Fresh from winning Children's Fiction Book of the Year at this year's British Book Awards, M G Leonard and Sam Sedgman are gearing up to launch the fourth instalment in their bestselling Adventures on Trains series, Danger at Dead Man’s Pass, in the autumn.
In the new story Nat and his Uncle Hal travel to Germany to investigate the mysterious death of Alexander Kratzenstein, a rich industrialist who had for several years been in charge of the family business: building railways and rolling stock. In the 19th century the Kratzensteins had blown a hole in a mountain to build a private section of railway running to the family house, but when an explosion caused the death of a worker, that worker’s mother placed a curse: the Kratzenstein sons would forever more meet an unnatural death. When Alexander is found dead with his face “twisted in terror”, Hal and Nat travel to Germany and pretend to be distant relatives to try to work out what exactly is going on.
“We wanted to write something that gave you all the thrills and hair-raising excitement of a spooky ghost story, but as anyone who loves a good detective story knows, detectives use logic,” says Leonard. “Hal has to grapple with his instinctive fear of frightening situations, while trying to work out how much of what he is dealing with is a smokescreen for something else.”
There is also a healthy dose of family conflict, heightened by the fact that Alexander’s will has gone missing, mixed with a celebration of trans-European train journeys (the Eurostar features at the start of the book), and a nod to classic literature: the story was inspired in part by Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles and Kratzenstein was the name of the doctor who inspired Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. “We wanted to give a different story from our previous titles,” says Sedgman. “Hal is still investigating mysterious occurrences, but we wanted to push him out of his comfort zone—so he has to struggle with the language barrier, and he’s under cover. We are stretching him further than we have before.”
Genesis of teamwork
Sedgman and Leonard met while working at the National Theatre. He was an intern, and she took him under her wing, but they became friends and kept in touch when Leonard left to be a full-time author. One night they met up at an industry awards event and she told him she had an idea for a series of books about adventures on trains.
“I had a number of ideas about what I was going to do [after the Beetle Boy trilogy] and I felt like Adventures on Trains was probably the most commercial and of interest to the wider group of readers. But I knew I couldn’t write it well on my own,” she says.
Sedgman, for his part, was instantly excited. He grew up loving not only trains but also murder mysteries, and Leonard couldn’t even finish her sentence before he jumped in with a whole host of ideas. The next stage, once the hangovers had worn off and they realised they were both serious about writing together, began in earnest when the pair outlined the series concept and came up with the names of the characters, sometimes meeting in the National Theatre foyer when Sedgman was on a work break.
The plotting of the book was a very technical construction, says Sedgman, because not only did the clues have to be in the right place, but the train had to reach certain train stations at the right time. “If you want a scene to happen at Carlisle station, that’s X miles from Y station and it will take a certain amount of time.” Draft one was “quick and dirty” and the story didn’t become polished until around 14 drafts later, he says.
When Leonard’s agent took the book to market there was a fierce bidding war, with six publishers pitching “seriously” at the final stage. Leonard had, however, already set her sights on Macmillan Children’s, after speaking to fellow authors and illustrators who were all happy at the publisher, and because of its combination of editorial and artistic expertise and business clout. As Sedgman says: “They really recognised the commercial potential of the series but also respected what we were trying to do artistically.” The fact Macmillan wanted to buy four books straight out of the gate was the icing on the cake, and there was an “emotional phone call” when Sedgman was told the amount of money that was bid for the books would enable him to give up his job to write full-time.
Since the launch title there have been two more books (Kidnap on the California Comet and Murder on the Safari Star) and the series has been a solid commercial success, despite the fact that the first, The Highland Falcon Thief, was published only weeks before lockdown.
There was no launch party, no Bologna Children’s Book Fair trip and few school visits, although Macmillan did organise a “fantastic” brand partnership with model railway maker Hornby, and the two authors are unashamedly commercial in their thinking. “Quite often people forget that it’s not just about creating an amazing book, it’s about creating something that can sit with all those legacy authors and hold its own,” says Leonard. “Also, with Beetle Boy I learned about international rights and how important it is to write a story that doesn’t just relate to your English culture. We wanted to start with the heritage UK steam story, because that’s very iconic, but this is a series that could span the globe.”
Her co-author adds: “At the end of the day we are making something we want people to read, something we want bookshops to sell. It’s not a dirty word to think about the commercial element of your writing. Thinking about how it can sell makes you a much better author."
Leonard and Sedgman do, of course, have separate projects. Leonard’s book Twitch has just been published by Walker Books and Sedgman is a presenter on the “Down the Rabbit Hole” children’s books podcast, among other things. But they envisage that there will be many more Adventures on Trains stories to come. Macmillan has bought six books—the fifth will be set in Australia and the sixth in the Arctic—but the authors have outlined 11 stories in total.
“As long as we can keep the mysteries nice and tight and surprising, we’ve got wonderful countries and incredible railways and we will keep going,” says Leonard.
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