Thursday 3 March 2016

The Book Cycle with Julia Lee

Today on the blog, we have Middle Grade author, Julia Lee, talking about her book cycle for Nancy Parker's Diary of Detection, which is published today!!! *throws glitter and homemade confetti* 
So, what else have you got...?’ That was the scary question from my editor, and the answer was (eventually) Nancy Parker’s Diary of Detection.
I love reading crime novels. Nothing better than a cosy murder to curl up with on Boxing Day, along with the Christmas chocolates. And I’d always wanted to write one for adults, though I definitely Iack the stamina for researching a ‘police procedural’. So, who would make a good amateur detective? Who’d be in a good position to pick up all the clues and watch what everybody’s up to without ever being suspected. Ta-da! A housemaid, of course.
This vague idea got recycled when I needed to come up with book proposals for my publishers. It was just the sketchiest paragraph at first...which means that I cunningly skated over how some of the plot was actually going to work out. 
Cunningly skating over major plot points has a habit of coming back and biting you on the bum! 
So it was more of a scramble to write than my previous children’s books, where I had imaginatively inhabited the 19th century world of the Potchard and Marvel families for a very long time. I was still plotting this book up to the last moments before I pressed SEND.
Nancy Parker is a frustrated detective, always on the look-out for suspicious goings-on and keen to jot down her observations. Her very first job, as a housemaid to a stylish woman of imprecise means and dubious past, gives her plenty to think about. Set it in 1920, there are hints at problems left over from the war, but society is also on the brink of a totally new era. Nancy grabs that with both hands.
Housemaid in the 1920s.
I usually scribble initial ideas in a notebook – including character names. Nancy began with the nickname ‘Nosey Parker’ and I was hoping that would be in the title, but some rapid research showed that modern-day kids didn’t always know what a nosey parker was. 
I also like to use art postcards I’ve picked up as inspiration, and a portrait by David Bomberg of his sister Kitty from Eastbourne’s Towner Gallery is just my idea of ‘elegant snake’ Mrs Bryce. Incidentally, Eastbourne in its heyday is (kind of) the inspiration for the resort of Seabourne of the book. 
Mrs Bryce
I decided it would be fun to write Nancy’s story as a diary. This gave me loads of scope for making it very idiosyncratic, including some of the spellings! But I don’t usually do first-person and had to get round the limitations of writing everything from one point of view. So I mixed in third-person chapters from the POV of the other children in the story, Ella Otter and Quentin Ives: two lonely 11-year olds who, despite being at odds with each other, join with Nancy in some nerve-racking – and slightly botched - investigations.
Julia's Ideas Notebook
Nancy writes lists and draws sketches and diagrams. There are letters, postcards, secret notes and secret signs. My editor, Liz Cross, really liked this aspect in the first draft and gave me license to go mad with it. 
I didn’t even attempt the sketches myself, I just wrote instructions like [sketch of sausage dog] or [note on crumpled paper]. The design team at Oxford showed me some ideas for illustrators to give a good 1920s feel, and after some months I saw my instructions brought to life by Chloe Bonfield. At the same time, designer Holly Fullbrook was doing loads of work on the look of the book, including choosing suitable fonts and jazz-age backgrounds.
Now I’m working on the next Nancy Parker, busily thinking up more visuals, with a spooky feel this time, to help whizz the plot along.
As a child, I adored books with illustrations, or a map or a plan or a family tree in them. Gloomy ink in Joan Aiken’s stories and glossy colour plates from The Secret Garden still stick in my mind. So I’m loving the new trend for richly-illustrated books for older children (not just for the littlies) and it’s thrilling for a book of mine to be part of that.
Finally comes the day when your actual book arrives in your actual hands. It’s been transformed, with the help of loads of people, from a light-bulb moment in your head to a unique 3-dimensional thing that can be shared. I will never get tired of that feeling.

Nancy Parker has recently been engaged in her first position - as a housemaid for the very modern Mrs Bryce. It's not Nancy's dream job (she'd rather be investigating crimes like they do in her beloved six-penny thrillers) but as Mrs Bryce starts to entertain her new neighbours with lavish parties, it becomes clear that something strange and interesting might be afoot. Local burglaries, a cook with a deep, dark secret - and Mrs Bryce's own glamorous but murky past. Will Nancy solve the mysteries while still keeping on top of her chores?

Julia Lee, author of MG historical fiction The Mysterious Misadventures 
of Clemency Wrigglesworth and The Dangerous Discoveries of Gully Potchard
and – out March 2016 - 1920s detective heroine-with-a-twist Nancy Parker.

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