WRITING FEATURE There's a monster in the loch!

Sarah Broadley met with authors Sara Sheridan and Lari Don to discuss how ideas grow into the books we read. 

When you hold a picture book in your hand, it’s not just the illustrator and writer who have created the door to another world within its pages. When I met authors Sara Sheridan and Lari Don, we discussed how ideas grow, and the many people that are involved in getting a book onto the shelves.

The tale of the Loch Ness Monster has been re-created in two very different stories – Lari’s traditional folklore re-imagining in The Treasure of the Loch Ness Monster, and Sara’s modern eco-twist on the story of how Nessie came to be, in Monsters Unite, co-written with her daughter, Molly. After chatting about what books we loved growing up, with Dorothy Dunnett, Virginia Andrews and Wendy Wood being the top of the list, we moved on to all things Nessie ...

Lari and Sara, what inspired you to take your version of the Loch Ness Monster story in the direction you did, and how do you as a storyteller ensure you capture the reader?

SARA: When my daughter was much younger, I used stories to teach her about the world – both the good and bad aspects. I would include personal and political issues in these stories. Anything from people we knew getting married, to new arrivals into the family, or whatever had been happening on the news – pollution, etc. Which is where the premise for Monsters Unite comes from. As storytellers, we have to keep our stories authentic (even fantasy stories) and retain an imaginative link to real life. Story is essentially a tool to interpreting what’s going on around us – illuminating it.

LARI: I grew up near Inverness, and when I moved south I kept getting asked ‘have you ever seen Nessie?’ (Answer: ‘No’) So I thought she was a bit naff and slightly embarrassing. When my publishers, Floris, approached me to write a retelling of the Loch Ness monster story, I was initially reluctant. But when they said they wanted a classy Nessie with an authentic folklore feel, I thought that sounded like a challenge, so I said yes! I researched folktales about the Loch Ness area, and found some fascinating lore about Castle Urquhart: it was said there were two doors hidden under the castle, and that behind one door was treasure, behind the other was poison. So I wondered what would happen if Nessie wanted to open those doors … That gave me a way to tell a Nessie story which felt rooted in Scottish folklore, and which didn’t have any cuddly tartan-hat-wearing monsters. I wanted to take the readers into Nessie’s world, so I had to drop my child characters deep into the loch, which felt quite dangerous and scary for them. As a writer, you have to be horrible to your characters! But I hope I’m not horrible to real people in the real world … As a storyteller I am always conscious of how the words sound when spoken, so reading out loud is a vital part of my writing process.

What relationship or contact do you have with the illustrator of your books? Are the finished pages decided between the two of you or are other departments or people involved in the final outcome of your work?

SARA: Initially, our illustrator, Iain Carroll, had the monsters wearing clothes and that’s not what my daughter and I had in mind when we remembered the stories I had made up all those years ago. We agreed that some of the characters could have the odd token garment but we wanted them to be monsters rather than human-like. We loved the ideas he had for using everyday items found in the sea such as a fishing net, which became a monster’s hairnet. These details added fun aspects to the story. We also wanted funny characters to shine through amid the message about pollution in our seas, so we worked with him closely to create the ‘naughty fish’ who make cheeky asides. Humour is a great way to draw a reader into a story.

LARI: The editor and designer are just as much part of the creative process as the writer and illustrator. I don’t have direct contact with the illustrator – I send my editor notes about illustrations along with the draft text, but the publishers choose and brief the illustrator, and I’m not really involved at that stage. Often I don’t see the pictures for months after sending the manuscript, then I get a draft layout to consider and comment on. Seeing the illustrations for the first time is always one of the highlights of writing picture books, especially when the illustrator is as talented as Nataša Ilinčić – who created an amazing world for our shared Nessie.

Do you have any words of wisdom for those approaching publishers rather than going through an agent? 

SARA: Publishers prefer writers to stay professional – when they buy your book, they are choosing to work with you as a colleague and that’s especially important if you aren’t going to be represented by an agent. We’re all passionate about our work, but there’s a business side too. The Society of Authors can help you check the legality of any contract you’re offered.

LARI: Don’t just sit about nervously waiting to hear back about the one story you’ve submitted, get stuck into writing something else immediately! This means you can offer other ideas too if an editor is interested, but also means that you aren’t putting all your emotional eggs in one story basket.

* Header photo by Sarah Broadley shows Sara (left) and Lari (right).

Lari and Sara are appearing together at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August 2019, their joint event will focus on re-imagining the Loch Ness monster as they discuss their picture books The Treasure of the Loch Ness Monster and Monsters Unite!

Lari Don has written middle grade adventures, picture books, collections of myths and legends, a teen thriller and various educational, early reader and reluctant reader books. She writes in the peace and quiet of her attic, but shares stories in bustling bookshops, clattery school canteens, midgie-filled forests and once even a damp dripping cave …

You can find more info about Lari’s books on her website: www.laridon.co.uk and you can find Lari on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram

Sara Sheridan is known for the Mirabelle Bevan mysteries, a series of historical novels based on Georgian and Victorian explorers, and has written non-fiction on the early days of Queen Victoria’s marriage and the historical background to Jane Austen’s novel Sanditon. With a fascination for uncovering forgotten women in history, she is an active campaigner, a feminist and co-founder of radical perfume brand REEK. She wrote Monsters Unite with her daughter, Molly. You can find Sara on Twitter

Sarah Broadley writes picture books and stories for 8-12 year-olds. She lives in Edinburgh with her family and two mad cats who bring her 'presents' when she writes in the early hours. The cats that is, not her family. Sarah is a member of SCBWI Scotland.

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