Thursday, 28 March 2013

Interview #17: Barbara Mitchelhill

A young mum and her little daughters were watching television together. The mum was struck with the idea that she would like to be a television presenter. It would be a nice job, she told herself.

Never mind that she had no experience. Never mind she already had a job as a school teacher. The mum decided to write to the BBC anyway. Well, why not? What did she have to lose?

Little did she know that the letter would set her on a long journey to publication as an award-winning writer. Barbara Mitchelhill is today the author of thrilling YA historical adventure novels Run Rabbit Run, The Road to London and Storm Runners as well as the Damian Drooth series for younger readers.
Best-selling author Barbara Mitchelhill

"I was naive," said Barbara, speaking to Bookengine by phone from her home in Staffordshire. This may be true. But to her great surprise, she got a call from the BBC, inviting her to go to their studios in London.

"I spent the whole day there. They were very nice. At the end of the day they asked if I had an Equity card. I said, no I didn't. Obviously I didn't. I was a teacher. They said we can't employ you.

"But instead they said 'would you like to write for us?'. I had never written anything. But I said yes, I would love to."

Barbara was soon a successful TV writer. She was writing for shows like Play School. Often she would take her daughters, Susie and Sally, to see the shows being made.

She was still working as a teacher. Her next good fortune came when an educational publisher contacted her school and asked the head if there was a teacher who might like to help write stories for their new reading scheme. Barbara was the natural choice.

Writing with such tight boundaries might seem restrictive. Yet the process of having to find new and creative ways of pushing those boundaries can be great training for authors seeking to work on the bigger canvas of a novel. Barbara Mitchelhill is not the only famous writer to hone his or her writing talent in this way. Mal Peet, author of the brilliant Paul Faustino novels, too, began by writing reading scheme books.

Barbara's multi-award winning novel
Barbara said: "It taught me to come up with ideas. You had a limited number of words.  It's fine if you have to come up with only two or three stories.

"But you had to come up with eight or nine of them. That was hard."

In time, Barbara was ready to spread her wings. She began writing novels for older children. At last she found what she really wanted to do.

"Now I write only for nine- to 13-year-olds. I don't write for educational publishers any more.

"I really enjoy writing novels with something to say. I love history. I've found this niche of writing adventure stories with a historical backdrop.

"I love doing the research and writing for children of that age.

"I write adventure stories set in a historical period. But I write about ordinary children, not about kings and queens."

Run Rabbit Run is set during the Second World War and tells the story of a brother and sister who go on the run when their father refuses to go to war to fight.

Road to London follows a theatre-obsessed young boy who finds himself in Elizabethan London in the company of William Shakespeare.

She said: "Having a book you enjoy as a story, you absorb so much. I do spend a lot of time on the research. I want them to be factually correct.

"I've just finished a book and sent it to my editor today. It's another World War Two one. You have to be so careful about dates and times."

Barbara described her writing process: "I think of an idea and write out a two-page outline for my editor. If she says yes, I start writing it. Often I find the final book is nothing like that original outline. Characters take over! When I look back at the outline, I realise it's gone a bit adrift.

"I do find that if the outline is too detailed you lose that freshness. And the writing can become a real slog if there's no excitement there.
Road to London was nominated for the Carnegie Medal

"When I was writing Road to London I had a most odd experience. An apothecary walked into the story out of nowhere. He turned out to be a key character in the book."

Barbara is drawn to certain periods of history.

"I've no idea why I'm drawn to the Second World War. With Road to London, which is about Shakespeare - I love theatre and am very interested in Shakespeare.

"I have got one coming out soon, A Twist of Fortune, which is set in Victorian London. It's so easy in this country to experience certain places. London is awash with historical settings. There are some buildings in London that were in existence 400 years ago."

It can take Barbara around nine months to write a novel, which includes all the research.

"I feel slightly empty when I finish a book," she said.

Going on tour and visiting schools to promote the book extends the time she spends with her characters. But sometimes, once she's thinking about her next book, she can forget what was in her earlier ones. She remembers a child once asking her about a character she had no recollection of whatsoever.

Barbara has been asked to write a new Damian Drooth book. This series is about a young detective and is aimed at younger readers.

"I enjoyed writing about him and found it easier to write about him because the characters were already there. It's just about working out a situation for him."

Her work is receiving the recognition it clearly deserves.

Run Rabbit Run recently won the Stockton Book Award, a Young Quills award from the Historical Association and the West Sussex Children's Book Award. It was also nominated for the Carnegie Medal.

Her new book, out in April
Meanwhile, more novels continue to appear.

A Twist of Fortune, is out next month (April 2013) and is another thrilling tale set in Victorian London. It's the story of three siblings, the Pargeters, who are forced to live with their uncle and auntie in a dangerous part of the city. When life becomes intolerable, they decide to leave and seek their long-lost grandfather.

A Twist of Fortune seems a rather apt title for Barbara. For it was her own twist of fortune - a letter to the BBC - all those years ago, that led her on this wonderful writing journey.

* My thanks to Barbara for speaking to  Bookengine. If you'd like to find out more about her and her books, visit her website, She is appearing at the Urmston Literature Festival in Greater Manchester on April 17.

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