Welcome to my blog! I hope you enjoy taking a look around. I write historical novels and mysteries including the Inspector de Silva series set in 1930s Ceylon. I blog about history and art and also send out a monthly newsletter. If you would like to hear from me, please use the box in the side bar to the right. You can also find me on Facebook at Harriet Steel Author or Twitter at @harrietsteel1
I’m delighted to welcome Beth
Webb, to my blog. Among other things, Beth is the critically acclaimed author of many books for children,
teens and adults. Beth, do tell readers something about yourself and what
decided you to be a writer.
My Dad always wanted to be a writer and he used to make up stories for
me when I was little. He taught me that stories came out of heads as well as
books. Before I went to school I used to scribble on bits of paper and sew them
between cardboard covers to make books, I guess the urge to be an author was
with me even then!
My first published piece was in a pop magazine when I was about 15. I
met a brilliant blues group and wrote about them and was paid three guineas
(about £25 in todays money).
I didn’t know what I wanted to do after school – there was no advice on
‘how to be a writer’ in those days and my English teacher put me off being a
journalist, so I read sociology and psychology. After uni I travelled around
Europe, and lived with a hippie commune in a houseboat in Amsterdam and a
mediaeval Bavarian castle, I also stayed for a while in an ex-leprosy hospital,
then an attic in Rotterdam. I earned money cooking, cleaning, teaching English
and selling paintings. I still love the Dutch language and people.
When I was about 27 I thought I ought to grow up and come home, so I
worked for an independent radio station, then a national newspaper where I met
my husband. I started writing stories for my four kids as Dad had done for me,
and in 1993 I published my first children’s novel.
In 2000 I did an MA in Creative Writing at Bath
Spa, then I became a tutor for the OpenCollege of the Arts. I
designed and wrote their course on writing for children. In about 2003 I became
a tutor for the University of Lancaster and the British Council’s ‘Crossing
Borders’ programme, mentoring emerging African writers.
In 2005 I had a BIG
break, and signed a major four book contract with Macmillan Children’s books
for Star Dancer, my quartet for teens and adults about the end of the Iron Age
and the Roman Invasion. When the recession hit, Macmillan cancelled my contract
(along with quite a few others). Since then I’ve been caring for my elderly
parents and illustrating books for adults with learning disabilities (http://www.booksbeyondwords.co.uk).
At the same time, a small independent publisher finished the Star Dancer series
I’m now working on several new titles for both teens and children.
Whew! That’s quite a biography.
Tell me, how do you find inspiration for your writing?
Usually things people say get me thinking. For example, with Star
Dancer, I met a lady at a picnic who wanted to be a minister, but her church
didn’t approve or women priests. I began to think about all the people who
can’t be who they are meant to be because of colour, creed, sex or disability –
and Star Dancer began to grow.
When I get an idea I write it down, then from time to time I flip back
through my notebooks. I’m often amazed at some of the ideas I’ve come up with. They
Who are the authors who have most
Where do I begin? Ursula le Guin, Susan Cooper, Terry Pratchett, Philip
Reeve, David Almond, Philip Gross. I couldn’t have written my historical work without the
inimitable Prof Ron Hutton and every collector of fairy stories and folk tales.
Do you base any of your
characters on real people?
I use character types, or snippets of the things people say or the way
they laugh rather than ‘whole’ people. However, there was a bully who I painted
a fairly good portrait of in my ‘Dragons of Kilve’ book. I was a bit worried
because in my contract I had to sign a declaration that I hadn’t used any real
people in the stories (who might later sue). On the grounds that this guy was
unlikely to ever read my books – and I had turned him into a rather unpleasant
slug creature – I signed!
How do you develop your ideas into
I daydream a lot, I write down loads and loads of notes in spiral
notebooks, I go for long walks and think, I talk to myself and probably most
important of all, I tell the stories to long-suffering friends so I can ‘hear’
how the idea is shaping up – and they can tell me whether it works or not.
How do you write? Do you have
routines and rituals you like to stick to?
I’m at my computer every day from 8 or 9 am, usually with tea and
breakfast next to the mouse, and I work until about 4, when my brain seizes up,
then I go for a long walk to think through what I’m going to do next.
The Star Dancer quartet, set in the Iron Age, was originally written
for teenagers but it crossed over into the adult market. Did that surprise you?
Yes, it did. Initially I wrote for older teens (14-18 years), but then
I started getting fan mail from adults. I was hugely chuffed. But I think
adults probably liked the fact I’d done lots of research and really tried to
make the stories work in the historical setting. I think adults also like the
fact that the fantasy element has a strong psychological underpinning. Demons
and magic all have firm, thought-through roots within my books, I don’t just
throw them in for fun.
You also write for young children
with your entertaining series about Fleabag the cat.
I’ve written six books for younger children. Sadly some of them are out
of print now, but I’m best known for a kiddies’ picture book (Junk Yard
Dragon), the Dragons of Kilve (short stories for KS2 children), and the three
Fleabag books. The Dragons of Kilve is now in it’s fourth edition – soon to be
an audio book and Fleabag is now coming out as a new series with illustrations
How would you describe the
different challenges presented by the teenage and children’s fields of writing?
(Beth takes a deep breath…) I could go on far ages about this. How long
have you got? In short, children like to be entertained and to explore emotions
and the difficulties of life from a safe place they can return to when they
close the book.
YA readers like to be thrown in the deep end with all the rolling,
terrifying dangers of high action writing with fantasy creatures like dragons
and vampires, danger, death and sex (sex is a sticky question for another day).
Teen readers know the world is a deadly place, they are longing to find
a path through – however risky. Watch them play computer games and you’ll see
what I mean. Teens don’t like being protected.
Apart from writing, you work with
schoolchildren on a variety of projects. Can you tell me more about that?
I run workshops and courses for young writers at schools up and down
the country, and especially at a place called Kilve Court near Minehead in Somersethttp://www.kilvecourt.co.uk/enrichment/
I’m also a professional storyteller and run storytelling workshops and events.
I used to tell regularly at Glastonbury
Festival, but gave up because of the mud!
So what’s next? Will there be new
stories for Fleabag and Tegen?
Fleabag is getting a BIG makeover- Fleabag and the Fire cat is being revamped this winter for publication
next year. I’m also planning a prequel. As for Tegen? I’ve been asked if I’ll
write what happens to her daughter Gilda, growing up in ancient Ireland, and
others have asked for the stories of Sabrina and Owein – and how their
ancestors become – well, it’d be a spoiler if I told you who. But I’m not sure.
I’ll see what my publisher says when I’ve finished everything else I have in
hand at the moment.
Beth, thank you so much for
coming, it’s been such a pleasure talking to you.
In November I was lucky enough to spend a few days in Laos. It’s a
fascinating country and hard not to fall for with its beautiful temples, miles and miles of the spectacular Mekong River
and fabulous mountain scenery, mostly clad in deep jungle green. The population
is young – 41% are under 14 and everyone we met was warm and friendly.
Tragically, the country’s strategic importance in Indochina
has caused it great suffering in recent history – at one time it had the
terrible distinction of being one of the most bombed countries on Earth. Inevitably,
recovery takes time.
Little Girl in Traditional Hmong Costume
Consumerism hasn’t really caught up on Laos yet which makes it attractive in many ways. Most shopping is still done in local markets on a daily basis. The colours and smells of these markets are amazing with lots of exotic fruits and vegetables on offer as well as those more familiar to us. There's also a lot of tempting street food made from very fresh and tasty ingredients.
Buddhist monks in their striking orange robes are part of the everyday scene. At dawn each day they stream through the streets collecting the traditional alms of rice.
The situation is less good where literacy is concerned; the rate has much improved in the last decade or so but it’s still only around 60%. It’s hard to find books anyway outside the capital, Vientiane, so Etranger Books and Tea in World Heritage city, Luang Prabang, is an oasis for book lovers. Founded by a French woman, it sells mainly second-hand books in a plethora of language as well as great cakes!
If you’d like to know more about what’s being done to
promote literacy in Laos,
why not take a look at http://www.thelanguageproject.org?
They also have a wish list on amazon.com.