DEBUT JOURNEYS: Catherine Emmett

Welcome to this virtual landscape where debut authors get to take us along ancient streets, deserted beaches and dark forests, showing us what inspired them, pointing out the crossroads and obstacles and describing the next steps for their writing careers. 
 This month we are stepping out with author Catherine Emmett whose first picture book ‘King of the Swamp’ is illustrated by Ben Mantle and was released in August 2020. 
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? 

We’re walking down a narrow country lane. On the left, golden corn ripples in the breeze. On the right, the hedgerow buzzes with bees and butterflies. You can smell the summer warmth. If you are lucky, you might see a red kite floating overhead. This is the lane that leads from my house to the local village. We moved here from Mile End Road in East London a few years ago and it couldn’t be more different. Walking the lane always fills me with a feeling of peace – exactly the head space I need for writing. 

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

 The setting in my story is absolutely key. McDarkly, the main character, lives in a stinky, dark swamp - but there he grows the most beautiful, rare flowers. The story centres around McDarkly’s attempts to protect his home from the rude, roller-skating king who wants to concrete over the swamp to make a roller-skating park. The story shows that beauty can be found even in the darkest and stinkiest places. 

As the saying goes, a journey of a thousand steps starts with one. Tell us about your inspiration for your novel. 

 This story was about three different inspirations coming together really. The swamp and the orchids were inspired by my time mapping a Belizean jungle 20 years ago. Parts of the jungle could turn swampy and, on the trees, these tiny, beautiful little orchids grew. McDarkly, as a character, originally appeared in my first ever story, but he was a baddie called Moredark (please don’t tell him that, as he’d be mortified!). As I got to know the character, I started to sympathise with him more, and he became McDarkly, a gentle creature living away from the world and slightly intimidated by it all. The idea for grubs (SPOILER ALERT!) turning into butterflies came from a brilliant picture book writing course with Pippa Goodhart, where we were talking about how the very simplest ideas could make a story. I love the transformative effect of a caterpillar turning into a butterfly and had been waiting a long time to work it into a story. 

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

The main thing that I loved about writing this book is McDarkly himself. He is so easy to write! I loved writing him as a character and I ADORE the way that Ben Mantle brought him to life! The other thing on this one was The Flow. As I mentioned, there were a number of different inspirations for this story and I’d been trying to combine them for a long time. I couldn’t quite figure out what the story was, but I had it on the edge of my mind for about 18 months. When the story clicked, I wrote the text in one sitting – it felt as though the story was just waiting in my head to be written down. That hasn’t happened since unfortunately! 

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? 

In terms of learning to write, the most frustrating part for me was trying to really understand stressed syllable patterns for good metre. I couldn’t find much online that seemed to help and I found it really tricky to work out on my own. I was lucky and I found a scansion expert in Australia who showed me what I was doing wrong. From then on it clicked. I’ve since written a blog on writing in rhyme ( ) to provide more information to new writers. How to write rhyming picture books with perfect rhyme and metre! One of the trickier moments for this particular book was when my publishers were worried about including the orchids. They were a little worried that the orchids might be seen as being ‘inaccessible’ and wanted to refer to them more generically as ‘flowers’. I fought hard to keep them as I felt that the idea of the ‘dark and stinky’ place producing these amazingly beautiful, rare orchids was one of the key pillars of the story. I’m so glad that we kept them. Overall, I think, as with most writers, I find the waiting the toughest part. It takes so long for a picture book to come to fruition – it’s a good job that it is worth it when it does! 

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

It is SUCH an amazing feeling to know that a story that I created in my head is an actual, real book out in the world. One of the loveliest parts has been seeing Ben Mantle’s GORGEOUS illustrations. As soon as I saw them, it was as though I’d written the story with them in mind. Another of the most special moments was reading the book to my boys. They’d heard it before, but reading them the finished book with the pictures was a really perfect moment. The book is dedicated to them and their faces lit up when they saw their names in the front. Since the book has come out, seeing pictures of other children reading the book and hearing how much they have enjoyed it has been so, so wonderful. I really hope that it inspires some of the next generation to protect the dark and stinky places. 

We’ve finished our walk 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? 

Oooh I do love a proper fire! My second picture book will be out in May this year with Macmillan. 'The Pet – Cautionary Tales for Grown Ups and Children’ is illustrated by David Tazzyman and I CANNOT wait for everyone to see what he has come up with – it’s just brilliant! More books are coming after that but I can’t say much about them just yet – I do need to keep them coming though, as my husband has just built me a writing room, so the pressure really is on now! 

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? 

I’d suggest trying not to be too attached to your initial ideas. Often our first ideas can be good, but they might not be super original. Try and think as outside the box as possible. Talk to your characters in your head and really get to know them, and don’t be afraid to let a story mull over for a while. Above all, enjoy your writing!

Catherine Emmett started writing picture books in 2015 and in 2017 she teamed up with agent Alice Sutherland-Hawes of the Madeleine Milburn Literacy Agency. Her picture book, ‘King of the Swamp’ was out in August and she is here to tell us about her writing and publishing journey. 


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.


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

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