Guest Blog: Meg McKinlay says The delight is in the detail

Meg McKinlay is a children’s writer and poet whose work ranges from picture books through to young adult fiction. Her publications include the Prime Minister’s Literary Award-winning A Single Stone, and CBCA-shortlisted No Bears and Duck for a Day, among many others. In this guest blog post she gets to grips with some common questions. Over to you Meg. 

What’s the story about? Where did you get the idea? Can you give a plot summary? What are the main themes?

When a new book comes out, authors answer these questions over and over again. And for good reason – they’re excellent, important questions. It’s important to have an excellent answer to hand. With the release of my new chapter book, Bella and the Voyaging House, I’ve been working hard lately to do exactly that.

But as much as I enjoy talking about these things, they never quite get to the heart of why I wrote the story. Yes, I can tell you where I got the idea, but I have hundreds of ideas and most of them will remain as fragments in notebooks, lacking that essential something that demands my creative attention, that makes me sit up and say, Oh. Yes. This is something I absolutely must write.

For me, that special something is always a tiny detail, a little grain that works its way under my skin and refuses to be ignored. In Bella and the Wandering House, the first ‘Bella’ book, it was the ‘perfectly round window’ in Bella’s bedroom. Though it has been some seven years since I wrote them, the lines that are used to describe it are lodged deep in my brain:

‘Grandad had made the frame wide, like a bench, so she could sit inside it, her back curving neatly against the smooth sweep of the wood.’

The moment I came up with this window was the moment when the story became inevitable. Something in it connected deeply to my childhood self, to a longing I had never articulated – for a reading nook, perhaps, or just a special space that was all my own. Whatever it was, I could feel it in my body, curving my own back against the imaginary wood, and there was no way I couldn’t write it into being.

Once I had done that, I was happy. I left Bella in her window and I moved onto other things, other stories. I had no plans for a sequel, until one day, several years later, long past the point at which it made sense to even consider another Bella story, a new little detail started gleaming in the corner of my eye.

I had just come back from the beach, where I had sat and watched the boats, and found myself thinking about Bella’s house, which has a nautical connection and likes to go out for a little swim every now and then. And just in the way that a creative brain does, I was idly wondering what it would feel like out there, what it would do, where it would go. What sorts of adventures that it might have, and what sorts of calamities might befall it and …

… just in the way a creative brain does, all day long. Sometimes all night long. Not in a way like an idea I’m going to pursue or a story I’m going to write. Until I tell my husband about these musings, spinning a little more and a little more, saying: You know, and they get stuck out there and someone has to rescue them and oh, I guess it would be Grandad and maybe he comes sailing in or … even flying in! On one of his contraptions!

And I look at my husband and he’s grinning like an excited kid, like one of the kids who sit in the front row at school visits and just.won’t.ever.put.their.hand.down, and he says, ‘Yeah! And he could be wearing some of those old-timey aviator goggles!’

And in that moment, I know I’m sunk. Because I can see Grandad, all of a sudden – braving the vast ocean, zooming in to the rescue. He’s grinning from ear to ear with the thrill of it, and even though I have no idea what this story is going to be about – why the house is on the ocean or why it gets stuck or what happens next or before or after … or indeed much of anything – I know I have to write it now because Grandad is having the time of his life and there’s no way I can let him down.

And thus, Bella and the Voyaging House was born, an entirely unsensible sequel, a mere six years after the first.

I’m calling these small details, because they are. But they’re also not. They’re the seeds from which everything grows, not just in terms of inspiration, but structurally, technically. Bella’s round window tells me something about Bella, about who she is. It starts to form her as a character. It suggests her relationship with Grandad, which is at the heart of both books. This in turn starts to build the characters of Mum and Dad, and their own, different relationships with Bella, which becomes important to both the plot and emotional narrative of both stories. Grandad’s goggles and improbable flight tell me that I’m writing about things like ingenuity and adventure, about freedom and courage, and a sort of resilient, childlike optimism. They give me an image and a feeling to head towards, and for a writer like me, that’s plenty.

Follow the details, I say – take that funny little grain that grabs you and write out of that. You can build a whole story that way, a whole delightful, detailed world.

Meg McKinlay’s Bella and the Voyaging House and Bella and the Wandering House are both available in all good bookstores and online.