Today I am pleased to welcome one of our UKYA authors, Helen Grant to tell us all her about her book cycle. Helen Grant's latest book, Urban Legends, is available to buy now.
I always start work on a new book long before I actually start writing it. My first book, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, was inspired by and set in Bad Münstereifel, where I lived for seven years. I must have started writing it around 2006, but by that time we’d already been living in Germany for five years. People used to ask me whether the research had taken a long time, but I’d been doing it without being aware of it for the whole of those five years! I love creepy bits of local history and ghost stories so I’d found out about them long before I started putting them into my novel. I’d also learnt a lot about life in small-town Germany, and polished up my German language skills, and I’d visited all the eerie locations I eventually put into the book, such as the ruined castle on the Quecken hill. Discovering all these things led to the creation of The Vanishing of Katharina Linden. I wanted a plot that would tie in all the local legends and the glorious setting (it’s a very beautiful old town). In the end I came up with a series of sinister disappearances and a girl who is inspired by the spooky legends of the town to undertake her own investigations.
Helen in Munstereifel
All my books have their roots in places I have lived, and things I have seen or experienced. My latest book, Urban Legends, is the third in the Forbidden Spaces trilogy of books set in Flanders, the Dutch speaking part of Belgium. We moved there in 2008, and it was natural for me to want to use the setting in my work. But how do I get from thinking, hmmm, I like this place, it has potential, to having a finished novel about it?
A Flemish poster showing a bell with wings carrying Easter eggs!
Since my first book was published, it’s always been the case that I’ve been thinking about the next book while writing the current one. Ideas take a while to develop, so I don’t think I could ever wait until I had finished one book before starting to think about the next one. When I was working on Wish Me Dead, which was my last book set in Germany, we had already moved to Flanders, so I was writng about Bad Münstereifel and at the same time I was thinking about my new home and what stories I could tell about it. Inspiration comes from unexpected places. I didn’t speak Dutch before we moved to Flanders, so I went to evening classes. In the first year, the teacher told us some Flemish traditions, including one about Silent Saturday, which is the day after Good Friday. On that day, all the church bells in Flanders are silent, and parents tell their kids that it is because the bells have flown away to Rome to collect Easter eggs from the Pope! I was very taken with this idea, and I immediately thought that if I were a little Flemish kid I would want to get into the church bell tower on that day and see if it were true that the bells had flown away. And that was the starting point for Silent Saturday, the first book in the trilogy: the heroine, Veerle, climbs the tower of the village church with her friend Kris to see whether the bell is there or not. Of course it is still there, so they look out of the window to spy on the village below, and they see something terrible happening down there. The rest of the trilogy springs from that moment.
View of the rooftops of Ghent taken from the Belfort
Once I have the basic idea for a new book – or books – I go out and do whatever research I need to do to fill the gaps in my knowledge of the location and its history and culture. For the second book in the trilogy, Demons of Ghent, I spent a week in the city of Ghent, walking around and taking photographs and video footage. I climbed some of the highest buildings (which I really hate doing, because I get vertigo) so that I could photograph the city rooftops. I wanted to set some scenes up there, and I had to be sure that it would be possible to travel about on the rooftops. I asked dozens of questions of local people including the long-suffering staff in St. Baafs cathedral! And I spent a long time in one famous building trying to work out how you could break in to spend the night in there…
I do all of this stuff before I start writing. I have to, really. A lot of it is a kind of literary feasibility study.
The Belfort tower, a very high tower in Ghent which I climbed to take photos of the rooftops
Once I started writing Demons of Ghent I had to do little bits of extra research as I went along, but that was mainly things like making sure the heroine got the correct local brand of cheese when she raided her Dad’s fridge, and stuff like that! And of course once I had started actually writing the book, I was onto the research for the following one, Urban Legends, so I was spending time in abandoned buildings and down sewers….oh, the glamorous life of an author!
Saint Baafs cathedral
Anyway, once I broadly know where the book is going, I write a synopsis, and if there is anything else I particularly need to keep in mind, like the layout of a location, I might draw myself a diagram or map so that I don’t make continuity mistakes. In The Glass Demon there is a church with a set of stained glass windows in it, so I sketched that out and marked which window was where. Otherwise I’d be bound to forget! If there is more than one strand to the narrative (eg in the Forbidden Spaces trilogy, what happens to Veerle is interspersed with glimpses of what the killer is up to), I may do a chapter plan too so that I can get a good balance between them.
A sketch of the inside of the church in The Glass Demon plus some aide memoire notes I did
When I am actually writing a book, I work very intensively. I find it almost impossible to do creative writing while there is anyone else clumping about in the house, so weekends and school holidays are pretty much out! In a normal working week I have a word count target and I have a deal with myself that if I reach it by Thursday I can have Friday off. Though sometimes I don’t take Friday off anyway. When I am really involved in a book it’s quite hard to disengage from it. I can get a bit grumpy at weekends because I can’t get at my work.
Helen on a research trip to Ghent
I self-edit very strictly as I go along, because I absolutely loathe revising a manuscript. I know I’m going to have to make revisions, because sadly no editor ever says “Lovely, I don’t want to change a single word!” But I don’t want to have to make extra ones because of sloppy mistakes like putting a word into the same sentence twice. Also, if I have an uneasy feeling that something really isn’t working, I take a day or so to think about it, and if I still feel that way, I rewrite it. The original denouement of Demons of Ghent felt wrong to me; there were too many people involved and too much action (if that is possible in a thriller); it felt a bit like Die Hard in Flanders, which wasn’t what I was aiming for. So I deleted a whopping 10,000 words and wrote the scene again from scratch.
When the first draft is finished I read it through carefully to pick up any obvious errors like inconsistencies in the time frame. It’s very easy to make mistakes with that, such as starting the story in April and having six weeks passing and it’s still April – or else it’s suddenly July! I try really hard to pick up anything like that before I send the manuscript off.
When I feel the book is as ready as it’s going to be, I email it to my editor. Like all authors, I suppose, I tend to get a bit doomy if she hasn’t replied within 24 hours saying it’s marvellous (which never, ever happens). So I try to throw myself straight into whatever’s next. If I’m feeling too tired to start the next book I catch up on blogging or short stories, which I also write now and again. Of course eventually there are revisions to be made (sometimes with a bit of negotiation if I don’t agree with all the suggestions), and then copyediting and finally proof reading. But that’s a different type of work; I find it easier in some ways but also a lot less interesting than writing something new. The biggest buzz is typing THE END on the first draft.
Where to find Helen Grant: