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Children’s Book Blog: Ask the Author – C. J. Daugherty

Rebecca Davies

CJ Daugherty 300x199 Children’s Book Blog: Ask the Author – C. J. DaughertyC.J. Daugherty is the author of the best-selling Night School books, a mystery-thriller series for teens. The story follows the adventures of Allie, a teenage rebel who is sent to an exclusive boarding school, ostensibly to drum some discipline into her. But when a fellow student turns up dead, Allie starts to wonder whether there are more sinister games afoot at her new school than chess and croquet. The third instalment in the series, Fracture, will be published this Autumn.

Where did the inspiration for Night School come from?

The very first idea came from seeing the old photo of the Bullingdon Club with David Cameron and Boris Johnson. There was something about that photo with so many future government leaders and business executives. All those arrogant young men. I remember the headline read something like, “The Bullingdon Club, a secret society at Oxford University”. I thought: ‘Wait – There are ACTUAL secret societies at Oxford?’

So I decided to explore that whole idea. I wanted to look at what it’s like to be so young, and with your path to power already assured. What does that do to a 16-year-old’s head? Because the guys in that photo look like they think they can get away with anything. And if you could get away with anything at that age… What would you do?

How did you go about researching such an elite and exclusive world?

At the time I first began writing Night School I was working for the government, commuting daily to Whitehall, walking past Parliament and MI6 to get to my job at the Home Office, so I was right at the centre of that world. I had meetings in Downing Street. Meetings at Cabinet Office. That was just my life. So I was well acquainted with the power side of things.

When I started asking people about boarding school, it turned out I knew far more people who attended boarding school than I’d realised. Some friends of mine went to Eton and to other public schools so I had a good brain trust. In practical terms, I did basic research as well – downloading guidelines for new students from the websites of prestigious private schools and so forth. This gave me an idea of structure, prefecture, and normal rules boarding schools set out for students.

You were born in America but have lived in the UK for a long time. Was having a bit of an outsider’s perspective more of an advantage or a disadvantage when getting to grips with archaic British traditions?

I think it’s an advantage. I can see things with the clear perspective of distance. To see the lay of the land you need a great height.

I grew up in Texas. My school was a modern windowless structure on a busy city street across from a fast food outlet and an auto repair shop called Texas Mufflers. So for me, as for many people, a British boarding school is a fantasy setting. You don’t need magic or vampires or ghosts – the school itself is beyond reality. Some of these schools are virtually CASTLES. With MOATS.

An extraordinary setting is great inspiration for any writer – it’s a springboard into the story.

The real-life equivalents of Night School often tend to be ‘men only’. Why did you decide to include women in your club?

I want young girls to envision a world in which they can be just as big a b*****d as the boy sitting next to them in class.

Is Cimmeria Academy based on a real school (in its architecture and location, if not its ethos)?

The architecture I describe was inspired by Frensham Heights, a boarding school near where I live in Surrey. I happened to see it for the first time at sunset, with its jagged, Victorian roof and sprawling grounds all cast in ominous shadows. At the time, I made a mental note to write a ghost story set in a school like that. Two years later, I wrote the story but dropped the ghosts.

Writing convincing ‘teen speak’ is a tricky feat to pull off – what did you do to make sure you got it right?

I think dialogue is where much YA fiction falters. So often the words coming out of the mouths of fictional teens are so clearly those of a 35-year-old Oxford graduates and it’s jarring. The other day I was watching a US TV series in which a young girl said of something on the news, “I find that ghoulish.” And I muttered to myself, “Says the 14-year-old.” Because, seriously? Is that how anyone really thinks even educated 14-year-olds speak?

When I first sat down to write Night School, it was my stated objective NOT to do that. I try to write in the vernacular – complete with hesitations, pauses and sentences dropped midway through. Also swearing, slang and GOD. Seriously? Because… like. Whatever.

When it comes to getting dialogue ideas I am an appalling stalker. I follow young people around Starbucks and eavesdrop. Trains are also great for this – I love it when teenagers sit near me and talk loudly; it’s amazing for my research. My husband is a great adult dialogue detector. He reads my early drafts and will write ‘Bit 30s’ by any suspiciously adult phrasing.

What was your favourite book when you were a teenager?

I grew up in the 1980s and there weren’t a huge number of books specifically for teenagers then. I found the few books that were written specifically for teens patronising and insulting. The message was always, “Boys just want one thing…” Or “Periods are perfectly normal.”

Jesus.

I was terribly bookish but mostly read things wildly inappropriate for my age. I read “Alien” as a 15-year-old and am STILL scarred by the experience.

The only fiction writer who really seemed to GET what it was like to be a teen was John Hughes, who was a filmmaker, not an author. I loved “The Breakfast Club” and “Pretty in Pink”. Another film I loved was Cameron Crowe’s “Say Anything” – it’s still one of my favourite films.

To this day, even though I read voraciously, my writing is more influenced by film and television than by written fiction.

Do you have any tips for authors trying to get into YA fiction?

I am amazed when YA writers tell me they don’t read YA. Amazed.

If you want to write in a genre, you need to read that genre. So read everything that’s out there. I read at least 30 YA books over the course of a few months before sitting down to write Night School. I needed to know what I liked and didn’t like about the genre. Ideas to emulate. Things to avoid.

You need to know what’s selling and get a feeling for why but don’t write your book to sell – write your book because you love writing that book.

I believe readers fall in love with Cimmeria Academy, and Allie, Rachel and Carter, because I’m in love with them. I think about them all the time. Dream about them. Real love comes through the pages. If you write characters you love in a setting you love, agents and publishers will be able to sense that passion.

Rebecca Davies is a journalist and children’s author and completed her middle-grade novel, Shirley Smart and the Nix’s Curse earlier this year. You can read more of her children’s book blogs here

Follow Rebecca on Twitter @TheStoryMonster

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