Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Trevor Belshaw: Peggy Larkin's War

Author Trevor Belshaw visits today to share his ideas on the writing process. Prolific and versatile, he writes adult fiction, short stories, and poetry under the name of Trevor Belshaw. Under the pen name of Trevor Forest, he creates wonderfully imaginative children’s books. Peggy Larkin’s War is one such adventure. Set during World War II and inspired by the relocation of children from London to the countryside to escape the threat of German bombs, this story is sure to appeal to readers of all ages. Check it out in the excerpt and video below.

Trevor is giving away an e-copy of Peggy Larkin's War. Be sure to leave a comment and your contact information for a chance to win!

Welcome, Trevor. Tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from?
I’m from Nottingham in the UK. Robin Hood country. I don’t wear green tights though.
An inspiring part of the world for a writer indeed. What sparked your interest in writing?
I’ve always been interested in writing. When I was a kid I used to write silly family plays with my brothers. When I was in my late teens I wrote a lot of bad poetry, (who didn’t,) but it’s only over the last three years or so that I’ve managed to find the time to take it on to a more serious level.
What components, in your opinion, make a great story?
• Strong lead characters
• A meaty conflict
• Believable dialogue.

The conflict should reach its height near the end of the tale and the lead character should face a seriously difficult problem or puzzle to carry the book over the last few pages. The reader should be pulled straight into the story and the ending shouldn’t be too long or drawn out. I prefer books with shorter endings rather than those that drag out over two or three chapters. I believe that good dialogue can move the story along much better than a series of long, descriptive passages. A good writer can use a few lines of dialogue to take the place of a whole page of back story. Less is often much, much, more.
Good advice. How would you generally categorize the books/stories you write?
I write for adults and children but I keep the two completely separate by the use of different author names. My Trevor Forest children’s books are all based around an adventure or a puzzle that needs to be solved. The majority of my lead characters are female. I find it much more interesting to write this way as they, (generally,) have to find their way out of situations using their wits rather than their physical strength. My adult work, written under TA Belshaw, tends to focus on humorous situations that ordinary people find themselves caught up in.
Do you set your books/stories in your home town, or do you prefer more exotic locations?
I have used certain buildings and the street layout of my village as a basis for the lead character’s home town on a few occasions but I don’t use the whole village as a setting. In my Magic Molly series, her adventures tend to flip between modern, 21st century life and various fantasy worlds that don’t really have a set time or date. The same thing occurs with Faylinn Frost and the Snow Fairies. Stanley Stickle Hates Homework, Abigail Pink’s Angel and The Wishnotist are all set in the modern era. Peggy Larkin’s War tells the story of a young girl from London at the start of World War 2. She, along with thousands of other children, are taken away from her families and sent to stay with complete strangers in the countryside in an effort to keep them safe from the enemy bombs. While the characters and settings are entirely fictional, the story is based on historical fact.
How much of your writing is based on people or events familiar to you?
I tend to take make up my characters entirely in my head then I add the odd quirk or mannerism that I have seen in people I see regularly. In my children’s books I like to build up normal, everyday circumstances into something that kids will find amusing. In Magic Molly book two I let a children’s birthday party go madly out of control. When one of Molly’s magic spells goes awry, we see a chair demanding to keep the parcel prize and a birthday cake that tries to escape being sliced up. I like to blow small, insignificant events, totally out of proportion. A lot of the scenes in my books are based on events that actually happened to me, or members of my family. No one would really recognize them though.
What, for you, is the hardest part of a story to write?
Most authors will tell you that the middle of the story is the hardest to write and I agree with that. The beginning and end are usually in a writer’s mind before they even start the book and they are usually the most exciting sections to both read and write. A lot of new writers tend to give up and start a new project when they get a few chapters into a book. The middle is where we have to rack our brains to add little extras into the story without looking as though we are stretching it out. It can sometimes be a difficult section to get though.
I would agree with that. What is the easiest part of a story to write?
For me it’s the beginning. I have a folder full of ideas for books and most of them have at least two chapters already written. A few have a file of notes with the ending mapped out too.
Do you research?
I did for Peggy Larkin’s War. That had to be historically correct, from the dates of the actual evacuation to the style of speech used, background setting and even the food they ate. I had a bit of trouble finding out whether toilet facilities were available on the regular steam trains in 1939. I found out what I needed in the end though. The Internet is a fabulous resource and every serious writer should use it as much as possible. I dread to think how many hours authors had to spend sniffing out odd facts in libraries in years gone by. I always do a lot of Internet searches to make sure that my main character names haven’t been used before.
Is there a message in your story you want readers to grasp?
On occasion, yes. In The Wishnotist I have tried to put a positive spin on disability. In Faylinn Frost and the Snow Fairies there is a strong message about Global Warming. I try not to preach though. The message has to be secondary to the story, or kids just won’t go for it.
What do you feel is your biggest strength as a writer?
It’s hard to say really. Like most writers I tend to dwell on my faults rather than the things I do well. I’d say dialogue is my strong point. I think I do the show don’t tell thing pretty well with the use of strong dialogue. I hope people like the humour in my books too. I laugh a lot myself when I’m writing them. I don’t really know what that says about me though.
When your first started writing, did anything about the writing process surprise you?
Planning. I used to write free form all the time. I thought this was the best way to let the creative juices flow, but I’ve since realized that some degree of planning is required to stop the story going off in a thousand directions.
Do you celebrate when you finish a story, and if so, how?
Not really. The book goes into a folder and I try to forget about for a few weeks. Then I get it out and read it again and wonder how I ever thought it was any good. Then I rewrite. The celebration comes when I sell my first copy. I do enjoy a beer then.
Do you have a set writing routine?
No, I’m terribly lazy and utterly disorganized. I would love to be able to say that I write every day for a set number of hours, but I don’t. Work commitments mean I have limited time to write and I don’t always feel like it. I don’t force myself to write too often. The output hardly ever comes up to scratch.
Do you listen to music when you write?
Not all of the time; it can be distracting. The music I play depends on my mood and my mood is usually set by what kind of scene I’m writing. If it’s an exciting part of an adventure I’ll put Wagner on. If it’s a quiet or more emotional scene it will be Puccini or Mozart. When I’m not writing I usually play rock music with the volume turned up.
What do you like least about writing?
Promoting the book after it’s been published. I find this incredibly tedious and sometimes disheartening. You have to do it though. Even authors with traditional publisher deals have to do the majority of their promo work themselves these days.
Which authors do you feel have influenced your writing most?
Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl. Amazingly my work has been compared to both and that is something I never imagined would happen. To be mentioned in the same breath as those two literary greats is a fantastic compliment. I can’t see it myself, but I’m obviously flattered by the comparison.
If you could go back in time, what author would you most like to invite to share a chat and a bottle of wine?
Tolkien. What an amazing mind that man had.
Agreed. You’re marooned on a desert island. What’s the one book you’d want with you, and why?
The Lord of the Rings. I find something new in there every time I read it, and I’ve read it at least twenty times.
What’s next for you? Can we look forward to a new story in the near future?
I’m currently working on Magic Molly book 4 but I’m going to bring out a free, short Magic Molly book for Christmas too. Stanley Stickle Does Not Have A Girlfriend , the sequel to Stanley Stickle Hates Homework, is part written too. I’m also working on the sequel to my adult book, Tracy’s Hot Mail.
What advice would you give an aspiring author?
Keep at it. Don’t expect to write a best seller the first time you put your fingers on the keyboard and try not to get into the mindset where you begin to think that what you have written isn’t good enough. I have yet to see a first draft from anyone that is publishable. Don’t rely on friends and family for feedback. They will always tell you that you have written a masterpiece. They mean well but they aren’t really doing you any favours. Join a writers group or even an online writers community. The feedback you get will be much more reliable. Don’t take criticism to heart though from wherever it comes. You will have to develop a very thick skin. Don’t argue with your critics, even if you think they are wrong. Take it on the chin and see if there is anything in the feedback that you can turn to your advantage. The perfect novel has yet to be written. What some people see as brilliant, others see as average. It’s a fact of life and you will just have to get used to it.
More good advice. Please name a few of your favorite non-writing activities.
Music. English football (soccer). The Internet. ( I live on social media sites.)
Thanks so much for letting us get to know you and your writing, Trevor. And now, let’s read some of Peggy Larkin’s War.

London 1939 and the city’s children must be evacuated to the countryside to keep them safe from the German bombs. After a tearful goodbye at the station, Peggy Larkin is sent to live with strangers in the country, unsure if she’ll ever see her parents again.

Peggy meets the ultra strict Mrs Henderson and does her best to fit into country life. But what secret lies behind the locked door in the big house? Who is the man hiding out in the woods? Peggy finds a friend in Alfie, another London evacuee and together they try to solve the mystery.

The train passed through dozens of small stations without stopping. Peggy looked for a sign on the platforms to try to get a clue as to their whereabouts, but they had all been removed.

'How are we supposed to work out where we are?' she complained.

'All road signs and station names have been removed to confuse the Germans if they invade,' explained Mrs Appleton. 'Their soldiers won't be able to work out where they are.'

'But it will confuse our soldiers too,' argued Peggy. 'They won't be able to find the Germans because they won't know where they are either.'

'They'll have maps, Peggy.'

'The Germans might have maps too, and ...'

'They won't,' said the teacher, firmly. 'Don't argue.'

Peggy stuck out her bottom lip and went back to looking for clues to where they were.

'Stupid rules,' she muttered under her breath.

Eventually the excited atmosphere in the carriage began to wane and one or two of the younger children demanded to be taken home. Mrs Appleton started a game of 'I spy', but there wasn't the enthusiasm to continue it for long. The teacher then got them to sing 'Ten Green Bottles' and 'Wish Me Luck as You Wave Me Goodbye,' to brighten the mood.

At noon they opened their first pack of sandwiches and Mrs Appleton handed out small bottles of milk which they drank through waxed paper straws. After lunch the teacher walked to the end of the carriage and clapped for silence.

'In an hour or so we will arrive at our destination. There will be volunteer families waiting who have kindly offered to take us in and keep us safe for our mums and dads back home. I expect you all to be on your best behaviour while you are in their charge and never forget that the good name of the school is at stake.'

Mrs Appleton looked around slowly to make sure everyone was paying attention before she continued.

'When you are billeted and settled, the first thing you should do is write a letter home, your parents will want to know that you have arrived safely and you are happy in your new surroundings. Always remember that it is just as hard for your new family to accept a new face as it is for you to accept them. Try your best to fit in with their ways, you are the guest, it is your responsibility to adapt to your new way of life. Now then, shall I sing a song to remind you of better times ahead?'

Mrs Appleton cleared her throat and began to sing.

‘We'll meet again ...’

By the time Mrs Appleton reached the second verse, almost every child in the carriage had joined in. Vera Lynn was a popular singer and everyone had heard the song on the wireless, many times.
* * * * *
Thirty minutes later the train pulled into a tiny station. A guard got off and walked to the stationmaster's office. A few minutes later he returned carrying a pile of forms. Mrs Appleton opened the window and spoke to the guard.

'Excuse me. Why have we stopped?'

'We're waiting for Evacuation Express number two to clear the station just along the line, madam,' the guard replied. He moved closer to the window and looked around to make sure he couldn't be overheard. 'That's the end of the line. You'll all get off there.'

Mrs Appleton pulled her head back inside, closed the window and clapped her hands to get attention. 'It seems that we are nearing the end of our journey children. Can you all check your labels and make sure you have everything you brought onto the train with you, don't leave anything behind; you won't be able to get it back later.'

Peggy realised that she needed to use the lavatory urgently. She walked down to the toilet in the next carriage and found a queue of about ten girls. One was banging on the lavatory door.

'Hurry up, Constance, there's a queue a mile long out here.'

'I'm sick, leave me alone,' came the muffled reply.

Peggy looked out onto the empty platform and saw a sign pointing the way to the public toilets. She thought about going back to ask Mrs Appleton's permission to leave the train but she couldn't wait any longer.

'Surely no one would mind if I use the station toilets,' she said to herself.

Peggy dropped the handle on the door and jumped down onto the platform. The guard was in a conversation with a teacher at a window further down the track.

Peggy followed the arrow and found her way to the conveniences. Two minutes later, much-relieved, Peggy ran the single cold water tap and washed her hands. As she reached for the towel she heard the guards whistle and the chug of the engine.

'Oh no!' cried Peggy. 'Wait for me.'

Peggy raced outside just in time to see the train pull away. She ran after it waving her hands in the air.

'Stop, please...'

Peggy stood at the end of the platform and watched in horror as the train disappeared into the distance. 'Please stop,' she whispered again.

Peggy felt a tear run down her cheek and for the third time that day she began to cry.
* * * * *

About Trevor Belshaw:
Trevor Belshaw is the author of Tracy’s Hot Mail. He also writes for children under the name Trevor Forest. Trevor’s poems and short stories have appeared in various anthologies including 100 Stories for Haiti, 50 Stories for Pakistan, 100 Stories for Queensland, Deck the Halls, Another Haircut and the Best of Friday Flash vol 2 and The Best of CafĂ© Lit 2011.

His poem for children, Clicking Gran, about a boy who finds out his grandmother is a witch, was long-listed for the Plough Prize, 2009

Trevor has written eight children’s books and is currently working on the ninth.
* * * * *


  1. Great interview, Pat and Trevor. I was really interested in your comment about planning as opposed to being a panster, Trevor. I'm the latter but often think I should be structuring my adult novels a bit more before I begin!

    Well done on all those children's books.

  2. Replies
    1. Thanks Kim. Pat deserves all the credit.

  3. Thanks for the reply Rosemary. I don't plan to the nth degree, but I do have little chapter notes to keep me on track these days. If the work takes an unexpected turn (which happens often) and I like the result I will compensate for that and add a few extra notes for the following chapters. I find it does help me keep on track. My first Magic Molly book went off at so many tangents that it would have taken an extra 10 chapters to tidy up all the loose ends. You can't leave loose ends in children's books. They don't like it. :)

  4. Hello! Nice interview. I agree with the take it on the chin, Trev, regarding reviews etc. I tend to veer towards the same music that you've mentioned-though maybe not the rock bands- and have answered the desert island question with the same answer as you-Tolkein, except I was greedy and also said War and Peace (lots of pages!)

  5. Thanks Nancy. If I were on a desert Island for ten years I still don't think I'd finish War and Peace LOL

  6. I'd like to thank the lovely Pat McDermott for hosting and presenting this interview. Take a bow Pat.

    1. My pleasure, Trevor. And my thanks to everyone who's stopped by to meet you. It's a wonderful interview, and your work is delightful!

  7. Thoroughly enjoyed this interview and the excerpt. I agree about the slog through the middle of the work. For me, the trouble isn't so much the work of inventing things to go in the middle, as a kind of tedium that sets in when I've been at something for a while but the end isn't yet in sight. And I have one of those files of story beginnings, too. If story beginnings were money, we'd be rich!
    Look forward to getting to know your work. Please enter me to win Peggy Larkin's War. lizardmaker AT gmail DOT com

  8. Thanks for dropping by Anne. Good luck with your writing. Nice to know I'm not alone in having a 'for later' folder.
    I have a book I started two years ago called The Duck Pond Lane Detectives. It's about 10k in with about 20k to go. It's still on on the back burner and I have no idea why. Other things keep taking priority. Maybe on a subconscious level I know something isn't quite right with it. Can't think what though,it's a great plot. Ah well, one of these days I'll see it in print. Thanks again.

  9. It sounds a really great book. With it being set during the World War II, and tells like a personal account, with an adventure, thrown in; it's right up Donna's street. Will it be available on Amazon UK? Does Trevor now live in the U. S. or is he still in Nottingham? I'm just asking, because if you came over here to interview him, you could have popped in for a cup of Tea. Thanks Pat, take care!

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Nigel! One of the unfortunate things about the internet is, I don't get to visit places like Nottingham to do interviews, and so I can't pop in for tea. Someday, perhaps! And yes, the book is available on Amazon UK - copy and past this link into your browser to find it: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Peggy-Larkins-War-Trevor-Forest/dp/1479204994/ref=ntt_at_ep_dpt_5

    2. We'll look forward, to you popping in for Tea; I'll even get Donna to bake a Cake. Now that I'm a House Husband, I try to do some of the cooking, but I'm probably the only person in the world, who can burn, water!

      I did check out Amazon UK, after I'd left you my message, and I found Trevor's book, Peggy Larkin's War, it is now in my Christmas wish list, for Donna.

  10. It's available in kindle format and paperback Nigel. The paperback comes with free postage.
    Thanks for commenting. :)

    1. your welcome Trevor, It's been great to 'talk' to you. Both my wife (Donna) and I, enjoyed reading your blurb, and I've checked out Amazon UK, and found your book; it is now in my Christmas wish list, as a present for Donna. After she's read it, I'll probably do the same.

    2. Thanks Nigel, really appreciate the interest. Hope you enjoy it.

  11. Congratulations to Anne E. Johnson, winner of Trevor's giveaway. He'll be in touch to deliver a copy of Peggy Larkin's War. Thank you for visiting Across the Plain of Shining Books, Trevor, and thanks to everyone who stopped by!

  12. Many thanks for hosting, Pat, and thanks to everyone who took time to read.