Welcome to this virtual landscape where SCBWI-BI members share their debut journeys with us. This month Helen Victoria steps out with author Sophie Wills whose debut middle grade book The Orphans of St Halibut's was out in October 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? 

Back in time to 1905. It’s summer. Dawn has broken, but no one else is around, and we’re very sleepy. We’re wandering through Petts Wood, near where I live, listening to the birds chattering above us (this is before the parakeets came, so there’s no ear-splitting screeching – it’s ever so peaceful). Then we hear hooves approaching, muffled on the damp earth, and a man on horseback rides through the trees in front of us. He’s called William Willett, and he’s just inventing Daylight Saving Time, because he thinks all his lazy neighbours should get out of bed earlier. These days, his memorial stone is in a little clearing deep in the woods, and every time I see it, I feel the need for coffee. Uh, sorry, I mean it reminds me I should be making the most of the day. 

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

The Orphans of St Halibut’s is set in a rather remote, grim little town called Sad Sack. Most residents would rather live somewhere else. The houses all cower in the shadow of the Mending House, where children are sent if they step out of line. There’s fear in the air, and… oh, sorry, that’s the smell of unwashed armpits. But even in dark corners like this, there’s always hope. And, occasionally, cake. Sad Sack is inspired by some of the places I’ve lived and visited, sprinkled liberally with a bit of ‘faux Victorian’ and perhaps just a smidge of exaggeration. 

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

The idea evolved from one character in one scene. I imagined a girl on a hill looking over a town. She had a secret – something had happened, and no one down there must know. Other than that, one of my other characters, a goat called Pamela, was not so much inspired as barged in from my real life. Incredibly rude of her. 

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

I enjoyed being a bit subversive, and weirdly ridiculous. I just indulged myself, really, and wrote what amused me, and what my own kids would like. I think I enjoyed the editing process at least as much as I liked writing the first draft, if not more, because I could feel it getting better all the time. 

We seem to be lost in the woods now. Can you describe your most difficult moments when you were writing The Orphans of St Halibut’s, and how you got back onto the right path? 

I started writing St Halibut’s just after my previous book came agonizingly close to selling, but fell at the last hurdle. Then my father died and, to put it mildly, I wasn’t feeling very funny. He’d had dementia, but my writing was the one thing he kept asking about. I’d had to break the rejection news, and he’d made me promise I wouldn’t give up, and now he’d really gone and had the last word. Typical. But the new book was going pretty badly. It was meant to be a comedy, and I’d had endoscopies that were more entertaining. What got it back on track? Time. Being willing to blast out a truly terrible draft and send it to my agent so that she could help me identify what the heart of the story was meant to be. And then… to scrap the whole thing and start again. By the time I’d done that, I was at a stage where memories of my dad made me smile more than his absence made me cry. He even sneaked into the way one of my characters spoke. And finally I started having fun writing again, which changed everything. 

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

It’s not how I imagined, since the pandemic closed bookshops. But despite that, it feels wonderful – something I dreamed of doing as a child but lost sight of for many years. I’ve loved seeing reviews from children, and their artwork inspired by the book. My only regret is that I didn’t get on with it earlier. My parents were my biggest writing champions, and they both died before it was published, though I was able to tell my mum when I got my deal with Macmillan, and about a couple of foreign rights deals. She was even more excited than I was, and planned to embarrass me in bookshops. My kids have offered to do that, helpfully. 

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? 

The second St Halibut’s book, Pamela’s Revenge, will be out in August this year. It follows the events of the first book but can be read as a standalone. After that? I’d like to write and publish more children’s books, if I can. I’d like to get better at it, and try different things. I’d like a TV series and a theme park and St Halibut’s branded clothing, too, if that’s not too much to ask. 

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? 

Get to know other writers straight away. Publication is a pretty steep learning curve if you don’t know anyone when you get your deal, like I didn’t. I’m still not a great networker, but children’s authors – both new and experienced ones – have been so kind and welcoming, especially on Twitter, that I feel daft for not having taken that step before. I now count some of them as close friends, and they’ve been invaluable in terms of support and advice.


Sophie Wills grew up in Chelmsford, Essex. She failed the 11+, had a weekend job at a boarding kennels where she suffered workplace bullying from a goat and nurtured a dream to have a career she could do in her pyjamas. She worked at two London publishers before finally achieving her ambition by going freelance in 2003. In 2012 she entered a writing competition, and Michael Rosen picked out as a winner her story about a pig-riding sheriff. Since then, she has been writing offbeat and funny stories for 8-12-year-olds, including The Orphans of St Halibut's. She lives on the edge of south-east London with her family.

Follow Sophie:
Twitter: @SophsWills

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:

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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