Author Q&A: Susanna Bailey

We sat down with children’s author Susanna Bailey to discuss the process of writing, sources of inspiration, and a key piece of advice for aspiring young writers.

We are delighted that Susanna’s book, Otters’ Moon, is the high-quality text selected as a basis for Bite into Writing book 3, part of the suite of resources to support the teaching and learning of year 6 writing.

Are you an avid reader? To what extent does reading influence your writing?

Absolutely! I have had my nose in a book since I was four years old. Books have always felt like friends to me: a place to escape, to be entertained, or to learn things, but also a place where, as quite a shy, uncertain child, I could feel less alone. Even now, I must have a book on the go, or I feel lost…

Reading hugely influences my writing. When I started out, I wanted to see if I could write a story that would make readers feel as I did about my favourite childhood reads. I still hope to do that. I guess that like many authors, aspects of the way I write is inspired by the writing of my favourite authors. (We all start off with a bit of healthy ‘copying’: learning from the best, I think!).

Reading fills my head with words and images so that there is a kind of store there that I can use in my own writing. Also, every time I read a book that takes me somewhere special, introduces me to a fantastic character, or helps me understand something important, that reminds me of the magic of books, and helps me push through the hard work it takes to create one!

How much research do you do when planning a novel?

That depends on the novel. For Otters’ Moon, I needed to find out as much as I could about otters, of course. And even though the story is set on a fictitious Scottish island, research into the kinds of landscape, buildings, and wildlife that Meg and Luke might encounter on real Hebridean islands helped me bring my island to life.

Also, I needed to know what Meg, as an islander and wildlife enthusiast would know. Of course, a children’s author must try to ensure that information in their stories is factually correct - and not boring! But research is about so much more than that. It’s about letting the story and your characters take shape and grow. It really does help generate and develop ideas. For instance, my discovery of the ancient historical sites: ruins, burial grounds and standing stones commonly found on remote islands helped me create atmosphere and interest in some of the scenes for Otter’s Moon. I discovered, too, that sea mythology is common around far-flung islands: tales of sea monsters, disappearing ships, and mysterious weather fronts, and this inspired the weird, dangerous, ‘Otters’ Moon’ events, and old Seth’s belief in these as a threat to Luke.

For me, research can be anything from online searches, visits to real places, watching films, interviewing people (or just chatting to someone), drawing maps, sketching scenes and characters (badly, but it doesn’t matter!), making lists of characters’ likes and dislikes, or writing a monologue in a character’s voice (just letting them ‘ramble in my head). All these things and more can help develop ideas and let my story grow. Even staring out of the window can be a kind of research, allowing space for the mind to discover things about a story. (Young readers can tell their teachers I said so!).

Are you ever stuck for ideas? Do you have any suggestions of ways to generate new ideas when you start writing?

Oh yes! It can feel hard to create stories; to conjure something ‘out of thin air’. I find that re-reading favourite books can help. But also, writers can find inspiration from many things: a snatch of a conversation overheard – on the bus, in the playground or in a café and so on, can suggest a story, or a character. Having a notebook with you to jot things down – or recording them on your phone, if you have one, can help. (You can look a bit like a spy or a secret agent at times!). ‘Things’ can suggest stories, too: a lost shoe on the beach or in the park; a dark, dark feather; a balloon on a string sailing high in the air; an interesting pebble, a tiny, unexpected door in a wall; a strange, bent tree. A torn scrap of paper at the back of a dusty drawer. It can help to ask yourself questions about these things; to wonder about them… I like walking in wild or ancient places, too – imagining who might have walked there before. Recently, I visited an old Alms-house school near my home, and noticed a name and date scratched in childish handwriting on a bench in the (rather scary and stark) schoolroom. I began to wonder about the brave child that put it there, under the nose of the strict Victorian schoolmaster at his lectern. My imagination took over; created a story.

Paintings, or any kind of art can suggest a story. So can a picture in a book, a photograph, or the cover of a book taken at random from the shelf…

Stories in the news, and things learned within school topics can offer story ideas, especially if young writers try to imagine themselves there in someone else’s shoes; in another time, another place, and so on.

But often the best stories come out of ‘ordinary’ things in our own lives: things that matter to us and will be relatable to readers, too. Simple things like an argument with a friend, a house or school move, or the arrival of a new member of the family. Something, or someone lost. Or found. A wish. A hope. A challenge - and so on…

If clear story ideas won’t come, you can begin by drawing or doodling or just scribbling down random words that pop into your head. You’d be surprised what can come from this. Even the pens/crayons themselves might suggest something: why is the red one missing? Where has it gone…?

And you don’t have to create stories all by yourself. I’ve found that the tiniest seed of an idea can really grow when I share it with others and hear their ideas, too.

Your books very much reflect real-life situations and characters. Where do you draw your ideas and inspiration from?

I draw on my memories of being a child – of how that felt at various times: the highs and the lows – of the people, animals, places, and stories that were important to me in one way or another. And on aspects of life with my own five children and our various animals. (From escapee hamsters and kittens born under the bed, to disappearing dogs and a stick-insect called Dennis!)

Inspiration also comes from adventures, challenges, losses or difficulties that have affected me and/or members of my family or friends in one way or another.

I was privileged to share in the real-life stories of many young people and families in my previous careers as social worker and probation officer, and this does very much influence and inform my choice of story subject and characters

Your novel ‘Otters’ Moon’ tackles some sensitive issues – did you find these aspects of the book challenging to write, particularly given the intended age group?

Absolutely. I’m committed to writing truthfully about real-life issues, and certainly owe that to young readers – especially as some of them may be living with such issues in their own lives or may know others that are. I hope that my books might encourage understanding and empathy; perhaps facilitate important discussions that can be helpful to children. This is especially so now, when so many people of all ages are struggling with aspects of mental health. But at the same time, I need to tread gently, so as not to upset young readers, or, indeed, present them with issues that they are not ready to think about. I want to write ‘good stories’ that are involving and entertaining, too: books that can be enjoyed simply at that level. So, I try to vary the tone of scenes; to juxtapose the more difficult or emotional moments with material that is less challenging – something that absorbs in an entertaining way or is light; has humour. I try to use descriptive language that is lyrical – perhaps brings beauty or a gentle note to offset any harshness of events. But it is hard because everything needs to work together. I spend a good deal of time trying to create metaphors/similes that children can interpret at their own level. Each of the novels I have written to date offers child-animal friendships that explore and illuminate – parallel in some way – the emotional journey of my child characters. I hope that this may soften, or make more accessible, the more difficult real-life issues covered.

Is there one piece of advice you would give to young writers?

Yes!  Read and read and read as much as you possibly can!