The Tiniest Seed for the Story

Guest Post by Francesca Armor-Chelu.

Thanks so much for inviting me to the FCBG blog!

Asked to write about ‘The Butterfly Circus’- my latest book by Walker, I thought about the question I always want to ask authors and one I get asked the most; “Where did you get the idea from?” That seems as good a place as any to start, but first a little about the book itself: Tansy and Belle are orphaned sisters and stars of a dazzling trapeze act. One night Tansy falls and Belle becomes the star of the show while Tansy’s reduced to sweeping the floor, but when Belle vanishes and Tansy’s shadow, Rosa, miraculously comes to life, the adventure begins.

In some ways all writing is a trapeze act; hours of work trying to get it right, a leap of faith, a dose of fear followed by exhilaration, the prayer that you’ll land safely rather than crash to the ground. But ‘The Butterfly Circus’ felt very different to my first books ‘Fenn Halflin and the Fearzero’ and Fenn Halflin and the Seaborn’, because I had been asked to come up with a new book which in itself is more nerve-wracking. With Fenn, very few people even knew I was writing, and I had what I now see was the ‘luxury of privacy’;  Fenn was allowed to be a slow burn, organically shifting over nearly ten years during which, of course, I had moments of self-doubt, but at least I never had to tell anyone about them. With ‘The Butterfly Circus’, from the synopsis onwards, there was a level of scrutiny I wasn’t used to. For this reason the original idea is firmly etched in my mind – as that was the one that got rejected!

Thinking back, I guess the tiniest seed for the story was planted when we got a black lurcher puppy from the RSPCA, so skinny and supple she could flatten her legs until practically spatch-cocked, at which point she’d slither under the sofa. A memory stirred! I love shadows, from the bewitching silhouettes of Jan Pienkowski’s illustrations to shadow puppets, from the magical way shadows morph during sunny days to the creepy shadows of Gothic films. I was brought up in an old farmhouse and once my sisters left for school my only playmate was my shadow; a companion, but also something to watch out of the corner of my eye and not entirely to be trusted. My logical side must have known it was just ‘a blockage of light’ (a definition hotly disputed by Rosa) but children aren’t governed logic any more than most adults. The childhood memory that my puppy triggered was of me trying to slide my own shadow under a door like a sheet of paper, convinced ‘she’ would submit to my will given time; shadows seem like every day magic to me.

In the original outline, my shadow belonged to the younger version of an old lady with dementia who’s dying, and her shadow helps the granddaughter come to terms with her impending death. Early feedback was positive but the worry was it might be a bit dark/surreal for younger readers and so I was asked to re-work it. I too was already reconsidering what I wanted to write, having just written books which were quite dark in places; I wanted to be in a happier universe if I was going to spend six hours a day in it.

But that shadow was persistent; waking me up at night asking what was to be done with her and finally, once I’d worked out what she wanted to say, I knew what my story was about and where to set it. Although the story changed, the shadow retained many of her original characteristics; in the first version the grandmother had worked in a magic show as a Debbie McGee kind of character-all sequins and razzmatazz, and the shadow had a show-girl’s ebullience. I wrote a new pitch, set it in a circus, and shifted the shadow’s message; it was still about loss, but the loss of memories and connections between people (the sisters) as well as the loss of self-confidence. However where the first story ended unequivocally sadly, ‘The Butterfly Circus’ has a more bittersweet ending.

Once the synopsis was accepted, the real fun started as I got stuck into research. I took aerial skills classes where I discovered that the last few years of writing have decreased my upper body strength to the level of an earthworm’s, and having managed to clamber to the top of a rope, remembered I’m as terrified of heights as Tansy and had to be coaxed down by circus people I’d only just met. To whip my fears I attempted rock climbing (in Lowestoft) and, confidence bolstered by my kids sarcastically yelling ‘Go Mum!’ from below, I managed to creep up a whopping ten feet whereupon a little girl (and regular Halesworth library customer) shot past me with a cheery ‘Hello!’ I wrote too many characters and too much circus information, drove my family crazy each night at supper with yet another fascinating fact I’d gleaned that day; “D’you want rice…? And did you know circus elephants are always commanded in French?” If you read ‘The Butterfly Circus’ you’ll discover many ‘fascinating facts’ made the cut, but 90% ended up on the cutting room floor!

Finally the first draft was submitted only to be quickly returned with notes meaning a rewrite. Again I was beset by self-doubt until, eventually, after a second-draft… a third… copy-edits, line edits, knuckling down on my dodgy understanding of the comma, my editor declared; “It’s too late to change it anymore!”…and it went to print. Five weeks later I had a wonderful launch in the library (where I’ve kept the day job) with fine wine and finer cakes, (decorated by my son), supported by family, friends, book-bloggers, librarians and members of the FCBG. It was a lovely evening.

Now here I am, writing another synopsis, teetering on the ledge, looking out across the dark… about to do it all over again!

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