Researching The Witch’s Kiss

Researching The Witch’s Kiss

[This blog post was part of our blog tour and was originally posted over on Bart’s Bookshelf.]

We both LOVE history – love it so much we both studied it at university – so we knew right from the beginning that we wanted to set the ‘fairy tale’ bit of The Witch’s Kiss in the past. But, there’s a lot of past to choose from…

After a bit of thought, we decided that we didn’t want to go with a generic, ‘medieval’ sword and sorcery setting. Yet we knew that the story of Jack, and how he ended up cursed, needed to be set far enough in the past to have that slightly other-worldly, fairy tale feel. Plus, why have a Sleeping Beauty character that only sleeps for a hundred years, when you can have him sleeping for centuries? In the end we picked late 5th / early 6th century Anglo-Saxon England as our setting for the historic sections. And although The Witch’s Kiss is fantasy, we wanted to make sure we described Queen Edith’s court, and the village were Jack grows up, as authentically as possible.

So the first thing we did was buy a whole load of books – yay!!

Some of our lovely, lovely books


We read history books – Max Adams is BRILLIANT, by the way: his books are as gripping as any novel – and some of the surviving literature from (very approximately) the same time period. The nerdier of the two of us (naming no names) now has three different versions of Beowulf, and really recommends the Seamus Heaney translation.

There are also, of course, a lot of amazing resources on-line and out there in the real world. To get an idea of what our Anglo-Saxon characters might wear and how they might live, we looked at websites like Tha Engliscan Gesithas and Anglelcynn Re-Enactment Society. We also visited the wonderful Anglo-Saxon section in the British Museum (where we spotted Jack’s ‘seax’) and we were lucky enough to see the Staffordshire Hoard on display at Lichfield Cathedral (the design of the handle of The King of Heart’s sword is inspired by an item in the hoard).


The Battersea Seax at The British Museum
A garnet & gold sword pyramid from The Staffordshire Hoard

And then there’s the language. Obviously, we couldn’t write the Anglo-Saxon sections in actual Old English. But when faced with a choice of words, we did try to use ones derived from Old English (rather than Latin or French, for example) wherever possible. And we carefully avoided anything obviously anachronistic. Personally, it makes us want to tear our eyes out when a pre-twentieth century book character goes around saying stuff like “What’s up? You okay?”

As well as choosing the right kind of modern English, Merry, our hero, has to cast a few spells in Old English. So back when we were writing the first draft (way before agents and publishing deals) we had a go at constructing some appropriately spell-like Old English sentences. Cue more books:


Leofwin is awesome, BTW

Merry has some difficulty dealing with Old English when under pressure:

Merry gasped as whatever had been pinning her in place – terror, or magic – vanished.

‘Damn –’

She dropped her phone and fumbled for the parchment. There was a new line of writing, an instruction.

The monster is intent on sin. Name his name to draw him in.

There was a single sentence underneath:

Æstand, heortena cyning

Was she supposed to translate it? Right now?

‘Seriously?’ Merry yelled at the manuscript. But Jack was getting further away. Merry swore again, and ran after him.

Luckily our publishers got our attempts at old English professionally checked before going to press, but we were pretty pleased to find that we weren’t too far off.

As you can (hopefully) tell, we had a huge amount of fun researching the historical aspects of The Witch’s Kiss. Almost too much fun. So our message to any other writers out there thinking of dipping a toe into historical research is: go for it, but remember you also have to write the book. J



Interview with our cover designer

Of course, the words inside the covers are the most important thing about a book. But there’s no denying that a beautiful cover can draw the eye and convince someone to pick up a book which she otherwise might have passed over. We’ve been lucky enough to end up with a truly stunning cover for The Witch’s Kiss, so we decided to find out a bit more about the cover design process by interviewing the creator of our artwork, the lovely Lisa Brewster from Black Sheep Design


Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 18.04.33
The final cover design

1) Why do you think cover design is so important?

Designing a cover is so important as it initially helps the consumer choose the book they wish to read ( judge a book by its cover). Based on their initial reaction to its engaging typography and imagery the reader makes a decision, whether this is seeing a book in a bookstore or online seeing a thumbnail image. Designers are conveying in a split second the author branding, age group, genre of the book, helped along with a shout-line to draw the reader into the content of the book. A lot of consideration goes into the styling and treatment of a cover depending on what’s most suitable. Illustrative, typographic or photographic approaches are pinned down to the hit the right target audience. I love working in different styles so it never gets boring!

2) Can you describe in general terms what you do: what is the process for getting from publisher’s instruction to finished cover?

As a general rule I receive a detailed brief from the publisher containing all the information I need, starting from the author name and title. The brief will explain the theme and feel of the book along with a synopsis of the story-line, key themes or events, descriptions of characters – any relevant details they think I may find useful in creating the cover. Sometimes a mood-board of other titles in the same genre will be listed for reference, to help me either get a sense of the style of book it is, or to emulate the success of similar book that’s already in the market.

3) How did you come up with the design for The Witch’s Kiss?

Within the brief I was provided with the details of a great black thorn forest. I thought immediately of the film Maleficent and Grimm woods as a starting point. I explored this concept in several different styles, all slightly sinister, illustrative, bold and iconic.
I usually provide a set of different visuals/styles to the client to have initial feedback on. This helps narrows down the solutions and direction the client wishes me to pursue and develop.
Inevitably there are changes with the sales team and publisher before we decide upon a final cover design. It’s a tricky balance refining the idea to have the best impact!

An earlier version of the cover


4) How did you end up as a cover designer? What alternative design based career would you like if you hadn’t gone down that route?

Growing up I wanted to be in animation. I was brought up on Disney, but after a work experience in advertising, a now mutual friend put me in touch with the guys at Blacksheep as he felt I was more illustrative based and would be more suited in publishing. That was twelve years ago!

5) What are your five favourite covers (designed by you or by others)?

1) GRIMM TALES by Philip Pullman (Paper Art by Cheong-ah Hwang and Matthew Young).
2) The Martian by Andy Weir.
3) Moby Dick cover by Herman Melville (Umberto Scalabrini).
4) Bête by Adam Roberts ( James Macey).
5)Tony and Susan by Austin Wright.


Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us, Lisa!


You can follow Lisa on Twitter:@lisablacksheep

And don’t forget to check out the Blacksheep website here: Blacksheep Design


Back to School

There are all sorts of events that authors do: festivals, conventions, bookshop talks, school visits. Since Liz and I are both somewhere on the scale of ‘mildly introverted’ all the way through to ‘completely introverted’, standing up in front of strangers and talking to them isn’t our most favourite thing to do. Still, in the spirit of ‘learning by doing’, when we were asked to fill a last minute slot at an event a couple of weeks ago we obviously said yes please!

The event was a careers fair for primary school children, held with the idea of opening their eyes to the variety of jobs out there, raising their aspirations and ambitions. In the course of two hours we had to convey to six groups of children (aged from 9 to 11) a little bit about what it’s like to be writers. We knew we couldn’t talk to them in detail about The Witch’s Kiss – it’s not out yet, and the children were the wrong age group in any case – and a lecture on the rocky path to publication was hardly likely to engage them. Instead, we decided to focus on the fact that being an author isn’t primarily about agents and publishing deals and book reviews; it’s about telling stories.

We asked each group of children to come up with the basics of a story: a hero, a villain, a setting. We asked them to think about what the hero and the villain might both want, and how this could lead to conflict between the two characters. And the children rose to the challenge brilliantly. They were particularly imaginative in coming up with some great villains. Our favourites were Bob the Martian, a mischievous purple-green alien with four arms; Victor Blood, a planet-ruling vampire; and Dr Banana, a WW2 German scientist who has been genetically-modified into a giant piece of homicidal fruit.

The mad, staring eyes of an evil genius

After each story had been established we were able to talk the children through the various ways in which it’s possible to for a story to find readers. They seemed to enjoy the process; we certainly did.

Our take-away points from the event?

  • Have a plan. We sought advice from other authors about events (I particularly recommend the excellent Guide to Author Events run by Non Pratt and Robin Stevens). We made a short slide show to guide both us and the children through what we wanted to do, and that made us feel a little bit more in control. But also…
  • Be prepared to deviate from your plan. If the audience wants to talk more about one aspect of writing than another, go with it. But don’t let one person drag the discussion completely off topic. We had to cut short what was turning into an interesting but lengthy discussion on how to kill vampires.

Other than that, we emerged from our first event in awe of the stamina of teachers (talking non-stop for two hours is exhausting) but with a feeling that we’d survived. We can do this. And in a little while, with practice, we might even stop feeling nervous about it.

From Agent to Bookshelf

Before we had an agent, getting one felt like the end of the process. The goal. After all, we’d read the statistics. About agents only taking on 0.1% of submissions, or something like that. The possibility seemed so remote, we didn’t even bother to think about what might come next.

So we were kind of surprised to find out that what came next was actually editing. Lots and lots of editing.


First, we edited with our agent, before she sent it out to publishers.

Then, after we got a deal, we did more editing with our editor (and yes, we probably should have seen that coming).

It panned out something like this:

  • Three main edits, refining different aspects of the manuscript. For example, we moved sections around. Brought out some character traits more clearly. Wrote some new scenes and deleted others entirely. (Yes, it hurt. A lot. But it worked.)
  • A line edit, in which we worked through the manuscript thinking about phrasing, choice of words, clarity of expression.
  • A copy edit. The manuscript was checked over by the copy editor – a fresh pair of eyes – who suggested some further clarifications for us to think about.
  • A proof edit. The proof-reader checked everything over for house style, missed spelling mistakes, that sort of thing.

It all happened pretty quickly. Our first editorial meeting was mid-October 2015: a little over 8 months before publication date. And we had to write the first draft of our second book at the same time. But at least we were never bored.

Exhausted, yes. Bored, no.

And in twenty-six days, the result of all this editing and re-writing will be sent out into the world.

Nervous? Who’s nervous? Not us.


From idea to agent…

Here’s a thing: The Witch’s Kiss is our debut, but it’s not actually the first book that Liz and I have written together.

We began TWK in the summer of 2014, but we’d started writing together two years earlier, on a project I’m going to call Rookie Novel 1. RN1 took a long time to get into shape. More than 18 months passed before we thought it was up to sending out to agents (perhaps at some point I’ll post up here for your amusement the ABSOLUTELY HORRIBLE query letters we wrote back at the beginning). But – lack of experience notwithstanding – we did end up with two full manuscript requests for RN1 from big London agencies. Still, that was as far as we got. And two requests on perhaps twenty queries didn’t seem that encouraging. So by mid-2014 we decided we really needed to either forget the whole thing or write something new. (Of course, we were both addicted to writing by then, so something new was really the only option).

Then, after re-reading a bunch of fairy-tales, Liz had an idea: a male sleeping beauty, in some sort of historical setting. And something to do with jars of hearts…


Probably not this sort of heart.

And I thought: let’s not do medieval. Medieval seems like the go-to setting for fantasy. Let’s do Anglo-Saxon. A male sleeping beauty who is asleep for more than fifteen hundred years.

And we both thought: witches. Twenty-first century witches. How cool would that be?


Probably not this sort of witch.


We didn’t start writing straight away. Because we were writing together (and also because we’re both complete control freaks) we like to plan. We wrote an initial 14 page outline. Then a more detailed chapter-by-chapter outline, that was at least twice as long. Then we divided the chapters up and off we went.

More or less.

There was a lot of re-writing. A lot of re-writing stuff the other one had already re-written. A lot of underlining in red and adding comments like: ‘SERIOUSLY???’. But, by the end of five months (November 2014) we did have a complete manuscript. Then we read the whole thing through and decided we needed to completely reorganize the middle sections. That Christmas was kind of busy. Still, by the middle of January we were ready to start submitting again.

The next couple of weeks were fairly….terrifying. (We were not particularly chilled about the whole thing). We were over-the-top nervous about misreading the submission guidelines. We panicked that we were sending out the wrong version of the manuscript, or the wrong manuscript altogether. And every time one of us got an email we had a heart-stopping moment of fear, convinced that a rejection had just landed in the inbox.

But funnily enough, this time turned out not to be that terrible at all. Within a couple of weeks, we had three offers of representation from three fabulous agents. We had a choice!

We chose the lovely Claire Wilson from RCW, and that is definitely one of the best decisions we’ve ever made in our short writing career.

Next week, I’ll write about the next stage of the process: from agent to bookshelf.

Once upon a time…

There was an article in the Telegraph a few weeks back titled ‘Fantasy books such as Game of Thrones can damage children’s brains’. The article was quoting a head-teacher who recommended younger children should be protected from the “damaging effects” of fantasy literature, including Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and Terry Pratchett.


And also, presumably, Ladybird Books

Frankly, I think this is ridiculous.

So much of classic literature is based in fantasy: The Odyssey, Beowulf, The Tempest. And fairy tales are important. As usual, Neil Gaiman puts it brilliantly: ‘Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.’

So children should definitely be allowed to read Harry Potter. And adults should be allowed to read fairy tales. Taken as a whole, they present a pretty complex view of life. Magic fixes things for Cinderella, but nearly costs Rumplestiltskin’s victim her baby. Prince Charming is always a hot guy, but Beauty and the Beast shows that what’s inside a person is more important than good looks. I guess that’s why fairy tales can be re-imagined over and over so successfully.

The fairy tale at the root of The Witch’s Kiss is Sleeping Beauty, versions of which have been around for at least 700 years if you include the ‘Brynhildr falling asleep in her armour’ story in the Völsunga Saga. And it’s still going strong. Liz and I love Maleficent, in which the villain becomes the hero, and one of my favourite Christmas presents this year was The Sleeper and The Spindle, Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell’s gorgeous Snow White / Sleeping Beauty mash up. Our starting point was the idea of a male sleeping beauty set in a real historical time period. What would happen if the sleeper – together with the person who cursed him – woke up in twenty-first century England?

Less than six weeks now, and you can find out!

Sister Act

I write books with my little sister, Elizabeth. And on 30th June (that’s only seven weeks away. SEVEN WEEKS!), our debut novel, The Witch’s Kiss, will be published by HarperCollins.

And that’s not a sentence either of us really thought we’d actually get to write.

The first thing most people ask when we meet them (if the whole writing thing comes up), is something along the lines of:

So how does that work, writing together? I would go mad if I had to work with my sister/brother/other family member. I’d probably kill her/him. How come you two haven’t killed each other?

Well, we’ve been writing together for nearly four years now, and we haven’t killed each other yet. There’s been some yelling, some angry-face emojis, but no actual bloodshed. So what is the secret?

I reckon there are four main ingredients to making our writing relationship work:

1. Technology. We use Dropbox to keep all our files in the cloud, which means we can both edit and comment on stuff the other one has written. So when Liz wants to say things like, ‘this chapter is awful. Terrible. So bad it’s making my eyeballs bleed…’ she doesn’t actually have to say it to my face. Also, we can have a whole conversation about a scene or character over email or Twitter. No vocal communication required!


2. Similarities. We have a lot of things in common, including a whole childhood of shared influences:  books, TV shows, films. So, there’s a big overlap of stuff we both enjoy, including a lot of our reading material. And now we enjoy writing the same kind of things too.


3. Differences. We both have our own strengths and weaknesses, in writing as in everything else. Liz has a great ear for dialogue. I like researching and writing more descriptive passages. Liz likes happy endings. I like doing horrible things to our characters.


4. Love. We love each other. And writing together means we get to do something we love with somebody we love. Life doesn’t get much better than that.


Thanks for reading. x