Guest blog: Being inspired by the past (Susan Brownrigg)

In our latest guest blog post, Undiscovered Voices finalist Susan Brownrigg (UV2016) reveals the joy of using historical settings and research, as well as offering advice on how to use both effectively.

Being inspired by the past

A question I’m frequently asked by schoolchildren is “why do you write books set in the past?“.

There is, of course, the joy of not having the dual plot/drama spoilers of google and mobile phones. However, the main reason is that I enjoy immersing myself in another time and place and sharing my passion for what I’ve learned through story.

Settings that come with questions

I always begin with a real place. With my debut book – Gracie Fairshaw and the Mysterious Guest – I knew I wanted to reflect my working-class northern upbringing by writing about Blackpool.

The spark for the plot came when I discovered that a fifteen-year-old girl switched on the ‘Blackpool Lights’ in 1935.

I knew I wanted it to be an adventure and a mystery and the plot around Ma’s disappearance is made up. As a writer, you have control over what you choose to include and how much you veer from actual events.

In the sequel, Gracie Fairshaw and Trouble at the Tower I wrote a scene set in the Blackpool Tower ballroom. I chose to have the Wurlitzer come up through the floor, although this wouldn’t be possible for another twenty years. It is only a small detail and only cinema organ enthusiasts are likely to notice!

Licence to thrill (and make changes)

It is fine to alter things for the sake of drama. You can always write a historical note if you feel you need to spell out where you have used artistic licence.

I also enjoy writing historical magical fantasy adventures. My UV winning entry, Girl Churns up Trouble, was set in a real time and place, Angkor Thom, Cambodia. It was inspired by reading an account by Zhou Daguan, a Chinese diplomat who travelled to the Khmer Empire in 1296. I wondered what would happen if a child had gone in his place.

My new children’s book Kintana and the Captain’s Curse set in 1733, Madagascar is a treasure hunt with lemurs inspired by the real-life Pirate Island.

How to bring the past to life

Sadly, time machines don’t exist, so we can’t journey back to see what life was like centuries ago. Instead, I have developed different research techniques to help me create verisimilitude.

For Gracie Fairshaw, I was fortunate to be able to visit Blackpool on several occasions. I was able to visit lots of the attractions that were around in 1935 as fortunately Blackpool still has a lot of its seaside heritage.

I went on the same fairground rides, took a trip on the heritage tram, listened to the Wurlitzer in the Tower ballroom and went to the Switch-On.

Think about how you could follow in your character’s footsteps

Look out for heritage open days (September) talks and tours. I’ve been on behind the scenes tours of the heritage tram depot, the Illuminations Lightworks depot and Blackpool Town Hall.

Are there specialist museums or enthusiast groups? I joined the Blackpool Civic Trust and the Winter Gardens Trust.

When you go on research trips, if allowed, take lots of photographs and video for reference. (They are often useful for publicity too).

Use a notebook to quickly capture your emotional and sensory reaction to new locations. I try to capture the tactile experience as well as sights, sounds and smells.

And don’t forget taste…

I like to eat the food I write about. For Gracie, I scoffed fish and chips, munched delicious warm Eccles cakes and nibbled minty sticks of rock.

Food and drink are a great way to give a flavour of the past. The scene in Gracie Fairshaw and the Mysterious Guest where Gracie and her pals eat chips has really resonated with readers, especially those who remember them being wrapped in newspaper!

Going small for your sources

As a historical writer, I rely on a range of sources, both primary and secondary. The most useful research resource for Gracie Fairshaw has been back issues of the Lancashire Gazette kept on microfilm at Blackpool’s local history centre.

The microfilm readers were a little tricky to use at first – but they have been invaluable. I was able to read contemporary accounts of the 1935 Blackpool Illuminations Switch-on. This not only gave me a reliable source for the event but helped me get a feel for the language of the period. I try to avoid obviously incongruous words but prefer a more accessible, modern language style.

Getting the scoop from the local press

Newspapers can provide a lot more than just news. I uncovered detailed information about Blackpool’s weather, tide times and traffic which I used. The advertisements were gold for social history too, including fashion, entertainment, typical household products and attitudes of the time. While the children’s page prompted me to create my own League of the Shining Star club.

If you are a library member it is worth seeing if your membership includes access to online newspaper collections.

On the case with factual books

My shelves are full of factual books about Blackpool, animals, magic, the circus, the seaside, film, journalism, pirates, the Incas, the Amazon, Peru, Cambodia and the Khmer Empire, the Congo and Paris used for researching my books. There are travel guides, atlases, biographies, travelogues/diaries and cookbooks.

Don’t forget you can borrow books (and E-books) from your library too.

Old cookbooks and old magazine recipes can shine a light on what people ate in the past. TV series, such as the excellent ‘Back in Time for Dinner’ and the history segments on Bake Off, are also brilliant for establishing what foods were easily available, affordable as well as changes in fashion.

Mapping out other avenues of research

I also have a collection of maps – modern, old and replica, as they are a great way to describe a place accurately. A Vision of Britain Through Time is great for digitalised old maps. Google Earth is another brilliant resource tool.

As well as books, I have a collection of DVDs including films and documentaries and music (ranging from 78s to CDs) which have enabled me to get a fuller sense of the world I’m writing about. Youtube is fantastic for old documentaries, old home video footage, 1930s films, music and dance clips.

Shopping for inspiration

Ebay, junk shops and charity shops are worth investigating for out-of-print books. I’ve also bought old postcards, photographs, song sheets, newspapers, magazines and other publicity and advertising ephemera.

Beware though, you can lose hours down research rabbit holes! And often a lot of what you learn doesn’t need to be in your story! Always ask yourself if the interesting fact is vital to character, plot or setting.

One final tip…

Lastly, remember you can ask the experts! Look out for public talks, zoom events, ask questions. Be polite and acknowledge if they have been kind enough to assist you with your research or have fed back on your stories.

Good luck to all those entering Undiscovered Voices this year – just remember whether you’re creating a contemporary, historical or purely imaginary setting to make your setting as real as possible for you, your characters and your readers!

Susan Brownrigg is a Lancashire lass. She loves bringing the past to life for children. A former journalist, Susan has worked in heritage education roles at a Tudor hall, a Georgian mansion, a cotton mill apprentice house, a zoo and a museum. Her MG debut is Gracie Fairshaw and the Mysterious Guest. Her second book, Kintana and the Captain’s Curse will be published in June 2021. A sequel to Gracie Fairshaw is scheduled for October 2021. You can find out more at susanbrownrigg.com

Guest blog: The joy of deadlines and other tips for success (Anna Brooke)

Anna Brooke 2020

In our latest guest blog post, a recent Undiscovered Voices finalist, Anna Brooke (UV2020), shares her story of procrastination, pandemics and promising publishing potential. 

The joy of deadlines and other tips for success

I’d been a journalist and travel writer for years, but writing children’s fiction had always been the dream.

The problem? I’d never finished a novel.

Why? No deadline.

Confessions of a serial procrastinator

As a serial procrastinator and a journalist (a profession ironically incompatible with procrastination), I knew the only way to kick the P-word was with a deadline — one set by someone who’s not me. But while newspaper and travel guide editors dole them out in scores, I’d never found a way to get one for my fiction.

Then along came SCBWI and Undiscovered Voices, and suddenly, the skies filled with trumpets as the two-syllable word I’d been longing to read leapt off the competition rules page: DEADLINE. I was sorted.

Erm, no.

Starting with a monster of an idea

As a procrastinator, I didn’t have anything ready to enter! But I did have this silly image trotting around my head: a tower made of bogeys that gets struck by lightning and turns into monster.

Don’t judge me, I know! My approach to the whole novel was very pantsy – but over the next few weeks, as long as it made me laugh, I rode with it. And finally, with a deadline to work towards, I could structure my time.

And guess what? It worked. I had completed my novel in time to enter the competition.

Navigating the brain-fog of lockdown

In November 2019, Sara Grant called me to say that Sean & The Franken-Bogey had made it into the anthology! Not only that. In early February, agents contacted me to say they’d be interested in reading the full MS after the party.

I was ecstatic. But now there was another hurdle: getting it ready for those agents. The week after the party became my next deadline. But here’s where it went pear-shaped: the pandemic.

Photo by Kevin Ku on Unsplash

Like many people, Lockdown fogged my entire brain and morphed all creativity into an OCD-esque obsession with catching the deadly pathogen. Over-night all my travel writing disappeared, leaving nothing but worry in its place. That, plus 24/7 childcare, stinted all progress for six whole months.

I wrote to the agents to explain, and was overwhelmed by how understanding they were. Then from September onwards, once the schools had re-opened (I live in France), I flung myself back into the story. And here’s the great thing: it turns out that the initial deadline had carried me so far, that I didn’t need anyone to set another one. It was finally my own drive to get the book finished that thwarted any procrastination.

A hard, stressful but ultimately wonderful decision to make

Finally, in February, one entire year after the UV party, I was ready to send.

Then imagine my shock when six agents offered me representation! Choosing between six top-notch agents was a dream come true. But it was also stressful – in fact, it was the hardest, most stressful professional decision I’ve ever had to make.

Today, decision made, I couldn’t be happier. I’m agented by the wonderful Sam Copeland at RCW, and I hope to have official news to share about a deal with a fabulous publisher very soon.

Thank you SCBWI and UV and your deadlines. You literally changed my life.

They may well, fellow writers, change your life.

Here’s my three top tips for getting your UV entry ready
  1. Start bold. In the first 4,000 words, give the judges a real taste of what to expect in the rest of your book. Hook ‘em with your tone and the action.
  2. Don’t censor yourself. Allow yourself to write whatever you want, no matter how gross or weird. Write it down. Judge/tweak it later.
  3. Read it out loud. Listen to your story as it’s spoken to check the rhythm and your choice of words.
Anna Brooke 2020

Anna Brooke was a finalist in Undiscovered Voices 2020, you can download the anthology and read her extract here.

She lives in Paris where she’s simultaneously a freelance travel writer for The Times, a voice actor, a scriptwriter and a mum. She is represented by Sam Copeland at Rogers Coleridge and White.

When she’s not reading or writing, she’s composing songs. Anna never picks her nose.

You can find her on twitter at @AE_Brooke.

UV Finalists Coming to the Big Screen

The Extincts by Veronica Cossanteli

We’re delighted to hear that UV2012 finalist Veronica Cossanteli is having her book The Extincts adapted into an animated film to be directed by William Joyce. David Lipman (producer of Shrek 2) will adapt the project for the big screen, with Oscar-winning filmmaker and author/illustrator William “Bill” Joyce helming.

You can find out more in this article from the Hollywood Reporter.

Getting Ready for UV2018 – Guest Blog with Imogen White

In the first of a series of guest blog by past finalists, Imogen White, whose debut book The Amber Pendant launches in June, talks of her emotional Undiscovered Voices journey and her tips for writers preparing to enter UV2018.

 

When I entered the first 4,000 words of my book (then called Shadow Inclusions) to the Undiscovered Voices 2014 competition it was a big moment for me. It was the first thing I had EVER put out there publicly.

I wasn’t expecting anything to come of it. For me it was more about getting over my jitters and taking that first bold step of pressing the ‘SUBMIT’ button. After all, what did I have to lose?

The moment I learnt I had been selected for the longlist remains my most thrilling memory. Thoughts like there must have been some terrible administrative error were eventually replaced with sheer joy, and tears too, if I’m honest. It was the first time that I felt like an authentic writer. All those embarrassed conversations over many years with family and friends playing down why I dedicated so much time to writing when I had nothing tangible to show for it, were finally laid to rest. The more I thought about it the more my head spun. Would I now be put to the top of the slush pile when I eventually put my work forward to agents and publishers? That was the pinnacle of my aspirations.

Then, quite unexpectedly I got “THE CALL!” from the lovely Sara Grant letting me know that I had been chosen to appear in the Anthology. WOW! What a total privilege. Now the beast of my writing ambitions had become something else; it had grown arms and legs and had a momentum all of its own. Actually, I was also pretty terrified! I felt like a total fraud compared to the other worthy winners, especially as I am mildly dyslexic and had no previous writing experience. But as soon as I met the wonderful Sara Grant and team, I was put at ease. They led us all through the whole process – and best of all my work was printed in the Anthology.

It really is the most brilliant competition. I met so many industry people at the launch party, including the amazing Anna Power from Johnson & Alcock, who became my agent. I feel so fortunate to have met Anna, she believed in my work from the very beginning and her expert editorial advice helped me tidy and develop my story.

So, I am absolutely delighted to announce that the first book in my series of historical mysteries, is to be published by the fantastic team at Usborne in June 2017.

None of this would have been possible if I hadn’t entered Undiscovered Voices. And if it happened to me, it could happen to you too. Go for it!

Imogen White’s Undiscovered Voices Tips:

  • Start with a bang! – Open your submission with a moment of great mystery or high drama, and don’t get bogged down in boring details. Grab the judges’ attention from the off.
  • Get other writers to critique your entry before you send it. These 4,000 words must be the very best you can present. You want honest and considered feedback (not undiluted sunshine!) from people who write themselves and whose opinion you trust. I need help with my punctuation and spelling – so this was a must for me! Thankfully I had a fabulous writing group to share work with.
  • Do a final line edit to make sure every word has earnt its place.
  • Take a deep breath. Press “SUBMIT.”

GOOD LUCK!


Imogen’s debut The Amber Pendant will be published by Usborne, June 2017. the first of the The Rose Muddle Mysteries. It features the plucky workhouse girl, Rose Muddle, whose world is turned upside down when she is given a magic pendant. It is a tale full of necromancy, shadows and adventure. As Rose bravely tries to unpick the clues set in and around Edwardian Hove, she must find out who the baddies are and stop them before an unimaginable evil is let loose… Becky Walker, Usborne Fiction Editor, writes, “The Rose Muddle Mysteries have everything I look for in a series – full to the brim with magic, mystery, myth and history, and pacy stories that are impossible to put down.” You can follow Imogen on Twitter at @imo0030, or visit her website: https://mysteryverse.wordpress.com/author/mysteryverse/