Sylvia Bishop on Writing Settings

I’m delighted to host author Sylvia Bishop (The Bookshop Girl, The Secret of the Night Train) on the blog today. Bishop has been hosting writing workshops, and her session on Saturday is about settings, why some are captivating and transporting in those crucial childhood years.

44 tiny acrobats

Bishop certainly puts her teaching to practise. Her current junior fiction series, 44 Tiny, illustrated by Ashley King, focuses on the exquisitely quirky and captivating Betsy Bow-Linnet as she navigates life with her 44 tiny secrets. The second in the series, 44 Tiny Acrobats, published at the beginning of this month, takes its protagonist to the circus, a wondrous backdrop for a story, with scope for magic, stagecraft, animal antics, colourful costumes and so much more. But it is in exploring this from a child’s angle that one can begin to see what matters within each setting. 

Sylvia Bishop is excellent at climbing inside the mind of a child and expressing how they feel in the way they would express it. This is not necessarily a definable or known emotion to that child, but rather a series of sensations and gradual understandings. When Betsy has a particular experience at the circus, she wants to commit it to memory, but doesn’t quite know how to express herself. So she takes in the specifics: “the flag fluttered like that. The lights twinkled like that.” It is at once totally expressive and completely beautiful.

Here, Bishop explains how she writes her settings: 

I write for children because children are the best readers. I vividly remember the utter immersion, how perfectly content I could be to stay in bed all day with a book once it had hooked me; an experience of reading which is now rare and precious. And then, of course, there were the daydreams afterwards about the world of the book, long after it was finished. 

This is the power of a good setting in children’s literature. It becomes a world that feels very real, and takes on a life of its own. But what gives some settings this power? 

Of course, every child is different. But there are certain overwhelming commonalities in how we relate to the space around us at different ages, and learning to remember and tap into this is hugely useful for successful children’s settings. There is a reason for the cupboard under the stairs and the Wardrobe; the wood between the worlds and the Place Inbetween; Sara’s attic and the little house in its wide-open prairie. I think it is a myth that children don’t want to read descriptions of setting. We just need to remember what’s interesting. 

And this doesn’t only apply when you’re writing Narnia. Some stories must take place at home, or at school; but the most ordinary house is a world full of worlds. The many corners of home are a whole kingdom in early middle childhood, and we can tap into the agency and ownership children have in that space. 

44 tiny secrets

The first book in my series 44 Tiny…, 44 Tiny Secrets, is mostly set at home, with Betsy Bow Linnet and her 44 African pygmy mice. But she has her own spaces within it… 

Betsy picked up the letter, and was about to open it, but it felt wrong to tear it open in the hall. This was clearly a special sort of letter. So she ran up the stairs to the top floor and noodled her legs through the spindles of the banister. Here, in her favourite spot, she opened the envelope. 

We return to her home in 44 Tiny Acrobats. She knows her house with the thoroughness of someone who has spent hours playing games in it, in the years when hours still feel like eons. She has paid attention to its sounds… 

The Bow-Linnet’s house was full of creaks and groans and surprising thuds 

… and has her own routes through it… 

She tore down the alley behind the gardens of her road, climbed the tree outside her own garden, dropped on to the top of Grandad’s shed and down via another tree on to the grass, and raced over to the kitchen window.  

She had learned as a small girl how to lever this open from the outside. It occurred to her halfway through the window that she was not as small any more, but it was too late for that now; she shoved and pushed and wriggled, and at last landed in the kitchen sink. 

In Acrobats, however, Betsy has to choose between home and the circus. For this to work, the circus has to have the right kind of allure – something that could convincingly tug at her heart strings. It doesn’t take much description to put across the feeling of a performer’s trailer: 

Around her was a semi-circle of trailers. They had brightly lit windows with checked curtains, and doors painted with beautiful pictures. These were the performers’ homes. 

… and then: 

Betsy said goodbye and hurried out of the trailer. The rain had begun again, and the brightly lit trailers looked cosy; you could hear talk and laughter coming from inside them, snug and content.  

Being cosy and being on the road and having your own small, personal kingdom? I know I would have gone to sleep that night dreaming of circus trailers. And it’s not just me: those are three important aspects of game-playing and fantasies in middle childhood, across cultures. Writing settings well for junior fiction is less about stunning people with the poetic quality of your writing, and more about knowing which settings will work – what will prompt your child reader to willingly and delightedly do all the imaginative filling-in for you, from the sketchiest description. 

And to know that, we have some remembering to do. 

Sylvia’s workshop on ‘Junior Fiction: Settings that Stick’ has sold out, but do hit the wait list button: she’ll run another if there’s interest. And you can always sign up for the rerun of her sold-out Character workshop, on 27th February. Details for all workshops can be found at www.speakeasy.com/speaker/sylvia-bishop 

44 Tiny Acrobats, along with the prequel, 44 Tiny Secrets! are available here, and at all other bookshops. 

44 Tiny Acrobats tells the story of when Fry’s Circus pitches its tent opposite Betsy’s house, and despite her Grandad’s reluctance because of his memories of Grandma’s circus days, Betsy can’t resist the lure of the circus. 

But when Betsy’s 44 pygmy mice escape from their box during the show, she has no choice but to join them on stage. And suddenly, running away with the circus seems like the only thing left to do. 

Illustrated in two-tone colour, this sequel beautifully encompasses all the fun of the circus, whilst also exploring how the past has a habit of catching up with you. Captivating and delightful. 

With thanks to Sylvia Bishop and Little Tiger Press.