Tag Archives: Writers Forum

An interview with… B B Taylor

For my Writing for Children slot in #223 May 2020, I interviewed Birmingham based author, BB Taylor, about her middle grade novel, The Vigilante Tooth Fairy, published by Tiny Tree Books.

The Vigilante Tooth Fairy is a story about a determined little fairy called Mouse who wants to save magic in a world that’s stopped believing. Children have stopped leaving their teeth out for the fairies! No more teeth means no more magic and no more magic means no more fairies.

BB told me she didn’t intentionally start writing about a tooth fairy, it kind of wrote itself. She was in hospital in isolation and needed a distraction so decided to enter a competition to write the first 1000 words of a story. She wanted to write a story about magic and self-belief, to dream beyond the four walls of the hospital room she was in, so she began to daydream.

The Vigilante Tooth Fairy by B.B. Taylor and illustrated by James Shaw

Her aim was to write a fairy tale that wasn’t traditional but could still give hope and inspiration to readers. BB revealed it didn’t get anywhere in the competition and sat in a draw for about 2 years before she came across it again by accident. It was then she had a zing of an idea and that buzz of excitement that inspired her to totally rewrite her original 1000 word story.

BB explained that once she had a new first draft this was when the real work began and the editing stage is always the longest part of her writing process. As part of the process she often makes scrap books mapping out her locations and characters, so she can get to know them better and ensure they are as real and tangible as possible. 

She told me that when it is the best it can be she will send it to a friend – a writing buddy – for critique and waits for them to rip it apart so she can start the editing process all over again.

“Sometimes you’ll be so close to a story and see it so clearly in your mind you’ll miss things right in front of you on the page. Reading out loud, editing in different fonts and colours are all great ways to trick your mind into seeing any errors and editing more efficiently.”

B.B. Taylor

BB loves doing school visits and enthusiastically declares it is one of her favourite elements of being an author. She structures her visits in small bites so she can make a session as long or short as it needs to be and can adapt it for a range of ages. Her advice for anyone doing school visits is to do what feels natural to you.

“I get to dress up, have fun and build inspiration and energy in the audiences I work with. I will often bring props whether it’s a giant snail or a giant yeti I like to make my sessions as interactive as possible.”

B.B. Taylor

BB also does lots of Zoom or Skype visits. She explained the advantage of this is that you can virtually visit people all over the world. When she does a Skype visit it usually involves reading from my book a little chat about her work and then a Q & A with the audience, to give them chance to interact and learn a bit more whether it be about her books, or being an author in general.

“It can be quite frightening to look at how you present yourself and your work in the current climate. but we are so lucky that technology has evolved so much in the last decade enabling us to still reach out and connect with audiences.”

BB Taylor

Her tip on writing for children is to be yourself, don’t try and force yourself to write in the style, format or patterns of anyone else. Do what feels comfortable and write what feels good. You want that buzz when writing that readers will hopefully get when reading your work. You want to feel that excitement when exploring a new world or creating a new character that you can pass on to your readers.

“Find what works for you and you are comfortable with and nurture it and be consistent with it. Create a digital footprint that your audience can follow and connect with and use it to reach out to the world and engage with them in whatever platform you decide to use.”

BB Taylor

To book BB for an online event you can go through her website www.bbtaylor-books.com, or through her publisher Tiny Tree Books.

You can also follow BB on Twitter @bb_taylor_, Instagram @b_b_taylor, Facebook  @B B Taylor and YouTube @B B Taylor.

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #223 May 2020 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… Owen Dwyer

In this months issue of Writers’ Forum, May 2022 #243, I interviewed psychological thriller author, Owen Dwyer, about his research secrets. He told me all about how he weaved true events into his fictional novel, The Garfield Conspiracy, published by Liberties Press.

The book is about a writer suffering from a mid-life crisis who begins to be visited by the characters he is researching for a book he’s writing on the 1881 assassination of President James Garfield. Owen started his research with Roscoe Conkling, whose name he had come across whilst exploring on Wikipedia. The strangeness of the name intrigued him.

Roscoe Conkling, leading Senator of his day

Further investigation revealed Roscoe Conkling to be the most influential Republican senator of the Reconstruction Period (between the end of the Civil War and beginning of the twentieth century in America). Owen discovered he was a political enemy of President Garfield and a hero to the assassin Charles Guiteau.  

Owen turned to primary sources to do more in-depth research into Charles Guiteau, such as the New York Library of Congress, which has a great reservoir of material from Guiteau’s trial, including transcripts, newspaper reports and testimonies. He discovered that far from being a natural killer, Guiteau was a weak and vulnerable man who never fired a gun in his life before the assassination. He had a serious mental illness which went untreated and was dismissed at his trial. He was also heavily influenced by his religion, as many of his time were – it was hard to comprehend how literally people took ‘the word of God’.  

This realisation inspired Owen to research the Oneida County community, a group of people in the Oneida district of New York often called ‘bible communists’.

“I read an article from the New York Herald, written in the 1870s by a journalist called Norduff, in which he described the habits and behaviours of the Oneida County community including one incident where a young man called ‘Charles’ who was subject to their practice of ‘mutual criticism’, fainted from the pressure of having to stand and listen to his peers deriding him without being permitted to reply.”

Owen Dwyer

Owen wondered if this man could it have been Charles Guiteau. He was both intrigued and disturbed to discover how Charles Guiteau mind worked, how he inhabited an entirely different world to those around him.

Charles Guiteau, the ‘lunatic’ assassin

Charles Guiteau genuinely believed he deserved high office up to and including the presidency and that by killing Garfield he was advancing his cause. He was also convinced that he was acting on direct instructions from the ‘deity’ by committing the murder. this realisation helped him to shape his character within the novel.

Owen revealed that finding the historical characters’ ‘voices’ was difficult as there are no recordings of any of the nineteenth century characters in existence. He had to rely on their personal letters and political speeches, which by their nature were elaborate. My characters therefore ended up with florid vocabularies, with which they reproached my main protagonist for his irreverent, scandal worthy and preposterous behaviour.

The fact Guiteau shot Garfield is not in dispute. It was the reason why he shot him that led Owen into the conspiracy zone.

“I thought of several possible masterminds who might have been manipulating Guiteau for their personal political or financial gain and stress tested these against known historical data to see which was the most plausible. I wanted to make sure my theory would stand up to the scrutiny of a thorough historian.”

Owen Dwyer

Owen’s advice when approaching research is that you should start with your objective and work backwards. Don’t accept the first corroborating piece of evidence you find, but cross-check against other sources. That way, you’ll properly interrogate your subject, make it more plausible and possibly unearth other interesting information you might not otherwise have found.

The Garfield Conspiracy by Owen Dwyer

In The Garfield Conspiracy Owen accessed and studied the mind of a ‘lunatic’, which gave him new and valuable insight into mental illness – he felt more informed and sympathetic as a result – about both himself and others.  

If anyone wants to reach out to Owen Dwyer, he has said he would be delighted to hear from you on his website owendwyerauthor.com, twitter @owendwyerauthor, and / or Facebook @owendwyerauthor.

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #243 4 May 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… Angela Kecojevic

This month, #243 4 May 2022 for my Writing 4 Children slot in the national writing magazine Writers’ Forum, I interviewed Angela Kecojevic about using the dramatic effects of climate change as the backdrop of her YA novel.

Angela told me the inspiration for Angela’s latest YA novel, Train published under the Aelurus Imprint (Untold Publishing Group 2022), struck during a visit to the Didcot Railway Centre in Oxfordshire. She said the smell of train engines, the grind of pistons, and the vibe from the old passenger trains was enthralling. It was also a time when dystopian fiction was riding high in the book charts.  The spark began to develop. What if a teenager boarded a train and went to the centre of the earth? How would a group of modern-day young people cope with such a task?

She remembered a book from French poet Jules Verne. His adventure into earth exploration listed him as a pioneer in science fiction writing. His visions were revolutionary; his books (Twenty Thousand Leagues Beneath the Sea, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, and Around the World in Eighty Days) awarded him critical success.  Angela’s aim was to bring this vision into the 21st century with a sci-fi spin.

In Train, seventeen-year-old Flint Wells (along with a group of international passengers) must board a futuristic train called Hero 67.  Their mission is complex: they must fix a tether at the centre of the earth, a journey that has already seen the disappearance of its predecessor, Hero 66. Yet just as Hero 67 slams into Earth, the passengers make a terrifying discovery about the Warehouses, giant bunkers littered around the globe.

Scientists, led by the mysterious ‘Conductor’, have taken a third of the population (the Vanished), and are testing them on their ability to survive worsening climate conditions. Flint’s family are also among the ‘Vanished’. It’s a race against time to save the planet and to stop the Conductor. 

“I wanted to highlight a world that had been destroyed because of its careless behaviour, and yet show a world that might care enough to fix. Young adults today are passionate about climate change. They care; they try to make a difference. I wanted this to reflect in Train.”

Angela Kecojevic

Angela is a member of the Climate Fiction Writer’s League, a group of international authors who use climate issues in their writing. Climate Fiction (Cli-Fi) is a piece of literature that brings climate science to the page. Issue of climate change are often at the forefront of her mind and this is reflected in Train. You can find out more about the Climate Fiction Writer’s League on their website: climatefictionwritersleague.substack.com

Train explores a frozen world that requires its characters to ice climb. Angela explained this was not an easy challenge.

“I stepped out of my comfort zone and booked in with a climbing lesson at Oxford Brookes Climbing Centre in Oxfordshire.  One of their expert climbers (Liz) showed me how to dry ice climb using indoor ice axes to loop and pull. This was physically demanding, and yet invaluable for my work.”

Angela told me how good plotting will highlight the pace of the story. She elaborated that she enjoys creating pace in her stories as it is one of her strengths.  She prefers to pick up the pace at the end of a chapter and thrust it over the finishing line into the next. She also enjoys creating tension in stories. She explained, YA, in particular, is a tough market to please as young people want powerful, adventurous characters. They want characters they can fall in love with. She took great care to make her characters sound fresh and interesting, and not to overthink their characteristics.

“I wanted Train to be something different. A sci-fi novel with a chilling twist.”

Angela Kecojevic

Angela revealed she finds writing for the YA market exciting as there is more freedom than writing middle grade, a genre she is also passionate about. She explained when the world was embracing romantic vampires and dystopian fiction, teens were picking up more books than ever before. This means something sparked their imagination. Exciting worlds, exciting characters, exciting plots.

Angela advocates if a story is well written, the readers will embrace the setting, however diverse. This is the beauty of the YA market. They are open to recommendations, they use social media to comment and promote, and they are open with their views.  Sure, it is a tough market to crack, yet their loyalty to a well written story is heart-warming.

You can follow Angela on Twitter @ajkecojevic and Instagram @angela_kecojevic

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #243 4 May 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.

An interview with… Finbar Hawkins

In an interview with Finbar Hawkins in April 2021, he told me all about the research he did into the notorious witch trials in the UK for his debut YA novel, Witch.

He said Witch, came about from an exercise in his first term of an Arvon foundation course where they were asked to write something with a historical setting.

“While out walking the dog (and a deadline looming!) I started thinking about the Pendle witch trials. And from there I thought about what it would have been like as a teenager experiencing the arrival of witch finders at her home, uprooting her family, how she would cope and strive for survival.”

Finbar Hawkins

Finbar explained that ever since childhood, he has been fascinated in myth and legend – one of his favourite books at home was the Reader’s Digest, Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain, reading about our country’s history of witchcraft. The early woodcuts of the trials also struck him– how they graphically portrayed these women as malevolent devils. He learnt that witchcraft, an ancient practice, was the victim of religious persecution. People, who for centuries had helped a community, were considered a threat to organised religion. And during the English Civil Wars the trials came back with vigour, witches largely being blamed for the suffering brought upon by the chaos of the fighting.

He said there are a lot of books about witches and witchcraft, and there’s a large body of academic work devoted to its study. So he simply dived in and found particularly useful books. An all-round primer, which he found fascinating is The Book of English Magic by Philipp Carr-Gomm and Richard Heygate, this gives a brilliant and in-depth appraisal of our magical history. Witch Hunt: The Persecution of Witches in England by David and Andrew Pickering was incredibly useful, gathering records from every county across the centuries. This book really helped Finbar to build a picture of the general hysteria around the trials. And for an in-depth study into witches, their portrayal and their importance as symbols, The British Witch by P.G.Maxwell-Stuart is exhaustive and thorough.

In Finbar’s book, the witchfinder, Jacobs, is based on the real-life and self-titled Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins. With his associate John Stearne, this determined young man cut a swathe across the East of England over the course of a bloody year in 1646. Witchfinders by Malcolm Gaskill was his go-to piece of research to understand the circumstances that led to Jacobs’ campaign.

He also visited an exhibition of Goya’s sketches of Witches at the Courtauld Institute (https://courtauld.ac.uk/gallery/what-on/exhibitions-displays/archive/goya-the-witches-and-old-women-album.

“These sketches definitely helped with the coven and crowd scenes in my book.”

Finbar Hawkins

Finbar revealed Spellbound was a wonderful exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford https://www.ashmolean.org/spellbound  He told me that they had a copy of Matthew Hopkins’ The Discovery of Witches (1647) which is chilling to see. Not only did this notorious man kill over a hundred women, he encapsulated and really celebrated his act for posterity.

An important part of Witch is Evey’s voice, and her way of seeing the world. Finbar wanted her to have this very specific, lyrical way of speaking, to make her sound very different to the norm. She’s also grown up in the West country so he wanted her to have that accent as part of her speech patterns. He used online accent archives to get the rhythms of her speech right. Dialectsarchive.com and also searched on YouTube for interviews with people from the West.

Witch is set in Wiltshire and in particular The Mendips area. He wanted the girls, Evey and her younger sister, Dill, to be travelling across the hills and valleys of this area. To achieve the dramatic sweep that this beautiful setting gives Finbar walked the area a lot, made notes on flora and fauna and took lots of photographs. He also found sketching in location really useful for details and sensations.

He photographed a tree in his local woods for a lot in backstory planning – Evey and her family refer to this as the ‘Wolf Tree’ and part of her initiation is ‘finding’ the stone, where it has been placed by her mother in the mouth of the wolf. These scenes never actually appeared in the final book, but the stone in the story is referred to as the ‘Wolf Tree Stone’.

“I took shots of my daugher’s hand holding a stone he found while walking on a beach in Cornwall. Having physical objects around you helps, feeling what they feel like, what details you can see in them, these will find their way into your writing.”

Finbar Hawkins

You can find out more about Finbar and his work @finbar_hawkins on Twitter and Instagram.

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

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

You can buy copies of Witch by Finbar Hawkins from your local bookshop, or online at uk.bookshop.org, an organisation with a mission to financially support local, independent bookshops.

An Interview with… Chrissie Sains

I interviewed Chrissie Sains last year for the #236 Sept 2021 issue of Writers’ Forum. She talked about the character, setting and pace of her middle-grade novel, An Alien in the Jam Factory, published by Walker Books.

An Alien in the Jam Factory is the first book in a comedy adventure series starring Scooter the jam inventor and his top-secret alien sidekick for ages 6+. Chrissie told me the seed of the story began with the idea of an alien flying around in a jam tart. Her children suggested it looked like a little flying saucer and together they imagined an alien crash landing on earth and flying around in it.

As the has story developed, Fizzbee (the alien) became particularly important to the central theme of the book. Fizzbee never underestimates Scooter, who has cerebral palsy. She sees him for the incredible boy that he is. She also teaches Scooter not to underestimate her.

An Alien in the Jam Factory by Chrissie Sains
Illustrated by Jenny Taylor

“The idea to write a character with cerebral palsy was inspired by my goddaughter, Abigail. She has an amazing sense of humour. She’s smart, inventive and I’ve never known anyone so determined – she doesn’t let anything stand in her way. I really wanted to include those qualities in the hero of my book, together with her cerebral palsy.”

Chrissie Sains

Chrissie explained it was important to that cerebral palsy wasn’t the central focus of the book, nor did she want it to be tokenism.

“I don’t think there are enough books featuring a character who has a disability and goes on an adventure – I’d really like to see that change.”

Chrissie Sains

A lot of the humour in the book comes from Daffy and Boris, the villains of the story. Chrissie revealed the aim was to create two lovable but highly inept robbers, who come up with an absolutely ridiculous plan to rob the (highly secure) jam factory. They have a great relationship too. Daffy absolutely adores her bad-tempered pet guinea pig Boris, even though he’s not so fond of her.

Chrissie divulged that she finds with humour your characters need to be completely unaware they’re funny. They’re simply using any means necessary to achieve what appears to be an impossible goal. Be it breaking into the world’s most secure factory by trying to post your cantankerous pet guinea pig through the letterbox, to persuading that same pet guinea pig to wear a pink sparkly friendship pendant.

She told me when she started planning An Alien in the Jam Factory – there was no jam factory. She had the characters and an idea for a plot but no setting. After a little brainstorming with her children, the answer came to us: The most inventive jam factory in the world.

She spent weeks chatting to her children about jam inventions. Throwing random ideas out and jotting them down in a notepad. They started by thinking about exciting flavours of jam, before moving onto what else jam could be used to make. She drew a map of the jam factory which was recreated by Jenny Taylor the illustrator for the inside cover.

Chrissie’s sketch of the jam factory and Jenny’s final version for the inside cover

Chrissie explained that one of the most important elements of writing children’s books for her is the pacing. She likes to ensure every chapter has a real purpose in driving the story forwards. To achieve this she includes an element of action and humour within each chapter and end them all on a cliff hanger. Her tip is to give yourself time to plan and ‘percolate‘.

“I find a story can start off full of promise, only to meander aimlessly and lose its way if I haven’t planned it properly. I start with the idea, then let things percolate a little. I draw, brainstorm, free write & walk until the plot evolves and I have a clear understanding of the character motivations. The thinking time is just as important as the writing time. Plus, it makes the writing process a LOT quicker and easier.”

Chrissie Sains

She revealed once she starts writing the first draft, she just keeps writing without reading back at all. If there’s a particular part of the story that’s proving tricky to write, she adds a holding title in capitals, (e.g. FALLS IN A VAT OF JAM) then moves on to the next part. She elaborated writing is all about editing and it’s totally ok for the first draft to be a bit rubbish. Once you’ve got the first draft, you’ve got something to work on. Whatever stage you’re at, don’t give up.

The second book in the series was launched this month on the 7th April 2022.  A treasure map is discovered , revealing there’s a hoard of treasure buried under the jam factory, but Scooter and Fizzbee are not the only ones after the treasure.

The Treasure Under the Jam Factory by Chrissie Sains
Illustrated by Jenny Taylor

You can find out more about Chrissie Sains and her Jam Factory series on her website: www.chrissiesains.com, Twitter: @crsains, Instagram: @Chrissie_sains and Facebook: @chrissiesainsauthor.

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #236 Sept 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.

You can buy copies of An Alien in the Jam Factory and The Treasure Under the Jam Factory by Chrissie Sains from your local bookshop, or online at uk.bookshop.org, an organisation with a mission to financially support local, independent bookshops.

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… 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.