Tasmanian children's author, Lian Tanner reflects on how a series is born and the sparks that can spur a story into life.
One of the questions I am often asked in schools is where the idea for a book came from. It’s not always an easy question to answer, and Fetcher’s Song (#3 in the Hidden series) is one of the hardest to explain – mainly because it grew out of an odd sentence that was floating in my head when I woke up one morning.
‘It was New Year’s Eve, and the last of the fortune-telling ducks was dead.’
Was it the tail end of a dream? A suppressed longing for waterfowl? Or just a fragment of nonsense from my unconscious mind? I have no idea, but I wrote it down, just in case, in the notebook I keep beside my bed.
In the last six years I’ve written two complete fantasy trilogies, and one of the most important things I’ve learned is that each series comes with its own problems. The greatest problem I faced with The Hidden series was that it wasn’t originally meant to be a series. When I wrote the first book, Ice Breaker, I had in mind a stand-alone novel, and it wasn’t until some time after I’d completed the manuscript and handed it in that I realised I wanted to write more about twelve-year-old Petrel and her world.
That’s when it became a series – with the built-in challenge that I didn’t yet have an overarching idea for the three books. However I realised fairly quickly that I wanted to follow the fortunes of three different children, all of them hiding from the fanatical Anti-Machinists who had taken over the world; all of them bent on protecting a particular type of knowledge.
It seemed to me that most people, if they saw a new Dark Age approaching, would want to save scientific and medical knowledge. That covered the first two books, Ice Breaker and Sunker’s Deep, and the first two children, Petrel and Sharkey. But what about the third child? Who was she, and what on earth was she trying to save?
That’s where the odd sentence came in.
‘Fortune-telling ducks’ sounded to me like a small travelling circus, or a group of entertainers. Once I started developing the idea, the ducks didn’t last long, but the entertainers remained – mainly because one of the things that real-life fanatics like the Taliban and Pol Pot seem to loathe is any sort of frivolity or enjoyment.
So, in my imaginary world, the Anti-Machinists had outlawed songs and stories. And Gwin Fetcher and her family, a small group of travelling players, were trying to keep those things alive.
As Professor Serran Coe says, at the very beginning of Fetcher’s Song, ‘There is history – true history, not the curdled sort the Anti-Machinists want us to teach – and there is science and medicine and the making of machines. But there is another sort of knowledge too, just as valuable. Lin Lin and I are trying to save the mind of the world. You will save its heart.’
Like the first two books in the series, Fetcher’s Song is about friendship, the messiness of life, and those difficult moments when you have to step out of the shadows and stand up for what you believe.
But more than any of those things, it’s about songs and stories, and how important they are to us. Particularly in hard times.