'The best books, reviewed with insight and charm, but without compromise.'
- author Jackie French

Wednesday 12 September 2012

Guest Post: Frances Watts

Kids Book Review is very pleased to welcome back award-winning author Frances Watts to share some background on the setting for her great junior novel series, Sword Girl. Set in medieval times, the first books in the series were released in April 2012 and the latest adventures, Tournament Trouble and The Siege Scare have just arrived on bookstore shelves.

Thanks so much for having me back on Kids Book Review! At the time of my last visit to KBR, I was in the midst of writing the Gerander Trilogy (the final volume of which, The Secret of Zanzibar, has just been released), and you asked what I might write next. I mentioned that I was interested in writing something with a historical setting—and that’s exactly what I did, embarking on the Sword Girl series.

Set in a medieval castle, the series follows the adventures of Tommy (short for Thomasina), a kitchen girl who becomes Flamant Castle’s Keeper of the Blades and longs to be a knight.

I’ve always been drawn to medieval history. One reason is that I have a love of medieval art and architecture, and I suspect this stems from the fact that I was born in the medieval city of Lausanne, Switzerland. Although I moved to Australia when I was very young, I have visited Lausanne regularly all my life and feel a very strong connection to it. I also love that in medieval times there was a very fluid relationship between fact and fiction. So a talking crocodiddle in a castle moat or swords inhabited by the spirits of previous owners (such as in the Sword Girl series) would not have been completely out of the question—definitely my kind of setting!

My research has taken me in some interesting directions, from siege warfare and the rules of jousting to medieval tricks and pranks, but undoubtedly my favourite detail came from reading a medieval medical text which gave a cure for mental confusion: sufferers were advised to mix pigeon droppings with honey and smear it on the back of the neck. Nice! Of course, I had to use this. The result was a pigeon character who is always being hounded for his droppings by the castle’s physician, who wants to use them in his cures. (Much to the pigeon’s chagrin; he is a skilled carrier pigeon and finds it insulting to be asked for his droppings.) I used that original recipe in the first book in the series, The Secret of the Swords, and have had an enormous amount of fun coming up with new cures in subsequent books. One of my favourites is a cure for the common cold (or, in the crocodiddle’s parlance, ‘the sneezles’): combine pigeon droppings and orange juice and paint the mixture on your nose. This particular cure saves the day in The Poison Plot.

Although there are quite a few fantastical elements about the Sword Girl books, at the same time I’m trying to be as accurate as I can about the setting. For example, when I was working on the sixth book (Pigeon Problems, due for release in April 2013), I learned that medieval clothes did not have pockets—and I’d been relying rather heavily on Tommy carrying a message in hers! So I had to work out a way around that (the old slip-it-up-the-sleeve trick worked just as well, luckily).

I had a shock recently when visiting my sister and her partner in Exeter, in England, and they took me to see the recreated home of a Tudor noble. I stepped into the kitchen and couldn’t believe my eyes: it looked so much like the kitchen of Flamant Castle. It was a beautiful moment: for a split second, I had the feeling that the world of Sword Girl was all real. As indeed all fictional worlds are when you are writing them—and, I hope, when readers enter them.

Sword Girl books 3 and 4, Tournament Trouble and The Siege Scare, are published by Allen & Unwin and are available at all good bookshops.