A brilliant blog post from author Amy Raphael about researching fossils for her latest novel, The Ship of Cloud and Stars.
When I started to write my second middle-grade novel, The Ship of Cloud and Stars, I had a vague notion of the story I hoped to tell. There would be a 12-year-old girl who was around in 1832. She would have a passion for science in general and fossils and seeds in particular. Her cold-as-ice parents would disapprove of her desire to educate herself and would often send her to her room to do some boring embroidery. The girl, who by now was called Nico Cloud, would decide to run away for the day. She would become an accidental stowaway on her aunt’s ship. Her aunt, a scientist, would eventually share her secret research with her niece: she hoped one day to find a fossilised seed that she could reanimate. Together they would dodge pirates on high seas as they tried to save the world.
My first middle-grade novel, The Forest of Moon and Sword, was set during the English Civil War and followed the journey of 12-year-old Art Flynt, who had to rescue her mother from the Witchfinder General. I knew many of the places described in the book, but due to the pandemic I wasn’t able to revisit any of them and some I had to simply recreate using my imagination.
For that reason, I set The Ship of Cloud and Stars closer to home – in Sussex, near to where I live, and in Sicily, an island I know well. Since Nico must find exactly the right fossilised seed for Aunt Ruth to try and reanimate, I decided to become a part-time fossil hunter. During the long winter months of lockdown, I walked the local Hove foreshore at low tide searching for fossils. I couldn’t believe my luck when I chanced upon a fossilised sea urchin! I took it home, rinsed it under the tap and looked it up: what I had in fact found was an echinoid fossil, the fossilised remains of a sea urchin, which have always been regarded as lucky. It now sits on my desk, both to bring me good fortune and to remind me of how long the Earth has been turning – echinoids lived about 450 million years ago, which is pretty mind-boggling.
I drove along the coast to Cuckmere Haven, where the famous Seven Sisters cliffs start, and where Nico and her friend Matteo search for fossils until a pirate boy scares them away. I wandered the foreshore but found nothing; the chalky cliffs no doubt held the remains of myriad species, but they are crumbling and too dangerous to safely explore.
Later, when summer came, I went to the Jurassic Coast with my daughter and, alongside dozens of kids, tapped at stones until sharp belemnites or coiled ammonites were revealed. I too squealed with glee: I was seeing the squid-like creature or the shelled cephalopod for the first time in millions and millions of years. I could almost see Nico on Charmouth beach, bent over a rock, excited at the possibility of accessing the distant past in an attempt to save the future.
Now it’s winter again and The Ship of Cloud and Stars is about to be published. Nico is about to step out into the world. I no longer need to search the foreshore for fossils, but I can’t help myself. Even when on a drab, drizzly day, I am often to be found walking along Hove beach, hands behind my back, hoping to find a connection to the past.
The Ship of Cloud and Stars by Amy Raphael is published by Hachette Children’s this month.