22 November 2021 Share
Author Amy Raphael writes about the joy of using facts in her books
Non-Fiction November is a month long celebration of all things factual, organized by the Federation of Children’s Book Groups, and this culminates with the ceremony of the Information Book Award 2021 at the end of the month (you can book to attend the ceremony here).
As part of our activities to celebrate information, we're delighted to host this blog from author Amy Raphael about her process and writing.
Researching a book is the fun part. It’s easy to motivate yourself when you know you’re got to spend all your time learning about a specific period in time – how people used to live, what they used to wear, the food available to them and so on. The problem, for me anyway, is knowing when to stop. When I am working as a journalist, I might read up to two dozen articles about someone I am about to interview; when I’m researching a book, there are often so many incredible history books available that I often don’t know when to stop.
Especially when the next step is the actual writing, which is always tough at the start. It’s about recreating a world that your readers can relate to, but at the same time you can’t just dump everything you’ve learned in your book. That would be showing off and anyway, readers would fall asleep pretty quickly! It’s a real skill to pick and choose the relevant facts and to use those facts to build a world that might actually have existed, but is populated with made-up characters. For me at least, it’s where fiction and facts meet head on and it can be truly intoxicating. Celebrating the facts in fiction is at the very heart of non-fiction November and, when the two truly complement one another, children can develop a taste for history without even realising it. History is everything: without knowledge of the past, we have no hope of understanding either the present or the future.
When I was researching my debut middle-grade novel, The Forest of Moon and Sword, my shelves creaked with non-fiction books about witches, the power of herbal remedies, the English Civil War and second-hand pamphlets about food and language in the 17th century. Forest, the tale of a 12-year-old girl called Art Flynt whose mother is taken by the Witchfinder General’s men, was set during the Civil War and I went to great lengths to ensure that every word in the novel existed at the time. No ‘awesome’ or even ‘okay’ were used. I wanted the story to be immersive for the children reading it, like a literary time machine. Facts were a key part of the process.
It’s not, however, simply a case of choosing which facts to include in a story. It’s also about how those facts are interpreted. Research has shown that children feel largely impotent about the changing climate, yet I refuse to believe that we have to give in to impending doom. The theme for this year’s Non-Fiction November is ‘Heroes’ and our earth desperately needs eco heroes right now. I hope my latest book - The Ship of Cloud and Stars – for which I had to research fossils and seeds, will encourage children to view the world as theirs. We have the choice to save our world for the better, one small positive action at a time. One seed at a time. It’s not too late to inspire children to create change. To save the planet, to save ourselves.