Thursday 25 November 2021

Food for thought! Using local delicacies as inspiration - by Susan Brownrigg

Food memories can be some of our most vivid - I’m a Lancashire lass – I grew up in Wigan. We were definitely a meat, potatoes and veg family and on a good day with afters (pudding) to finish. 

Of course, up north, lunch was called dinner, and five o’clock onwards was when we had tea – our main meal.

I remember fondly fried breakfasts, readybrek and chopped up egg in a cup at the start of the day. Lunch would be a butty, but if it was a Friday during the school holidays my dad would bring home fish and chips. He was a milkman so worked very early shifts! I was a real meat eater back then – so I’d cross my fingers and ask if I could have steak pudding and chips. I didn’t ever want anything of a kid’s menu and ‘babbiesyed’ as it’s known in Wigan was grown-up food. It won’t surprise you to know I was nicknamed the gannet!

Wigan dialect and food is celebrated in Jess Riley's station art work
- babbiesyed and peywet is steak pudding with pea juice!

I also recall the newspaper wrapping, though families would also queue up with pyrex dishes to take home their chippy tea.

Another treat was pie from Edwards Bakery – and better still if I could have it in a ‘barm cake’ – the Wigan name for a bread roll. Wiganers are known as pie-eaters, though the reason why is debated. While Lancashire Hot Pot with a suet crust was another favourite.

Butter pie

My first job was as a reporter on the Ormskirk Advertiser, a small market town in West Lancashire, only a stone’s throw from where I now live. Ormskirk is famous for it’s gingerbread – this sweet treat was made by women in the town since 1732!

Sweet treats

Town’s often have their own cake or desert – Manchester Tart, Bakewell Tart, Eccles Cakes and Chorley Cakes – are just a few northern examples.

When I write my stories, I love to include descriptions of food being eaten. In my Gracie Fairshaw series, set in Blackpool, the children devour hot chips outside, with the sea air proving the perfect accompaniment along with lashings of salt and vinegar! In Trouble at the Tower, Gracie enjoys a warm mince pie with cream in the glamourous setting of Blackpool Tower’s Oriental Lounge. While in Kintana and the Captain’s Curse, my heroine has to survive on weevily ship’s hard tack (a not very edible biscuit that pirates ate) and grog and misses the traditional Malagasy recipes her Pa cooks at the pet shop home.

Cook books and food history books and online blogs are a great way to explore what your character would eat, depending on where – and when - they are.

I’ve found some fantastically useful titles over the years, including while researching what people ate in 12th century Cambodia during the Khmer Empire, the Incas in Peru and the Congo at the beginning of the 20th century.

Useful books on food

It’s even better if you can try the foods for yourself – though you may need to watch your waistline!

Our tastebuds can transport us to other places and times – though there are some childhood snacks I wouldn’t want to try again – 1980s blackcurrant flavoured crisps being one!

(All photos: Susan Brownrigg)


It's time to go shopping! You are looking for foods that your character would eat - it could be sweets, something savoury or a dessert! Buy a couple that look interesting - but remember to check the ingredients if you have any allergies/dietary requirements!

Back home - find some paper and a pen or pencil. When you're ready, find a quiet spot to eat your food. Don't rush! Let the flavour fill your mouth, what is the texture like? How does the food make you feel? Is it a taste you like, or not?

Where would your character eat this food? At home? In a cafe? On a picnic?

Jot down these thoughts and try to form a scene from them. 

Is your character eating alone or are they with friends, family, an enemy?

Are they savouring every mouthful or in a rush? Mood can affect how we feel about what we eat too.

Perhaps you could create your own recipe using local produce! Think about what ingredients you would use and how it would be cooked. 



Author Susan Brownrigg

Susan Brownrigg is a Lancashire lass and the author of three historical children's books for ages 8+ - Gracie Fairshaw and the Mysterious Guest & Gracie Fairshaw and the Trouble at the Tower are seaside mysteries set in Blackpool. Kintana and the Captain's Curse is a pirate adventure set in Madagascar.

Susan's books are published by Uclan Publishing. They are available from bookshops and online retailers.







Thursday 18 November 2021

Contrasting a peaceful setting with an action scene - by Jeannie Waudby

I wanted to write a sinister scene in which one character seems to have all the power. My story is set in 1848 and initially this scene was set in an upstairs room in an inn. But then I read a feature on the Palm House at Kew Gardens – a place I often visit – and I was intrigued to see that it first opened in 1848. It was always for the public to enjoy since by this time Kew Gardens was a botanical garden, open to everyone.

Palm house in autumn

I could imagine the amazement Victorian Londoners must have felt to see all these beautiful tropical plants for the first time: hands of green bananas, mangoes, palm trees reaching up to the glass roof. I thought about the people wandering through the glasshouse in their colourful and elaborate clothes.


quality street tin lid

To me, the tropical plants feel like home because I saw many of them growing outside in Hong Kong when I was a child. I know that Kew is preserving plants against extinction and climate change. But to the character in my book, from the north of Scotland, the plants might have looked strange, exciting and larger-than-life. I thought of the dark side of British exploration to tropical countries in the nineteenth century and already a sinister note felt present in this setting, in spite of the gently dripping leaves and the gorgeously coloured tropical flowers.


Tropical plant in flower


Sometimes an obviously scary setting enhances a scary scene – a chase at the top of a skyscraper, through dark woods or in twisting tunnels. They tap into fears we may already have: vertigo, the dark or claustrophobia. But it adds an element of surprise to set a scary scene in a peaceful setting.


Walkway in palm house, Kew Gardens

 Writing challenge

This week’s writing challenge is to write a high-stakes chase scene set in a surprising setting. You can choose who is the ‘good’ character – the pursuer or the pursued. Instead of a scary environment, choose somewhere that would normally be a tranquil space: a library, a hospital, a place of worship or a garden for instance. Or a glasshouse like the Palm House.


Pathway through plants, Kew Gardens palm house

Use the things in your setting to make the scene come to life: tumbling books, rolling trolleys, galleries or pews for instance. You can use the specific sounds of these places too: silence disturbed, beeping machines, chanting or singing. The more peaceful the setting is to begin with, the greater the shock value when you disturb it with your characters crashing through.

Palm House at dusk 


One Of Us by Jeannie Waudby is a YA thriller/love story, published by Chicken House. It was shortlisted for the Bolton Children's Fiction Award and the Lancashire Book of the Year 2016 and has been adapted by Mike Kenny as a play in the Oxford Playscripts series.
One Of Us is published by Chicken House
The Oxford Playscripts play is published by Oxford University Press

For more information about Jeannie and her books visit her website. 

Wednesday 10 November 2021

Letters from the Front - by Catherine Randall

For a writer of historical fiction, letters can be gold dust. 

Three years ago, I wrote a local community play, Letters from the Front, to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War. The idea was to create a sense of continuity between the communities of 1918 and 2018 by dramatising stories of local people who had lived and died in the Great War.

I was extremely lucky that others had already done a great deal of research into the names on our town war memorial, so I had plenty of stories to work with, but the thing that really brought the past to life for us were the letters.

In those days, rather wonderfully, the local newspaper sometimes reprinted in full letters that had been written by the men who were away fighting, or in some cases letters from the nurses and other soldiers who had cared for them as they died. The result was that I was able to include the actual words written by ordinary people from our town over 100 years ago.

Teddington War Memorial

Private Fred Savage, for instance, wrote to the paper from the Gallipoli campaign (in what is now Turkey) in 1915. After describing his part in the fighting, his thoughts turned to home:

My best wishes to my old sporting chums in Teddington and district... I have just been thinking, but for this beastly war we should in all probability have been enjoying an all-day match at cricket in Bushy Park tomorrow, but it will be time for that sort of thing when this match is over.

Sadly, there was no time for ‘that sort of thing’ for Fred Savage. By the time they printed the letter, Fred was already dead, aged just 24.

Another poignant letter printed in the newspaper was all the more unusual because it was written by a German. Mr and Mrs Charles Mole had only learned in August 1918 that their 19-year-old son, also called Charles, had died while a Prisoner of War back in March, after being wounded in action. Generally, that would have been pretty much all the information they’d be given. However, they then received the most extraordinary letter. This was reprinted in the paper under the heading,  A German Soldier’s Kind Action’:

Charles Mole's name on the school war memorial (middle column)

The following letter, written in a shell funnel on Good Friday, March 29, 1918 was recently received by Mrs Mole, 82 York Road, Teddington, whose son, Pte Charles Arthur Mole, died whilst a prisoner of war in Germany.

The article explains how the letter reached Mrs Mole, and goes on to print the letter in full. The letter is long, so I will just share with you a few extracts. The letter begins:

Dear Family Mole, - Love and a sense of duty compel me to communicate to you what will be of the greatest interest to you. I am a German soldier, whose name is H.Weingartner. When our forces were moving onwards over the battlefields, which had been evacuated by the English, some of my comrades hit upon three English soldiers, of whom two were dead already and one still alive.

Private Mole was the soldier still alive. The letter writer goes on to describe how they tried to help ‘our poor fellow soldier’ whose legs were badly wounded.

After we had bandaged him up and refreshed him a little by a cup of tea, we carried him on a tent bed to the main road... We attached a little flag to his bed to direct our sanitary soldiers’ attention to him when passing by…

H.Weingartner’s letter goes on to describe how he continued to visit Private Mole when he could over the next hours, taking tea to him, and saying prayers with him. Communication was difficult as Private Mole only spoke English, and Weingartner German, but it is clear that they managed to make themselves understood.  The tone of the letter is extremely compassionate. The next day Private Mole was removed to a field hospital, and the letter writer never saw him again. He concludes his letter:

This is all I can tell you about your son. I have asked God to keep and safeguard his young life and grant him a meeting again with you all. And my sincere and fervent wish is that this letter will safely reach you, especially in case your son should succumb to his wounds, and no news about him should ever reach you. …Should your son survive, which I do hope and pray for, I hope to hear from him later on. May the Lord soon grant us peace according to His everlasting mercy and grace.

Yours sincerely H.W.

We know that Private Mole didn’t survive but imagine the comfort that this letter must have given his poor parents, knowing that he had been kindly cared for in the last days of his life.

Charles Mole's name on the Hampton School war memorial. He was at school here from 1911-15.

Both these letters bring to life for us the soldiers of the First World War in a way that few other things can.

When writing historical novels, including letters as part of your story can create a sense of immediacy and help your reader get inside your characters’ heads. 

Today, letters have largely been replaced by emails, phone calls and the myriad of other ways we communicate with each other, but it’s important to remember that until thirty years ago, letters were an essential part of life. So not only can letters reveal character, you can also make them crucial to your plot.  

In my novel The White Phoenix, set in London in 1666, letters play an important role from the very first chapter. When Lizzie Hopper and her family arrive back at their family bookshop after the plague, expecting to find her father, the very first words uttered by Master Pedley, the bookbinder from next door, concern the letter he claims to have sent: 

‘Oh, Mistress Hopper, praise God you have come! Did you get my letter?’

Might things have been different if they had received his letter, if he’d written earlier?

Later, a letter that Master Pedley claims to have sent to the Hopper’s valued apprentice Kit also goes astray, but this time Lizzie takes matters into her own hands and writes to Kit herself. (This of course meant I had to research all about writing and sending letters in 1666, but luckily, as the novel is set in a bookseller’s, Lizzie’s letter writing was believable.)

Kit’s swift response to Lizzie’s letter is one of the first indications that Pedley may not be the helpful neighbour he is made out to be. In The White Phoenix, letters are a crucial part of the plot.

So, next time you are writing a story, don’t forget letters! Think about how you could use them, either as part of the plot or as a way of revealing more about your characters. Some authors have even written books entirely made up of letters! And remember how the letters I have shared above from the First World War create a strong sense of immediacy. This Remembrance Day, maybe you could take whatever you have learned about the First World War, and use it to write a soldier’s letter of your own.

Catherine Randall's debut novel, The White Phoenix, is a thrilling adventure story for 9-14 year olds set during the Great Fire of London. It has been shortlisted for the Historical Association’s Young Quills Award 2021. The White Phoenix is published by the Book Guild and is available from bookshops and online retailers including and Amazon.

For more information visit

Thursday 4 November 2021

Remember, remember - by Ally Sherrick

The two main inspirations or story sparks for my first novel for young people, Black Powder, were a real life event – the infamous Gunpowder Plot of 1605 – and a place – Cowdray House on the edge of the historic market town of Midhurst in West Sussex.

The Gunpowder Plot – the reason why we light bonfires and set off fireworks every fifth of November – was the failed attempt by a band of desperate young Catholic men to assassinate the Protestant King James I and VI of Scotland, and many of the most important lords and bishops in the land as they met in Parliament.

Bonfire night revellers - copyright Elizabeth Doak

Cowdray, destroyed by fire in the late 18th century, is now a ruin. But when, on a visit several years ago, I discovered a certain Guy Fawkes had once been employed as a gentleman servant to the owner, the wealthy and influential, Anthony Maria-Browne, Lord Montague it proved too much for my writer’s imagination to resist!

Cowdray House ruins, West Sussex - author's own photo

It didn’t take long – asking the classic story question ‘What if’ – to come up with the outline for the story of a brave young Catholic boy, Tom Garnett who unwittingly gets caught up with the events culminating in the Plot.

Writing a story set in the past is a bit like doing a jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces. As a general rule, the further back you travel in time, the less likely you are to have a complete – or as complete as you can hope for – picture of the events, the places and the people who lived then. Records, if they were made, might have been lost. And if they survive, they often only tell one side, or a fraction of the story. For a real-life jigsaw puzzler, such ‘missing pieces’ would be terribly frustrating, but for an historical novelist, they are story gold.

This is true for all my stories, but particularly for Black Powder.

Thanks to surviving documents of the day – including the intelligence gathered by the king’s spymaster and chief minister, Robert Cecil, the confessions of the plotters and official reports of their trials – we have quite a few jigsaw pieces to help us build a reasonably accurate account of the people and actions involved in the Gunpowder Plot. But it’s always important, when using such sources, to think about who is setting down the ‘facts’ and whether they can be trusted to tell it as it was or have maybe altered it in some way to suit their own ends.

Some of the pieces I discovered in the puzzle box when I started researching the true-life story of the Gunpowder Plot included:

· the identities, backgrounds and motives of the plotters and their leader, Robert Catesby (not Guy Fawkes, as so many people believe)

· their arrangements for hiring the cellar beneath the House of Lords, and stacking the 36 barrels of gunpowder inside it

· the plotters’ plans – if they had been successful in killing the king – to raise a rebellion in the country, to put the king’s young nine year-old daughter, the Princess Elizabeth, on the throne as a ‘puppet queen’, and to have all the anti-Catholic laws which provoked them to take their extreme action, reversed.

The Gunpowder Plotters

But these things are, in the main, drawn from official records of the time. They do not – and could not – give details of everything the plotters did or thought. For example, their conversations with each other, the things that made them laugh, or that made them sad or angry – aside of course from how badly treated they felt, because of the religious persecution they and their fellow Catholics had had to endure for so many years. And they don’t account for everyone they might have met and kept company with in the days leading up to the fateful events of the fifth of November 1605. This is where I could have fun with my imagination and start creating my own pieces of the jigsaw to fill in the gaps and tell a tale, linked to the story of the actual plot, but which was all my own. Some of the pieces I created include:
  • my hero, 12 year-old Tom Garnett, who accidentally betrays his father after he rescues a Catholic priest from the harbour and then has to try and right that wrong and save him from the hangman’s noose with the help of a mysterious stranger called the Falcon

  • Cressida Montague, daughter of Lord Montague and the rich and privileged cousin Tom never knew he had. They dislike each other intensely at first but eventually become good friends and allies

  • two fictional spies who Tom, his mouse, Jago and Cressida must outwit if they are to succeed in their mission to rescue Tom’s father before it’s too late.

Of course, when you’re writing any form of historical fiction, whether for children, or adults, it’s important to maintain a balance between presenting everything that’s known versus telling a good story. But as long as you respect the facts of any real-life events or circumstances which form the backdrop to your story wherever you can, and have done the research which suggests what might be plausible to help flesh out the bits you don’t know, then how you complete the rest of the puzzle is up to you.

Can you use a real-life historical person or event to spark a new story idea? Or perhaps a favourite place? Think of something that intrigues you and makes you want to ask the magic story question ‘What if?’ Keep on asking the question every time you come up with an answer and see where it might lead. Then do some research of your own to fill in the missing pieces.

Happy plot puzzling!

Ally Sherrick is the author of books full of history, mystery and adventure including Black Powder, winner of the Historical Association’s Young Quills Award 2017. She is published by Chicken House Books and her books are widely available in bookshops and online. You can find out more about her and her books at and follow her on Twitter: @ally_sherrick

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