Welcome to the Writing Process: An Author/Illustrator Blog Tour

My talented friend and former art school classmate, Maryann Cocca-Leffler, invited me to share a bit about my writing and illustrating process as part of the ‘Welcome to the Writing Process: An Author/Illustrator Blog Tour’ (thanks, Maryann!). We are also part of a vibrant online community of children’s book illustrators and I’ve been in awe of Maryann’s accomplishments over the years. Not only has she written and illustrated many books, but she’s also created a musical play and now has begun a wonderful new site called Janine’s Party.  Check out Maryann’s excellent blog here!

Jet-Black-Heart_Flavin-webWhat am I currently working on? I am writing a new full-length novel for young people but it’s Top Secret for the moment. However, I am talking a lot about Jet Black Heart, my new illustrated teen novel that will be published by Barrington Stoke in the UK on 15 August – and at last I am revealing the creepily excellent book jacket here! Barrington Stoke publish great books for all readers, but they specialise in making their books accessible for dyslexic and reluctant readers, which is one of the reasons I am so pleased to work with them. Jet Black Heart is a supernatural time travel story about Dory, a girl who crosses into Victorian times and meets the gorgeous Eli, a runaway boy who needs her help to rescue his sister from their cruel father. The setting was inspired by a trip to the North Yorkshire Moors and its rugged North Sea coastline. I hunted for fossils and jet below the huge cliffs and explored the caves, coastal woods and fields just as Dory and her sister Gracie do in the book. It’s a wild, atmospheric area – perfect for my story.

How does my work differ from others of its genre? I’m one of that lucky group of authors who also illustrate their books, which sets us apart from other authors. While it’s relatively common to find illustrations in ‘middle grade’ fiction like the Blackhope Enigma trilogy, unfortunately it’s harder to find illustrations inside teen books, so Jet Black Heart is a bit different because it does have pictures. I also write from an artist’s point of view. My books have included Renaissance paintings and techniques, super-realistic eye-fooling murals, hand-painted slides and magical objects. Jet Black Heart is less obviously an art-related story, but I looked at a lot of Victorian paintings and photographs and researched the ways craftsmen created jet objects and jewellery. I think this comes through in the story’s details.

North Landing caves near Flamborough.

North Landing caves near Flamborough.

Why do I write what I write? When I was a teenager I loved mystery stories, especially ones with twists and a bit of history, as well as dark, gothic novels like Wuthering Heights (also set on the Yorkshire moors!) so I set out to write Jet Black Heart for all kids who like to read those kinds of stories too. I also love the idea of worlds colliding, of characters meeting by chance and having their lives turned upside-down before they figure out how to sort everything back to the way it should be – if they can! The Blackhope Enigma books were all about Sunni and Blaise being thrown into unknown places that were as beautiful as they were dangerous, layered with strange fragments of the past. In Jet Black Heart,  the Victorian past is an off-kilter but alluring place to Dory because Eli is there. She knows she is courting danger but she cannot resist.

How does my writing and illustrating process work? I get obsessed with the germ of an idea, poke it around and look at it under the microscope. I chart it, research it, brainstorm with it and start building a plan. I usually know how the story will end and all the high points throughout, but the magic happens as I’m writing. New characters turn up unexpectedly and muscle their way in – or a new plot direction pops up and it’s so cool I must follow it. Jet Black Heart was a challenge because it had to be shorter than my other books. I learned a lot about writing more clearly and cutting out filler.

My drawing table with sketches

My drawing table with sketches

I loved writing this story and I had a great time making the spot illustrations for each of the chapters. For the Blackhope Enigma trilogy I worked the illustrations in pen and ink. With Jet Black Heart I fancied a bit of a change and decided to work with silhouettes of the characters Dory, Eli and Gracie as well as places and objects in the story. I did the sketches in pencil and once those were approved by the publisher I rendered them with a special ‘jet black’ pencil called Ebony. Then I scanned them and sent them to the production department to fit into the book’s layout. I’m really happy with the way they turned out!

And now, on with the Author Blog Tour!

Alex English

Alex English

I’m very pleased to introduce debut author, Alex English, whose picture book, Yuck! said the Yak will be published in September (a round of virtual applause please!). You can check out Alex’s Welcome to the Writing Process post on her blog next Monday, 7 July.

Maze and labyrinth hunting!

saffron_walden_labyrinthIf you know my stories in the Blackhope Enigma trilogy, you know that I have a thing about mazes and labyrinths. Because I live in England, there are plenty of ancient and new ones to visit. I like to hunt them down, walk them, figure them out and point people towards them. There’s one particular location that I’ve been salivating over for quite  some time and this past weekend I finally got there. The beautiful Essex market town of Saffron Walden boasts both an ancient turf maze on its Common and a Victorian hedge maze at Bridge End Gardens. There is even a Saffron Walden Maze Festival in August.

For me, the turf maze should really be called a labyrinth because it has only one path that winds around and around to the centre. But since it’s been called a maze since at least 1699, if not earlier, I’ll bow to tradition. It’s a huge maze and took me at least twenty minutes to walk around it. When I got to the centre I came across some lovely ladies circle dancing around May flowers (which reminded me ever so slightly of something from the film The Wicker Man, but in a good way).

bridgend_gardens_entranceTo get to Bridge End Gardens’ hedge maze, you can walk through a tunnel under this pretty house. There’s definitely something otherworldly about the place, as if fairies might live in the gardens beyond.

 

 

 

 

 

bridgend_maze2We wondered what it was like at night, especially in the hedge maze. Pretty spooky, I’ll wager.

 

 

 

 

 

 

bridgend_mazeThe hedge maze was nicely tricky to figure out and has a good viewpoint as your reward for finding the centre. if you’ve got a good memory, you’ll get back out in flash. If not, you’ll stumble upon the strange stone wolves, urns and towers in its dead ends all over again!

 

 

 

 

 

Inspiration and Aspiration 2014

Yellow Rabbit ACORN webHappy Second Half of January! By now we’ve all had plenty of time to assess 2013 and make wishes for 2014. Here are a few things I’ve been thinking about.

Top creative experiences in 2013:

Launching two new books for children and young people. In May Templar published The Shadow Lantern in the UK and brought my Blackhope Enigma middle grade fantasy trilogy to a close. I am immensely thrilled that the books are out there in the world and finding their tribe of readers. When The Shadow Lantern comes out in the USA this July, I will feel a great sense of completion but there are aspects of the stories that will always inspire me. You never know, they might just spawn a bit of artwork down the line.

In November, Barrington Stoke brought out Yellow Rabbit, a story for younger children illustrated by Rich Watson. I originally wrote Yellow Rabbit for an anthology called Wow 366! Each story could only have 366 words in it, which was a challenge but a lot of fun. Barrington Stoke acquired the story and have included it in a special pack of eight books  aimed at schools and libraries in the UK. And here’s something not everyone knows: Yellow Rabbit is based on a true story. I lost my yellow rabbit when I was a kid and always wondered where it ended up. This story is what I wish had happened to my lost toy.

Attending two conventions that blew my mind. I’ve heard artists and writers talking about going to ‘cons’ over the years but never knew much about them. When I heard that a crew of children’s and YA authors were going to the World Fantasy Convention in Brighton, I decided to take the plunge. Not only did I get to meet and hang out with all these good writerly people, but I learned a lot. I returned with a notebook filled with scribbles and ideas, inspirations and advice. The author panels were fantastic, the art show was impressive and the attendees’ passion for books was phenomenal. I am hooked and will definitely go to more conventions. I like the look of this one.

A few weeks later I volunteered at Thought Bubble in Leeds, one of the top comic and graphic novel conventions in the UK. Once again, I didn’t have any idea of what I was getting into but I am so glad I took the chance. Thought Bubble is a busy, colourful, wacky, inspiring festival of words and pictures. There’s room for everyone, from the twelve-year-old boy selling his hand-produced comics to superstars like Fabio and Gabriel, the Brazilian twins that had a constant line of people waiting to meet them. There were plenty of superheroes, of course, but there were many other kinds of comics and graphic novels. One of the things I like the most about this community is that is welcomes people who create and publish their own stuff. The Do It Yourself ethos is quite empowering. Thought Bubble’s organisers were amazing, the writers and artists were wonderful and the fans were fantastic. After two full days of running around, hauling furniture and managing crowds, I was exhausted but inspired.

And all this inspiration is spilling over into my aspiration for 2014: to bring my writings and artwork closer together. How will it manifest itself? I have a few ideas but they are too premature to share yet. In the meantime, I’m editing my next book for teens (stay tuned on this one) and starting to think about the small illustrations that will go with it. On the art side, I’m planning new paintings for an exhibition in the spring. Preparing, pruning, planting creative seeds – perfect winter activities.

 

Open Studios 2013 at East Street Arts

IMG_0600I had all my creative hats on during a variety of ESA Open Studios events over the past four days: artist, illustrator, writer, workshop leader and even ‘advisor’. It all kicked off on Thursday night with the launch party for ‘Cache’, a small exhibition with four other artists curated by Mexico at Union 105, a studio building not far from my own building. I was really pleased to have had a painting selected and it has helped me feel more like a ‘local’ Yorkshire-based artist. I also met quite a few of my studio colleagues, who are a lively crew.

On Friday morning an enthusiastic group of Year 4 pupils and their teachers visited Patrick Studios and we took them on a tour/treasure hunt of the building. Afterwards the children made fabulous treasure maps and we talked about all the artworks in the studios that had inspired them. It was wonderful to have a primary school group visit us for the first time.

The main event took place on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. Children and their families explored the studios using my treasure hunt clue sheet and there were lots of grown-ups who popped into my studio to have a look. I had a number of interesting conversations with students attending art programmes at several Leeds colleges and universities, with graduates working on their career plans and with folks interested in publishing. It made me realise how many people are either interested in having their story published or know someone who is. Everyone was friendly and polite, asked good questions and seemed genuinely excited by what they had seen in all the studios.

This morning I put my display away and got back down to business. Next week I’ll be heading to the World Fantasy Convention in Brighton but before I can even think about that, I have quite a lot of a new book to write!

Revisiting FLY HIGH! The Story of Bessie Coleman

fly-high-coverI spent yesterday introducing three groups of Edinburgh schoolchildren to the wonderful role model, Bessie Coleman, whose story I illustrated years ago. Since I began writing and illustrating my own books, I have spoken less about the picture books I illustrated, so I was really pleased to be asked to talk about Bessie for Black History Month (which is celebrated in October here in the UK). Fly High! The Story of Bessie Coleman by Louise Borden and Mary Kay Kroeger is the inspiring story of the first African-American to earn a pilot’s license in 1921.

Bessie was determined to be ‘somebody‘ in life. She worked hard in the cotton fields as a child and learned as much as she could in the one-room schoolhouse she walked miles to everyday. As a young woman she sought her fortune in post-World War I Chicago, where she heard returning soldiers’ tales of French women flying airplanes. She set her sights on becoming a pilot and traveled to France to learn to fly biplanes. She returned to the USA as a fully-fledged pilot, demonstrating her daredevil skills in air shows until she was tragically killed in a flight accident in 1926 at the age of 34.

Bessie was a huge inspiration to many people, not least for her efforts to achieve equal rights for African-Americans. Fly High!‘s message to young readers is that if you work hard towards your dream, you can be somebody too. With that in mind, I asked the pupils in my workshops yesterday to think about what their dreams are and to express them artistically in words and pictures of their own.

First we talked about what they would like to do in their lives and what sort of people they would like to be. I was touched and heartened to hear how many of the children wanted to work in jobs that helped people and animals. Quite a few children wanted to do creative work: artist, writer, filmmaker, games designer. And when I asked them what sort of qualities they wanted to have as grown-ups, I instantly got answers like ‘kind’, ‘achieving’, ‘hard-working’, ‘friendly’ and ‘funny’.

By the time I let them loose with marker pens and paper, almost all the pupils had very strong ideas of what they wanted to show about their dreams. They spent time carefully lettering their ideas and drawing themselves as adults doing their dream jobs. The energy and concentration they put into their posters was incredible. I felt hugely inspired myself!

I would like to think the children might keep their posters and look at them again in a few years to see whether their dreams have evolved… and perhaps to remind themselves of the things they cared deeply about at a younger age.

 

Excess Baggage

Jill Maden (Photo by Teresa Flavin)

Jill Maden (Photo by Teresa Flavin)

A rollicking ride around Australia with motorcyclist Jill Maden.

I’ll remember the summer of 2013 as one of the more hectic in my adult life. Not only have I been busy talking about my new book, The Shadow Lantern, to audiences from Inverness to Yorkshire, but I moved to a new home and studio. With so much going on, reading became a fantastic escape from the giant list of things I had to do. If I had to choose my ultimate grown-up ‘escape’ book of this summer, it was my friend Jill Maden’s Excess Baggage, because it transported me all the way to the back roads of Australia.

I know very little about motorbiking and not much about Australia’s geography. I’ve ridden nervously on the back of a couple of bikes in Asia, but wouldn’t dare learn to ride one. Jill, on the other hand, knows how to fly a plane and ride a motorbike. This makes her extremely cool already, and when she told me she was publishing the story of her 2011 trip across Australia on her bike, I expected tales of derring-do. Excess Baggage features tales of Jill’s races against extreme weather, late night arrivals in small town hostels, friendship and loneliness, and – above all – her entertaining struggles with a mountain of excess baggage. She writes in a humorous and, at times, self-deprecating way which kept her story moving along enjoyably – and I say this not just because I know Jill. I would have liked this book if I had not known her at all.

Jill has been raising money for charity by doing rides around Scotland and blogging about it on her website. If motorbike adventures interest you, check it out.

A rather momentous change.

IMG_0026I’m writing this from my new studio in Leeds, West Yorkshire. Yes, Leeds! After many happy years in Scotland, we took the plunge and moved the whole kit and caboodle to lovely Yorkshire, including all these fabulous stones and shells I’ve collected in my travels. It meant saying goodbye to many friends and leaving one of the most stunning landscapes in the world, but we’re settling in another friendly city in a beautiful county. It will take me a while to get used to a completely new accent and local culture, but  the prospect is exciting. I’ll be sharing photos and thoughts about my new life as I go along, but if you’d like to know what I thought of Leeds the first time I ever visited here, take a look at this archived post from 2011. At the time I had no clue that I’d ever come back here, but life takes interesting turns sometimes!

Art inspired by The Blackhope Enigma!

I’m really pleased to post the winners of Whitburn Academy’s S1 Art Challenge! In May I spoke to all the first year pupils about The Blackhope Enigma after they had read the first four chapters in class. I was asked to set them an art challenge that day and I proposed an illustration inspired by the book. I was invited back in June to see the work in progress and when all the images were done, I helped choose the winner and three runners-up.

It was hard to choose one but I really liked the bird’s eye perspective on this one, as well as the cool texture on the raven’s feathers, so ‘Anonymous’ (a bit shy) is the winner.

winner

I also really liked the colours, patterns and purplish organic thorns in Alexandra’s illustration.runnerup1

Lily’s sunset painting is really atmospheric with its use of silhouettes!

runnerup2

And Eildh’s ominous stained glass window illustration with silhouette works well too.

runnerup3

All the pupils won art supplies and I really hope they have a creative summer of art-making! Thanks to Whitburn Academy pupils, teachers and librarians for hosting me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

At the End of a Busy Spring

My silhouette along with that of a raven, my character Fausto Corvo's symbol. Photo by M Barbour.

My silhouette along with that of a raven, my character Fausto Corvo’s symbol. Photo by M Barbour.

Was it only seven weeks ago that we launched The Shadow Lantern? I’ve had a rip-roaring ride around Scottish schools and libraries, from Aberdeen to Perth and Edinburgh, over to West Lothian and East Dunbartonshire, and back to Glasgow. It’s been fabulous seeing the response kids are having to all three books in the trilogy and I’ve had a ball answering some pretty astute questions. One boy even asked me to autograph his forehead (I politely declined).

So what am I doing now? Well, I can reveal that I’m working on a couple of new stories – and looking forward to my next book being published this November. I’ll have much more info on that as we get closer to the publication date…

My new websites!

It’s official! I have two new websites that are linked under one umbrella – or should I say tree? It’s taken months to get all the materials together for my new author site and to update my illustrator site, but I think it was well worth the effort.

It’s wonderful to have the sites ready in time for the launch of The Shadow Lantern on 1 May. I hope you’ll click here to check out my new landing page and navigate to both sites from there. Comments and suggestions are welcome!