Welcome to this virtual landscape where SCBWI-BI members share their debut journeys with us. This month Helen Victoria steps out with author Maria Kuzniar, whose debut middle grade book The Ship of Shadows is out on 16th July.

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’m taking you to the last place I lived in Spain — Almuñécar — a lovely little town on the Costa Tropical, with sparkling clear water and endless blue skies. I loved to wander or cycle along the promenade and gaze out to sea. There’s nothing like watching the waves to refill your creative well and stir up your imagination!

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

I adore a fantastic, immersive setting in novels! It’s what makes me fall in love with a book. And it’s always my starting point for my own stories. Most authors begin with either the plot or characters but the setting always comes to me first. The Ship of Shadows is set in sunshiny Spain and vibrant Morocco and is central to the plot as my main character, Aleja, unravels the adventurous quest the pirate crew are on! Equally important is the pirate ship. It’s a character in its own right with its meandering shadows, secret passages, astronomer’s cabin mounted above the waves and hidden underwater rooms. In fact, rooms sometimes magically pop in and out of existence! Even though it’s in constant danger of kraken attacks and might be a little bit haunted, it feels like home to the crew. 

Tell us about your inspiration for your novel.

It all started in Morocco. I was in my hotel in Marrakech, feeling thoroughly inspired by all the colours and textures surrounding me — Morocco is a dream of an aesthetic! — and wondering which of my budding book ideas I could set there. I have a tiny notebook that’s filled with just snippets of ideas. One or two sentences at most! So I whipped it out and flicked through it and the one that stuck with me most was: Girl working in a tavern in Seville, runs away to become a pirate. I couldn’t get it out of my head and I knew immediately I wanted to somehow set a pirate story partially in Morocco! But when I tried to imagine the rest of the pirates, I realised I was picturing all the stereotypical, male images, which bugged me! As soon as I decided to write about an all-female pirate crew, the characters started popping into my head and strolling through my dreams, chatting to each other.

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

I’ve always dreamt of two things: being an author and travelling the world! This book perfectly blends both of those things. It was the book that got me an agent and a publishing deal and it’s inspired by my relentless love of exploring. I had so much fun reliving my own adventures through writing Aleja’s (though I was never recruited by a pirate ship, I did once get stuck on a sand dune in a desert!) and I filled the book with so many of my favourite things: travel, books, secret passages, magic and cake. I especially adored writing scenes with Aleja and her best friend, Frances. They make quite the mischievous pair! Aleja is sneaky, kind and an ardent bookworm, and Frances is a loveable cake-fiend with a penchant for telling the most outrageous stories. Between them, they explore the magical ship and get into all kinds of trouble.

 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?

Whatever project I’m drafting, it feels impossible to imagine crossing that finish line! It’s even harder when you’re still querying and have to stop and wonder is it really worth it? Or will I ever find an agent? You have to have this incredible amount of belief and determination to see it all the way through. Now I have my agent on my side, Thérèse Coen, who’s a fabulous cheerleader, which really helps, but I find I put even more pressure on myself with my writing now that it’s become my career. Rejections are always the most difficult moments. Books are so subjective that there’s always going to be someone who hates it. . . you just have to hope that it will find its way to someone who loves it, too! I have a patented process for dealing with rejections or any kind of writing-related disappointments: I set aside a full day to wallow. That day, I’m allowed to moan and vent as much as I want, watch comfort films or TV programmes and eat an entire tub of ice cream if I feel like it. After that, I draw a line in the sand, dust myself off and move on. It’s surprisingly effective and stops me quietly stewing about it for weeks!

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

I recently held a copy of my book in my hands for the first time ever and nothing compares to that feeling! It’s pure magic. Especially with so much uncertainty happening at the moment — I lost both my physical proofs and my book launch in the turmoil of the virus — it feels good to remind myself of what really matters at the end of the day. I wrote a book! I think it can be incredibly daunting being a first-time author. It’s like being thrust into a brand-new job that you’ve never been trained in! But working with my amazing editor, Emma Jones, and everyone at Puffin was a dream. They patiently answered all my questions about anything and everything in the publishing process and turned editing my book into an exciting world of possibilities! My book (and me!) are much better off for having them guide it into the world and I’m infinitely grateful to them.

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 actually just finished the second round of edits on The Ship of Shadows Book Two! It’s becoming book-shaped very quickly now and I’m excited to share more about it soon. In the meantime, here’s a little hint:
When the water became too shallow to swim, she stood up and walked onto the white sand. It shone like a pearl. Palm trees rustled behind her, the little jungle at the heart of the island humming with a life of its own.
Other than that, I have a few top-secret passion projects I’m playing with. The more I read and write, the deeper I fall in love with middle grade. I’m hoping for lots more children’s books in my horizon!

 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! It’s been lovely strolling along with you, too! If you haven’t found an agent yet then my best tip is to check out the acknowledgments in books similar to yours. That’s how I found my agent! I queried her after spotting her name in the wonderful The Polar Bear Explorers’ Club by Alex Bell. 


Maria Kuzniar spent six years living in Spain, teaching English and travelling the world, which inspired her debut novel The Ship of Shadows. Now she lives in Nottingham with her husband, where she reads and writes as much as she can and bookstagrams. She is always planning her next adventure.



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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