Writing can be a lonely profession – all that sitting at the desk – alone with your own thoughts. So it’s good to get away from time to time – and it’s even better to be able to combine that with talking about your work and getting to meet readers and prospective readers.
So I was delighted recently to get an invitation to do just that.
I was invited to do an author talk to the Primary 5, 6 and 7 children on the 5th November at Broadford Primary School on the Scottish Isle of Skye. And not only that I was also invited to deliver a writing workshop to the Primary 7 children later on the same day. And of course I would be appearing as my children’s author alter-ego, Anne McAlpine – author of The Silver Locket (for 9 to 12 year-olds), rather than Anne Stormont writer of adult fiction.
I lived and worked as a teacher on the island for many years and the invitation came from a friend who is also a former colleague.
And it was lovely to have a reason to go back. I miss Skye so much that I hadn’t felt able to return during the (almost) three years since I left. But this offer to talk about my work as a writer and to share TheSilver Locket with some of its intended readership, was the perfect opportunity to get over myself and return to the place where I left a big part of my heart.
The children listened so well during my talk about the background to The Silver Locket, how I got the idea for it and how I went about putting the story together. And the questions afterwards were brilliant and some of the suggestions for sequels were amazingly clever.
And the writing workshop with the Primary 7s (age 11) was great fun and highly productive. We began with several warm-up exercises, and then the children went on to make a start on writing their own 3 or 5 chapter novels – to be adapted/completed at a later date. Some opted for a timeslip story like The Silver Locket, others went for adventure/thriller or crime or mystery. Two of the girls even started to explore doing a manga style graphic novel. But the most rewarding thing was that not one of the pupils said they couldn’t do it or had no idea what to write. They all just went for it.
As for my adult author identity it was also wonderful to be back where I got the inspiration for my Skye set series of romantic fiction novels Displacement, Settlement and the soon to be published Fulfilment. I half-expected to meet Jack or Rachel, from the books, going round Portree Co-Op.
So, all in all, a successful and hugely enjoyable time away from the desk for me. And it came with the added bonus of an extra few days seeing old friends and soaking up the autumn sunshine as I reacquainted myself with all my favourite places on the most beautiful island in the world.
Hello and welcome to event number eleven in the Virtual Book Festival. Today’s guest is author of children’s books, Darlene Foster, and she’s here to talk to us about her writing and to tell us about the wonderful novels she writes for eight to twelve year olds.
Welcome Darlene, it’s lovely to have you here today. Let’s start with you telling us why and how you became a writer.
No one is born a writer. But you can be born a storyteller. I come from a long line of storytellers and have been telling stories out loud or in my head for as long as I can remember. We were encouraged to tell stories as I was growing up on the farm, as we didn’t have a television until I was almost a teenager. My grade three teacher encouraged me to write my stories down and when I was twelve I had a short story published in a local paper. It was called Stretch Your Food Dollar and was about an amusing experience two young girls have while shopping in a department store. Little did I know, all these years later, I would publish books about two girls having adventures and amusing experiences in various countries.
Storytelling is easy for me, getting it down on paper is a lot harder. Even though I have had several books published, I still feel like I am a writer in training. There is always more to learn.
Anne: Indeed – the writing it down is the hard part –and I know what you mean about always learning.
What genre do you write in and why did that hold a particular appeal for you?
I write travel adventure books for tweens, ages 8 to 12. I chose this genre as I dreamt of travelling as a child and enjoyed reading about adventures children had like The Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden. I particularly enjoy writing for this, my favourite age group, as they are bright, inquisitive, eager to learn and fun. They are in the middle, no longer little children but not yet teenagers. There is still that sweet innocence but they are starting to question things and think for themselves. That sense of adventure kicks in at this age and they crave more independence, at the same time they like to feel safe in the familiar. This all changes when they become teenagers.
Anne: Yes, an ideal age group for all the reasons you say.
How many books have you written? Tell us a bit about them.
I have written and had published seven books in the Amanda Travels series and one bi-lingual book, Cerdito a juicio (English/Spanish)
The Amanda Travels series feature spunky Amanda Ross, a 12-year-old Canadian girl who decides that the only way out of her boring existence is to travel. In Amanda in Arabia – The Perfume Flask, she makes a wish on her birthday for travel and gets an airline ticket to the United Arab Emirates to visit her Aunt the next day. She doesn’t even know where that is and has to look it up on the internet. Once there she meets Leah, an English girl, and before she knows it they are in the middle of an adventure that involves a runaway princess, bounty hunters, camels and a sand storm. She often finds herself wishing she were back home in her boring but safe life once again.
Amanda travels to Spain to join Leah in Amanda in Spain – The Girl in The Painting, where they help a young girl, who looks like a girl in a famous painting, escape the clutches of a mean horse thief. She also visits Leah in Amanda in England – The Missing Novel, where they get lost in a maze, hide in an underground tunnel and ride the London Eye in search of a missing vintage novel. When Leah visits Amanda in Amanda in Alberta – The Writing on the Stone, they take in all the sights while trying to decipher the mysterious writing on a stone and keep it from getting into the wrong hands. No matter where Amanda travels, even in her home province, she can’t seem to stay away from danger. In Amanda on the Danube – The Sounds of Music, Amanda is given a precious violin to look after as she enjoys a cruise down the Danube with Leah. Things aren’t always what they seem and Amanda is not sure who she can trust. Even Leah is acting strange. She goes on a school trip in Amanda inNew Mexico-Ghosts in the Wind where some weird things happen that make her wonder if she believes in ghosts or not. Amanda plans to do a lot more travelling.
Anne: Go Amanda! How wonderful that she and your readers get to travel to all these different places. I’d have loved these as a child and I think my granddaughter who will be eight this year would enjoy them too.
Tell us about a typical writing day?
I no longer have a typical writing day. When I was working full-time I would write for two hours every day, in the evening after dinner. I wrote my first four books sticking to this routine. Now that I am retired, I write when I get a chance. Often late at night but sometimes in the morning or mid-afternoon. The only rule I stick to is that I have to write every day. Which I do.
Anne: Yes, I think that’s the key – keep at it – and fit it in whenever you can.
Do you plot your novels in some detail before you actually start writing?
I am a true panster and create the story as I write. I tried to plot one of my books and it slowed me down and took away the spontaneity I require. I create a mind map with locations but that is about it. The mind map gets changed a lot and becomes very messy. I find this weird, as I am a fastidious planner in other parts of my life, just not in the writing part. I tend to allow my characters to take over. Then I polish the story later.
Anne: Your answer made me smile. I’m exactly the same – I plan the rest of my life assiduously – but when it comes to writing – no way.
What comes first for you characters or plot?
What comes first for me always is setting. However, my stories are character driven so the characters would come before plot. The plot happens as the characters react to certain things, people, places and events.
Anne: Yes, I can see why that would be the case with Amanda’s adventures. It’s the setting that kickstarts the rest.
Where do you get your ideas? How/when do they come to you?
I get my initial ideas when I’m travelling. I will often say to my husband or travelling companions, “I could use that in a story.” Or “Amanda would love that.” I take a lot of notes and pictures. I also get ideas listening to tweens talk. I overheard two twelve-year-olds discussing potential boyfriends and used that idea in Amanda in Holland. I love to hang around young people as they inspire me.
Anne: Again, it’s not surprising that you’re inspired by your travels.
Have you got a favourite character – apart from your lead one Amanda who I’m guessing comes top of the list – out of the all the ones you’ve created?
When I wrote Amanda in New Mexico I created a character called Caleb who I just fell in love with. He is a typical Alberta boy from Calgary. I grew up with three brothers (no sisters), have a son and two grandsons who I adore. Caleb is a combination of all of them. He is funny, tries to be brave, cool, smart and polite. He says things you wouldn’t expect him to say. He has a soft spot for Amanda but doesn’t really let on. He was only going to be in one book, but I have given him a big part in book number 8, Amanda in Malta – The Sleeping Lady.
Anne: Caleb sounds lovely.
Can you share some of the feedback/reviews you’ve had from your readers and/or any awards your books have received?
I have had some great reviews and feedback but the ones I like best are from the young readers themselves.
Here is a review of Amanda on The Danube from an articulate ten-year-old who lives in Wales.
“I think this book every bit as good as the last – if not better! I think the sense of intrepidation in this book is amazing. I read a lot myself and this was such good quality I am astounded. This is one of my favourite books of all time and that’s saying something!! My favourite scene is on page 5 because that’s where the mystery starts where they find the foot in the storage cupboard and are just about to find out more when a young cruise director called Michael spots them and asks why they are there. My favourite character is either Klaus because his personality changes so quickly from jolly and friendly to dark and sinister. Or it could be Sebastian because his personality changes quickly too. My favourite word in the book was ‘cobblestones’ because it sounds weird when I say it. All in all, this book was a great read and one of the best things about it is that children of all ages would enjoy it, because of its twists and turns and gripping narrative. I really enjoyed this book and I wish I could read more of the series.” Catrin
Here’s one from Quill & Quire
“Foster’s writing is conversational and easy to read, and young readers will likely find the pages flying by.”
And one from Alex Lyttle, author of From Ant to Eagle
“As always, I love the way these books teach kids about new places. Darlene does a great job combining history, cuisine, architecture and in this case, botany, from new countries in a way that children will enjoy. Looking forward to the next of Amanda and Leah’s adventures!”
Anne: Wow! Great feedback and especially lovely to hear from child readers too.
Your latest book in the Amanda series came out very recently and we have an extract from it below. But first – what’s it called and please, tell us a bit about it.
It’s called Amanda in Holland-Missing in Action and here’s what it says on the back cover:
Amanda is in Holland to see the tulips with her best friend, Leah. They travel the canals of Amsterdam, visit Anne Frank House, check out windmills, tour a wooden shoe factory, and take many pictures of the amazing flowers of Keukenhof Gardens. But many things are missing in Holland – rare tulip bulbs, a gardener, a home for an abandoned puppy and Amanda’s great-uncle who never returned from World War II. Is Amanda capable of finding these missing things without putting herself in danger? For kids and grown-up kids who enjoy a mystery and adventure set in a delightful country, Amanda’s adventures will make you want to visit Holland.
EXCERPT from Amanda in Holland – Missing in Action
They all piled into the car, Leah in the front, Amanda and Jan in the back with Joey between them.
Amanda enjoyed the scenery as they drove along the highway. “It’s so flat and very green.”
Jan explained how Holland is actually below sea level in many places and dykes were built to keep the water out. “No doubt you have heard the story of the little boy and the dyke?”
“No, I haven’t.” Amanda shook her head. “Tell us.”
“Well,” Jan began, “a long time ago a small boy was on his way to school when he noticed a leak in the dyke. He saw the sea water trickle through the opening and knew that even a small hole could eventually become bigger. If too much water flowed through, the village could be flooded. So, he poked his finger in the hole to stop the water, even though it meant he would be late for school and get into trouble. He stood there with his finger in the hole for a long time until eventually someone saw him and got help. The hole was repaired and the boy became a hero for saving his village.”
“That is such a cool story. Is it true?” asked Amanda.
“It is more like a legend. The story is told to children to show them that even a small child can prevent a disaster if they use their wits. Actually an American author, Mary Mapes Dodge, first wrote about it a hundred and fifty years ago in her book, Hans Brinker or The Silver Skates.”
“That’s so interesting, don’t you think, Leah?”
“Ya, sure.” Leah turned the page of her fashion magazine. “I heard that story when I was a little girl. What do you think of this outfit?” She turned around and held up the page.
Amanda smiled. “That’s very nice. It would look good on you.”
Everyone kept quiet as they passed more farm buildings and neatly tilled fields.
“Turn left,” said the GPS woman.
Mr. Anderson turned the corner and slammed on the brakes. A large angry goose stood in the middle of the road with its wings flapping and neck stretched forward as it honked.
Amanda laughed. “What a silly goose!”
“That’s my grandfather’s goose. He likes to think he is protecting the property,” said Jan.
“You mean he’s like a guard goose.” Amanda grinned.
Jan got out of the car and spoke to the goose in Dutch. The irate bird finally left the road and waddled into the field, his eye still on them.
Leah’s dad rolled down the window. “Thanks, mate. I wasn’t sure how we would get past him. Get back in and we’ll take you to where you need to be.”
Jan climbed back into the car. “You can drop me off over there.” He pointed to a farmyard in the distance.
As they neared the farm, Amanda noticed the rustic house with a sloping roof that looked like a face with a large slouched hat pulled over its eyes. “Is this where your grandparents live?”
“Yes, they have always lived here and so has my great-grandmother. It is her family home,” answered Jan.
The place looked inviting and cozy. Someone pulled aside a lace curtain and peered out the window. Grey eyes met Amanda’s. The curtain dropped.
Darlene: Thanks so much for organizing this virtual book fair and including my Amanda Travels stories.
Anne: It was a pleasure to have you here, Darlene. Thank you so much for taking part.
About Darlene Foster:
Growing up on a ranch near Medicine Hat, Alberta, Darlene Foster dreamt of writing, travelling the world, and meeting interesting people. She also believed in making her dreams come true. It’s no surprise she’s now the award-winning author of Amanda Travels, a children’s adventure series featuring a spunky twelve-year-old who loves to travel to unique places. Readers of all ages enjoy following Amanda as she unravels one mystery after another. When not travelling herself, Darlene divides her time between the west coast of Canada and the Costa Blanca, Spain with her husband and entertaining dog, Dot.