When I talk to children about my books, the question I get asked more than any other is, ‘Where do you get your ideas?’
Specifically, I often get asked how I got the idea to write about Emily Windsnap. I usually answer that I love the ocean and everything to do with it, and I especially love the fact that it is such a huge part of our planet and yet we know so very little about it. And that, for me, mermaids represent all the possibilities that lie just beyond our knowledge and understanding.
But then I tell them something else as well. I tell them that I believe that as writers, we don’t choose our characters; they choose us. I firmly believe that Emily Windsnap somehow existed before I – our anyone else – knew of her. She wanted someone to write her story and she chose me. And for that, I am grateful to her every day of my life.
But it’s not as simple as that. You see, I also believe that before we get to write our book, we have to show our character that they have made the right choice. We have to make ourselves worthy of the task that they have entrusted to us.
So how do we do this?
I think of it a bit like having a relationship with someone: a friend or partner or family member. Hands up everyone who expects their friends to do everything for them without ever doing anything in return?
I thought not.
In order to keep our relationships happy and healthy, we need to keep on showing up for them. We need to remember our Mum’s birthday. We need to be there for our friend when she is upset. We need to take our partner for a day out when they’ve been working too hard.
It is exactly the same with a story. Now don’t laugh, but I truly believe you have to bring your story gifts. For every book I’ve written, I have had an object that links me to the story, and that sits on my desk throughout the writing of the book. Over the years, this has been a pebble, a fairy door, a crystal, a piece of stone from a house destroyed by a storm – and a lot more besides.
I feel that these objects help to build a bridge between writer and story, help to open up the portal between us so we can communicate with each other.
Next, I try to provide the right setting for my book with some music. I make a playlist for every book I write, full of music that links me to the mood and ideas and people of the book. I mostly listen to these playlists in the early stages of writing the book, while I go for walks or sit staring out at the ocean opening myself up to the ideas.
And the other thing I do for every book is take it on holiday. This is otherwise known as a research trip. With every book I’ve written, I have at least one moment when I go to a place that feels central to my book in some way.
In the past, I have visited a long-destroyed Devon village; I’ve been to stone circles and forests filled with statues; I’ve taken a cruise to the frozen fjords of the Arctic north and a boat trip to Niagara Falls; and when I wrote about the Bermuda Triangle for Emily Windsnap and the Monster from the Deep – well, I had to go to Bermuda of course!
My latest book, Emily Windsnap and the Pirate Prince, gave me an excuse to fulfil a dream I’ve had for a long time: go on a trip on a tall ship.
I thought that going on this trip would give me direct experience of the feel of being on a ‘pirate ship’. And it did, big time. What I didn’t expect was that the crew of the ship would inspire me quite so much as they did.
Amongst them, perhaps the two who inspired the characters of the Pirate Prince the most were the two female crew members, Michelle and Anaïs. Watching these women at work was so inspiring. Between them, they hopped about the ship as though it were a playground – even when we were slicing through the ocean on an angle so steep most of us found it difficult to walk in a straight line! They hauled on the ropes as hard as anyone, knew the sails inside out, shimmied up the mast with no fear. And made up songs about what to do with their own personal ‘drunken sailors’ that entertained the rest of us in the evenings.
These women inspired me so much – and were a big part of what I loved so much about my week aboard the Morgenster.
In Emily Windsnap and the Pirate Prince, one of my pirate girls, Kat, says to Emily, ‘Show me another life where a girl can spend the day fixing things, catching fish, climbing ropes, sailing through storms. Show me a world where she can live by her own rules – and maybe I’ll consider exchanging this one for it.’
Kat and Ana inspire Emily to think more about her role in the world around her – and for that I am deeply grateful to Michelle and Anaïs, because their attitude fed directly into the book.
By the end of this book – the eighth in the series – I feel that Emily has really come of age. I’ve always described her as a kind of tomboy mermaid. After all, she has dealt with a huge range of experiences that most girls don’t have to deal with. (Let’s face it, even those of us who spent our childhoods climbing trees and riding bikes didn’t have to face hammerhead sharks or giant sea monsters!) But in this book, I feel that she’s taken another step forward, and a step deeper into who she is.
Now, I think she’s become quite the young feminist mermaid. And as she’s done for the last eighteen years of my life, she continues to make me feel inspired, proud and grateful. Long may she continue!
This is a guest post by Liz Kessler and the views expressed do not necessarily represent those of the FCBG. Emily Windsnap and the Pirate Prince publishes on 6 March 2019 with Hachette Children’s Books.