Welcome to this virtual landscape where SCBWI-BI members share their debut journeys with us. This month, Helen Simmons steps out with author Justin Davies

Justin's debut middle grade book Help! I Smell a Monster is out on May 30th. Let’s begin our journey...

There’s nothing like a good walk to fuel creative ideas and give us inspiration in our writing. Where are you taking us on our walk today?

I like any walk that starts and finishes at my front door, so today we’re heading up from my village (North Queensferry in Fife) onto the Forth Road Bridge for a bracing trip across the Firth of Forth. From there we’ll head along the water to the Dalmeny Estate and lose ourselves in the trees surrounding Dalmeny House, home to the Earls of Rosebury. This walk has it all: bracing wind and amazing views from the bridge; woodland for a nature fix; wartime gun placements to climb over and imagine lost times; beaches to comb for washed-up treasures; and an elegant country house where generations of folk – both Upstairs and Downstairs – have played out their real-life Downton adventures.

What about the landscape you have created in your novel? How important is the setting to your plot and themes? 

In a much earlier version – and we’re talking years ago here! – I’d placed my story in a generic, could-be-anywhere setting; then I moved to Fife, where my husband Andrew is from, and everything changed. From my new study I can see an island in the middle of the Firth of Forth called Inchgarvie; it has an intriguing history, including being used as a leper colony and as a WWII fortress. I shifted some of the action in my book to the island, then decided to shift all the action to various Scottish locations – including Balmoral. The story instantly took on a new life and seemed to find its heart and soul; so although the setting isn’t essential to my plot and themes, it has been essential to its ultimate success. As the saying goes, a journey of a thousand steps starts with one.

Tell us about your inspiration for your novel.

Years back I was on a sailing holiday around Ithaka and amongst my holiday reads was Homer’s Odyssey; once we’d dropped anchor for the night I’d read about Odysseus’s adventures and decided one day to transplant some of his characters to a children’s story. Fast forward a decade or so and I have Medusa and the Cyclops Polyphemus living as husband and wife and working for the Queen at Balmoral. Like you do!

Now we have got into our stride, can you tell us what you loved most about writing this book?

My aim with my writing is to make kids laugh. The freedom I feel writing younger middle grade fiction is a total joy. I can create ridiculously unlikely character pairings (see above); I get to try and squeeze as many laugh-your-pants-off jokes and puns onto the page as my editor will allow; and I have the chance to turn some of the surreal and hilarious life observations from my notebooks into dialogue, action and descriptions. What could be more fun?

We seem to be lost in the woods now. Can you describe your most difficult moments when you were writing …, and how you got back onto the right path? 

Under a different title, this book was shortlisted for the Kelpies Prize – the biggest prize for unpublished children’s writing in Scotland, with the winner being guaranteed publication. Nothing prepared me for how gutted I would feel at the award ceremony when I didn’t win. But after some time I re-worked the story and with support and encouragement from my SCBWI Scotland friends, I began to submit my book to agents. However, the real turning point for me was entering The Hook at the SCBWI conference. Winning it led directly to being taken on by my fabulous agent, Thérèse Coen, with my two-book deal following shortly after. My policy has always been to challenge myself and take every opportunity that comes my way – it’s working for my writing so far!

As we reach the summit, can you tell us how it feels to be a first time author? 

As I type this, publication is just two weeks away, but it still feels unreal. Taking my first copy out of the padded envelope and seeing my finished book for the first time was AMAZING – so amazing that I re-enacted the moment four or five times to get the perfect video for my Instagram story! Also, nothing will ever compare to the trepidation, then utter joy, I felt when being shown Kim Geyer’s glorious and brilliant illustrations for the first time. To see my characters smiling – or glaring! – back at me from the cover was like being introduced to my long-lost family. A thrill I’ll savour for a long time to come.

We’ve finished our walk and now so I think we deserve to celebrate with tea in a cosy inn. As we warm our feet by the blazing fire, tell me where you think your writing will take you in the future?

I’ve just submitted the second book in the series to Anne Marie Ryan, my editor at Orchard Books. Whoa! I Spy a Werewolf has even more monsters, more puns, more jokes packed in than even I thought possible. I can only hope they all survive! (I sometimes imagine a place where editors queue up to use a giant knife-sharpening whetstone, before running back to their desks wielding their super-sharp scalpels with manic word-cutting glee!)

Finally, I have really enjoyed walking and talking with you today. Can you give us one take away tip for yet-to-be-published writers? 

Thank you Helen, it’s been lovely. My one top tip is this: grab every opportunity, especially those offered by SCBWI. You just never know where they might lead.


Like all superheroes, Justin leads a double life. In one, he flies around the world in his job as cabin crew, visiting all the places he found in his atlas as a boy. But instead of a superhero cape and really embarrassing pants, Justin prefers to wear a big smile and a clip-on tie when he goes to work. One of his coolest superpowers is languages - he speaks French, Spanish and German! 

In his other life, Justin lives with his husband in Scotland, where he writes books which he hopes will make you laugh. His favourite smells are new shoes, cheese toasties, and cake.
Justin is also co-network coordinator for SCBWI Scotland.
Instagram: @flyingscribbler
Helen Victoria is a writer of YA fiction, a full time drama teacher and a reader of anything and everything. When she is not putting on shows, reading or writing, Helen loves to walk in wild places, or hang out with her family and friends in London, France and Cornwall.

Follow Helen:
Twitter: @helensimmons100
Imogen Foxell is an illustrator with a particular interest in creating intricate imaginary worlds. She illustrates English literature revision cards for, and interesting words for Her website is Follow her on Twitter and Instagram

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