And try not to be too self-conscious in your storytelling, and that is what it should be, telling stories. Trying to write well-constructed, crafty sentences will bog you down, and you will lose your connection with your imaginary, but all too real, characters. Just pretend you are telling a story to your best friend, or favourite child. Sort out the style and grammar at the end.
I recently interviewed children’s author, Norman Jorgensen to find out more about his writing journey and love of history. Norman is an award-winning children’s author who has written thirteen books for children and young adults. Please read on to find out more about the man who loves writing thrilling adventure stories for junior readers.
NLK: What do you wish you knew when you first started writing?
NJ: I wish I knew how to type. Back in the olden days when I went to school, girls leant typing, boys did woodwork, and there was no crossover, ever. I suppose I could have learnt later on if I was really serious, but life got in the way, and besides, I was forty before I was properly published.
I also had no idea of how much self-promotion and public speaking would become necessary and how school talks are not only vital to promoting your work but also essential to make a living. I had imagined I would sit in a darkened room playing with the lives of imaginary people for most of my time and never imagined I would be riding in old Cessnas to outback settlements, or spending long nights at a time alone in country motels, or travelling halfway across the state to address theatres full of boisterous Year 9s students one session and then clingy pre-primary kids the next.
NLK: What is it about history that fascinates you? How did you fall in love with history? Are you trying to impart your love of history in your stories?
NJ: I think my love of history is Hollywood’s fault. As a kid growing up in country Narrogin I used to spend every Saturday at the local fleapit cinema watching movies like Robin Hood, Captain Blood, Charge of the Light Brigade, They Died With Their Boots On about General Custer, Beau Geste, as well as countless Westerns, war and pirate movies. I think this sparked my interest and I was soon reading mostly historical novels like Eagle of the Ninth, by Rosemary Sutcliffe, Cue for Treason by Geoffrey Trease, Robinson Crusoe and Swiss Family Robinson, Treasure Island and everything else by Robert Louis Stevenson. Nothing much has changed all these years later, and I still read mostly historical fiction. I am not trying to impart my love of history, nor teach morals or behaviour, I’m just telling stories about kids set in the past. My heroes tend to be much braver, more intelligent and much more adventurous versions of me and, hopefully, my readers can identify with them as well.
What is it about history that fascinates me? Stories in historical eras are often set in times of upheaval and significant change and so the drama of the times is heightened. Danger, excitement and adventure come more easily. It is admirable when ordinary characters have to face up to such dramas and challenges and win through, but not until the very end, of course.
NLK: Do you have a favourite story from your books? Why?
NJ: In Jack’s Island, which is about my dad and is set on Rottnest Island during World War II, there is a scene where he and his brother build a go-cart (hill trolley), race it down a steep hill and end up flying off a cliff and crashing into the sea. That scene is more realistic than some of the others, as I did much the same thing with my brothers when we were young. We crashed into a creek and not the sea, but the hair-raising ride down the hill is authentic, as was the pain and bleeding, and not second-hand storytelling.
NLK: How do you tackle research for your books? Can you please share any research tips with us?
NJ: I make a point of visiting every place I write about, and in fact, places often inspire scenes. I’m a great believer in including all your senses in stories to add to the authenticity of the locations, and then using imagination to fill out the plot. As I’m writing historical novels, I spend far too much time on Google checking small and almost irrelevant details, as well as reading other books set in the same times. Movies still play an essential part in my research as Hollywood costume, and set designers tend to be very professional and accurate in portraying the past. For instance, the third book in The Smuggler’s Curse Series is set in 1900, when the Boxer Rebellion was in raging in China. It was a brutal war between the peasants and the colonial powers like England, France, Russia, Italy and Japan, who had virtually colonised the county and were bleeding it dry. The Society of Harmonious Fists (the Boxers) rose up and started killing all the foreigners and Christians they could. The war was portrayed in an epic 1963 film called 55 Days in Peking and although it is now old-fashioned and decidedly racist by today’s standards, it has been invaluable for me to see how the people dressed, what countryside looked like back then, what weapons they used, and what the attitudes on both sides of the conflict were like. A visit to China a couple years ago also added to my knowledge of the weather and the locations now, and it doesn’t take much of a stretch to imagine it a 120 years ago.
NLK: Can you please share any tips you have for fostering creativity? What advice do you have for newbie writers?
NJ: Carry your notebook with you everywhere because ideas are like mosquitos. The literary bugs buzz in, and unless to swat them (write them down!) they fly away never to return. Also, join The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and your local writing group. Here in Perth, WritingWA website has the centres listed. Go to every event at The Fremantle Literature Centre and Paper Bird Books and every other one you can find. Creativity is as infectious as The Black Plague, and writers feed off each other’s enthusiasm. It is a lonely life with lots of knockbacks, so mix with as many other creatives as you can. It helps to share the triumphs and tragedies.
Also, long, piping-hot bubble baths are excellent for clearing the mind and freeing up the creativity.
And try not to be too self-conscious in your storytelling, and that is what it should be, telling stories. Trying to write well-constructed, crafty sentences will bog you down, and you will lose your connection with your imaginary, but all too real, characters. Just pretend you are telling a story to your best friend, or favourite child (if they are not grounded for life), and write only for them in a style they will like and understand effortlessly. Sort out the style and grammar at the end.
NLK: What is your favourite genre to read? Is there a book you can recommend?
NJ: As I said, I still read historical fiction, and I also enjoy witty writing, like the books of Bill Bryson and Tom Sharpe, a hilarious novelist who wrote Blott on the Landscape. Another favourite is Lesley Thomas, author of The Virgin Soldiers and scores of other ingenious books. John Steinbeck remains an idol for his style and his enormous heart in writing about disadvantaged folk as in The Grapes of Wrath. My current passion is CH Sansom who wore a series of novels starting with Dissolution about a lawyer working for King Henry V111. I love how he captures the grubby world of 16th century London so well that you feel you need a shower after reading them.
NLK: Do you have a favourite word?
NJ: Ert, the opposite of inert. For some odd reason, I don’t hear it used in everyday conversation very much though.
NLK: Is it true you write with a fountain pen? Is this important for your writing process?
NJ: Yes, I often write in fountain pen. I have several German Lamy pens, which I’m very fond of, as well as a collection of others. I often use the pens for first drafts when sitting under trees, or on beaches, while imaging my heroes swashbuckling about, but then I transfer the text to my screen and edit in the process, before the hundreds of other edits and rewrites. It’s not actually that important to use a pen, as I regularly compose on the screen. But it somehow feels right using a fountain pen and a leather-bound notebook, though, if writing about the 19th century.
I have just received a gorgeous new pen from China called The Black Dragon. I saw it advertised and just had to have it as that is the exact name of the schooner in my latest books. It was obviously a sign from the Writing Gods!
About Norman Jorgensen
Norman Jorgensen may have the body of an ageing historical novelist, but he has the mind of an adolescent 12-year-old boy. He writes for Australian kids just like himself. No humour or thrilling adventures are spared as his fictional characters in The Smuggler’s Curse weave through sea battles, mix with authentic freedom fighters, fight the Dutch colonial army and are nearly killed many times over in actual locations in Sumatra and Broome in 1897.
Norman has written thirteen children’s and YA books and has won many awards, including the CBC’s Book of the Year Award, four children’s choice awards, the Crystal Kite Award from his peers, and The Henry Burgh award in the USA. His life has been about books, having owned a bookshop, worked as a publisher’s agent and sold books to schools. His historical titles, In Flanders Fields, Jack’s Island, The Last Viking and The Smuggler’s Curse have sold thousands of copies.
Writing about real locations and historical events in Australian history, while young readers demand the full technicolour, blood n’ guts version can be challenging, but classic story-telling laced with humour and vivid descriptions can usually overcome dryness.
Connect with Norman Jorgensen