01 July 2008

Richard Blackburn on young adult writing

My Writing--Getting Ideas from Personal Experience
A lot of the action in The Gatekeeper is set in the year 1347. At that time there was a castle in West Derby, where I was brought up until the age of twelve. We know a castle had been there since very early times because the Doomsday book mentions it in 1086. The reason this is important to me is because the grassy plot in front of my house and the field behind it were part of that castle. Actually my house was outside the defensive walls, on the site of the midden, so I was actually brought up on the site of an old rubbish tip!

The village of West Derby was very important to me. The main square was paved with cobble-stones. I thought this was to make kids crash their bikes when it rained, and it certainly did that. At the side of the square, there was a courthouse and yeoman's house built in the time of Elizabeth the First. There were stocks which had been placed there to punish workers who, after the plague of 1348-51, tried to increase their wages because of the scarcity of labour (contravening the Labourers Statute, 1351). So it was a place of great historic interest but there was more. One of the very narrow old streets in the village had special properties. When I walked along it my footsteps would sound; click, click, click but then they would change to; dump, dump, dump. The ground was hollow in an area that seemed to lead to where the castle had been. I was sure it was an escape passage in case of siege and if I could get into it I'd find gold and weapons – all things of great interest to a schoolboy. I was a bit young to think of damsels in distress and I suppose she wouldn't have waited a thousand years for me to save her, anyway. Also, I came against a very stubborn adversary in the local councillor. He lived near there and wouldn't let me dig a hole in the middle of the road to satisfy my curiosity.

I also roamed around the fields of the vast estate of Lord Derby, the Earl of Sefton. This had been a Royal Hunting Forest in the middle ages and was only a few hundred metres away from my house, over a high sandstone wall. Even though it was trespassing to go in there, it was the most fantastic place to find willows, which grew really the straight new branches that we used as swords or made bows and arrows out of. Many of our games were inspired by Robin Hood and The Crusades.

Sorcery and Such
I'm happy to include time travel in my story because my family is Manx and they're all very superstitious. On the Isle of Man many people still believe in mystical creatures like the Phennodderee, the Bugain and the Fowar. My grandmother wouldn't have electricity in her cottage. She said it was the work of the Devil. She also swept the floors from the walls in, so as not to brush good luck out. At night the back door was left slightly open, to let the Phennodderee in if they were weary or cold. And in case they were hungry, she left out saucers of bread and milk. It was years later I put two and two together and realised that's why even the stray cats around there looked well fed.

A History of Story Telling
My father was a great story teller and I've tried to follow his example. I've always tried to make up short stories for my kids. At one stage my wife told me I should write a book of them and try to get it published. As you know, men always do what their wives tell them to do, so after thirty-odd years that is what I'm doing now. But I'm sticking to adventure, not the scary stories my father sometimes told.

I remember one of them was about a Bugain, the nastiest of the Manx mystical creatures. You see, there were three kids in my family and I was the youngest. I had to go to bed first and my bedroom was built over the garage, away from the rest of the family. There were none of those modern lights which you can switch on at the bottom of the stairs and off at the top so I had to go to bed in the dark.

After the story that night I was petrified. I crept up the stairs with my knees shaking. It was when I'd nearly reached my room I froze. I had heard the Bugain. It was shuffling along the corridor higher up, grunting at times and breathing heavily. I was mortified. I knew I was a gonner. I just hoped the end would be swift and painless. But then something happened – something seemed to go snap inside my brain. I started to get angry. I was determined not to go without a fight. I'd show that monster he'd taken on more than he'd bargained for when he picked on me.

I crept up the extra stairs and flattened myself against the wall around the corner from where my pursuer was slowly creeping toward me. My heart was thumping wildly as I prepared for the end. I waited until the creaking of the floorboards was right there then I threw myself around the corner with a bloodcurdling yell.


It was my grandmother. She had been heading toward the toilet ... carrying a full chamber-pot. Well, you guessed it. I was blamed for the wee on the ceiling. I was blamed for the wee dribbling down the walls. But she wasn't blamed for acting like a ghost and frightening me! So at an early age I learnt that life was not particularly fair. And in The Gatekeeper, Jenny, the heroine, soon came to the same conclusion.

Any YA historical fantasy writer who has not had the fortune to be brought up in an interesting location, come from a crazy family or been scared to death by his father must rely on research. The internet is so important and I also read old books or reprints of old correspondence such as the Pastern letters. My recent find is Wynkin de Worde's training guide for young lords written in the late thirteen hundreds. One of many instructions he tells them is:
'Don't spit over the tablecloth or on it
Definitely don't blow your nose on the tablecloth.
Don't spit in the water brought for washing your hands.
Don't spit a long way away from you but when you do spit, spit from behind your hand neatly near your chair.'

So large numbers of guests at a normal meal would very politely spit all over the floor – gross!

Writing for YA
When I have an idea for a story to write, it is always the sort of story I'd be interested in reading myself. I don't dumb down the language even though I don't include swearing but that is because I don't like swearing in real life. I don't include too much gore but I do portray the horrors of life as they were in those days. I use as many really interesting facts as I can.

I like fast moving stories and don't spend time telling my readers the sky is blue and the trees are green. I think they should know that. I read my work over scores of times. I read it out loud (although my dog is really worried by this and looks at me as though I've finally gone round the bend).

I also use footnotes for those facts that are not often known these days but need to be understood for the sake of the story. Many would be ugly information dumps if I put them in the text and I don't like looking facts up in the back of the book myself, so I don't inflict it on others.

Some of my scenes would have been considered a bit risqué when I was a kid but things have changed and I think it is a normal part of today's society.

Richard Blackburn, author of The Gatekeeper:
I was born in England during the Second World War. I grew up in a house built on the site of a 12th Century castle in a village that was important when Liverpool was just a few fishermen's cottages. My family was Manx, full of superstition and stories of the Phennodderee, Fowar, Bougain and Mermaid.

I emigrated to Australia at the age of twenty and worked at first as a bookkeeper on a cattle station to the north of the Simpson Dessert. I then moved to Darwin and worked as an internal auditor in the Health Department, travelling extensively around the Northern Territory. Finding the 'Top End' lacking in adventure, I moved on to Papua New Guinea where I worked for thirteen years among the primitive people, as a District Officer. This involved being a police officer, magistrate and senior Australian representative in the area he was responsible for.

Since returning to Australia I have gained an Associate Diploma in Management, an Advanced Diploma in Administration and a Degree in Information Technology and have worked for a number of Government Departments. I completed two TAFE short courses in creative writing to make sure my style had not been crushed completely by many years of writing in the public service.

My interests outside work are now restricted to my family and scuba diving. I have had to give up parachuting and long-distance running due to a back injury and now have to be content to leave the real excitement to characters in his stories.

I have had The Gatekeeper published in Australia by Zeus Publications and the sequel, Rudigor's Revenge, will be available later this year. Next year both stories will be published by Lachesis, Canada, probably as one book. I am presently writing the third book in the series and I have submitted another four books to my Canadian Publisher. These are aimed at a younger YA audience.

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