The Book of Alex

I had a lovely chat with debut children’s author, Alex Dunne, all about her first children’s book, her inspiration and her writing process.

Could you describe The Book of Secrets in five words?

Labyrinth meets Irish folklore’ oh wait, that’s four … how about ‘fairies return and hijinks ensue’?

What inspired you to write The Book of Secrets?

I’ve always loved Irish mythology and folklore and am particularly fascinated by fairies as they exist in the Irish tradition – the stories they feature in are often quite dark and scary – so I always knew that one day I would write something where they featured prominently. In 2018, I decided to take part in NaNoWriMo (a month-long challenge held every November where writers from around the world attempt to write 50,000 words of a novel).  Not knowing what to write, I took a look through my ‘Dump Sheet’ (the very sophisticated Google Doc where I collect random ideas that have yet to find a home in one of my stories) and two things jumped out at me – a picture I had taken of a Bronze Age ringfort called Mooghaun, which sits just outside the town of Newmarket-on-Fergus in County Clare, and a snippet I had written a few years prior about what to do if you hear the fairy music. That’s when the idea for The Book of Secrets was born.

The Irish mythology in this book is so cleverly written and so chilling, did you research Irish myths and legends for this book?

I did quite a bit of research for the book because I wanted to ensure that everything I included had some basis in Irish myth and folklore (even if I did occasionally invoke my artistic licence here and there!). I read a lot of books by prominent folklorists and storytellers, such as Eddie Lenihan and Dáithí Ó hÓgáin, but one of my main sources of research was duchas.ie, the website of the Irish Folklore Commission. It’s such a wonderful resource for anyone looking to research or write about Irish history and folklore because it collects first-hand accounts from people who lived and breathed these stories.

Who was your favourite character to write in The Book of Secrets?

Of the fantastical characters, I loved the Pooka because I’m a sucker for trickster characters. I love villains who are morally grey – he’s not strictly evil, but he cares so little for humanity that he’s happy to use them for his own entertainment. Of the human characters, I loved Granny. She’s not based on anyone I know in real life but is more of an aspirational character. She’s the kind of old woman I hope to be some day – fiercely independent and still believing in magic.

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Making Murphy’s Law

This week, author Muireann ní Chíobháin and illustrator Paul Nugent tell us all about the inspiration and illustration of their picture book Murphy’s Law.

Muireann ní Chíobháin

I’m a dog person but I’ve never been lucky enough to have one of my own. I’ve never met a dog I didn’t like. I can’t walk past one without stopping to say ‘Hi’. It means a trip to the shop can take longer than it should with all the pooch stops. I can’t help myself because basically dogs are simply pawsome! I spent many years living next to Herbert Park in Dublin which afforded me the great joy of meeting all kinds of gorgeous fur friends every day.

But one day, I met a puppy like no other and our brief encounter left me with the seed for a story. Irish Wolfhounds are very big dogs, even as puppies, and their owners must be the biggest dog lovers ever because they need lots more walking than other dogs, or so I’m told. This day, I saw a girl being dragged from tree to tree, bench to bin, by a very enthusiastic young hound, whose spectacular tail was wagging all over the place. He managed to do the impossible; scare the brazen D4 pigeons into giving me and my sandwich space for once by running about excitedly and swishing his huge tail uncontrollably. Unfortunately for him, his excitement was leaving a trail of minor destruction behind him. He was accidentally trampling on newly planted shrubs, knocking over signs, chasing footballs mid-match and confiscating frisbees. His enthusiasm was a joy to watch but a job and a half for his owner to keep up with. But she never shouted or scolded the puppy, just laughed and tried to minimise the chaos. The furry whirlwind bounded over to me, pulling his owner behind him. We all chatted. He was a new puppy, full of beans: a trouble magnet with no name yet.  

‘He’s a law onto himself. Whatever can go wrong will go wrong when he’s around,’ his owner chuckled.

‘You should call him Murphy so,’ I said. The dog barked in agreement. We laughed. ‘Is that your name so?’ I asked. He barked again.

‘Must be!’ said his owner.

You couldn’t write it, or could you? We parted ways and I could swear I heard her call him Murphy in the distance as he tried to sub in as a goalie in a football game on the green. That night I jotted down the first lines of what would become Murphy’s Law about the happiest dog in Ireland who, despite being a trouble magnet, clearly made his owner the happiest dog owner ever. 

Paul Nugent

When I first read the text for Murphy’s Law, I knew it would be a lot of fun to illustrate. It already had so much of Muireann’s brilliant humour packed into it, but it also had room for me to populate it with details and my own interpretation of Murphy’s mischief. The book takes Murphy to lots of different environments, and it was a joy to think of how things could go wrong in each one!

The design for Murphy came to me almost immediately and didn’t change much from the initial concept to the finished book. The design for his human best friend, Mary, however, was a little trickier. I’ve always found non-human characters a lot easier to design for some reason. The original design had Mary rounder and more cartoonish, which contrasted a bit with Murphy’s texture, so the design evolved to mirror him more. I thought of Mary as a more dependable, less clumsy, human version of Murphy, and I think the finished design conveys this!

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The GAA holds a special place in my heart…

This week Emma Larkin, author of a new sports adventure book Twin Power – Throw In!, tells us all about the importance of GAA in her life, the inspiration for her new book and her writing process!

Could you describe Twin Power – Throw In! in five words?

Football, friendship, fun, community, teamwork.

What inspired you to write Twin Power?

I was inspired to write Twin Power as I wanted to give children a book about things that they know and love, which in this case are Gaelic football and friendship. I also wanted to show in the book the dynamic of a group of friends that consisted of boys and girls and how they interact and play football together, as equals.

Your ‘Izzy’s Magical Adventures in Sport’ series is GAA focused as well. What draws you to write about GAA?

The GAA holds a special place in my heart. When I moved to Kerry, from Cork, in my late twenties, with my husband and our young son, the GAA was the place where I first made friends and got to know people in my adopted home. The irony was that we moved to where my husband is from in North Kerry, but I ended up getting to know more people than he knew! I took our son to training in our local GAA club, St Senans, where I got to know some parents. This led to me going to the mother and toddler group in St Senans clubhouse after our next son was born, which led to me joining the ‘Mothers and Others’ football group in Finuge/St. Senans ladies football club, which led to making more friends and which also got me involved in coaching football; you’re getting the gist now, I’m sure!

I think the GAA creates a fantastic community spirit, which is vitally important to so many people. There are also some really interesting characters there. I absolutely did not base any of the characters in Twin Power on people I have met in real life, though! I was definitely inspired to write about the GAA community by the fantastic people I have met there and, especially, the amazing children in the club, where I am involved in coaching.

Who was your favourite character to write in Twin Power

That is a hard question, but I think it was Aoife. It’s between Aoife and Aidan, but I have a real fondness for Billy too. I think Aoife had the hardest challenge in Twin Power– Throw In!, so that is why I am saying Aoife. But at the same time, she was hugely supported in the story by Aidan and, to a lesser extent, Billy, so I am very fond of them also.

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All to Write For

In this blog post, author Donn McClean tells us about his inspirations for All to Play For and his experience of writing his first children’s novel.

Anna was in my head for a little while before she started to evolve in letters and words and sentences and paragraphs in front of me. She was a conundrum in my head: strong but fragile, consistent but unpredictable, independent but needing support, timid and shy and anxious, yet strong and brave and feisty. 

Anna is a little bit of each of our four girls. (They’re similar, but very different.) Anna’s dad is a little bit me I’d say, but not too much me. He’s way cooler. He’s a little bit more my aspirational self than my real self. He’s a little bit my dad. (See above re: way cooler.) He’s probably a little bit my mum too, or a little bit my picture of my mum.

I lost my mum when I was very small, so small that I can’t remember what she was like, so it wasn’t difficult to write the longing that Anna felt when she didn’t have her dad in her life. It was more difficult to write that acute sense of loss though, when Anna went from having him to suddenly not having him. That part had to be sourced from imagination: how it would have been for me, how it would be for our four daughters if anything, God forbid, happened to me or my wife.

The Gaelic football part was easy. It was all we knew when we were growing up in rural Ireland. The nearest soccer club was a bus ride away, hurling was only played beyond the county borders, as far as we knew, and rugby was something that you watched on television when Ireland were playing, so we were all-in on Gaelic football. 

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Bringing the Past Alive: Writing Historical Novels for Children

This week, Sarah Webb chats to us about her experience writing her wonderful new children’s novel, The Little Bee Charmer of Henrietta Street.

My new book, The Little Bee Charmer of Henrietta Street, is about Eliza and Jonty Kane, who are aged thirteen and ten. When their father loses his sight and can no longer work, they have to move from their red-brick home in leafy Rathmines to a tenement flat in inner city Dublin. Here they find new friends and start working for a travelling circus in the evenings. Set in 1911, it’s the first historical novel I’ve published for children and in this blog I will talk about the research and writing of the book.

So how did I go about writing a book set in 1911? And where did the original idea come from?

A couple of years ago I visited 14 Henrietta Street, the Dublin tenement museum. I thought it would make a fascinating setting for a children’s book but I couldn’t find a way into the story. Then I attended a conference for festival programmers in Amsterdam (pre-Covid!) and met a Professor of Circus. She told me about the history of circus in Ireland and a bee charmer who visited Dublin with her circus, Patty Astley. I was intrigued. The night after meeting the Professor I spent the night in my hotel room reading articles about the history of the circus.

I discovered that travelling circuses often visited Dublin in the early twentieth century and bingo, I had my story. By adding a circus to the tenement setting I could balance the hardship of the tenement life with the drama and sparkle of the circus.

Illustration by Rachel Corcoran
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Erika McGann and the Edge of the Book

This week, I chatted to the wonderful Erika McGann about her new fantasy, adventure children’s book – Tabitha Plimtock and the Edge of the World.

Photo credit Lee Furlong Absolute Studios

Could you describe Tabitha Plimtock and the Edge of the World in five words?

Adventure. Fun. Monsters. Danger. Wonder.

I tried putting that in a sentence but I kept running out of words. I’m not good at writing short things.

What inspired you to write Tabitha Plimtock and the Edge of the World?

To be honest, I can’t really remember a particular thing that was the inspiration for Tabitha. I know I wanted to write a book purely for the fun of it. So I began writing without deciding what kind of story it would be, who it was for, or even what age group it was aimed at. It was kind of like closing my eyes and jumping off a cliff just to see where I’d land. Up until then it was the most fun I’d ever had writing a book, and I resolved to write that way in future whenever possible.

What came first: the character Tabitha Plimtock or the fantasy realm of the Edge of the World?

The edge of the world came first. I had an image of a rickety house teetering at the edge of a cliff, then imagined it was teetering at the very edge of the world, and the book went from there.

Illustration by Philip Cullen
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‘It’s always interesting to see the world through the eyes of another person’

This week, we chatted with author Brian Gallagher about his latest book Winds of Change.

Could you describe Winds of Change in five words?

Fast-moving, thought-provoking entertainment! (Not sure if that counts as five words or three!)

Who was your favourite character to write in Winds of Change?

Probably Clara.  Her life, as a member of the gentry, is the most far removed from my own life. It’s always interesting to see the world through the eyes of another person – one of the main reasons, I think, why we read fiction in the first place – and I enjoyed immersing myself in her world of privilege. The fact that that privilege was being challenged by the Land League made Clara’s position tricky, especially when her eyes were being opened by her secret friendships with Aidan and Molly. I like to see a character evolving over the course of a book, and I enjoyed making that journey with Clara. I also liked writing the scenes with the Tobin twins. Nobody likes a bully in real life but, as an author, writing the more villainous characters can be fun!

Did you have to do a lot of research?

Loads. Before writing a word of the book I spent weeks researching the period. Obviously, that meant reading up on what was happening in 1880s Ireland – and indeed the wider world – but it also meant studying things like fashions in clothes and discovering what was the popular music of the day. I loved immersing myself in old music-hall songs and Percy French tunes. And that’s one of the dangers with research. It’s really enjoyable, and you can easily find yourself doing too much of it – and actually using research to put off the evil day when you have to sit down with a blank sheet of paper and start writing the book. So it takes a bit of discipline not to overdo the research, and also to resist the temptation of ‘getting value’ for the hours spent on research, by inserting more historical detail into the novel than the story actually requires.

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Eva and the Perfect Blog Post

To celebrate the new paperback edition of the wonderful picture book Eva and the Perfect Rain, author and illustrator Tatyana Feeney tells us all about her writing and illustrating process.

by City Headshots Dublin

When I became interested in making picture books, I really was thinking about the illustrations and making beautiful art to go with a story.

But after working on some character design projects in art college, I started to think about stories to go with my drawings, or stories about the characters that started to evolve as I was drawing them.

What was different about Eva and the Perfect Rain, is it was the first story I wrote that began with the words.

When I first moved to Ireland, I was amazed and intrigued by all of the words that are used to talk about rain. The words and phrases that I heard made me think of different textures, colours and ways of showing weather. ‘Soft day’, ‘sunshower’, ‘pelting’, ‘lashing’, ‘bucketing’, they are all so descriptive and I realised I wanted to make a book that would show what those words look like to me.

This is how Eva’s story started.

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Virtual Interview with Jarlath Gregory

This week, I chatted with Jarlath Gregory, author of the wonderful new Young Adult novel, What Love Looks Like.

Could you describe What Love Looks Like in five words?  

Romantic comedy with a heart.

There are so many characters in this book that I loved — who was your favourite character to write? 

Soda was the most fun to write, because he gets all the best lines. Writing him was like an excuse to drag up and let my inner diva out.

Leading on from that, who was your least favourite character to write? 

I enjoyed writing all the characters, because they all play an important part in the story. Whether a character is nice or nasty doesn’t matter — if you’re writing a character and not enjoying them, you should switch up the character until you’re happy with them.

Are any of the characters in the book based on people in real life, except Panti of course! 

No, they’re all completely imaginary. They all came out fully formed, except for Aaron, who changed a lot from the original first draft. Some of the characters are recognisable as types, like Peter, for example. I think a lot of readers would recognise someone like Peter, who’s had less support than Ben and perhaps that’s why he acts the way he does.

What is the main message you’d like readers to take from this story? If your book could pass on a piece of advice to someone what would it be? 

I don’t think books need to have a message, but if they do, it’s up to each reader to decide for themselves what their own message is. In fact, when my mum read it, her big takeaway was “It wasn’t too preachy” — high praise, I think! As a reader, I’d probably enjoy seeing how sometimes personal problems work out without any messy drama, as long as people learn to be accepting.

Ben’s family and friends are wonderful, reading about them is like being hugged. Loving people for who they are is at the heart of this book. How important was it to you to have this positive representation of family at the core of Ben’s story?

That was very important for me. There’s a tendency in some queer writing to focus on family rejection or suffering, which are real issues that deserve to be explored, but it’s not the full story anymore. I wanted to write the sort of book that would’ve seemed impossible 20 years ago, and a big part of that is celebrating the fact that parents and peer groups are very accepting of queer identity from a younger age now.

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The Making of Flossie McFluff

Following the publication of the wonderful Flossie McFluff – An Irish Fairy, author Eoin O’Brien and illustrator Audrey Dowling tell us all about the making of Flossie McFluff.

Eoin O’Brien

I have always loved fairies. I love the idea that there are magical creatures looking after forests and wild places, taking care of all the tiny creatures and the natural world. There is so much magic in nature – and more the closer you look – that it is not hard to picture little guardians keeping an eye on it all.

Flossie McFluff began as a name. It just popped into my head one day, and made me smile. It was partly inspired by meeting one of the famous McNutt family from Donegal, who make beautiful woollen things – what a great name! And I think that Flossie is from somewhere towards the north of the country, where there is lots of magic.

Since writing the book, I discovered another Flossie – Flossie Donnelly, a twelve-year-old who organises ‘Flossie and the Beach Cleaners’, a campaign to clean beaches in south County Dublin. I imagine my Flossie would get on great with her!

I have heard that a good way to write a story is to create an interesting character and then sit back and see what they get up to. So, I thought about Flossie, and what she might be like: She’s very small, small enough that a big gust of wind would probably send her flying, but she’s feisty and tough. She’s a faithful friend, always ready to lend a hand, but she’s also likely to have a fit of giggles at any moment. She talks to trees and flowers, and lets them know that they’ll always have a good friend in her. And she loves just flying around, singing a little song to herself.

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