Lucy Strange | 'I think it’s so important not to underestimate readers of that age, the complexity of their inner world'

Lucy Strange | 'I think it’s so important not to underestimate readers of that age, the complexity of their inner world'

An Eric Ravilious painting, "Beachy Head Lighthouse", was the starting point for Lucy Strange’s second children’s book, Our Castle By The Sea. "I love the old-fashioned, storybook style to his work," she tells me when we speak one August morning. The painting is the view from the lantern room of the Belle Tout lighthouse and for months that image haunted her. Strange knew she wanted to write about the Second World War but the layers of the story emerged more slowly: a family drama about "the idea of love and loyalty tested to their limits, under that very cruel pressure of conflict".

Twelve-year-old Petra has grown up in a lighthouse, "an eccentric kind of home", on the Kent coast, a world of storms, secret tunnels and stories about sea monsters. But as war looms, her beloved clifftops become a terrifying battleground, the threat of invasion horribly close across the water. Her family—lighthouse keeper Pa, her German mother and fiery, unpredictable sister Magda—are torn apart. At the core of the narrative is small, afraid and unnoticed Petra, who feels inextricably linked to a strange, ancient legend.

Strange grew up in Canterbury and was always drawn to storytelling. Childhood favourites included Little Women and The Secret Garden, "stories that have seeped into my consciousness", and shape the classic feel of her writing. Aged 11, she became an Agatha Christie obsessive, an enduring love that informs part of her philosophy as a writer. "All good stories contain elements of murder mysteries within them: the clues, the red herrings, the twists... plot devices that make the story exciting and add texture." Drama school followed an English Literature degree, leading to five years as an actor. She loved rehearsals, "exploring characters, developing the dynamics and telling the story".

Retraining as a secondary school teacher in her late twenties proved to be a huge influence on her writing and cemented her desire to write for middle-grade readers of 10–13. "I know my audience very well. I think it’s so important not to underestimate readers of that age, the complexity of their inner world. I wanted to write something substantial
but at the same time accessible." Children of that age, she believes, "are straining at the leash. It’s an age when children are taking those first steps of independence, and I think powerlessness can be particularly frustrating. They can have such maturity but perhaps don’t have the experience or aren’t trusted enough to take those steps for themselves."

But it was not until her early thirties that Strange began to write more formally. Living and teaching abroad she began writing a blog, Homesick and Heatstruck, which gave the her the motivation and confidence she needed. A stint in journalism and a "terrible" unpublished murder mystery novel followed. Then came The Secret of Nightingale Wood, written in Dubai and brimming with "longing for the English countryside and nostalgia for home". It was runner-up in the Montegrappa First Fiction Competition and she signed with agent Luigi Bonomi who struck a deal with Chicken House. The book became a Waterstones Children’s Book of the Month, critically acclaimed both here and in the US.

"For new writers, all you really want is for your book to be real. That was enough of a thrill. It was surreal." Despite being pregnant and then a new mother during the writing and editing, Our Castle By The Sea has been "much more straightforward" than the "complex and emotional" writing journey of Nightingale Wood, much of which Strange attributes to her editor. "I feel like Rachel [Leyshon] has trained me well; I’m quite critical of my own writing in a way I wasn’t before."

I want young readers to feel that strength is possible, and that hope and courage are possible even in the most terrifying situations

Strange has a real talent for richly drawn, complex characters from the starring roles to the local villagers. The journey of her protagonists is something she works hard on with her editor. Petra’s transformation from mouse-like child to dragon-slaying heroine "was a really exciting one. I want young readers to feel that strength is possible, and that hope and courage are possible even in the most terrifying situations." The decision to make Petra’s mother German was an early one. As the local community becomes ever more fearful, suspicions rise. "It struck me as being a powerful starting point. It’s the beginning of the war, tensions are so high, what if your mother was German?" A strong sense of mystery is woven into the plot, meaning a number of characters are not who they may first appear to be. "You need to make their journey believable and for all the clues to be there, but you still want the twist to have impact when the truth of their character emerges."

This is her second historical novel and Strange’s passion for the genre is tangible. She loves the potential of quarrying for "stories that sing out to be told", and relishes "the challenge of weaving fact and fiction together". The evacuation of Dunkirk, a critical event in the war, becomes a turning point for the characters in this story. She is attracted to that "backdrop of very real conflict and layered over that, in the foreground, is the story of your characters. You get a tension between the two."

Her début The Secret of Nightingale Wood drew on fairytale and folklore and a rich seam of myth is twisted into Our Castle By The Sea. Petra’s Pa tells the legend of the four standing stones on the clifftop, the Daughters of Stone. Strange was inspired by English myths like Cornwall’s Merry Maidens and Cumbria’s Long Meg, stories that hint at dark magic and of girls turned to stone for their perceived wickedness. This is an opportunity to play with readers’ expectations. The contrast between the "concrete, very real feeling world" of historical fiction and a hint of the supernatural gives her work a unique tone and is very deliberate. She enjoys creating those "weird, shimmering moments where the reader is wrong footed". The stone megaliths inspire a sense of destiny in Petra. Strange wanted to bring the myth into the story to introduce a "sense of darkness and threat and fear, that anything could happen." Petra has an aura of fate hanging over her from the beginning, and this echoes the threat of German invasion.

As the story of Petra’s family developed, with an undercurrent of prejudice, fear and nationalism, Strange became very aware how strongly the story resonated with current world events. "Once those themes started to emerge I wanted to make them very powerful." Tackling these issues for younger readers poses its own challenges and being didactic is something she is particularly careful to avoid. "I try to give the readers space to feel and to experience something, space to make up their own minds, room to feel the truth behind the story." Her stories, she admits, always start on a very personal level but "end up pushing against the edges of the pages, wanting to be something bigger".

Book extract

People say that the Daughters of Stone stand here on our clifftop as a warning to those who sail these dangerous waters. If you close your eyes and listen very carefully, you might just be able to hear their sad, sweet, ghostly song...

A sea mist must have risen as Pa was telling the story; tendrils of it seemed to be creeping across the cliff. I was aware of the four stones surrounding us, watching us. I could almost hear them breathing. My heart was thudding in my throat now. I heard a whispered song, as soft as the hiss of sea foam over pebbles, the swish of a sea breeze through a long white dress.

For my father and sister, the legend of the Wyrm and the Stones was just that—a legend, distant through the mists of centuries. But for me it was different. From the moment I first heard the story, I knew it was much, much more. I knew it in the chill of my bone marrow and the crawling of my skin. I knew that the ancient magic of our cliffs was real and present and that I was destined somehow —to become part of the legend too.