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!
What 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.
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.
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!
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.