How do you write an adventure on a train?
Published on: 19 March 2020 Author: M. G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman
Writers M. G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman talk about how they write their fabulous Adventures on Trains series, a collection of mystery stories set on famous railway journeys all over the world - and why trains are the perfect setting for a thriller!
Every writer has a question that follows them everywhere. At every event, every festival, every visit to a school – one they can never escape. For us, the authors of The Highland Falcon Thief, a mystery adventure set on the last journey of the royal steam train, it’s always: “How do you write a book together?”
We usually answer this by talking about method – how we physically spend our time together crafting a book. Who writes what, and so on. But we wanted to share something more with you, and explain how we decided to write something together in the first place. Our origin story, if you like.
We should probably introduce ourselves. We are M. G. Leonard (Maya), author of the Beetle Boy trilogy, and Sam Sedgman, a playwright and former digital content producer. We used to work together at the National Theatre, where Maya was Sam’s boss. For the first six years of us knowing each other, the idea to write together never crossed our minds. After all, Maya wrote for children, and Sam wrote for grown-ups. Maya wrote about insects, Sam wrote about politics. But it turns out we had more in common than we thought.
The idea to write a book about trains was Maya’s. It had been rattling around in her head for a long time. Both her sons loved everything to do with trains when they were little – Thomas the Tank Engine, Chuggingtons, Brio – and when they were old enough to start reading chapter books, Maya scoured the library for stories that made use of all the amazing facts they knew about trains. She knew they’d eat up those stories with a spoon, and it would be the perfect introduction to a world of reading for pleasure.
But she was surprised to find there weren’t many middle-grade books about trains at all. They popped up here and there, but usually only in passing, or in fantasy settings. She couldn’t find any that were about trains in the way she knew her sons would want. She thought a book like that would be very popular, but she also knew she wasn’t the person to write it. Unlike everyone else in her family, who were all gaga for trains, Maya didn’t have the knowledge or passion for trains that she knew you’d need in order to write a book that would do the subject justice.
Sam, however, has loved trains ever since he was a little boy, growing up with a railway line at the bottom of his garden and an obsession with steam engines. When Maya mentioned her idea to write a book about trains, Sam got embarrassingly excited, and started suggesting all the amazing railway journeys around the world that would be ripe for setting adventures on. As a lifelong devotee of crime fiction, and also as someone who ran a company that made bespoke murder mystery treasure hunts, Sam was also convinced that trains would be the perfect setting for mystery stories. He got very excited about this idea of Maya’s, and she, knowing a good opportunity when she saw it, suggested we write it together.
And that’s how we landed on the idea for Adventures On Trains: a series of mystery stories set on famous railway journeys all over the world. The Highland Falcon Thief is our first – the hunt for a jewel thief among the wealthy passengers of the royal train’s final tour around the UK. In the end, it was the idea that brought us together. Neither one of us could have written these books alone, but it was the perfect project for us to work on as a team.
Trains are great settings for stories because they have a natural structure which helps drama. Like a good story, a train journey has a beginning, middle and end – with lots of important landmarks along the way. Although we find setting a story on a real life train can often be more challenging than you might think – because there’s very little wiggle room when it comes to rearranging your plot. The route unfurls in particular order, at particular times, so events tied to certain locations are very hard to move.
But this complexity is actually a real gift for us. Having to focus on plot and structure make this the perfect project to do together – because we have to lay out all the scaffolding for our story before we start. This helps us both hold the story clearly in our minds, and stops us both straying from the path. Before we write a word of the book, we throw all our ideas for plot and character onto post-it notes, and shuffle them around together on a wall, making sure everything’s in an order that makes sense with the train’s journey. After that, one of us uses that scaffolding to write a draft zero – a terrible version of the book. Then we pass it back to the other, who re-writes and makes it better. We continue like that for a while, passing the draft back and forth between us like a game of tennis, until it’s in a good enough state to share with the publisher.
Working together has been a great deal of fun. We think the secret to our success is that we used to be colleagues, because we’re already used to working together, and telling each other that something’s a bad idea. We’re not precious. The best idea always wins.
Having a partner also mitigates the normal loneliness and self-doubt of being a writer. When either one of us gets stuck, we can call the other person and ask for help. And when one of us has a bad idea, the other can nip it in the bud before we waste days trying to pursue it. Writing with someone else is a great support system. And though we were quite good friends before we started, it’s clear we’ve become even closer since we began writing as a team. You can’t spend this much time in each other’s heads without reaching a level of understanding that’s quite special.
We started writing these books because we wanted to bring readers joy. But writing them together has been its own source of joy for both of us. We will both write other things on our own, but these books will always have a special place for us. They have brought us together, and made us happy. We hope they can do the same for you.
Review: The Highland Falcon Thief
Author: M.G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman Illustrator: Elisa Paganelli
Hal doesn't want to join his uncle on the Highland Falcon as it makes its way to Scotland - but when he meets Lenny, a stowaway train enthusiast and the driver's daughter, the two embark on a thrilling adventure to find missing jewels and identify the culprit. Ideal for independent readers who love a good old-fashioned mystery.
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