Cross-posted from BookRambler because Lari’s answers are really helpful for writers thinking about how to structure their stories and writing books for older readers.
BookRambler’s Q&A with Lari Don
Lari Don is an award-winning children’s author of ten books and a further four books out this year. Maze Running and other Magical Missions is published by Floris Books this month and the last in the popular ‘First Aid for Fairies’ series for older children. Lari also writes picture books for younger readers.
Lari graciously agreed to a Q&A by email before the launch of her latest title – Maze Running …, which I devoured in one sitting. It’s pacy and exciting – a really good traditional story for children and a fitting climax to the series:
One of Helen’s friends is dying, stabbed in the heart by the Master, and this life-threatening injury needs a magical remedy. Helen and her fabled-beast friends unite, with the help of the dragons, to find a magical token with the power to cure. But they only have until tomorrow night…
[from the publisher’s tempting blurb]
Lari regularly updates her blog with information for writers looking for tips and inspiration and with reflective posts that examine the writing life. And in her email responses she gives thoughtful answers that let us into some of the decisions and strategies she adopts when writing for children.
Q1. In Maze Running, as in all your books, you create a real page turner. From the first page the pace flies along and doesn’t flag. New writers often struggle with their openings –either they begin too dramatically and then fizzle out or build to the drama but fizzle out quickly. You keep the pace moving forwards. How do you work it out? Do you write individual scenes and connect them together or work out the cliff-hangers at the end of each chapter and write up to it?
LD: I’m glad you thought the story kept on moving! I like to keep the pace up, so I try to put any description or necessary information amongst the action, rather than stopping the action. And I don’t plan the plot carefully beforehand; I just let the story carry me along. I tend to write chronologically, rather than writing individual scenes then moving them around, and I use cliff-hangers as signposts to aim for, but really, I just sprint ahead with the characters and record what happens! However I do edit very carefully afterwards, to cut out all the bits I needed to work out the story, but which the reader doesn’t want to slog through. I hope that’s why it’s pacy!
Q2. You don’t shy away from writing about dark things that happen. Do you worry that this might be too frightening for your readers? How do you know when you’ve got it right?
LD:I don’t ever know if I’ve got it right.
I did once read a draft chapter of Rocking Horse War to my own kids, and as I got to the dark distressing bit, I thought “Oh dear, this might make them upset.” Then I thought, “If this makes them cry, then I’ve written it right.” It made them cry. And I was very pleased. Which probably makes me a conscientious writer, and a terrible mother!
When I write picture books for wee ones, they are not dark or scary. There will be a problem, but it will be solved in daylight, with adults in the background.
But Rocking Horse War and the First Aid for Fairies books are for older kids. I wouldn’t be able to sustain their interest over 20plus chapters if there wasn’t some danger, and as a writer I wouldn’t want to live in that world for a year if there weren’t some difficult decisions and dark characters to challenge me. It’s what makes the story worth writing, and reading. But these are books for primary kids, mainly, and I do always want to end on a positive note. So there will be a bit of worry and fear (and tears, sorry…) as well as a few painful injuries on the way, but I can usually promise, if not a totally happy ending, then at least a hopeful one.
And maybe I can tell if I get it right. If kids want to read the next one…
Q3: Do you have an ideal reader you write for?
LD: Me, when I was 10. I write for the girl who loved horses and climbing trees and getting wet in rivers, but who also loved reading Diana Wynne Jones and CS Lewis books. I really do wish a centaur had turned up on my doorstep!
Q4: The names of your fantastical and fabled creatures seem to fit them so well: Yann, Lavender, Sapphire, Lee, Helen, Catesby, Rona… How do you know when you’ve got the right name? Do you ever change a character’s name at the draft stage?
LD: Getting the right name is really hard, and involves scribbling lots of lists and testing lots of names. Helen was Anne or Anna for a wee while, then Irene, but she didn’t convince me at all until she became Helen. That fitted her immediately. There is a meaning or a reason behind every name (Rona for example is from the Gaelic for seal; Sapphire is a blue dragon who likes jewellery, hence a gem name) but I very rarely explain the name in the book, it’s mostly just for my own satisfaction! Yann however turned up with his own name. I didn’t choose it! I don’t much like arguing with him…
And yes, I have changed names late on, if they haven’t fitted, or if I have realised they are too close to other potentially confusing names. That can be hard, as it takes a while to get to know the character again.
Q5: I love the way you thread well-known traditional folktales into your stories. The Scottish folk-tale of Thomas the Rhymer is an important element in Maze Running, how did this come about? Have you always known this tale or did you research ballads?
LD: I am inspired by a lot of myths and legends. The main injury in Maze Running (but I won’t say what that injury is!) was partly inspired by a Viking god myth for example, and the Borders tale of Tam Linn was a huge influence on the Carterhaugh section of First Aid for Fairies, and on the whole plot of Wolf Notes. I have known of Thomas Rhymer, and the story of his reappearance at the Eildons, for a long long time. My family come from the Borders, and I went to school there for a while! And I once told Thomas Rhymer in a forest, as part of an art exhibition with students putting their visual interpretations of the old legends in the trees, as storytellers told the tales below. It was a lovely night, apart from the midgies…
I love the idea of introducing kids to the old stories in my new books.
Q6: Setting is very important in all of your books. In Maze Running it’s the Eildon Hills. Why here for the last in the series?
LD: The settings are vital. I find the landscape and legends of Scotland very inspiring. Maze Running is set partly in the Borders (Traquair and the Eildons) but also much further north at Cromarty, and further west at Kilmartin. I wanted to go back to the Borders because that’s Helen’s home, so I wanted to tie the story up there.
And the Eildons are very magical hills. I walked up them one day last autumn to research the quest at the Lucken Howe, with a notebook and pen in my hand, as always. I could actually HEAR Helen and Lee arguing in my head as I walked from Melrose up to the reservoir. So that scene almost wrote itself, in a way which would never have happened if I’d been sitting at home looking at pictures of the Eildons online. Walking is a great way of hearing the right words!
Q7: Your books appeal to both male and female readers and you’ve got really strong female characters – I’m thinking of Helen and her vet mother. How important is it to you that you give out a positive message in your books? Or do you just concentrate on writing a good story with universal appeal? Why is “The Master” – the baddie – a male character?
LD:Good question. I’m a girl, and I have two daughters, so I tend to think of girl characters first. But I hope I write strong boy characters too, and I certainly know that boys and girls enjoy my books.
When I was growing up I used to get slightly annoyed at all the excellent books with main characters who were boys who had sidekicks who were girls. And that’s still a tendency in kids’ books. So far I’ve tended to do it the other way round! Helen is the main character, and Yann and Lee are often her sidekicks. And in Rocking Horse War, my other novel, Pearl is the main character, but is accompanied by (and either helped or hindered by) the mysterious Thomas.
However as far as my baddies go I am an equal opportunities employer… The Faery Queen in Wolf Notes is a girl! And I would suggest (without spoiling the plot) that there are several other characters in Maze Running who are definitely female and definitely not goodies!
Q8: If you were magically transformed into a fabled beast, what would it be?
LD: Oh. I don’t know. I’d like to be a centaur because I like to run. But perhaps I’d like to be fully human some of the time. So maybe a selkie? But they are usually a bit wet, and I’m not as much of a fan of swimming as I am of running. So perhaps a wolfgirl like Sylvie, who can be human or wolf, and can chase down deer. But I’m a vegetarian, so I’m not sure that would work. I think I like being that most magical creation – a writer, because then I can be anything I like, every time I write !
Q9: Maze Running is the last in the series of ‘First Aid for Fairies’ – sadly. Did you always plan to write four or did they evolve out of each other? Did the characters demand more stories?
LD: Initially I only planned to write one. There would have been no point in writing more if no-one had published it! But when I was editing First Aid for Fairies for publication, I came up with the idea for Wolf Notes, and when I was editing Wolf Notes, I came up with the idea for Maze Running (which right from the first moment was clearly going to be the last book), and when I got feedback from readers that they missed Rona in Wolf Notes, that cemented the idea for Storm Singing. So each new book came out of the previous books. But four is enough, for now, even though I had lots more ideas when I was editing the last two! I have to stop now, partly because Helen and her friends are getting older – they’ll be wanting Young Adult plot lines next, and I’m not ready to write those! – and partly because I want to explore other ideas, characters and worlds.
Q10: If you were paper, what would you fold yourself into? Ian Rankin said ‘a book’ in his Q&A, – so what else?
LD: A boat. There is a boat in Viking mythology which can be folded up and put in a pocket, and I’ve always thought that would be very handy. Especially round Scotland’s wild and wonderful coastline.
And finally…. Thanks Lari, for taking the time to answer my questions – what’s next on the writing front? More fabulous creatures or something different altogether?
LD: Not another fabled beast book yet, if at all. I have a few other totally different ideas racing around in my head, but I’m not sure which one I will go for first. It’s a difficult decision, choosing which characters and story you’ll spend the next few months or years with. I think I will have to choose the questions which I’m most keen to answer, the story which just won’t leave me alone!