I am over the moon to be hosting today’s date on the blog tour for the absolutely brilliant book, The Chessmen Thief, written by one of my favourite authors, Barbara Henderson. Have a read about what Barbara has to say about writing as a teacher and my wee review of The Chessmen Thief.
Writing as a teacher – Story Needs to Come up Trumps
I smiled at the screen of little faces during a recent online school visit. The teacher was selecting the next pupil to ask me, the author, a question.
‘How do you get your ideas?’ trilled the little voice.
I took a breath to reflect. ‘Well, the truth is that I have hundreds of story ideas a day. Most of them are no use at all, but you need to give them some room in your head. You’ll soon know which ones have a bit of mileage in them, and which ones don’t,’ I answered. ‘I’m always asking what-if questions in my head and that can lead to interesting story possibilities.’
I did not tell my young audience about the second step – as soon as I have decided that a story may be worth working on, I tend to make a phone call to my publisher. ‘I’m thinking about writing a story about XYZ. Do you think there could be a market for that? Would you be interested in a book like this?’
I was a teacher long before I was a published writer. It is only natural that I would have one eye one the curriculum, too. In fact, the glaring gap in the market for a more up-to date Highland Clearances story in schools gave me the final push to attempt my very first historical novel, Fir for Luck. It became my first published book, achieving what five other manuscripts before it had failed to do. My inadvertent journey as a historical fiction writer had begun.
Yes, many of my books are suitable for using in schools, but I have to care about the STORY, first and foremost. Believe me, kids can detect a secret educational info-dump a mile off. Learning happens through the story, not in addition to it. Once I am caught up in the flow of writing, it all just happens in my head and I simply have to keep up.
The Chessmen Thief does cover a number of educational angles: Vikings and Scotland’s Norse heritage, the Lewis Chessmen – probably Scotland’s most recognisable archaeological treasures, chess, strategy and higher order thinking skills for a start. But all of these emerged naturally as part of the writing process. Each book is unique, but The Chessmen Thief came together like this:
1: I saw the beautiful Lewis Chessmen in London’s British Museum, The National Museum of Scotland and finally the Museum nan Eilean on the Isle of Lewis. I was mesmerised by the mystery which surrounded the figures. I might have become just a little bit obsessed…
2: At the primary school where I teach Drama, I was asked to create a drama unit based on the IDL topic of the Vikings. Reading around the topic, I noticed there were very few books about the Vikings set in Scotand. It set me thinking. (My work in school often inspires novel ideas. Kids are the most creative people on the planet!)
3: Having worked on a basic storyline, I ran it past the go-to expert in the field. ‘Sorry, Mr Famous Professor, you don’t know me, but I want to write about your pet subject of XYZ. Is this paragraph-long storyline believable, or am I missing something?’ He got back to me and encouraged me – it was all the persuasion I needed.
4: Next, I consulted my publisher, somebody I really respect. She has a lot of expertise in working with schools. As soon as I knew she was on board, I could devote some serious time to writing this book.
5: And here’s the thing: at that point, you have to choose to forget you’re a teacher and dive head-first into the tale. It will take you places you hadn’t anticipated; it will throw up more questions than you have researched, but you have to hold on – details can be fixed, but whatever you do, don’t lose sight of the story sprites!
6: Once the first draft is written, the hard work begins again: fact-checking, editing and clarifying. But you’re nearly there, and by then you know it! It’s at this point that you may think again about what else may need to be in the book to make it most useful to schools. Rather than squeezing any information into the story and breaking its flow, I like to add an author’s note, or a glossary – some sort of additional value.
Number 7: Finally, once the manuscript itself is done, I keep a note of any thoughts and angles which may be useful for the teaching resources. I begin writing these very soon after finishing the book so that my memory of the story is still fresh. I am ready for any number of book-launches and author visits to schools. I love meeting kids, getting them reading, getting them acting, getting them excited about stories.
Honestly? I still have a long way to go, but I am sure of this:
Being a writer makes me a better teacher.
Being a teacher makes me a better writer.
For me, both is best!
Thank you so much to Barbara for a fascinating insight into being a writing teacher.
Here is my review of The Chessmen Thief.
I love historical fiction. I particularly love Scottish historical fiction – stories of the past that feature places that I know and love. Having explored the Highland Clearances, Victorian Scotland, smuggling in 18th Century Dumfries and the Scottish Wars of Independence, Barbara is something of an expert in this field, so I was very excited to read her new book, The Chessmen Thief, a viking tale with a very Scottish flavour.
It tells the story of 12 year old Kylan, who is desperate to free himself of his Norse captors and return to Scotland and to his mother. When a opportunity presents itself in the shape of the carving and delivery of some prescious chessmen pieces, he grabs the chance to search for his freedom.
This is an exquisite, exciting adventure that is steeped in the history of the Lewis Chessmen. Barbara has taken real life characters and events and, by adding her own imaginative take, has turned it into the most wonderfully fascinating story that is sure to grab you and not let you go.
For me the characters and the relationships are central to the story and left me wanting to go and find out more about the history of the Lewis Chessmen and those involved with their creation. Combined with the beautiful settings for the book, it was an absolute joy to read.
Overall, The Chessmen Thief is another belter of a story from Barbara Henderson, one that I am sure that will be loved and embraced by children and adults alike.
Thank you to Barbara for your guest blog and allowing me to be a part of your blog tour!
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