Elen Caldecott graduated with an MA in Writing for Young People from Bath Spa University and was highly commended in the PFD Prize for Most Promising Writer for Young People. Before becoming a writer, she was an archaeologist, a nurse, a theatre usher and a museum security guard. It was while working at the museum that Elen realised there is a way to steal anything if you think about it hard enough. Elen either had to become a master thief, or create some characters to do it for her – and so her début novel, How Kirsty Jenkins Stole the Elephant, was born. Kirsty Jenkins was short-listed for the Waterstone’s Children’s Prize and long-listed for the 2010 Carnegie Award. Kirsty Jenkins was followed by How Ali Ferguson Saved Houdini.
In this interview Elen talks to Nikki Gamble about her series, The Marsh Road Mysteries.
You have written a number of standalone novels and now you have turned your hand to writing a mystery series. How did that come about?
The change came about following a change in editor at Bloomsbury. Ellen Holgate invited me in to explore possibilities for new books. I had a few suggestions but it was Ellen’s idea to find a way of linking the stories. At that point they didn’t have a series of contemporary mysteries on the list, so in that respect it was a joint project. One of the advantages for me was that it freed up some writing time because standalones require a lot of work that has to go into imagining and creating the characters every time.
The Marsh Road books are 100% a series. It’s an ensemble piece and there isn’t a lead character. There are five books and five stories, so each of the characters will have their turn to take centre stage.
What are the main differences in the processes involved between writing a standalone and writing a series? You have already indicated that you don’t have the same amount of work to do with the set up, but are there other things that need to be taken into consideration?
It’s actually quite technical. For instance, you have to think carefully about how the narrator works. If you met Minnie or Silvie in the street, they would sound completely different. Their frames of reference are different, they would use different words to describe the same thing. They have their own voices but in telling their stories, I couldn’t let their individual voices come through completely because then it would lack consistency and wouldn’t feel like a series. So the technical difficulty of making them sound like themselves, but also fit smoothly into the series was the most tricky thing to handle.
As you move through the series you must become increasingly familiar with your characters. Was there any point at which you felt constrained by the earlier books in the series?
One constraint is the geography. Once it has been established, you can’t change it. In one book I put a hotel where something else appeared on the map. The copy editor told me that I couldn’t have a hotel at that location.
I knew roughly when I started what the big plots were going to be, even though I hadn’t worked out the details. So I knew that Andrew’s story (book 4) would make use of the junk shop and that Flora’s story (Spooks and Scooters) was going to make use of the industrial estate. However, the stories have evolved as I have been writing, so I have managed to sneak in a bench where there wasn’t one in a previous story.
Do you use the visual stimulus of the map when you are writing?
I know the locations quite well now and I know the distances between things, so I don’t refer to the map as I’m writing.
Maps are inspirational and can be a great as a writing starter or a support for writing, as can photographs of settings and landscapes. In real life that’s what happened. One of the things that I talked to Ellen about at that initial meeting was Google Maps and a place in South London that I really wanted to write about. It’s close to The Cut by the Old Vic and Waterloo.
The characters in the Marsh Road Mysteries are a group of culturally and ethnically diverse children. Was it a deliberate decision to have them from a wide range of backgrounds?
It wasn’t a plan. I didn’t have a tick list in mind. The children were inspired by photographs. I keep a collection of photographs of people from magazines. So when I was thinking of ideas, I looked through my collection and there were a number of photographs of children that struck me. Each had something. The photograph of the twins was from a National Geographic magazine. They were staring out of the page with icy blue eyes. Minnie was a photograph of a girl leaning against a wall and she looked full of charm. when I started asking myself questions about who these people could be it started to build them as characters. Piotr had a slightly rural look, so I imagined him moved to a new urban environment where he was a bit of a fish out of water.
What sorts of questions do you ask yourself when you look at the pictures? Do you try and create a back story?
It’s much more intuitive these days, though I have done those sorts of exercises in the past, and they work well. When I visit schools that’s exactly the way that I will approach it with the children. I ask questions like, ‘What’s their name? Who do they live with? What’s their favourite object? What are their fears?” Asking questions definitely helps to generate story ideas. But I don’t do it quite like that myself any more. I am thinking those questions when I look at the photo, but it’s more instantaneous and informal.
I gave the photographs to Nathan Reed who illustrated the books so the pictures of the children are based on the photographs.
How is writing a mystery different from writing a straight adventure, or any other genre?
There are different reader expectations. Mystery is genre fiction in a more concrete way than other types of story. People do want to know who did it at the end. They want to look back at the whole story and think, “I should have seen it”. It’s hard to do that without making it obvious. After I had finished the first book, I gave it to my husband and eight chapters in he said, “He did it didn’t he?” And he was right. So I had to rewrite it, going back and disguising what happened but at the same time keeping the review plausible.
Do you put red herrings in?
Do you have to go back after the story is finished and place them strategically, or do they emerge on the first draft?
The way that I do it wouldn’t be the way that I would advise others to write. Having a plan and a plot is a really good idea but I’m a very organic writer. When I am writing the first draft I might think, “It could be great if there’s a black dog there or there’s some broken glass”. So I tend to put those things in as they occur to me. Then there’s a process of ‘slashing and burning’. My first drafts are a mess. There’s no strong thread. I have to make difficult decisions at that point about what’s going to stay and what’s going to go. I end up discarding at least half the book. As a process, it’s really wasteful. But it’s MY process.
The children in your story have a lot of freedom. In that sense the story has the feeling of a classic adventure story.
Yes, in that sense it’s a little bit of a fantasy. It doesn’t read like fantasy it feels like gritty urban realism, but it is escapist fantasy for child readers. I embrace that.
Having said that, it’s not entirely free-rein. We took the story out of London, so even though it was inspired by a real place, the setting is a small town and consequently it feels safer because people know each other and they look out for each other. Even when the children are out in the market, it’s within view of Minnie’s Mum who works in the salon. The children meet in the cafe next door to Mum’s salon, so there’s only a wall separating them. There are differences between the children. Andrew has the most freedom and he also has a lot of responsibility at home. He gets treated like an adult by his family. Flora and Silvie’s lives are more timetabled with tutors and dance classes. The differences are pretty much as they are in real life.
The children do feel responsible for their parents in some ways.
Yes the range of jeopardy makes that inevitable. When Ellen and I sat down to discuss the stories we drew up a list of what the threats could be. Because it’s the real world that limits what I can write about. I can’t write about murder for instance, as Robin Stevens can, because her stories are set in the past in a boarding school and that gives it distance. We decided that the safe stuff was writing about crimes against property.
It has to be fun too.
Yes, the tone really matters.
The industrial espionage is fascinating. Is the technology that is employed to deter spies in the book real?
Yes, it’s based on real things that happen in industry. Inventions and patents are hot stuff and the lengths that companies go to protect them are very serious. Companies are scared of drones and other spying techniques.
Children have a natural curiosity, which makes them perfect for solving mystery. Can you relate to that from your own childhood?
Well I lived on a street that had a very busy road in front, so we all had to play at the back of the houses. And there were more than five of us but we were definitely a pack. I suppose that relates to the question about safety because we were always in a crowd and the big ones looked out for the little ones.
The town that I have re-imagined, Lower Marsh, has more of that flavour about it than the inner city that was the original inspiration. There’s a chance that even if you didn’t know everyone in the town you would only have to talk to them for five minutes and you would find that you shared the same doctor and they would have been to school with your mum, or something like that.
So far in the Marsh Road mysteries, we’ve had stolen jewels, smuggled objects and stolen blueprints. Are you able to tell us something about the mystery that the children will encounter in the next story?
The next story is set in the junk shop and features a possible ancient curse. The last story will be set in the hospital and is another art related mystery.
This series has a set of very catchy alliterative titles. What makes a good title?
The alliterative pattern came from the first book. I had come up with a title, but it was quite flat and nobody was very happy with it. Then Ellen and I started talking and I mentioned that it would be good to do something with diamonds and dogs…. diamonds and ditches…. diamonds and daggers. Ellen leapt on the diamonds and daggers idea. There was just one problem… there weren’t any daggers in the story. So once we had decided on the title, I had to go back and tweak the content. The other titles have come midway through the writing.
Titles are really important. The title is a way of making a promise to a reader about what you are going to deliver. They are one of the tools that you use to make sure your book gets into the hands of a reader. But I think my responsibility is the words in between the covers, title writing isn’t my strength, so it’s good to have a team at Bloomsbury who really understand what will work well in the bookshops.
The same can be applied to covers. I can be too literal and want the cover to look like a scene from the book but that’s not right because you want to promise a whole experience. That’s what a good cover does.
Did the MA in Writing for Children help you to find a process that works for you?
What’s really great about doing a course like that is that you discover how diverse process is and that your way of doing things isn’t the right way for everyone. You are privileged to observe other people’s tactics and give it a try. So it helps to evolve your process. It also makes you pay attention to your process because you have to keep a journal and write reflective pieces which makes you pay attention to how you feel at each stage and where the moments of joy are and where the moments of despair are.
I was recently talking to some year 3 undergraduates who asked if there was any advice that I could pass on to them. Well, that’s a huge question to answer. However, I think I have come to realise from my own work that there are two key emotions, curiosity and fear. If fear is stronger than curiosity then you may need to accept that is the way it is for the time being but also ask yourself, how can you make yourself feel safe. It might be that you take a job with regular hours and predictable income. Curiosity will overtake fear eventually and that’s when you start taking risks.
Is writing an art or a profession?
It’s both. You do have to take a professional approach. As I mentioned, I am a very messy writer, which means I need to give myself deadlines three months before my publisher’s deadline to make sure I have sufficient time to get the draft into shape so that I am presenting my editor with my best work. I’m of the opinion that you have to turn up for work and you have to do the work exactly the same as if you were in any other job. Just because you are the only person in the room except the dog doesn’t mean that you are not at work.
What advice would you give young writers aged 9+ who want to develop their writing?
Words are toys. They are for playing with in the same way that Lego and paint are for playing with. No one would expect you to take a box of Lego and be an instant architect. You don’t have to get it right first time. You don’t need to know exactly what you are doing before you set out. It should be about playing and having fun. So I would say, don’t take it too seriously. If you want to write poems about your dog, write poems about your dog!
You don’t have to share what you write with anybody. You are the only person that you have to please. If you want to share it, that’s lovely, but you can keep writing private. You can write just to make yourself happy.
The other thing leading on from that is that you should think about what makes you happy as a reader. If you read and enjoy Harry Potter, then write that sort of story.
And it doesn’t matter that it’s imitation…
No, in fact it’s good. If you went to art school you would spend time looking at the work of other artists. If you train to be an architect, you will look at building plans that other architects have designed. You are not expected to invent the wheel in any of these creative professions, and it’s the same with writing. It’s a good idea to pick your favourite character and to write a new story for them. Take a character and play with them as if they were dolls.
Is that what you did when you were younger?
Yes, I was a great Enid Blyton fan and I loved Mallory Towers. There were six books in the series and I was bereft when I finished reading them. I cried. My mum gave me short shrift. After telling me to pick myself up, she said something that was very useful, “Doesn’t it miss a year? Couldn’t you write the missing bit?”
That was a clever piece of advice…
Yes, so I laid out all the stories, looked at the titles, looked at the terms that were missing and wrote to fill in the gaps. I did exactly the same with Sweet Valley High.
That’s a good note to finish on – have fun and don’t be afraid to copy your favourite writers. I think that’s what would be called fan fiction today.
Thank you Elen for talking to Just Imagine. We look forward to reading the remaining stories in the Marsh Road Mysteries.
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