Tag Archives: Writers Forum

An interview with… Alyssa Sheinmel

When I heard about Alyssa Sheinmel’s extraordinary research into face transplants for her novel Faceless, published by Chicken House, I was stunned the movie Face Off could have been based on reality. Face transplants are a real thing. Maybe not in the same way as in Face Off but still a possibility.

I was so intrigued to discover more I decided to interview best-selling YA author, Alyssa Sheinmel, for my regular Research Secrets section of Writers’ Forum, issue Aug 2016 #178.

Alyssa told me she knew she wanted to write a book about a girl who was in a horrific accident, a girl who struggled to understand how much of who she was is tied to what she looked like and it was her American editor who suggested a girl for whom a face transplant was her best hope at having a normal life after reading an article in The New Yorker about a full face transplant.

“I’m pretty sure I underlined more of the article than I left blank! My favourite line came from a plastic surgeon, who explained that while other surgeons made you well by taking you apart – by cutting out the parts of you that are no longer functional, that are diseased, that have turned toxic – plastic surgeons make you well by putting you back together. (A version of that explanation made its way into Faceless.)”

Alyssa Sheinmel

She explained she began her research by reaching out to doctors she already knew – her general practitioner, a friend who’d gone to medical school and a friend of her sister who was a plastic surgeon that specialized in reconstruction who answered her myriad of questions.

In particular, she wanted to ensure Maisie’s injuries were realistic. For example, could she have been burned in such a way that she’d need to replace her cheeks, nose, and chin, but retain her jaw? This doctor explained that pretty much everything about these surgeries is unusual, so there were no hard and fast rules. He also provided Alyssa with a detail that really stayed with her: it takes a while for the nerves to grow into transplanted skin, so for a period after her surgery, Maisie’s face would feel like sort of a mask hanging off of her – it might actually feel heavy. This detail made its way into Faceless.

Even so, Alyssa revealed she was worried about taking up these doctors’ time with her incessant questions but found these experts often wanted to talk about their respective fields

“It’s challenging when you’re talking to such ‘important’ people – when I was interviewing a plastic surgeon, for example, I kept apologizing for taking up time that he could be spending with his patients. But he insisted that he was happy to give me his time and answer his questions.”

Alyssa Sheinmel

Like all transplant patients, face transplant recipients are put on immunosuppressive drug regimens. Alyssa revealed her editor had a few doctor and medical student friends who were incredibly helpful with these questions in particular. What were the side effects like? How many pills would she have to take? At sixteen, Maisie has already been told that she can’t carry a child because her medication could cause birth defects. She found what the pills looked like by searching on Google.

Alyssa explained the immunosuppressive regimen became a big part of Maisie’s journey. It’s difficult enough for Maisie that she doesn’t look like her old self, but being on these drugs keeps her from feeling like herself too. She’s tired, nauseated, achy. She’s a former straight-A student who can barely stay awake in class anymore.

For Alyssa there isn’t always a straight a line between my research and the story as everything she reads and watches teaches her something about how to tell a story. She told me as she was writing Faceless, she found herself thinking about stories she’d read and movies she’d seen that – on the surface, at least – didn’t really have much in common with her book. But they still were every bit as helpful as all the articles she read and doctors she spoke to about face transplants. There were also things going on in her life that influenced the story such as, a family member underwent surgery and her stay in the hospital and subsequent recovery impacted on Maisie’s experience, too.

The emotional aftermath of surgery was another one of those times when her unintentional research came in to play. Years ago – well before she started working on Faceless – she watched a documentary called The Crash Reel about American snowboarder Kevin Pearce. Heading into the Vancouver Winter Olympics, it looked like nothing would stop Kevin from bringing home a medal (except possibly, his long-time rivalry with fellow-snowboarder Shaun White). But during practice one day, a horrific crash sends Kevin to the hospital, where he’s treated for a traumatic brain injury. All Kevin wants to do is get back on his board, back to the life he knew before – but his friends and family are worried that snowboarding again could kill him.

In Faceless, Maisie was a runner before her accident – she ran track on her school’s team, she ran alongside her boyfriend, she ran for fun. Running was a huge part of who she was, part of how she defined herself – and after her procedure, she can’t run the way she used to. In fact, she might never be able to run again. Just as Maisie has to give up running, in The Crash Reel, Kevin Pearce has to come to terms with his new reality – a reality that might not include snowboarding.

Another piece of unintentional research helped her with the aftermath of Maisie’s accident – a novel called The Ice Queen by Alice Hoffman, which I read years ago as well. It’s the story of an ordinary New Jersey librarian to whom the extraordinary happens: one day, she’s struck by lightning. Afterwards, the world looks different – literally: she can no longer see the colour red. Though Hoffman’s protagonist doesn’t have much in common with Faceless’s main character, Maisie (other than the fact that each have a run-in with lightning), they’re both characters whose lives are changed by somewhat random events, and they have to come to terms with a new normal.

“When I was a freshman in college, my psychology textbook taught me how to insert humour into a dry topic. Magazine articles have prompted (sometimes completely unrelated) story ideas. And certainly, when I watched a documentary about snow-boarding a few years ago, I had no idea it would someday influence a novel I wrote about face transplants.”

Alyssa Sheinmel

Alyssa’s tip to other writers when researching is to keep an open mind. She explains you never know where your next idea will come from, which book or article or essay will help you learn how to tell your story. Just keep your eyes and ears open, and learn as much as you can.

You can find out more about Alyssa Sheinmel on her website: www.alysasheinmel.com and follow her on Twitter: @alyssasheinmel.

To read the complete unabridged feature you can purchase a copy of the Aug 2016 #178 issue of 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… Naomi Gibson

Every Line of You by Naomi Gibson and published by Chicken House, is about a lonely girl who creates her own artificial intelligence (AI) to love her. In the 24 Mar 2022 #242 issue of the national writing magazine Writers’ Forum, I interviewed Naomi about her inspiration and writing process for this YA psychological thriller.

The inspiration for Every Line of You struck in a writing class at a local college. One evening we were given lucky dip bags with items in and asked to create a character based on those items. Naomi’s had a mini screw driver, an adaptor – things like that which she decided belonged to a teenage hacker, and that’s how Lydia was born.

All the drafts

“The class left me so inspired I went home and I did a lot of character prep. I knew Lydia inside out so when I sat down to write, the plot came naturally to me because I knew what she wanted and what she feared. Then I wrote and wrote, sometimes until three in the morning, and didn’t stop until two weeks later when I had a first draft of around 60,000 words. I completed this first draft in a hot and messy two weeks back in 2017. I ended up re-drafting about seven times.”

Naomi Gibson

Naomi uses this method for all her books she told me as I long as she knows the character backwards, the plot drives itself. She prefer to write first thing in the morning rather than pulling an ‘all-nighter’ as ideas percolate whilst she sleeps and when she wakes up it feels like her brain has sorted through it all, making for an easier writing session.

She told me she didn’t set out to write a book about artificial intelligence – the book was driven by her main character. Lydia is bullied at school and overlooked at home, and she pours all of herself into creating an AI named Henry after her dead brother. As Henry grows in sentience, he sees how Lydia is treated and helps her exact revenge on the people who’ve been mean to her. Soon his own desires grow to the point where Lydia must decide how far she’ll go to help him. It made sense to me that a lonely but intelligent girl would create her own AI. Her loneliness and desire to be loved drives the plot.

First and foremost it deals with grief and the relationship between grief and technology On another level it addresses morality and humanity, and what leads us to make decisions that might be ‘bad’ but understandable, and how certain choices are defined by our humanity – or lack of.

It was important to Naomi her characters were authentic, and to do this she leaned heavily on her own experiences and memories of being a teenager. Naomi explained it was through the use of a character questionnaire, she discovered Lydia had a very sad home life. Then she piled the stress on her: her younger brother had died – an event that tore her parents’ marriage apart and forced her dad to leave the family home, resulting in Lydia being left with her mum who was barely coping herself. She was bullied at school and there was nowhere she got any respite.

Naomi revealed she found her agent, Joanna Moult at Skylark Literary, through cold querying. She said, Jo was the only agent who ever gave her proper feedback on her manuscript and offered her a revise and resubmit. It took her a while to make the changes she suggested because she was so emotionally invested in the manuscript, but eventually she did and she is so glad.

In terms of advice, Naomi suggests approach at least 100 agents before you shelve a book. She revealed she was up to 50 rejections before she signed with Jo, and would have taken it to 100 if she had to.

“Getting those rejections is painful but the industry is so subjective. You need to approach a wider pool to give your book its best shot. I’m so very lucky that my book has sold to nine territories and been optioned for TV by Heyday Productions. None of that would have been possible without my wonderful publisher, Chicken House. They run a competition every year for young adult and middle grade writers. My writing tip to all aspiring children’s book writers is you should look into the next Chicken House competition as an alternative route to publication.”

Naomi Gibson

You can find out more about Naomi Gibson on her website is www.naomigibsonwrites.com and on Twitter, Instagram and TikTok find her @naomigwrites on all three platforms.

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of 24 Feb 2022 #242 issue of 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… Colm Feld

For the Writing for Children section of the #252 15 Mar 2023 issue of Writers’ Forum, I interviewed Colm Feld about his research into the science behind his debut children’s book series, Kyan Green and the Infinity Racers.

He told me the idea of a toy racetrack that rockets you to other worlds, came about when he was playing race cars with his own children. He had two thoughts: how soon could he get out of playing the game without feeling guilty and how mega would it be if…

In the book, the toy racetrack that Kyan discovers is a String Theory Based Multiverse Hopper. Colm revealed, the multiverse aspect came about later on, when Kyan Green was clearly more sci-fi than fantasy because the idea a racetrack would just take you to other worlds because Magic kept bothering him. He explained it took a while to be happy with the multiverse as a cause – it wasn’t everywhere everywhere like now, but it was common enough that he worried the concept was stale.

When he spotted an article about string theory on his news feed, he told me he fell down a rabbit hole in a good way. The multiverses he’d seen in comic book movies etc had always been a plot device, rather than an opportunity to look at the science behind them. Even better, that science is mysterious enough to be magical, but grounded enough to offer some rules, so this meant he couldn’t go off the deep end and come up with lame excuses to get out of difficult plot points. Once he’d gone into the science, it wasn’t too difficult to explain it to children.

“I genuinely think that they’re more well-equipped to handle these kind of abstract concepts than adults. Also, I had an advantage in that my wonder at science is boundless, but my actual understanding is very slow. I get these articles about quantum physics and space (I flipping LOVE space). I read them with a face like George W. Bush. Then I check Bitesize for a explanation that makes sense to me, and after just five or six hours I’ve worked out what it’s all about to a Key Stage Two level.”

Colm Feld

With the basic idea in his head, this toy racetrack takes you places, he put the idea away until he’d come up with another story, something more personal, that would be the heart of Kyan Green. Once that core was there, he took the Infinite Race for a spin to other dimensions. He elaborated how there would be a random idea that would pop into his head, and then, while he was writing it up, the world would present its own rules.

For example, the Europa moon the Racers visit has a gigantic underwater ocean. What would the creatures be like that lived there? Would they see, given that they reside in a place with no light? How would they travel then? Why might this dimension’s rapacious Stringer be trying to exploit them? The characters the Infinity Racers encountered were the way they were, because that’s how their world had made them.

“With all these characters I know so well, it is a special privilege to work on Kyan Green as a series, a knockout opportunity to broaden their (and my) horizons. I’ll feel very blessed, right up until I have to remember names and places and… ahhhh, I’m useless at that!”

Colm Feld

Colm explained writing Kyan Green as a series also tossed up other challenges – most importantly the need for an overarching conflict, something that gels the stories together. He told me the story personally affects the characters and the main characters in particular are genuinely altered by the challenges they encounter in their first adventure. Colm revealed this made it difficult to reset the clock for their next adventure. They might not fight the same battles, but surely they’ll have to build on what they’ve learned, which in itself is an overarching (if internal) conflict.

Colm’s advice to other writers is to find that bit every day where you’ve nowt to do but write, whether on the bus or on the bog. Oh, and if you’re writing for younger readers, please please please don’t talk down to them – kids are brilliant, and even in those times they’re not, they’re the kind of plonkers you can say owt to and they’ll still pretend they get it anyway.

You can find Colm on Twitter, @colmthewriter but he said he spends more time on Instagram, also @colmthewriter.

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #252 15 Mar 2023 issue of  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… Ebele Bright

Even picture books need researching. A good writer always checks their facts. For the #252 15 Mar 2023 issue of Writers’ Forum, I interviewed Ebele Bright about the research she did for her picture book about eagles, Fly Chico Fly.

Fly Chico Fly is a story about an eaglet, Chico, who is afraid to do what birds are naturally good at, flying. He feels left out as his brothers have already taken to the skies, but his vivid imagination and caution stop him from taking that important leap. The story follows Chico as he learns to face his fear of flying.

Ebele told me the internet is her first stop during research, as so much information is readily available and easily accessible. She finds it an invaluable resource. There is access to research papers, places to visit, library searches, documentaries, other people’s pictures and videos, movies, images and more. She elaborated:

“I knew I wanted an eagle for this story and immediately looked into the different species of eagles, their appearance, anatomy, natural habitats, flight altitude, what they are synonymous with, their flying and landing positions, their interaction with their young, and how they learn to fly.”

Ebele Bright

She used Google images for pictures of eagles and chose the bald eagle, as she felt it would translate easily to illustrations, and capture the attention of children. As she particularly wanted to understand and express Chico’s concern of the differing weather conditions she searched Google images of eagles in their natural habitat. She explained it was important to her to make her research relevant to young children.

As well as the informative websites, she used video footage from places like Netflix and YouTube to further supplement her research. She told me Our Planet on Netflix was particularly useful for observing different environments and the documentary 72 dangerous animals: Asia on Netflix was also helpful. She watched on YouTube, a particularly beautifully slowed down flight of a bald eagle by the Epic slow Mo channel and discovered an Instagram hashtag search with your word of interest, comes up with useful images and videos.

Ebele also searched the bible app for verses containing eagles and read through them. The bible spoke of the swiftness of eagles, their superb vision, powerful wings, natural habitat of dwelling on the cliffs, rocky crags at night and building their nests on high, and the intentional and caring relationship between parent eagles and their eaglets.

As children learn by play, fun and in the most natural way she followed their lead by weaving certain elements into the story; a few characteristics of eagles, like their ability to fly really high and their perfect vision. She also mentioned specific parts of their anatomy to spark questions, providing some education on eagles in simple format.

The information was dropped in bite size by putting an illustration of a wing and talons on one page to encourage discussion, and allow kids to point to parts of the eagle’s anatomy. Ebele observed her own children particularly love talking about the differences between eagles and humans, and naming parts of the eagle. The emotional development for Chico was important to validate his fears, explore his vulnerability, guide his speech and growth, so that children relate to him.

“I found speaking with counsellors and parents about their knowledge on dealing with fear fascinating. I wanted to know their body language, word usage at the beginning of counselling, techniques for helping children walk through obstacles and the visible signs they are opening up. I spoke with other parents and drew on my parenting style raising fearless children, as well as my childhood.”

Ebele Bright

To ensure she portrayed this accurately she spoke with teachers as they have more access to children from different backgrounds. She wanted to discover how they navigate different emotions in the classroom and help guide children needing more support. Ebele explained observation is our close friend as writers. She constantly observes people, things and  environments, because it’s free. She likes to observe the workers at her daughter’s nursery to see how they interact with the children.

“On one occasion, I recall the tearful screams of a child who clung to his father in hopes of not going into nursery. I observed a staff member calm the child, turning his lunging hands into a warm embrace. The staff member validated the child’s feelings with soft spoken words, an attentive gaze and an open body language.”

Ebele Bright

A combination of these experiences helped her to frame Chico’s dialogue and character development, as both dialogue and character are interwoven.

Ebele’s research tip to other writers writing picture books is to read it aloud to people to gain feedback and watch their reaction. Reading to children in groups is a helpful way to observe which parts of your story stick, and makes them laugh. Did they understand the story? Did they enjoy it? Which parts are they repeating afterwards? Children are beautifully expressive and very honest. She revealed she prefers to do this without the illustrations, as it gives a true picture of the strength of the story.

Ebele said she organises the information she finds by the main character, relationships, environment and any additional details. She knows which details are really important and dispensable. She then makes a collage on google docs using screenshots and images, sketch things on paper, and make notes until her research looks more like a painting, and not just individual splashes of colour.

She emphasised it is important to remind yourself research must come to an end to avoid the research vortex which may ultimately keep your story at bay. Allow your imagination the freedom to thrive and simply write.

You can find out more about Ebele Bright on her websites www.announceworld.com and www.ebeeonline.com and follow her on Instagram @weareannounceworld

To read the complete unabridged feature you can purchase a copy of the #252 15 Mar 2023 issue of 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… Lindsay Galvin

Another blast from the past today. This time for my Writing for children slot in the national writing magazine Writers’ Forum when I interviewed Lindsay Galvin for the July 2021#234 issue about how she approaches writing her historical fiction.

Darwin’s Dragons is Lindsay’s second book, a historical adventure where Charles Darwin’s cabin boy, Syms Covington, is marooned on a Galapagos island and makes a (very) big discovery.

Lindsay told me originally, she wasn’t planning to write a historical story at allshe wanted to write about real, scientifically plausible dragons. She’d never written anything historical; even though she loves to read this genre as she was put off by the research. The book started life as The Fire Inside, a teen book set in the present day about a dragon sanctuary. Lindsay revealed her editor, Rachel, suggested it would be good to include a historical thread showing how dragons had been discovered.

Lindsay explained she started researching explorers and needed a remote place for dragons to have hidden out. Darwin and the Galapagos was perfect. When she discovered the cabin boy and fiddler Syms Covington became Darwin’s servant and was a bit of a mystery she got excited as there were three weeks when The Beagle was in the Galapagos, when there were no entries to his journal. Lindsay decided to fill those in for him with a survival story and his huge dragon discovery.

She said the historical thread flowed much more easily than the modern day story and became about half the book. She got stuck near the end after writing around 60,000 words and sent it all off to Rachel, who called her, along with Barry Cunningham (J K Rowling’s original editor).

“They said they thought I had a great voice for historical middle grade and asked if I’d consider cutting this book in half and making Syms’ story into the book. We agreed on the title Darwin’s Dragons in that same phone call. It was a surprise, but I didn’t hesitate because it felt right. I had a 30,000 word draft and needed to add about 15,000 words. Somehow I’d fallen into historical fiction.”

Lindsay Galvin

Lindsay told me to create fictional characters from real people is a big responsibility especially when they are as famous as Darwin and Queen Victoria. She started by reading Darwin’s and Syms Covington’s journals from The Beagle. As the style of writing is relatively formal so there was a space for her to create a fictional representation of a real man.

Darwin was also only a young man on The Beagle voyage and not particularly studious, so she was able to give him a multi-sided character. She knew a lot less about Syms which gave herfreedom to imagine him, and his voice developed as he told his story and interacted with events.

Lindsay divulged the most difficult thing about writing historical fiction is keeping it authentic, the research can be so time-consuming. She was aware of her responsibilities writing for a young audience and so shy avoided creating too much of an idealised world. Colonialism is ever present, and Lindsay felt it was important to acknowledge the way the world was explored at that time was hugely exploitative.

“For Darwin’s Dragons I made a trip to the Natural History Museum Spirit Collection, which contains some of the original specimens from The Beagle and Downe House where Darwin lived for most of his life. This helped with atmosphere and any location research can throw up little details that later become important to the story, for example I examined Darwin’s real homemade eyeglass and that became an important item in the story.”

Lindsay Galvin

Pace is essential in children’s books. Where an adult will read on if they are bored, most kids will not. I also like to include short chapters with lots of cliff-hangers in my middle grade books.

“There are so many things I love about writing for children. I love the creativity and scope, plus their flexibility as readers, young people have such honesty and imagination. I feel incredibly privileged to play a small part in their reading journey.”

Lindsay Galvin

Her tip on writing for children is to keep coming back to what your story is really about at its core — why it matters that it is told, never stray from that. Read. Read the children’s books that children currently love, study them and learn from them. Lastly, expect it to be a frustrating, long and sometimes painful journey if you are writing for publication. Write something you enjoy so much that the writing is an end in itself. Keep on, love the learning and… be curious.

You can follow Lindsay on Twitter @LindsayGalvin

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of July 2021#234 issue of 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… 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… 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… 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.