Ally Sherrick, award-winning author of middle grade historical novels Black Powder and The Buried Crown gives us an insight into how she goes about writing kids' books.
I suppose it depends what you count as writing. I always loved writing stories at school. I remember one story in particular about a princess which went on and on – and on! I’d got into a competition with one of my classmates to see who could write the longest one. Hers was all about monsters but I felt she cheated really because after a while she ran out things to say and just kept writing the same thing: something like, ‘And then there were more monsters, and more monsters, and even more.’ We were both our own worst enemies though, because our exercise books were the type that were half-ruled, half-blank which meant that every page you completed had to have a picture too, and drawing wasn’t a strong point for either of us!
While still at secondary school, I had a bout of writing sentimental but heart-felt poems which probably had something to do with the adolescent hormones coursing round my body. I even went as far as to self-publish a couple as part of a poetry ‘collective’ I belonged to at university, though sadly – or happily depending on what people made of the quality of our poems – we never got beyond producing more than two slim volumes.
After that, I went out and got a job and did a lot of journalistic and promotional writing over the years for different organisations, telling their stories instead. This proved very useful among other things for honing my editing skills – I’d always been a tad on the verbose side. But what it also meant was that I didn’t much feel like doing my own creative writing because I was too pooped in the evenings to pick up a pen – although if I’m completely honest, I think a bit of laziness was involved too!
In the end though, the urge to start telling my own stories began to leak out of me, and in the early ‘noughties’, after a bout of ill-health kept me off work for a few weeks, I began to write some short stories for adults – though I didn’t consider trying for publication at that stage. Then, in 2009, a redundancy presented me with the opportunity to fund a year studying for a Masters in Writing for Children at the University of Winchester. And it was there that I finally gave myself the permission to take my creative writing seriously and to start really learning my craft.
A day without interruptions where I can pace things out so that I get emails and other admin tasks out of the way in the morning and prime myself for researching, writing or editing in the afternoon and early evening.
I’m not a lark and I’m not really a night-owl either, so I find my most productive period is probably between about 12 noon through to seven or eight pm. But I do try to go for a long walk at some point, at least every other day, to avoid developing ‘writer’s bottom’!
The first spark for the idea was lit by a visit to the site of the famous Anglo-Saxon Sutton Hoo ship burial, near Woodbridge in Suffolk. I had learnt about it when I was studying for my degree in medieval history and English (also medieval!) at university in the mid to late eighties and had always been intrigued by what they billed, at the time of its discovery back in 1939, as the British equivalent of the discovery of tomb of King Tutankhamun.
The idea of a ship which had been dragged hundreds of feet up the side of a ridge, lowered into a giant hole and then filled with the body and most precious possessions of a king – Redwald of East Anglia, believed by some scholars to be ‘high king’ of what was regarded as Britain at that time – completely captivated me.
And when I visited the mound field (now in the care of the National Trust) and learned about the reported sighting by a friend of the former landowner, Mrs Edith Pretty, of a procession of ghostly warriors on horseback, which reputedly prompted Mrs Pretty’s decision to excavate the site, I was even more intrigued.
I remembered reading a spine-tingling tale by the famous Edwardian ghost-story writer, MR James, ‘A Warning to the Curious’, about an ancient Anglo-Saxon crown which, if taken from its resting place, would result in the invasion of the country. I knew that the archaeologists had rushed to lift the treasures at Sutton Hoo from the ground as the storm clouds of war were gathering, and I also knew that Adolf Hitler and his Nazis had a predilection for collecting treasure.
And so, with these enticing ingredients at my disposal, my imagination began whirring into overdrive. What if, in the summer of 1940, during the darkest days of the war, George Penny, a young evacuee boy, comes to live nearby to be close to his adored brother and guardian, trainee Spitfire pilot, Charlie? Then, what if he meets a young German Jewish refugee girl, Kitty Regenbogen, who has fled Germany on one of the kindertransports to live with her archaeologist grandfather and she tells him about an item of treasure that they believe has not yet been unearthed – the priceless dragon-headed crown? What if the crown is inscribed with an ancient runic charm which means that whoever possesses it will possess the kingdom too? And what if Hitler knows about it and wants it for his own?
I love all my characters – what writer doesn’t? But I suppose in The Buried Crown, if you pushed me, I’d have to say that I probably enjoyed writing the character of George’s four-legged friend, mistreated farm dog, Spud, the most.
Like George, Spud has his own character arc, going from being a bullied and beaten shadow of a dog to one who is prepared to risk his life, several times over, for his adopted master and friend. (Spoiler alert: It’s safe to say that without Spud, George and Kitty wouldn’t have been able to accomplish their mission to save the crown and the kingdom too.)
In my first book, Black Powder, which is all about a young Catholic boy, Tom Garnett, who gets caught up in the Gunpowder Plot in a bid to save his father from the hangman’s noose, my favourite character to write was the man who befriends him when his rich relatives have refused him the help he so desperately needs.
Calling himself ‘the Falcon’, he’s a man of mystery and intrigue, and, as I realised after I’d written the book, something of an anti-hero too. I loved drawing a portrait of a person who is a complex mix of both good and bad, and I’ve found on school visits, he’s often the character the children say they like best.
Plenty! Pretty much every historical period is packed full of such great stories. I quite like the idea of setting the dial on my time machine back to the English Middle Ages, perhaps to the twelfth century during the civil war between rivals and cousins, King Stephen and Empress Matilda. Matilda was one of those strong medieval queens – ‘she-wolves’ I think one female historian called them recently – who is ripe for putting centre stage in a story, perhaps as an influential figure in the life of a young girl of those times.
I must confess to loving the whole research aspect of writing historical fiction, which is probably due to the fact that I’ve always loved history – studying it and clambering over the remains of it – literally at times! I glean my knowledge of the life and times of the people I’m writing about by reading a range of non-fiction books and web-based articles.
For example, when I was researching the story that became Black Powder, I used Lady Antonia Fraser’s brilliant non-fiction account of the events leading up to the Gunpowder Plot, The Gunpowder Plot: Terror and Faith in 1605, as my bible. It read like a work of fiction and was a real page-turner to boot.
I’ll also dip into primary sources – for example, in the case of The Buried Crown, I read first-hand accounts taken from oral histories of children caught up in the Second World War, either as evacuees or refugees. And I also spoke to my Dad, himself an evacuee, and the original inspiration for my hero, George, who shares his name. In addition, during edits for the book, I met and spoke with survivors from the kindertransport scheme to sense-check my heroine, Kitty’s story.
Images: 1. Newspaper clipping of a discovery at Sutton Hoo 2. Sutton Hoo Helmet
3. Ally in a Spitfire
Place is very important for me too. Historical sites have been the spark for both my published stories – Sutton Hoo in The Buried Crown and the ruins of Cowdray House in Midhurst, Sussex which is the scene for part of the action in Black Powder. I find visiting the places mentioned in my stories indispensable in getting the lie of the land and really grounding my characters in their worlds.
A walk along the River Deben near Sutton Hoo was invaluable for helping to describe the smell of the mud and the sound of the water sucking up the shoreline as George and Kitty followed the trail to the site of the burial mounds at Sutton Hoo. Meanwhile following the route from Southwark across the bridge into the City of London and along the Strand was crucial to being able to describe Tom’s journey with the Falcon on his way to get what he hoped was going to be the help he needed to save his father.
I guess it can be if you get too caught up with the research part and never get round to actually making a start on the story. Luckily for me, to date I’ve always had a feeling when I’m about ready to start with the creative work.
I liken it to soaking up sufficient information during the research part so that, if I was a sponge and you squeezed me, the story would start leaking out. Of course, you can always go back and do more research on specific items as you go along. In fact, I think you have to really, as inevitably, while you’re writing your story, new elements will emerge. Like the pill box and pair of home guards (or are they??) which I decided I wanted to weave in during edits for The Buried Crown and which I had to go back and research to fix in my mind’s eye to write about convincingly.
And then of course, the other challenge is not to drown out your story with all these wonderful facts you’ve gone and discovered and are itching to share with everyone, but only ever to include them if they move the story along.
The luxury of spending hours at a time exploring the worlds of my own – and others’ – imaginations!
I’m in the early stages of researching a new historical story, this time set at the court of King Henry VIII. But if you don’t mind, I’ll say no more about it now, as it’s still only the fragile seed of an idea at the moment!
I wouldn’t say they make me green with envy - I’m more of the admiring type – but I love the work of David Almond , particularly Skellig and Heaven Eyes.
I also love the late Mal Peet’s stories, especially his Second World War-set Tamar and Siobhan Dowd’s heart-breaking coming-of-age story, A Swift Pure Cry.
And I thought Patrick Ness’s treatment of Dowd’s original idea for A Monster Calls was beautiful. So original and so moving too.
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