Monday 3 July 2023

Editors that give you courage


  Being able to trust your editor is so important. I became fully aware of this ten years ago this summer when I had to make some big decisions. At the time, I was working for the Golden EggAcademy (GEA) with aspiring writers, but also working with Imogen Cooper, the head of GEA, on one of my novels.

      It was a novel I had been working on for a very long time because it had been part of my PhD. However, I couldn’t get the heavy feet of my PhD thesis out of it. For me, it felt like a tick-box exercise and did what it needed to for the degree. Following a discussion, Imogen and I decided it was time to walk away from it. This is never an easy decision, particularly when you’ve been working on a project for a long time, but sometimes it is the right one. It must be done. Hilary Mantel once said, ‘The question is not who influences you, but which people give you courage.’ Imogen was someone who always gave me courage. She ensured I believed in myself and my work, as she did too.

            Imogen’s suggestion was to go away and write something new. Write whatever I wanted to. However, I did feel a little lost. I knew how terrified my students felt when I told them they could write about anything. Anything is an enormous subject. This was also the first time in a very long time where I was writing something without academic scaffolding supporting it where I discussed my reasoning behind every creative decision. It really would be standalone. That in itself was also terrifying. Could I remember how to be purely creative? Could I come up with an idea? Imogen gave me the strength to be brave and the power to be free. It was wonderful to have someone believe in me.

            I did what many writers do in the 21st Century. I turned to Google and asked it questions about things I was passionate about to see what turned up. It showed me an image of Director Alois Podhajsky and General Patton which led me down a rabbit hole of research to Operation Cowboy and the Spanish Riding School. The next most important writer’s question was posed ‘What if…?’


          Out of that question came a nugget of an idea and a first line. ‘If Jakob sneezed, he could die.’ I sent the outline of the idea to Imogen to see if she thought it worked. She came back with ‘Yes, write it!’ That first line never changed. And so, Flight was born. Five years later the next month, it was published by Firefly (where I worked with another great editor, Janet Thomas).

If it hadn’t been for a great editor giving me the courage to be brave and walk away from a project to find a new story, my life would have been very different. Find the people that give you courage. That great editor.

Sunday 25 June 2023

Historical Fiction an important and safe tool for opening discourses with children about the present


Historical fiction is important because it makes history accessible, particularly in schools where it provides a tool to open dialogues about the present by looking through the lens of the past.  It can be less frightening if you open these discussions based on past events. There can be a greater experience of understanding for a child who looks at complex current issues through the historical fiction lens via the eyes and voices of child characters that they can empathise with. Giving them opportunities to ask questions of the narrative with answers that they may be able to apply to the world around them.  As Neil Gaiman points out stories are ‘a way of learning about life without experiencing it.’ (2016: 27) It is about experiencing challenging situations and considering what they, as a reader, would do in said situation within page turning safety.

Historical fiction continues to be popular with children and teachers alike. It is a convenient way to bring history to life through narrative. Giving the children a real sense of what it was like to be alive then as it is a chance to experience it while walking in someone else’s shoes, as Rowe suggests ‘[f]iction …allows the reader to actually experience the world from another person’s point of view.’ (2018).

            Unlike history where the risk is it will so often be written from the perspective of the victorious or the most powerful and educated as they are the ones creating the documents/resources used. Historical fiction can be told from the viewpoint of those whose voices were often silenced. The women, the children, the poor, the enslaved, the invaded and those who would now be considered to be part of the LGBTQ+ community. Fiction is a chance to investigate themes and ideas that might be ignored or glossed over in other circumstances. To take a different perspective. It is an opportunity to examine difficult subjects such as genocide, persecution, discrimination, displacement, death, poverty and reasons for war. In my own novels, Flight (2018) and Safe (2022), I explore the hidden stories of children’s experiences during the Second World War linked with persecution and displacement. Experiences which can easily be used to reflect on situations in the contemporary world.

Gaiman (2016:175), Ali Smith (Higgins, 2018) and Peter Bowker (2014) have all said at various points that if you want to find the truth look at fiction. Ally Sherrick’s recent novel Vita (2023) also plays brilliantly with the idea of truth. It explores the issue of whose truth to believe. As does Candy Gourlay’s Bone Talk (2018), which tells the story of a young Bontok boy and the impact the American’s have when they ‘bring war’ and colonization to the Philippines in the late 19th/Early 20th Century. Both highlight how every story has different perspectives and that there is no single truth.

    Sadly, we know that history repeats itself. Historical fiction can be used to highlight that some lessons are learned. That there is hope. However grim it is, we will find a way out of it because there are good people around. The work that Empathy Lab UK has undertaken highlights how reading fiction can create empathy in the reader. It can be used to increase compassion and understanding for those who have been ‘othered’ in the past, and in some cases, continue to be so. Encouraging a world where tolerance and inclusivity is the key rather than discrimination and persecution that we know is still sadly prevalent when history is still repeating itself.




Peter Bowker (2014) A Writer’s Journey From There to Here, BBC4 18 May 2014 21.30

Empathy Lab  

Neil Gaiman (2016) The View from the Cheap Seats, (London, Headline Publishing Group)

Candy Gourlay (2018) Bone Talk (London, David Fickling)

Vanessa Harbour (2018) Flight (Cardiff, Firefly)

Vanessa Harbour (2022) Safe (Cardiff, Firefly)

Charlotte Higgins (2018) ‘Fiction not lies is a way of telling the truth – Ali Smith in Edinburgh’, ‘Culture’ The Guardian, 21 August 2018   

Dora Byrd Rowe (2018) ‘The “Novel” Approach: Using Fiction To Increase Empathy’, Virginia Libraries, Vol 63 No1 www.ejournals.lib.vt/edu/valib/article/view/1474/2159  Accessed March 2019 

Ally Sherrick (2022) Vita (Frome, Chicken House)

Friday 31 March 2023

Downloadable and printable resources for Safe and Flight


I have been busy creating downloadable resources for Flight and Safe that schools, libraries, home educators or bookshops could use. I had to do this because the increase in postage costs has meant it is prohibitively expensive to send things out now. Instead, I've created what I'd send out in downloadable versions so you don't miss out.  

Here they are listed below - just click on them:

Flight Poster

Safe Poster

Downloadable Letter from me.

Reading Inspiration poster - where can it take you

Reading Inspiration poster - shoes

Review exercise 

These are all downloadable and printable. I hope they can prove useful. 

There are also videos on YouTube that you can use too that are linked to Safe.

Also check out my social media: Facebook author page, Instagram and Twitter.

Obviously, you can buy either Flight or Safe via Firefly or through your local independent store.

Monday 27 June 2022

Writing historical fiction? Keep detailed notes.

Just a few of my extensive
research books
I recently did a workshop on writing historical fiction at the IAmWriting Festival. In it, I reminded the attendees that anyone who writes historical novels more than any other writer will have to justify their writing. Only a week later I found myself doing exactly that when I received my most recent edits. 

The copy editor was quite rightly double-checking my research, a certain word I'd used, querying why I had made certain decisions. This can be quite a challenge because I have long-Covid and I don't always remember what I did yesterday, so remembering why I made a decision when writing over a year ago was going to be challenging.

Luckily for me, I might not be a planner, but I do make copious notes when I make a decision and I also list all websites I visit that I use for research. Plus being an academic, I tend to underline things that are relevant in books and use post-it notes to mark useful chapters. This means that when I am challenged over my research or my decisions I can go back to my notebooks and go through all my scribblings. I will invariably find the answer. Resulting in me being able to put a comment that explains my sources for the decision or if I think the editor has actually highlighted a weakness in my writing, I might add a sentence to add clarity as I may realise that I'm not getting across what I thought I was. It is too easy to fall into the trap of the author's assumed knowledge. I say this so often to my students, just because you can see it in your head, you need to get those images from your head onto the page by including some hints for the reader to pick up on.

Another resource
Helps with colours

It is a salutary reminder to keep good records so that you can support yourself and it also means you can double-check when you are editing or rewriting. Never underestimate the importance of good research. When writing historical fiction you will research far more than will ever appear in your story but it will inform your writing, adding depth to it. I love doing the research and finding a little nugget of detail which will lift the narrative. The reader may not notice it but I'll know it is there. The research should always have a light touch within the story and not be overwhelmed by it. The story comes first always.

I've a new idea for a children's story but am also writing a historical novel for adults at the moment and that is interesting. I have found some wonderful research for them both.  Those that know me well understand that the research process is one of the most exciting elements for me when writing.

Thinking out loud is something writers do quite frequently so I thought I'd share Ed Sheeran's version:


Sunday 15 May 2022

Where do ideas come from?


This week has been an exciting week. Firefly revealed the cover of my latest novel, Safe, which is being published on 1st September and is the sequel to Flight. The cover is designed by Anne Glenn and I love it. It features Kizzy and Jakob and once again they are off on a perilous journey. They are tricked into making this trip and are in great danger. It is a story I am passionate about. In the main because it feels very pertinent. There are elements to it that feel so close to what is going on in the world now. 

As an author, one of the questions you are asked the most often is 'where do ideas come from?' The thing with Safe is that obviously as a sequel it had a long journey. The idea started initially with those nuggets of ideas that formed when I began Flight. Now, where did they come from?

These two images give a few clues. The first one is an image of Director Alois Podhajsky, from the Spanish Riding School saluting General George S Patton from the US Army near the end of the Second World War. The second is an image from a Walt Disney film made in 1963 entitled Miracle of the White Stallions. This film was inspired by Operation Cowboy, which was where the US Army negotiated with the Nazis so they go could through the German lines and get to Hostau where there were several hundred horses including Lipizzaner mares belonging to the Spanish Riding School and a prisoner of war camp nearby. The plan was to rescue both the prisoners and the horses before the Russians arrived. They drove the horses back through the German lines, cowboy style. Hence the name of the operation. It was doing research into the performance in front of General Patton, what happened to the Spanish Riding School during World War 2, and Operation Cowboy that started the nugget of an idea. I also watched the film. The nugget soon became the eternal answer to the important writer's question 'What if...'

I started thinking about what might happen prior to the performance in front of the General and prior to Operation Cowboy. What if two children, who were in danger themselves, needed to save a group of Lipizzaners. And so started the story of Flight with another great cover designed by Anne Glenn.

That's all very well but then when you are asked by your publisher to write a sequel how do you follow on because the story has come to an end. Where does it go from here? Again you start asking questions. What are the worst possible things that could happen to Kizzy and Jakob now? Make a list of them, then make them fifty times worse than that before inflicting those things on them. 

While doing the research I found out about all the displaced children in Europe towards the end of the Second World War. Groups of children who had lost their parents and relatives would move around together. These were sometimes called 'lost children' or sometimes 'wolf children' because they were in packs. It felt important that as a story Kizzy and Jakob should move beyond rescuing horses so this time they don't just rescue abandoned horses. They lead a group of 'lost children' to safety too. 

The horses are different too. I spent time researching what horses might be around as I didn't want it to be Lipizzaners again as they had done those. I found information on so wonderful horses that I've been able to include. 

I also found out about the formation of organisations like UNICEF after the war and how they tried to help alongside the Red Cross. Obviously, there are many more organisations now that help refugees but I've tried to raise awareness where I can at the back of the book.

Ideas grow and evolve as you find inspiration when you do research, particularly when writing historical fiction. I hope you've enjoyed this little insight into the journey of how Safe and Flight came about. Look how beautiful they look sitting next to each other. I am very lucky. 

Another musical inspiration to make you smile if you remember it:

Sunday 24 April 2022

A basic guide to Tik Tok

 Tik Tok is proving an important resource in the publishing world. In a recent Publishing Association report, they suggested that total publishing income for the UK reached a new high in 2021, rising 5% to £6.7 billion with surges in both fiction and young adult fiction, which they attributed in part to Tik Tok.

I joined Tik Tok ages ago and I've been a lurker for a very long time. Wary of taking part because I felt I am about to be a woman of a certain age who should know better than to get involved in it. I also watched the brilliant Kathryn Evans, Emma Finlayson-Palmer and K L Kettle do incredible things on it and felt I was just not capable. However, I started to see the videos done by Chicken House Publishing. They were interesting and informative. I was intrigued by it. All my adult life I have always tried new technology. Prior to my academic career, I would teach people how to use various software. I knew I had to get over this fear of making a fool of myself. I had to find a way of using it that worked for me. I wasn't going to dance or be funny.

It was the fabulous YA author and my great friend K L Kettle that finally pushed me into doing my first video by asking me what was my inspiration when I wrote. I did a quick 60 second video in response to her question and thoroughly enjoyed it. I posted on Facebook that I had put up my first Tik Tok and several of my author friends immediately asked if I could blog about how I did it, so here is a very basic guide to posting on Tik Tok. I am no expert. This is very early days for me but this is just based on what I have done so far. (FYI I am using my iPhone to record my videos)

1. When in Tik Tok press the black plus button at the bottom of the screen. 

2. Sort the camera out so it is facing the way you want it to using the flip button on the top left-hand side. You might want it to face towards you or away.

3. You can add filters if you want.

4. Decide how long you want your video to be: 15s, 60s or 3 mins.

5. When you are ready tap the red button and you will start recording. It will continue to record even if you take your finger off the red button. It will only stop when you tap the red button again. 

6. If you want to record a video separately you can use the upload button on the right hand side at the bottom of the screen.

7. When you have finished recording and you are happy with it you press the button with the tick. If you are not happy you press the button with the cross to discard it. 

8. If you press the tick button it will take you to a preview screen where you can add music (it can play in the background), captions (note you can edit these, they are really good), more effects and stickers. When you've done editing your Tik Tok tap next.

9. From the post screen add your description, hashtags and if you want to tag friends. This is also where you can decide who can view your post and disable comments. 

10. You can hit drafts to save your Tik Tok - I have a draft video that I practise on. It gives me a chance to play with all the different options and work out how to do things. I am still not very good at editing so am not going to advise you on how to do that. I am lucky and have recorded a lot of online lectures so am very used to recording. Get it clear in your head what you want to say and do before you start. Having this draft helps you gain confidence. It is a video I will never post.

11. On the other hand if your video is ready to share press post. 

As I said this is a very basic introduction to doing a Tik Tok video, but if this author can do it, so can you. Be brave! 

Thursday 21 April 2022

The joy of the writing process

 I love those moments when you are writing away and a character suddenly takes you by surprise by doing something totally unexpected that takes the story in a different direction. I had one of those moments yesterday in the adult novel I am currently working on. It has happened to me in the past when a character was getting very cross with me because I hadn't realised they were actually gay. Once I did they suddenly came to life and felt fully formed. 

This is why I love writing and probably why I am not very good at plotting because my writing takes me off in surprising directions. I would say I am more of a plantser. In that, I will know my beginning, my ending and maybe a few key scenes, but how I get there is going to be a revelation. As for my characters, they often evolve as I write. This can prove a major problem when publishers ask for a chapter breakdown because that is not really how I work. I will write one for them but I will tell the publisher it is written with a caveat that it may not be set in stone. I work on the basis that you have to trust your gut and if it feels right go with it. In the same way, if it doesn't feel right you cut it out.

Yesterday's incident was interesting because I had been worrying about how it was going to work with this character and where they were going to fit in. I had various scenarios in mind, but none of them felt quite right. Then the character actually wrote themself out of the story in a totally unexpected way, which solved all my concerns. It wasn't something I had even considered up until that point. I had seen them as a vital part of the onwards journey, but taking them out made more sense and the journey would still work with the other characters even without them. Characters are always powerful, they leave footprints on your heart as they find their route through your story.

I am used to writing for children and young adults and it has been quite interesting writing for adults. In a way, it has been rather liberating. This story started off as a middle-grade, but it was suggested to me that writing it as such was rather constraining and it would be better as an adult story. I have to say as I am writing it, I agree. Also, as a creative writing lecturer, it is always good to try all these different mediums so that I can share my experiences. 

Writing is important for me as it helps with my mental health. I always feel better if I am writing. I have tried different methods including setting word counts, sprints and using apps where I can create trees, but I don't find any of those work particularly well for me. I know they work very well for many others. Instead, I write when and for as long as I can without any pressure. I often find then I can churn the words out. What I always say to all my students and aspiring writers is that there is no write [sic] or wrong way to write. You have to find what works for you and most importantly, don't compare yourself to others. Everyone has their own journey. Just make sure you enjoy yours. 

Happy writing everyone!

I am loving the writing and production of the series The Split. It is very inspirational. This is some of the music from it by Olivia Broadfield