Evoking the past in my middle-grade novels by Amy Raphael

Bringing the past to life can take a huge amount of work, but it can be so addictive that it’s hard to know when to stop. When I was researching my debut middle-grade novel, The Forest of Moon and Sword, I read a dozen non-fiction books: about witches, the power of herbal remedies, the English Civil War and even second-hand pamphlets about food and language in the 17th century. I read so much, in fact, that I could probably have written a thesis on what life was like at that time. 

Of course, when I started writing Forest – the tale of a 12-year-old girl called Art Flynt whose mother is taken by the Witchfinder General’s men – I used less than half of the research. Yet it was worth it; I knew what Art would be eating for breakfast, I knew how her mother would have been persecuted and so on. I wanted the story to be immersive for the children reading it, like a literary time machine – which, judging by the passionate letters I received, it was (Did I make up my own herbal remedies? Was I witch? Was I around in 1647?)

When it came to planning and researching my second middle-grade novel, I initially thought of a young heroine called Nico who wants to save the world. She would be an accidental stowaway aboard her uncle Charles Darwin’s scientific research ship the Beagle. But it didn’t feel right for various reasons and, in the end, I thought it would be more fun if Nico looked up to a scientist aunt and not uncle. It would be 1832 and Aunt Ruth would be working on a ship disguised as a man since women weren’t allowed on ships. She would be at a turning point in her research and only Nico Cloud could help her solve one of the ultimate scientific riddles. 

As Nico came to life in my head, with her passion for seeds and fossils and for books and maps, I read about the kind of day-to-day life she might have experienced on a ship in the early 19th century. Storms, a lack of food and, of course, pirates; every nautical adventure needs a pirate or two who try to thwart the hero’s journey. Historically, female scientists tend to have much lower public profiles than their male counterparts and it wasn’t uncommon in the past for those men to pass off women’s research as their own. It would therefore be fun, I thought, for a couple of pirates – a father and son – to have been paid a large amount of money by male scientists to steal Aunt Ruth’s research, therefore creating a cat-and-mouse chase from Sussex to Sicily (where Nico is sure they will find a fossilised seed from the mythical Tree of Life which, when reanimated by Aunt Ruth, will have the capacity to feed the world). 

I continued my research by driving just along the coast from my home in Hove to Cuckmere Haven and gazed up at the dazzling white cliffs. I wondered what Nico would have made of the Seven Sisters, where she looks for fossilised seeds with her friend Matteo before they set sail to Sicily. I walked the Hove foreshore at low tide searching for fossils and chanced upon a fossilised sea urchin. I visited the Jurassic Coast with my teenage daughter and, alongside dozens of kids, tapped at stones until sharp belemnites or coiled ammonites were revealed. I could barely believe that I was seeing the squid-like creature or the shelled cephalopod for the first time in millions and millions of years. 

I read books about female scientists, including Rachel Swaby’s excellent book Headstrong: 52 Women who Changed Science – and the World. I scrolled through paleontologist’s websites and blogs to see what it’s like to unearth a special fossil with great historical value. I read about the scientists who are actually trying to reanimate seeds. I had hoped to visit the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway, but it’s a tricky place to access and so I settled for several visits to the Millennium Seed Bank in Wakehurst, which boasts an underground collection of over 2.4 billion seeds held in sub-zero chambers.

I will never know exactly what it was like to be Nico Cloud, sailing with her friends Matteo and Etienne from Sussex to Sicily on a bit of a whim, but after all the research I undertook, I would hazard a guess: sometimes she was scared and sometimes she was brave, but most of all she relied on the kindness of strangers to try and save the planet. 

The Forest of Moon and Sword, and The Ship of Cloud and Stars are published by Hachette Children’s. You can find both titles in all good booksellers, with The Ship of Cloud and Stars due for publication on 20th Januaryso be sure to pre order your copies.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s