Thursday, 25 February 2021

UKYA Spotlight: A Crown of Talons by Katharine and Elizabeth Corr - Q&A with Holly Race

Katharine and Elizabeth Corr are sisters and co-writers of The Witch's Kiss trilogy and A Throne of Swans. The second novel in the Swans duology, A Crown of Talons, was published in January by hot Key Books. Katharine and Elizabeth very kindly answered some questions about how they approach series of different lengths, how to build fantasy worlds and creating suspense.

- Hello! Thank you for chatting to me. To start off with, can you introduce the world of A Throne of Swans, for anyone who hasn't yet read it?

The main kingdom of A Throne Of Swans is Solanum. It's part of a world ruled by the minority - the nobles - who can shapeshift into huge, people-sized birds that represent their family line. In Solanum the ruling family are swans. Everything is organised for the convenience of the nobles. For example, the roads are bad because the nobles don't use them, and the architecture reflects the fact that they arrive at places by flight (so there are landing platforms built into their dwellings). The majority of people are flightless, but they have few rights and little representation and are kept down (mostly) because the shapeshifting power of the nobles allows them to burn flightless with the slightest touch. Solanum is ruled by a monarchy, advised by a royal council and a larger body that represents the nobles, mostly following ancient laws known as Decrees. It's divided into six dominions, each of which is controlled by a Protector. 

- Aderyn's our way into the world of Solanum - a noblewoman who is drawn into Solanum's politics in A Throne of Swans. Can you talk a bit about where we find Aderyn at the start of A Crown of Talons?

[Spoiler alert!] A Crown Of Talons picks up about three months after the events at the end of A Throne Of Swans, when Aderyn decided to enter into a political marriage with her cousin, Aron, in order to save her lover, Lucien, and stop the country falling into civil war. She is now queen, and is trying to steer the country towards reform (particularly with regard to the treatment of the flightless) at the same time as searching for the villains (no names because spoilers!) who fled at the end of Swans. She's also dealing with the emotional trauma of trying to be happy in her marriage while still being in love with Lucien. Into this mix is thrown another problem: the flightless of Celonia, a neighbouring country, have risen up and driven out the nobles. Aderyn tries to steer a line between giving sanctuary to the Celonians and stopping Solanum being drawn into a war, or ending up embroiled in its own revolution. There are plots everywhere!

- There are! I love it! It’s such a brilliant idea to retell Swan Lake. I remember seeing the ballet once as a child and reading A Throne of Swans gave me exactly the same feeling of poetry and romance and graceful, magical danger. What inspired you when you first came up with the idea?

We've both always enjoyed watching ballet, and Kate and one of her daughters takes ballet lessons too. It was her daughter who first suggested Swan Lake as a source of inspiration. But we decided straight away we didn't want to do a retelling that stuck too closely to the original, particularly since we were more interested in the villains: what caused Rothbart (the evil wizard) to turn Odette into a swan, and why did his daughter Odile go along with it? Aderyn was called Odile in our original draft, and eagle eyed readers will spot from the family tree that Aderyn's father is indeed named Rothbart.

- A Crown of Talons has, from the outset, an incredible sense of menace and claustrophobia. We don’t know who Aderyn can trust, even amongst the characters we’ve come to know and love. Do you have any tips on how to create that atmosphere and feeling of paranoia, for any writers reading this who are crafting stories with political or thriller elements?

There is a lot of politics in Talons, and we found that writing in the first person helped with developing that sense of menace - as a reader you're really up close with Aderyn's thoughts and plans, and her sense of anxiety - and sometimes panic - comes through. It's also helpful to thread hints through the story. For example, we included a scene in Swans where Aderyn overhears Lucien dictating a letter in the middle of the night. It's not until about a third of the way through Talons that particular bird comes home to roost, so to speak! We were constantly sowing little seeds of doubt as we went along, trying to keep the reader on the edge of their seat!

- You succeeded! The world of Solanum is so rich and detailed, and we see a lot more of it in A Crown of Talons. How much of the world building - the Pyre Flames, the litanies, the other islands (which I won’t talk about in detail in case of spoilers!) etc - did you work out before writing A Throne of Swans and how much did you invent as you drafted?

We worked out most of it as we were drafting. We knew up front that we wanted the setting to have the feel of the English eighteenth century. So for example they have telescopes and clocks but they don't know what fossils are. We also had in our head the sort of things that we'd need to think about to build a convincing world: social structure, religion, geography, history and so on. But we didn't have all the details pinned down in advance; the world almost revealed itself to us as we were writing it, if that makes sense.

- Your first series - The Witch's Kiss - was a trilogy. How different is it to plot a duology as opposed to a trilogy?

With The Witch's Kiss we knew we wanted to take the classic trilogy approach of having the second book end up in a dark place; book two ends on a cliff hanger with no certainty that either of the two main characters are going to survive. With the duology, we decided that we needed the first book to have an ending that wasn't a cliff hanger as such but that did leave very obvious questions to be answered.

- I understand that as a writing duo, Katharine is the one responsible for character deaths and Liz is the one trying to save them? I love that! Has your writing dynamic changed at all over the years that you’ve been writing together?

It's remained remarkably constant, especially re the killing / saving aspect! If anything, it's become a little smoother. We both know what our strengths are now so we have no difficulty dividing up the work in a way that best reflects that.

- Are you able to tell us a little about what you’re working on next?

We would love to but it's still under wraps right now! Hopefully later this year we'll be able to spill the beans... 

- I can't wait! Right, finally, which actors would you want to play Aderyn, Aron and Lucien in a screen adaptation of the books?

That's a tough one! We're not great at picking actors, but here goes: -

Aderyn - Florence Pugh

Lucien - Xolo Maridueña

Aron - Luke Newton (though he'd have to dye his hair!)

I love love love these choices! Thanks so much, Kate and Liz - it's been a total pleasure.

Thank you so much for having us on the blog, Holly!

You can buy A Throne of Swans here, A Crown of Talons here and The Witch's Kiss here. They are beautiful, evocative YA fantasies with hauntingly dark edges.


Holly worked for many years as a script editor in film and television, before becoming a writer.

Her debut novel, Midnight's Twins, is published by Hot Key Books. Its sequel, A Gathering Midnight, will be released in June 2021. She also selectively undertakes freelance script editing and story consultant work.

Wednesday, 24 February 2021

The Major Components of Motivation, by Saviour Pirotta

I have to admit that, like many others I've found the three lockdowns very difficult to deal with. I'd assumed that if I had no distractions, no school visits, no flea markets and charity shops to waste precious writing time in and - most importantly, no money worries - I would sit in my garden or my office and tap away on my macbook like the mean, lean writing machine I know I can be.

Nothing could have turned out further from the truth. I very quickly discovered that my house is a minefield of procrastinating opportunities. Bread to bake, seeds to sew, plants to water and grow, furniture to restore, an attic to sort out, ephemera collections to catalogue. The list was endless. To make matters worse, publishing schedules were put on hold, deadlines pushed back. Suddenly there seemed to be no urgency to keep to a tight writing schedules or a timetable.

I also missed the contact with school children and the chance to bounce my ideas off them. I missed my frequent research trips abroad from whence I returned buzzing with ideas and notebooks full of sketches and notes. As month after month of procrastination rolled by, I decided to pull myself up by the bootstraps, knuckle down and tackle one of the pet projects that I'd put aside for years in favour of more bread and butter work.

To get me through, I adopted a three-pronged motivation approach from my gym days:


This is the decision to put aside thinking about the project and to actually START working on the project. To go past the 'that would make a brilliant story' stage. Give yourself a deadline. See the finished result in your head. Visualise the merits. See the book in the shops, in libraries. Visualise yourself showing it off at festivals, in schools. 

Gather all the bits you have so far. A mood board, notes, cuttings from papers and magazines, printouts off the internet. I collate mine in a scrapbook. Treasure that scrapbook. Make it your best friend. I haul mine around withe me (yes, I even took it to the Scarborough Rugby Club where I had my first covid vaccine.) I paste things in it, I make it look pretty.

Write the name of your project along the top of an A4 sheet of paper. And a pair of footsteps at the bottom. Draw another pair, getting closer to the name (the goal) every time your work on your project. 


There's always that Eureka moment when you see something or hear something or read about something that gives you an idea. And there's the rush that follows as you start jotting down ideas. This usually happens to me on trips abroad. I see something in a museum and - ping - my imagination goes into overdrive.

Then other things in life take precedence - that contracted book you have to finish, those school visits you have to plan for - and the vision starts to fade. This is where persistence comes in. Keep on working on the project. Make little steps towards the goal. It might be reading up on the subject at the heart of the story, making a character sketch. It might not be much as things go but it takes you further along the path. Persist! Your motivation will grow stronger with each step.


At some point the motivation will become so strong, you will move the project from the back burner to the forefront. As those footsteps get you closer to the goal, break into a run. Focus on the golden apple on the tree and pelt towards it. Drop everything else. Ignore the pain. I stop cooking, stop reading anything unconnected to the project, sometimes I even miss sleep. But boy is it worth it when your hands close around the golden apple and you find you have reached your goal. 

It's mad being a writer sometimes so I hope this helps.

Saviour Pirotta's third book in the Wolfsong series is out now. It's called The Mysterious Island.  It's also available as an audiobook on the cloudaloud app. Firebird comes out on kindle on the 28th Feb. Follow Saviour on @spirotta and on instagram @saviour2858. 

Tuesday, 23 February 2021

May's Story, by Heather Redman: Sue Purkiss

 I've written on ABBA before - many times! - about the writing class/group I run in Cheddar. It started off as a class, but it's morphed into more of a group, I think; especially since the beginning of the pandemic, when we went online. I set up a blog, Let's Write, and I post a task there each week. Then we meet on Zoom and read our work and discuss it - it works really well: except that a founder member of the group, Heather Redman, who is in her early eighties, can't access it because she's never got to grips with the internet, though she does use a word processor.

Heather is not very mobile, so she really has been stuck at home. Undaunted, during the first lockdown she decided to get on with a project that's been at the back of her mind since she first started coming to the group, which must be nearly ten years ago now. She has always said that she wanted to write her mother's story - and so last summer, she got on and did it.

Heather's mother, May, had a difficult childhood. Nowadays we would call it deprived, and so it was - as were the lives of so many working class children. But May's was worse than most. Her father, Henry, had moved from Bristol to South Wales when he married to get a job in the coal mines. He and his wife, Elizabeth, had four children, of whom May was the second. But the fourth birth was too much for Elizabeth, and she died.

Henry now had four small children to look after and a hard job. He looked around for a new wife, and found one: but his choice proved disastrous for the children, especially when war broke out in 1914 and Henry enlisted.

May felt it was up to her to look after her younger brother Harry. She was in anguish for him. He wasn't as quick-thinking as she was, and so she kept a close eye on him at all times - but especially when they came home from school, when their stepmother might be ready with a hot iron poised ready to be dapped on him as he walked through the door. On days like this, May would grab him and run to the mountains until hopefully the danger would be past. The stepmother had a painful brain tumour, but the children knew nothing about that - all they knew was that she was the only adult in their lives, and they were terrified of her.

Fortunately, Henry was sent back from the war early when it was discovered that he'd lied about his age. The stepmother died when May was nine, and as her older sister Lily was deemed to be the clever one and destined to carry on at school, May became the housekeeper. And this really set the pattern of her life: she was always to be the caregiver. But tragedy continued to stalk her: death, accidents, and a husband of whom Heather has nothing good to say. But May carried on stoically: an unsung heroine.

Heather told me that this was the only picture she could find of her mother where she was laughing.

Heather clearly loved her mother dearly, and wanted to tell her story so she could pass it on to her family. Over the years, she's written short pieces about her, but now she's written the whole thing, and we've published it using Amazon. It's short - Heather has always been a very concise writer - but there's a great deal in it. It reminds us of how difficult life was for working class families in the early part of the last century, and it's a very moving testament, not just to Heather's mother, but to all those unheard heroes and heroines who just kept on keeping on, no matter how hard life was. I'm very glad I was able to help her to get it into print.

If you'd like to buy it, the link is here.

Monday, 22 February 2021

'The Queen's Fool', written by Ally Sherrick and reviewed by Pippa Goodhart

‘The Queen’s Fool’ by award-winning children’s historical story writer Ally Sherrick takes the children’s historical novel genre into new territory in more than one way.


The setting for this story is Henry the Eighth’s England and then over the channel to France for the show-off spectacular Field Of cloth Of Gold summit between the King, Queen Katherine, and King Francis the First of France and his wife. Jousting, feasting, entertainments and more within a tented city of golden cloth and illusions … and a plot to kill Henry! Into this setting come a pair of child character, each with their own very personal mission.


The child character we meet first is Cat, who determines to follow her sister when she is snatched from their orphanage home with nuns. Cat is different from the traditional child hero of fiction. She’s called a ‘half-wit’, and ‘idiot’, and she understands her world very literally and simply. She’s caring and loyal, and she sings and flutes so prettily that Queen Katherine takes her on as her Fool. Cat tells her own side of the story, giving us a wonderfully fresh and different voice as she observes her world and longs for her sister.


Cat’s first person telling of events takes turns with the more wordly view of ‘Jacques’. Jacques is a French boy, aristocratic, bold, fierce and kind … and maybe not all that he first seems.


I’m not going to give spoilers, but suffice it to say that the plot is full of intrigue, action, surprises, and all very satisfactory. I love the fresh writing and fresh viewpoints. 


Ally Sherrick gives us a historical afterword that tells which bits of this story are based on truth, which imagined. This becomes a story to draw children into more interest in history.


Sunday, 21 February 2021

Imagination and things which help by Anne Booth

I feel at a bit of a loss as to what to write this month, as I know we are all just trying our best to get through this time. It's been nearly a year now of mostly staying at home, and we are all weary of it, and some are struggling more than others, and some weeks are better than other weeks, and some weeks are awful. Some days can be unexpectedly lovely. Some days I could just howl, missing family and friends. Underneath it all is a constant background of sadness and grief and often anger about the news, but also amazement at the goodness and heroism in the world.  So if what I write today doesn't help, just read something which does and whatever you do, be kind to yourself.

For me the weeks at the moment are marked out by random regular things. I write every day, but I often don't know what day it is! I do know we get eggs delivered on a Thursday, and I look forward to The Great Pottery Throw down on a Sunday night and then online Sunday mass at the rather late time of 9pm. Every Monday afternoon I have a zoom meeting at 2. I sometimes go to online mass on weekday evenings, and I try to go to a Wednesday morning zoom prayer group. I have just signed up to learn Irish Gaelic online on Monday evenings, starting in March. I am looking forward to that, as my parents were Irish, as were all my grandparents, and  one grandmother was a native Irish speaker but I don't know any Irish myself, and I am hoping learning it may also inspire me for future books.  Every day we take our puppy for a walk and I notice the changes in the trees and the feeling that Spring is on the way. I am cheered by seeing the emergence of daffodils in the garden but a bit embarrassed that I didn't get round to planting all the spring bulbs I enthusiastically bought last September.  Every day I try to light a candle and do an online retreat, which I have been doing for the past 30 weeks, and which will end sometime in March. Then, after my retreat time, I try and get back to my day job of writing, and I find that the retreat has really helped me keep writing even in these difficult times. I hope that some things which have helped me in my retreat, may help you, whether you are religious or not.

The retreat I have been doing is Christian and is Ignatian, after St Ignatius, who was a Spanish nobleman and soldier and then a priest and the founder of the Jesuits, a Catholic religious order he started in the sixteenth Century.  If you only knew the spiritual exercises and the Jesuits from the writings of James Joyce, you would be totally entitled to think this might be a rather scary experience, and I think in the past it might well have been, but the Jesuits of the 21st century, and 'lay' people trained to give the exercises as spiritual directors, are very aware of psychology, and my director is very kind, and I have found that this retreat has been such a healing and positive and creative and hopeful experience for me.

As a writer, I have also found it very helpful. This is a spirituality which values imagination as a gift from God - you have to begin each day's meditation by sitting and being aware that you are loved, and if you don't feel it, or this feels alien, this is also valuable to notice. Then, starting on that positive and fundamental  basis that you are loved, even if some days you don't quite believe it, you are asked to imagine yourself in particular scenes from the bible. You have to pay attention to what you see and say and hear, and, most importantly,  your feelings - what scenes fill you with joy and comfort or hope, what St Ignatius calls 'consolation' , what makes you feel bad about yourself and life and hope-less, what St Ignatius calls 'desolation'. It has helped me uncover contradictory negative or scary views of the loving God I claim I believe in, that I did not know I had, and false images of myself.  My lovely spiritual director, the one I meet on zoom every Monday, is very  wise and good at helping me look at what the imaginative contemplations are revealing about who I am, and what truly brings me joy and peace and hope, which in Ignatian spirituality is the sign of the presence of a loving, life-giving God, and indicates the direction our lives should take. This direction may be a surprise. 

So what is the point of me sharing this here? How can all this talk of imaginative contemplation  help any writer or person who isn't Christian, or religious? Well, I think that, religious retreats aside, and even if we don't know what the future holds, as writers, taking time every day to live in the present and specifically contemplate and notice and value what honestly and truly brings us joy, or even to remember what brought us joy in the past, and to let ourselves dream and imagine what we would do if we followed that joy, even in these sad times, is a good thing in hard times.

 It isn't about ignoring the bad things. My latest picture book. 'A Shelter for Sadness', illustrated beautifully  by David Litchfield, was out last month and is specifically about accepting sadness as an emotion, so this isn't about being unrealistic or untruthful. Many times in my retreat I have had a big cry, and being aware of my imaginative responses to my meditations has helped me to admit to being much more miserable than I thought I was. Sometimes the crying by itself has helped, sometimes I have realised I needed a change in direction towards doing something something more joyful, or to allow myself to say 'no' to something. But it IS about looking for clues and glimmers of Joy even in the dark. It might be as simple as noticing that bird song always cheers us up, and following the joy will lead us to learn more about birds, to  put some bird feeders in the garden, or to paint or photograph them, or write a story about them. As writers, it might be we learn NOT to beat ourselves up when we can't write and learn NOT to go down the road of desolation, imagining ourselves never able to write again,  but instead to head in the direction of Consolation and specifically seek out books and films and TV and conversations and actions which DO bring us joy - they don't necessarily have to be cheerful, but they do have to inspire and make us feel more hopeful.  

We might notice that we thought we wanted to write a YA book, and may have written them in the past, but these days we have been struggling to write one, and we actually feel more joy when writing a picture book, (or vice-versa), and we just need to follow that joy and take a new imaginative and creative and more life-giving  direction. We may have thought we wanted to write a screen play but actually, what we really love these days is listening to radio drama, and we need to let ourselves try to write it. We may find we can't write what we normally write because we unexpectedly really want to write a historical drama, or a literary novel, or an escapist romance. We might want to write Funny when we used to write Serious, or any new genre, or we may feel confirmed in what we have been doing all along. This is about noticing what we really enjoy reading and writing and watching in these days, not what we think we ought to enjoy,  and not judging ourselves or putting ourselves in boxes.

The thing that we as writers have, our imaginations, that can make us extra sensitive and prone to imagining the worst, can also be a gift to help get us and others through this time. When we CAN write we can write what honestly brings us joy, and we can use our imaginations to encourage others, when we can't, we can be encouraged by other's imaginative contemplations. We have to notice all the goodness in the present, and imagine a better world once this pandemic is over - maybe this is when we as writers can really be of use! As children's writers we are used to looking for the Hope, so we are very lucky!

And now I am going to watch an episode of Schitt's Creek, a series which has given me immense consolation this lockdown. I am so grateful for the people who imagined it into existence!  Thank you to all those who recommended it. And Sunday evening is The great Pottery Throw Down on Channel 4 - don't forget! Don't forget to look for everything that brings you Consolation and Peace and Hope this week - even if it is only remembering to take a break and savour a cup of tea.

I saw today that on BBC Radio 4 today, Sunday, there actually is a programme about Ignatian Spirituality, so if you are interested in it and the ideas of consolation and desolation, it is here:

I have been on silent retreat here pre-lockdown and they also do online Ignatian retreats. It is where Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote many of his best poems.

Saturday, 20 February 2021

Two Hundred Years Old* and Still Timely - Joan Lennon

On Feb. 16, 1820, essayist and clergyman Sydney Smith wrote to his friend Lady Georgiana Morpeth, who was suffering from depression.  Not everything he writes speaks to our condition today - I'm not at all sure about the 2nd advice or the 11th - and nobody's going to mess with my coffee intake! - but there's a lot of pertinent stuff in here.

Some of it will ring a bell.  Some of it will raise hackles.  

See what you think -

Foston, Feb. 16th, 1820

Dear Lady Georgiana,

Nobody has suffered more from low spirits than I have done—so I feel for you.

1st. Live as well as you dare.
2nd. Go into the shower-bath with a small quantity of water at a temperature low enough to give you a slight sensation of cold, 75° or 80°.
3rd. Amusing books.
4th. Short views of human life—not further than dinner or tea.
5th. Be as busy as you can.
6th. See as much as you can of those friends who respect and like you.
7th. And of those acquaintances who amuse you.
8th. Make no secret of low spirits to your friends, but talk of them freely—they are always worse for dignified concealment.
9th. Attend to the effects tea and coffee produce upon you.
10th. Compare your lot with that of other people.
11th. Don’t expect too much from human life—a sorry business at the best.
12th. Avoid poetry, dramatic representations (except comedy), music, serious novels, melancholy sentimental people, and every thing likely to excite feeling or emotion not ending in active benevolence.
13th. Do good, and endeavour to please everybody of every degree.
14th. Be as much as you can in the open air without fatigue.
15th. Make the room where you commonly sit, gay and pleasant.
16th. Struggle by little and little against idleness.
17th. Don’t be too severe upon yourself, or underrate yourself, but do yourself justice.
18th. Keep good blazing fires.
19th. Be firm and constant in the exercise of rational religion.

Believe me, dear Georgiana, your devoted servant, Sydney Smith

(Source: Letters of Note)

* Two hundred and one, to be exact.  And four days.

Joan Lennon Instagram

Friday, 19 February 2021

New Kids on the Block by Joan Haig


My WIP is inspired by an island in the South West Pacific where my family lived for a while. I was turning twelve and my sister was thirteen when we first moved there. We’d grown up away from mainstream influences, but we were catching up: it was 1991 and I had found Kylie Minogue. Shortly after arriving on the island and discovering its buoyant market in pirated cassette tapes, I spent my savings on Kylie's eponymous album. Ever the edgier one, my sister spent hers on ‘Hangin' Tough’ by The New Kids on the Block.

There had been a spate of petty crime in our new neighbourhood. The suspects were a gang of teenagers bunking off school. When out one afternoon, our house was broken into and our belongings picked over. My sister and I had grown up accustomed to varying degrees of theft, from pocket-grabs to armed robberies. This gang clearly wasn’t the hardest we’d encountered, nor the most discerning – the only thing they lifted was my sister’s tape.

The local police tracked them down and made them responsibly return our pirated music. For the next few years, the gang carried on their antics and it became a point of pride to us that from thereon in they were known on the island as The New Kids on the Block.


The original pirated sleeve of Hangin' Tough

 After a year, my sister and I were sent to boarding school in Scotland. I was the ‘new girl’ for a long time. I learned the hard way that being the first to break IN to the pantry after Lights Out meant being the last one to sneak OUT – the one most likely to be caught scurrying back to the dorm, still cramming Cook’s stodgy brownies into my mouth. There was always something I didn’t know, some hilarious old prank I hadn’t been party to; there were school rules I was teased for following and unwritten codes I was shunned for breaking. And yet, after a while, being the new girl provided an odd sense of security.

So it was utterly unsettling when a new new girl arrived, displacing me. My new position was different, less familiar, and it didn’t even come with a label: I was no longer new, but not yet established.


Kylie, 1988. Je ne sais pas pourquoi.

I feel a little of that insecurity now. I have loved being a new kid in the world of children’s writers. It’s been a strange year to bring out a debut novel. Perhaps in part because of the pandemic, the writing community has been especially caring of new arrivals.

Tiger Skin Rug took a modest pounce into the kids’ books market, followed by several slow strides when bookshops all closed. It’s now trotting along at its own healthy pace (it’s a tiger, not a cheetah, after all) and I’m proud of the nominations, festivals and reviews it’s gathering as it goes. I’ve been enjoying it so much that I am reluctant (read terrified) to move on and away from my debut status.

I know it’s time to brave that second novel, the one inspired by the island. Other authors who debuted alongside me are already at the proofs stage. So why do these next steps feel so scary? Why the return of those boarding-house butterflies?