’ for the letter B.  Which may lead anyone to suppose that a murder mystery with a character called Charles Bravo as the victim must be fiction. It isn’t.  The murder – or, perhaps, more accurately – the death of Charles Bravo was one of the most notorious unsolved mysteries of Victorian England.

On Tuesday, the 18th April 1876 Charles Bravo, a young barrister aged thirty, came home to his beautiful and wealthy wife, Florence, who he’d married four months previously.  That night he was taken gravely ill and, after three days of agony, died on Friday the 21st.  After his death the autopsy revealed that Bravo had taken a dose of between twenty and thirty grains (about half a teaspoon) of the poison, antimony. But who gave him the poison?  That’s where the mystery lies.

Like many avid readers – and most authors are avid readers – some of the very first grown-up books Delores read were the Sherlock Holmes stories. She explained Sherlock Holmes’ background is so vividly depicted that, almost without knowing it, any child reading the stories will accumulate a substantial store of knowledge about Victorian England – hansom cabs, steam trains, the gas-lit streets, the huge gaps between rich and poor, the old rural way of life and the smoky industry of the city; all that’s in Conan Doyle, a foreign but familiar landscape. 

The Charles Bravo mystery fits right in – it’s a Sherlock Holmes story without Sherlock, populated by an arrogant young barrister, a damsel in acute distress, a mysterious elderly doctor, a foreign companion who evidently has a secret of her own and a kindly, alert lawyer. The mystery has intrigued many writers from Agatha Christie to Julian Fellows.    

However, as any writer knows, the finished book or play is the tip of an iceberg of research. That sounds very daunting but it’s easier to get your head round the idea if you break it into the various steps. 

First of all, the setting, period or the subject – preferably all three – have to be something that you’re interested in anyway. Victorian England and an unsolved murder mystery?  Yes, that box was ticked. I think this initial interest is really important because you’re going to be spending a lot of imaginative time in this world that you’re creating. 

Incidentally, it’s where the story’s set that is probably the most important. If you think about the books that you’ve really enjoyed, the chances are it’s the setting, along with the characters, that’ve drawn you into the book. Delores advocates you should try to discover the real facts about the time, place and subject and don’t rely just on what you’ve seen on TV or read in popular novels. 

Those have their uses but wherever you’re setting a story try and make it real.  This rule applies as much to stories set now as to historical fiction and as much to a story set locally as to some exotic destination. If you’re interested enough in your home town to set a story there, then you’ll include the sort of detail that’ll make it come alive for the reader. How? Well, if you want to set a story in your home town, for instance, you’ve got a huge advantage as you know your town inside out. However, try and see the town or city through a visitor’s eyes. What would strike a visitor as unusual?

She told me the descriptions of Holmes’ London are so realistic many readers think they know the place, but the interesting thing is that Conan Doyle wasn’t a Londoner. He came from Edinburgh and gives his impressions of London as they’d strike a visitor. One little clue is Sherlock Holmes’ address, 221B, Baker Street. That “B” isn’t a London way of numbering apartment, flats or rooms; it belongs to Edinburgh. Then, of course, as your story develops, you’ll be able to add to your initial knowledge by the close-up detail you’ll need to make an individual scene come alive. 

Delores discovered the landmark book on the subject is How Charles Bravo Died by Yseult Bridges, published in 1956.  Here, she recounts in great detail, the story of the two inquests (the case never came to trial) that were held, as well as giving a plethora of fascinating background detail on the various people involved. This book is one of those great things that occasionally happen to a writer, an absolute gift for anyone interested in the subject. 

“I didn’t think the Bravo case could be turned into a novel. With the transcripts of the inquests so faithfully recorded by Yseult Bridges, the story seemed tailor made for a radio play. I wasn’t making up dialogue but using (and, obviously, editing) what was actually said. Okay, so I had to make up some dialogue but I tried to keep that well within the bounds of what the various characters are recorded as thing and feeling.”

Delores Gordon-Smith

Her tip to writers wanting to write their own radio play is to not only research the subject matter but to also do the research into the genre.

“A radio play – at the risk of sending obvious, it’s all got to be done in speech. Obviously you can have a character’s voice-over as an intimate chat to the listener – a sort of breaking the fourth wall.”

Delores Gordon Smith

She elaborated how Inner thoughts can be given as a voice-over and the sound effects (buzz of conversation from a crowd in court) etc help to set the scene as, unlike a novel, you can’t fall back on straightforward description. Delores said signalling to the listener that we’ve moved onto a new scene can be tricky and recommends a couple of tricks, such as having the narrator say words to the effect of, ‘It was later that day when Mr X came to see me..’ etc.  

Other than that – the technical side of remembering it’s all spoken word with no visuals or description – the process is much the same as writing a novel. That’s imagining yourself in the lives of these characters and bringing them to life as best you can.  

Discover more about Delores and her books on her website: www.doloresgordon-smith.co.uk.

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #251 8 Feb 2023 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… Tim Collins

For the #251 8 Feb issue of Writers’ forum I interviewed Tim Collins about creating children’s book with unique selling points.

Tim has recently launched a series of puzzle adventure books. His new Sherlock Bones series combines a detective story with puzzles, such as mazes and spot-the-difference illustrations. The puzzles are inspired by the text, but readers don’t need to solve them to continue with the story. More confident readers can keep going and come back to them later, while those who want a break can stop and complete them.

He explained when writing for children it’s worth considering whether your story could be told in a different way. Could some of the action be told in cartoons? Could some of the dialogue be in speech bubbles? Could you box out some of the text as ‘top tips’ or ‘life lessons’? There must be hundreds of ways to mess things around that haven’t been done yet. His advise to othr authors is to experiment with format. Breaking up chapters with unusual elements can help young readers engage with books, especially if they’re put off by large chunks of text.

When Tim was writing th series he aimed to get a balance of mystery chapters and action chapters in the book, to vary the storytelling. For example, Bones and Catson crack a secret code in one chapter, and chase a suspect in the next.

“Whatever genre I’m writing in, I try to think about how much of the story will be mystery plot and how much will be action plot.”

Tim Collins

Tim said when you’re writing a detective or mysteery story where your characters follow a series of clues try to end each chapter on a cliffhanger. Many children will be in the habit of reading a chapter, or having a chapter read to them, before bed, so you need to leave them wanting to know what happens. If you’re struggling to end a chapter on a cliffhanger, you can always have your character reflecting on their goals. Anything that makes the reader imagine what’s coming next.

The series is inspited by Holmes and Watson. Tim explained J M Barrie, Mark Twain, Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Anthony Burgess, Michael Chabon, and Nicholas Meyer have all written pastiches of Holmes, so it’s a great tradition to be part of.

“It was fun to build a fantastical world with animals in place of humans, though I had to work out its exact rules first.”

Tim Collins

As the majority of Holmes stories are narrated by Watson, he wrote his series from the viewpoint of Doctor Catson, using first person, which is an imtrigal part of the original stories, even though third person limited is more common for this age group. The first book is set in an animal-populated London. A bloodhound police inspector calls at Barker Street to tell Bones and Catson that the crown jewels have been stolen. Their investigation takes them everywhere from Buckingham Kennel to the secret tunnels beneath the city.

Anthropomorphic animals can be a great source of humour, especially when there’s a clash between their animal nature and the sophisticated roles they’re assuming. In the book, Sherlock chews rubber bones rather than smoking a pipe when he’s mulling things over, and Catson is easily distracted by string. It’s great if you can find a source of humour for young readers that doesn’t rely on puns. Publishers will be looking for something that can work in foreign editions, and puns are tough to translate. Admittedly, I’m being hypocritical here. The book, after all, is about a dog called Sherlock Bones who lives in Barker Street. But there are some you can’t resist.

Tim’s advice to someone writing a series for younger readers is to know what happens after book one. Even if you just write paragraph outlines for the next two books, you’ll know you have something more than just a good one-off.  So much of this is down to having two or more central characters with a relationship that’s easy to write to, and keeps suggesting new adventures.

Writing series fiction for younger children can be very rewarding. Your books could be the ones that convert a child into a confident, independent reader. And if you think of an interesting way to present your story, it could help to draw more young people into reading for pleasure.       

You can find out more about Tim and his books on his website: http://www.timcollinsbooks.com/

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #251 8 Feb 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… Rebecca Raisin

In a Research Secrets interview for #250 4 Jan 2023 issue of Writers’ Forum, I spoke to Rebecca Raisin about her travel research into Van Life and Christmas traditions in Lapland for her latest romance novel, Flora’s Travelling Christmas Shop.

In typical romance style the heroine is going through a bad patch where her life seems to implode and she can’t understand what she’s doing wrong. Flora’s best friend Livvie comes up with an audacious plan for her to become a Van Lifer and live her dream selling Christmas decorations from her van at a market in Lapland.

My beautiful van Peppermint

Rebecca told me Lapland has this magical allure thanks to the Aurora Borealis and it’s one of the most festive places on the planet so felt is was the perfect backdrop to send Flora in her van. She revealed she uses Pinterest to make vision boards about each novel before she begins as it helps as a visual prompt when she describes the town, characters and what they’re up to. She makes her boards ‘secret’ so no one has access to them before she has finished writing the book.

To flesh out her characters she starts by doing a personality profile on each main character – what they look like, and then more important parts like what they’re afraid of, what they want most. She told me she writes copious notes, their backstory, whether they’re whimsical, sassy or confident but secretly unhappy.

“I also use online personality tests and input what I think my character would choose and use those results to flesh them out even more. One of my favourites is www.16personalities.com. This helps me to make my characters relatable so the reader can sympathise with them and cheer them on.”

Rebecca Raisin

When setting books set in exotic locations, Rebecca explained she looks for off-the-beaten track experiences, foods, culture, lore about the place. She wants the reader to be wowed by learning something they didn’t know before. For Lapland, with its artic climate she focused on finding out more about the setting through official websites like: www.visitfinland.com/lapland/ and when something piqued her interest she searched further afield.

She finds Instagram great for providing images that take root in her imagination so she can then create more vivid descriptions. She searches hashtags such as #Wanderlust #VanLife #Nomads #Lapland. For example:

Cradling the mug to warm my hands, I look at the snowy view outside and know that moments like these are why people choose Van Life. There’s no one about, just me and the snowy cotton-ball landscape.

Extract from Flora’s Travelling Christmas Shop by Rebecca Raisin

Rebecca told me the most unusual piece of research she did for Flora’s Travelling Christmas Shop was to find a local sauna at a swimming centre and try it out. After reading so much about the health benefits, she wanted to experience it for herself to help her describe it throughout the book.

“I found it mercilessly hot and hard to breathe and I only lasted about five minutes.”

Rebecca Raisin

This research, along with her reading, filtered into her writing, as can be seen in this following extract:

One thing I’m curious about, why are saunas so popular here? Is it because of the arctic temperatures? A way to warm up?’

‘Yes, that I suppose but it’s mainly for the health benefits. For general wellbeing. If the sauna can’t cure you, nothing can. I use it for detoxing, anti-ageing, to speed up my metabolism. Back in the day, my grandmother gave birth to all her babies in saunas, as did many in her generation, thinking it was the safest, most sterile place for such a thing. Every single member of my family has a sauna at home – they use the sauna, then swim in the icy cold lake and head back into the sauna. It’s invigorating, makes you feel alive! It’s just one of those things that’s ingrained in us.’

Extract from Flora’s Travelling Christmas Shop by Rebecca Raisin

Her research into Christmas traditions revealed the typical cosy way in which Finnish people celebrate Christmas. It’s traditional to celebrate Christmas from the 21st of December until St Knut’s Day January 13th. Finnish people tend to work a lot in the lead up so they can spend the holidays with their families. On December 24th they decorate the tree, have a warm glass of gløgge, or mulled wine before their joulusauna.

Rebecca explained she spends a lot of time reading travel blogs and searching on Instagram for people living the same sort of Van Life lifestyle. She advocates reading travels blogs is an authentic way to learn about what struggles they face along the way, as well as the gems they find that an everyday tourist might miss. Usually her heroines are thirty-somethings travelling on a limited budget so she hunts for others who go from country to country and live a frugal existence selling what they can and living outside of ordinary. She revealed YouTube van diaries were also a fun way to tag along these journeys from the comfort of her own home.

Rebecca told me she is particularly interested in food when researching for a book, as it’s a great way for characters to try something new and is a scene setter. Popular during the festive season in Lapland is joululimppu which is Christmas bread.

She explained that like a lot of the Finnish food it’s a mix of strong flavours that just seem to work. She found the ideal recipe for joululimppu on www.cuisinefiend.com.

“Browsing food blogs is a very addictive past time of mine, especially when researching for a Christmas book set in a country foreign to me. I like the personal touch when reading blogs and that the creators are clearly passionate about their subject. I read up on certain recipes from that country, in this case Finland and then lace them throughout the book, trying not to info dump, but so they appear naturally to the reader.”

Rebecca Raisin

This can be seen in this extract from Flora’s Travelling Christmas Shop:

Stalls sell roasted chestnuts, and piparkakut a traditional Finnish gingerbread. There’s a sign for the ultimate comfort food riisipuuro otherwise known as rice pudding, mugs of steaming hot cocoa and warm pastries. The scent of Christmas – a mix of nutmeg, vanilla, star anise – is heavy in the icy air.

Extract from Flora’s Travelling Christmas Shop by Rebecca Raisin

You can find out more information about Rebecca Raisin and her books on her website: www.rebeccaraisin.com

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #250 4 Jan 2023 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… Clare Helen Welsh

In issue #250 4 Jan 2023 of Writers’ Forum I interviewed Clare Helen Welsh about the teamwork required to create a picture book and the importance of community for authors.

Clare said that writing a picture book is like moving a mountain – it takes lots of commitment from a lot of hard-working and talented individuals. It’s also significantly more enjoyable with like-minded people alongside you. She told me to help her make sure she is approaching the strongest version of a story in the strongest way, she shares her work with trusted critique partners whose feedback is nothing short of invaluable. She explained they are excellent at the word level bits, but she also values their thoughts on the bigger picture issues such as arc, character development and theme providing her with the objectivity that is often hard to see when you are so close to your own work.

“Your picture book community are on hand for when everything goes right. When you make a book and want to share how wonderful that feels. That’s the thing about teamwork; the more people involved, the more people to celebrate with… and the more special it feels.”

Clare Helen Welsh

For Clare one of the most important team members is her agent, Alice Williams, from Alice Williams Literary. Clare elaborated that Alice does much more than sell her work and check her contract. She explained Alice reads, guides and mentors her to consistently deliver texts that families and gatekeepers love. She’s the critical eye that wants her story to be the best it can be and crucially, she has the other eye on the market.

Alice Williams ensures there’s enough in the picture book texts for them to be acquired and read (and re-read) many times, asking questions such as ‘What is there for a child to enjoy? How can I sell this to a publisher as a must-have text? How will I pitch it?’ With these questions in mind, there is usually at least one round of edits before a text goes out on submission, and when they do Alice utilises her contacts and knowledge of the industry to give a text the best chance of being acquired.

“You don’t have to have an agent to be a writer and there are many writers doing fantastically on their own, but for me the relationship is hugely valuable and enjoyable, too. It’s also handholding while you find your publishing feet.”

Clare Helen Welsh

Clare told me how the collaboration continues with the publisher, when a team of people play their part in editing, designing and producing the book. The publishing team she worked with at Quarto Kids were Rhiannon Findlay, Jane Wilsher, Malena Stojić, Emily Pither and Sarah Chapman-Suire. Once a text lands in an editor’s inbox, they will decide if it has potential and if it would result in a book that fits their list.

Dot and Duck had three commissioning editors cheering them on: Matt Morgan for How Rude! Ellie Brough for How Selfish! and Emily Pither for How Messy! If it’s a yes, the idea will be pitched to the wider team at an acquisitions meeting, including representatives from sales and marketing, together deciding if a book should go ahead.

Publishing is a creative business, but it’s also very much about the commercial side. Everyone has to be behind the project with a clear idea of how the book will be marketed, how much it will cost to produce, where it will be sold and who will buy it, for it to get the green light. Once a book is given the go ahead and is acquired, editors then have a significant role in developing and shaping a text. Should the character be male or female? Can they be androgynous? Should Duck always be the antagonist? Are there too many penguins in picture books? Your editor will help you to polish and refine a story, both on a line level and the larger plot and concept. They are on hand every step of the way as your book is brought to life.

But editors don’t work in isolation . Picture books, by their very nature, are more than just words and require a seamless combination of words and images. The designer, which for Dot and Duck was Sarah Chapman-Suire, is to the illustrator what the editor is to a writer – someone with ideas, suggestions and insider knowledge on how to sculpt and layout a picture book so that it will have the best chance in the market.  Sample illustrations are sometimes commissioned.

On top of these names and roles for this series, she had Nikki Ingram – the Production Manager and Lucy Lillystone – the Campaign Assistant, sales teams, marketing teams, foreign rights teams and countless others. Having such a large team is good news. Your publisher, and everyone working for them, wants your book to be a big success and wants it to sell as much as you. There really is a whole village of enthusiastic individuals invested in making your story the very best it can be.

The Dot and Duck series are illustrated by Olivier Tallec. The interaction between the the words and the pictures makes this genre of children’s fiction special. Picture books wouldn’t exist without an illustrator – they’d just be words in a digital document. But more than bringing an idea to life, an illustrator is a co-author.

“I have been lucky to work with many fantastic illustrators, not least Olivier Tallec, who deserves every bit of recognition for his outstanding work. So much of the humour in the Dot and Duck series is down to his expressive characters and comic details in his work. Olivier creates bold and loveable characters – he’s the perfect co-collaborator for this series.”

Clare Helen Welsh

An illustrator breathes new ideas and new threads into stories, which means your story will be working on several layers to engage and entertain readers. They add details to your story that you might not have even imagined, which again only adds to reader enjoyment. Just like your publisher, they are invested in your story and its characters and it shows.

As you can see there is a wide cast of characters that all work together to produce a children’s book. and I would like to thank Clare Helen Welsh for explaining the process so succinctly.

You can read the interview I did with Clare Helen Welsh for her blog tour of the Dot and Duck series here: Blog Tour – How Messy! by Clare Helen Welsh

To read my review of How Messy! go to: Book Review: How Messy!

To read my book review of The Perfect Shelter by Clare Helen Welsh and Åsa Gilland here Book Review: The Perfect Shelter

Find out more about Clare on her website www.clarehelenwelsh.com  and follow her on Twitter @ClareHelenWelsh

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #250 4 Jan 2023 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… Stephen Wade

In January 2022 I interviewed Stephen Wade about the research he did for his fiction novel, The Lovers on Asphodel Way. The interview appeared in the #241 Feb 2022 issue of Writers’ Forum.

It is set on a Yorkshire building site of a new housing estate during 1972. The story encompasses the worries and fears of everyday life at this time. The Lovers on Asphodel Way is published by a new publisher called Inky Lab who are based in Newcastle. They have published four anthologies and my book is part of their new fiction list.

Most of his published books have been non-fiction and this one is fiction. Even so Steve revealed the research was basically the same, but in addition he had my own memories.

“Although I never took any photos at the time, luckily, on the main heritage site for the Leeds area, Leodis, I found houses and streets from all decades throughout the twentieth century. Imagining places has always been the first stage of my research, followed by tracking down objects, pictures, and of course, memoirs of times and places.”

Steve Wade

After his first draft, he realised that there was a lot he still needed to know, especially since he had only been working as a labourer in his student years. He realised he couldn’t carry a hod, lay a brick or spread concrete on a drive and he needed facts about the men on the site and the women workers in the places around the site, in particular a corner shop and a working men’s club. he told me for the latter, he used the newspaper archive for the basic facts – the Times Digital Archive for the year 1972. he also accessed the Lancashire Library Service digital archive, after first joining the Lancashire Library. This provided all kinds of details, including costs.

He used family anecdotes about when his dad was a baker to help him create the atmosphere and find his character’s voices. Most helpful of all the sources was the memories of the man who ran the site – the gaffer – who knew his father, who bought back memories of the way he spoke and his overall attitudes. But again, people who knew him provided more detail.

Steve said discovering information about life doing Voluntary Services Overseas proved to be a challenge. In the end, he looked at some old archives from a woman who worked for the Women’s Volunteer Service in Korea, and he transmuted her work – arranging concerts and music – into his story, which (in one strand) concerns a father writing to a son in Africa which is a contrast between the lawlessness the father sees at home and the surprising civilised and progressive context in Africa, reported by the son. When Steve looked at some memories of people who had done VSO, he found the British view of Africa was still governed at that time by the distortions of the media.

“As for the use I made of the Korean material and the Women’s Voluntary Services, this was wonderful source material, because the woman whose archive I accessed had been a working-class Lincolnshire woman whose family had lived lives of great service (from being in the second world war to the Korean and then in the Middle East). Her letters home gave me the authentic feel of the period because she was still working abroad into the 1980s, mainly in Germany.”

Steve Wade

Steve elaborated that these letters are the only ones that deal with the world well outside the Yorkshire village and people. He used them to make the exotic references more distinct and interesting, so the element of surprise and even shock in the letters from Africa gives the reader an element of the unexpected. It also has a modern resonance because the Africa depicted is not at all like author Joseph Conrad’s, or anything similar.

In the novel the writer of the letters in Yorkshire is a doctor, and he looks backwards in time for a kind of comfort, seeing the modern world as threatening, so he over-stresses the dangers he perceives around him as he writes his letters. The creation of his character proves how useful our own locality is because the model for him was a corner house in my own town, which had gradually been vandalised over a period of a few years.

Steve explained when doing research organisation is crucial. For his non-fiction he gathers all kinds of materials in folders, and relate the material to chapters, after first outlining the chapter content but for his fiction he revealed it was easier for him to put them in folders that roughly related to stages in the book.

“I tend to write fiction in passages and moods, short bursts. This relates to my fondness for notebooks and coffee shops. I tend to take my notebook somewhere beyond phones and doors, to somewhere where I will not be contacted, and then write a few pages. These pages then go into the folders for each stage as the story unfolds.”

Steve Wade

He told me his oddest piece of research was for the working men’s club. Back then, these places really were old school and very ‘unwoke.’ There were snooker rooms and bars where women were not permitted. There was a male culture that thrived away from home. What I did was invent an old soldier who is full of stories, strange exaggerations, and make his recalling the past a satire on him. In other words, he is something of a grotesque.  He comes out as a Python-type character.

His research tip for other writers is when you need to have authentic voices from the past, use the Old bailey Sessions Online. Here, dipping into any criminal trial between 1683-1913, who have the actual voices of ordinary people of all trades and places, to read – exactly as they spoke. Characters may be lifted from these very rich and fascinating trail transcripts.

Steve told me researching archives is particularly rewarding and surprising. He once found, in a pack of letters between mother and son, from way back in 1977, some pressed flowers and dried blood. The son had died on his way to take part in the Zulu War. The family history site is a wonderful resource because they have all kinds of previously hard to find court and prison records. The Ancestry site is also particularly useful.

You can discover more about Stephen Wade and his books on his website: www.stephen-wade.com

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #241 Feb 2022 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… Sita Brahmachari

For my Writing for Children slot in the #239 Dec 2021 issue of Writers’ Forum I interviewed Sita Brahmachari about how she develops her characters and setting for her young adult books.

She told me how When Shadows Fall grew out of an interaction she had in her first workplace at the Royal Court Young People’s Theatre with children who had been excluded from school. They were children full of potential who had already decided that education wasn’t for them. She worked on location and they had a small space to work in and the adjacent outside area was not ‘safe’ because people threw things from the flats above. ‘Missiles miss,’ one girl explained.

“Certain children I’ve met in my work as a writer and through arts education have stayed with me. I think about them and hope they’ve found a way to untap their potential. This book is a symbolic passing of the pen to all of them.”        

Sita Brahmachari

Sita elaborated how when writing about life – grief and loss is always a constant presence. It’s always been a central theme in children’s literature and she likes toweave them into her stories. She believes keeping stories and realities from children is what creates monsters and nightmares. The task is to find the right tone and holding place for the age of reader who might find your story.  

She explained this is why she writes ‘rites of passage’ novels about grief and loss. In an exploration of loss she is also interested in diverse beliefs in what comes after. The timing of the publication of When Shadows Fall is one in which young people have suffered so many losses, not only of loved ones but also to their own liberty and potential.  

When Shadows Fall by Sita Brahmachari

Sita revealed her characters grow the story.

“The longer I live with the characters the more they become part of my life.  I have met and worked with thousands of young people during my work in community, youth theatre, novel writing and education. Aspects of character: a phrase, a look, a comment, a steely stare, a leaning back, a leaning in, a discovery that a child that won’t speak is a gifted artist… these memories glimmer as I write and ignite something in a character I’m exploring.”

Sita Brahmachari

She elaborated that at a certain point of writing the character emerges like a figure from clay, the features form and then everything in them speaks to you and drives the narrative.  Working with and writing for Young Adults requires curiosity, honesty and to be open to their realities. Sita likes to connect with the feelings of the young person she was. So whatever age character she writing will do a little writing exercise where she imagines meeting them when she was the same age and they have an imaginary conversation.  

“As a child I longed to see the diversity of characters who were my family and the people I met in life in the stories I read. So my stories have featured Diaspora characters from many cultures, histories and beliefs.  I’ve seen how powerfully young people have wanted and responded to these stories.”

Her advice to other writers is don’t wait for the story to come whole. Keep a sketch book.  Doodle, daydream, and write any thoughts, ideas, imaginings that come. Leave your ideas to prove and come back to them later to look for jewels.  Writing is a layering process. Have patience. Don’t rip work up but do be prepared to start again and re- layer, re-voice and re-write. Question. Be open to what editors and first readers say. Test material. Listen deep. Pay attention also to the twist in your gut that hasn’t untangled what you need to in the story yet.  Enjoy growing characters and let plot find you through them. Enjoy the flow when it comes like white water rafting or being in perfect balance on an imaginary high wire.

When it happens it’s exciting! Accept that sometimes there’s just a lot of heavy rowing to do. Keep going till you feel that what you’ve written could make some sense to someone else but don’t show your work too early.  If you feel it has a force of its own that could convey, feel the fear of putting it out in the world and do it anyway. Never react to feedback or start re-writes straight away… let the thoughts and comments mull. Whatever changes you make have to be true to your characters and story and to yourself.  

You can find out more about Sita on her website www.sitabrahmachari.com and follow her on Twitter @sitabrahmachari and on instagram @sita.brahmachari.

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #239 Dec 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.

Special Guest Q & A with Kate Wiseman

I am excited to announce that today I have a special guest interview with the fantastic Kate Wiseman who is going to tell us a little about her latest novel, Icarus and Velvet.

Kate enjoys fantasy and dystopian fiction. She lists Suzanne Collin’s Hunger Games series and Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel, among her all-time favourite novels. Icarus and Velvet is her first venture into writing fantasy. She is addicted to ghost stories and cites M R James high among the list of writers who have influenced her.

Thank you Kate for agreeing to be a special guest on my blog today. It is a great honour to have you here. Let’s glide straight into the interview.

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Q & A with Kate Wiseman

Tell us a little about your novel, Icarus and Velvet.

Hi Anita, Icarus and Velvet is a new departure for me – a YA dystopian fantasy. It’s set in the future, many years after a catastrophe that changed the world forever. Much of the earth is now poisoned and the remains of humanity have split into two disparate groups and retreated to the extremities of the land. 

Icarus’ people, the Avians or angels, have fled to cliffs near the sea, and mountains. They learned to build wings and fly. Velvet’s people, the Subterraneans or moles, have built huge underground cities, topped by glass domes in which they are able to grow food. The domes also protect them from the terrifying creatures that roam the Wilderness beyond them. 

Their people are mortal enemies, but Icarus and Velvet are pushed together by fate and have to learn to trust each other in order to save both of their communities.

What inspired you to write a YA dystopian fantasy?

It was a conversation with Elaine, the Managing Director at ZunTold publishers. We were batting ideas around and I told her I’d be interested in writing a fantasy loosely based on Romeo and Juliet. She gave me the go ahead and then I had to start from scratch. I really enjoy fantasy and love The Hunger Games books, and Icarus and Velvet developed into an amalgam of both.

What comes first for you the plot or the characters? 

In this case it was the plot, or at least some of its  major events.The idea of the Subterranean community came next. I could really imagine what it would be like to live underground, in a busy city. Velvet developed more quickly than Icarus, which kind of suits their characters. Velvet is a lot more pushy than Icarus.

How did you select the names of your characters?

Icarus’ society is based on that of ancient Greece. I chose the name Icarus, from the Greek myth, because it carries with it connotations that would be especially challenging to a society that relies on flight for its very existence. Icarus has a special future mapped out for him, a future that he finds daunting, and his name seemed to be an additional layer of challenge.

In Velvet’s patriarchal society, women are traditionally named after fabric types. It reminds them of their place as home makers. But Velvet has a touch of luxury and sensuality to it, which marks her out as a little different. She refuses to conform.

Their names also echo those of Romeo and Juliet, which was a deliberate choice. 

Explain the two distinctively different environments of the ‘Avians’ and the ‘moles’ and how they were created.

The Clifflands, home of the Avians, is a place of freedom and learning. They make their homes, which are full of colour and light, on the edge of cliffs overlooking the sea. Although beautiful, their environment is barren, which makes finding food difficult. That causes enormous conflict with the Subterraneans. The Clifflands are bordered by the Glassfields, home to terrifying creatures called Shades who play an important part in the story. 

The domed city where Velvet lives is called Newtopia, an ironic name because it is a joyless, patriarchal society. The underground city is built in tiers, with the most influential citizens living on the top layer, nearest to the surface. The further from the surface you are, the more insignificant. The subs or moles keep slaves who are forced to live on level 4. They long for daylight. The vast domes that top the cities are given over to agriculture on land that the moles have reclaimed. Many moles never leave their dome: the wilderness beyond is a terrifying death trap.

Which part of the book did you enjoy writing the most?

I really enjoyed creating the disparate societies and working out what was needed to make them viable: things like the scented air purifiers, that are constantly whirring in the background inside the city of Newtopia. 

The other thing I really enjoyed was writing the chapters of legends and teachings from both societies. These form the backbone to their ways of life, and also tell us more about how both communities developed. 

What writing advice would you give to people aspiring to write a dystopian fantasy?

All I can say is don’t be too overwhelmed by the influential books that have been written before. Follow your own vision. Flesh it out, and trust in it.

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Thank you Kate for agreeing to be interviewed on my blog today. Your book sounds brilliant and very intriguing.

To find out more about Kate Wiseman and her books take a look at her website: Katewiseman.uk. You can also follow her on her social media sites: Twitter: @KateWiseman, Instagram: kittywise999, FB: Kate Wiseman and on TIkTok: @katewiseman99         

Icarus and Velvet by Kate Wiseman is available to buy now from your local bookshop, or online at uk.bookshop.org, or you can purchase direct from Zuntold Publishers on their website: https://zuntold.com/

An interview with… Sue Moorcroft

Today you can discover what Sue Moorcroft told me about her research into the seasons for her romance novels in the interview for the #240 Dec 2021 issue of Writers’ Forum.

Sue explained writing a summer novel and a winter novel each year makes weather a consideration. When she was writing about Switzerland she used an online snow-cam and other online resources for typical temperatures and daylight hours.

She also keeps my eye out for seasonal events or traditions that she could be used in her novels and keeps a note on any posters about seasonal events – a Christmas tree competition or an artificial beach in the local town centre during the school summer holidays, etc.

“I had a Christmas wreath made last year and the florist explained it was compostable so I brought that into Under the Mistletoe and found a demonstration of how to make one online.”

She revealed when writing a Christmas book she bears in mind Christmas can affect everything. For those who celebrate the season, things are worse or better if you tag ‘at Christmas’ onto a situation. He lost his job at Christmas. She found her long-lost sister at Christmas. Christmas affects what restaurants or pubs look like, menus, what shops sell, what’s on the radio or TV and how people spend their time. Even a Christmas gift is meaningful for both plot and characterisation.

“Ideas are like gold dust. When I get one, I write it down. I can usually make my ideas fit the season with a bit of plot dexterity but definitely an ice hockey player fits nicely into a winter book and a vineyard owner into a summer book.”

Sue Moorcroft

Sue told me people with knowledge are key to her research and she is always interested in what they have to say and will follow up with more questions. She revealed she often uses social media to find the people she needs. For Under the Mistletoe she needed help from a teacher on the subject of bullying and help from an artist, as it’s my heroine Laurel’s occupation. She explained people can be incredibly kind.

When writing Under the Italian Sun she saw a documentary on the subject of post partum psychosis and followed the filmmaker on Twitter. He was the subject of the documentary, too, as he’d lost his mum young and didn’t understand why there was such a mystery around it. Sue told him how much she’d enjoyed the documentary and she was writing a book that covered the same subject. He offered her a video chat where she could find out more information.

In Just for the Holidays a forced helicopter landing took place. The process is called autorotation, the skill of keeping the rotors moving using pitch and yaw when the engine cuts out – a bit like a sycamore seed twirling to earth. Sue had trouble finding a helicopter pilot who wanted to help but eventually, via a friend of a friend, she found one. He took her up in a helicopter and they ‘pretend crashed’.

“It was awesome! I absolutely loved it. We shot down to earth and then he just pulled it up and landed (this is called ‘flare and run-on landing). Chatting afterwards, although it had taken ages casting around to find him, it turned out he knew my auntie.”

Sue Moorcroft

Sue also loves to visit the countries she write about. She regularly goes to writing retreats and courses in Umbria, Italy and has used the setting for several of her novels. Under the Italian Sun and One Summer in Italy are both set there so she was able to use her extensive photo library as a resource.

I know a lovely Italian lady and I asked her if she could help with things that were hard to research from here, or are cultural, such as what kind of beer this person would drink or how people behave if they have nuns to lunch, and she answered every email. She also put the Italian phrases right for me. It gave me a lot of confidence in the authenticity of the setting and themes.

On a visit, Sue told me she tends to eat local food, especially any particular to the region. Menus are also helpful, and available online. Settings can help an author weave a romantic spell around the reader. Her tip is to pick a setting that heightens the emotional stakes and visit it.

Find out more about Sue Moorcroft on her website www.suemoorcroft.com and follow her on Twitter @SueMoorcroft and on Instagram @suemoorcroftauthor.

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #240 Dec 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… Tracy Darnton

Today I am going to talk about my interview with YA author Tracey Darnton and her writing process and advice to aspiring children’s book writers. The full feature appeared in this months Writers’ Forum #249 30 Nov 2022.

Tracey’s novel writing career began with a short story when she won the Stripes/The Bookseller YA Short Story Prize which was published in the YA anthology I’ll be Home for Christmas.

As a result of working so closely with the team at Stripes, she was asked to pitch a novel which grew into The Truth About Lies. Tracy has always had an interest in memory so she decided to build a story around a girl who could remember everything. The Truth About Lies was shortlisted for the Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize and selected as a World Book Night title.

The short story now sits at the beginning of The Rules. Full of themes around the role of rules in family and society and the effects of preparing for disaster, The Rules is about a girl on the run from her prepper dad. This proves you never know where a competition could lead you.

Tracy’s latest novel, Ready or Not is about a Teenager Kat goes missing during a game of hide-and-seek at a late-night party on holiday. Three families have holidayed in a lovely house in Cornwall since the kids were born so the teens have all grown up together. Tracy tell the story through the eyes of the youngest, 15-year-old Millie, who’s devastated by the absence of her best friend, Kat. The remaining teenagers all go back to Creek House one year on and secrets finally begin to be revealed about what’s happened to Kat.

Tracy explained that this novel came out of a very strong image she had in my head of a girl standing by a tree with her eyes covered, counting slowly. This image triggered many what if… questions such as, what if when she opened them she couldn’t find her friend? Tracy told me she wrote a short paragraph ending with the line ‘People don’t just disappear, do they?’ and built the story from there. That line ended up on the cover as the strapline.

“I usually set off writing with the beginning paragraph and a paragraph or two of the ending. I don’t plan before I write. Having that sense of the ending helps me work my way through the middle, heading for a clear target. I always brainstorm different possible endings and then try to pick something which falls between the lines. Endings are my favourite part of my books.”

Tracy Darnton

As you live and breathe a book for such a long time through the writing, editing and marketing processes, you certainly need to choose something which intrigues and interests you. Ready or Not has themes around friendship, obsession, privilege and game-playing – both the ones they sit down to play and the games played with other people’s feelings.

Tracy said engaging characters are key to a good YA thriller. The reader must really care about what happens to them for the high stakes to mean anything, and to keep turning the pages.

Tracy prefers writing in first person because it gives a more immediate strong voice and insight into what’s going on in the main character’s head. She revealed she often writes letters or diary entries in her character’s voice to get to know them better. In Ready or Not, Millie’s letters became an integral part of the story.

“I have a ‘Bible’ notebook for each novel where I set out the timelines and use this notebook to sketch out the location and collate any research notes. I used to be a solicitor and I can’t shake my attention to detail. I have a glossary of terms so that I can be consistent (over things like whether hide-and-seek has hyphens) and I pass that list on to the copy editor at my publisher.”

Tracy Darnton

Tracy elaborated everyone needs to find what works for them. She believes all writers should experiment and play with their writing. Her writing tip for other people wanting to write YA is to read as many as you can – and you have a very good excuse to watch thriller films and series too. Although you’ll inevitably have adult characters, be careful that you don’t end up focusing on a heavy cast of police, forensic scientists, lawyers, teachers, parents etc. Keep agency and focus with your teen protagonists – they must be driving the plot forwards. Throw in a closed setting, a ticking timeline – and craft moments of suspense. The more secrets your characters have, the better. See where it takes you.

But her main piece of advice to aspiring writers is to get on with it, finish that book.

“I waited far too many years before getting back to my writing and I regret it now. What on earth was I waiting for? There are always excuses not to do something but, take it from me, there is no mythical date in the future when you’ll have more time and inspiration to write.”

Tracy Darnton

Carve out that time now. If you need a deadline, enter a competition or set one with a friend. Finishing and polishing a complete short story or novel is where you will learn so much about the craft of being a writer.

You can follow Tracy on Twitter @TracyDarnton and Instagram @TracyDarnton

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #249 30 Nov 2022 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.