Mystery & adventure author Helen Moss shares her secrets

What an exciting and inspiring talk Year 7 & 8 girls were treated to during Reading Week!  Renowned children’s author Helen Moss began by telling the girls how they have lived through a remarkable time and will consequently have their own stories to tell – stories of heroism, courage and overcoming tragedy but also of the everyday things, the little details that make stories so rich (queuing for toilet paper, fighting over who gets to use wifi….!).

Comfort and escapism are found in stories and Lockdown made people appreciate the value and power of stories in all forms (books, films, video games).  Mr Hayes told how a very long car journey from Scotland with his two young daughters many years ago had passed much quicker due to the audio book of The Mystery of the Whistling Caves – the first in Helen’s Adventure Island series.

How are stories written?

Helen’s journey to becoming a children’s author began with her Adventure Island series – a classic mystery series, influenced by Enid Blyton’s Famous Five.  Enid Blyton wrote over 70 years ago and her stories often reflected the attitudes and stereotypes of the time.  Helen wanted to ditch the outdated prejudices while keeping the magical formula of ‘a gang of kids and a dog following clues and solving puzzles’ much better than any adults could.  Adults in the stories are at best incompetent and usually the villains!

This formula provides danger, adventure and excitement but also the comfort of knowing the bad guys will get caught and there will always be that special friendship in the gang.  Helen pointed out this is not limited to children’s stories – adult crime shows often follow the same formula.

Helen loves detective stories (which is why she writes them!) and challenged the girls to try to write one, especially if they enjoy watching detective dramas.  She reminded them of the three key ingredients: friendship; clues; and puzzles.

Where do ideas come from?

Helen introduced the girls to Mash-Ups, where two or more very different ideas are ‘shmoooshed’ together. She asked the girls to think of their favourite children’s book and their current favourite film or TV show.  What would a ‘Mash-Up’ of these two stories look like?  Some suggestions were: Going on a Bear Hunt meets Vampire Diaries; Nancy Drew meets Lost in Paris; Harry Potter meets Titanic.  ‘Shmooshing’, she explained, is putting things together in new ways to generate sparks of magic for new stories.

Authors are constantly making decisions about the book they are writing.  In her Secrets of the Tombs series, Helen decided against writing about the supernatural (e.g. mummies coming to life) and instead focuses on bad guys trying to steal things now and in past (shmooshing together history and mystery).

The Secrets of the Tombs series still follows the mystery-solving detective genre, but the protagonists are a duo of teenagers, and the setting has changed from the English seaside to worldwide places of archaeological interest – archaeology being another of Helen’s passions!  She asked the girls to think of a subject that really interests them – if they could only study one topic or do one activity for the next month, what would it be?  Answers varied from the Renaissance to WW2 to training for the army to celebrity families. These could then be used as a setting or backdrop for a story inspired by the girls’ Mash-Up ideas.

Helen also talked about mystery stories needing an object or objective that motivates the characters. These powerful objects (sometimes referred to as ‘MacGuffins’ in the film world) are often at the heart of the crime.  Depending on the story, these can have magical  properties – or people can just believe them to be magical or of great importance. Helen asked the girls to think of magical objects that could feature in their stories.  The girls came up with some great ideas: glasses that send you into another world when you put then on; earphones that show what is like to live someone else’s life; a key that can open a door and send you anywhere.

Key questions to think about in relation to the MacGuffin:

  • What is the magic power or perceived magic power of the object?
  • Where did it come from?
  • And most importantly, WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG??? Stories are all about what could go wrong and how it all works out.  The more obstacles the better!

Helen was asked how long it takes her to write her books. The Adventure Island books take about 3 months from having the idea to writing it, followed by 5 to 6 drafts with an editor. The Secrets of the Tombs books can take up to a year as they include a lot of research (often visiting the archaeological places of interest – bonus!) and are much longer (80 000 words).

As with all extra-curricular events, time flew by.  At the end of the talk, the girls were able to chat briefly with Helen and buy signed copies of her books. Thank you to local bookseller, Brenda Parkhouse, who came in with the books.

A BIG thank you to Helen for providing such an inspiring talk – many girls left her talk discussing ideas for their own books!