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Clara Vulliamy

Clara Vulliamy

The latest story in the DOTTY DETECTIVE series, called THE LOST PUPPY, features the school summer fair, where Dotty, Beans and McClusky will be manning the pet corner...but then one of the pets mysteriously vanishes and the children - and dog McClusky - must follow the clues to work out its whereabouts.

We spoke to Clara Vulliamy about the series and she answered the following questions for us:

Q: You have previously focused on creating picture books. Are you enjoying the process of writing longer stories?

A: I am absolutely loving it - so liberating and so much fun!

Now that the Dotty Detective series is well established, I really know Dot's character and her 'take' on life, so that writing in her voice is like spending time with a very good friend.

I've learnt a lot about structuring a longer story, too. But I always make sure there's plenty of room for the illustrations and doodles - I started out as an illustrator and it's in my blood.

Q: Why did you decide to make your main character, Dot, a young detective?

A: I think the detective genre is a lighter, funnier and more familiar way of looking at solving a mystery. I like that the story can be absolutely part of their everyday lives and isn't fantastical, and a lot of children like solving puzzles. Dot is a great word search fan and I always liked doing those too.

I found it's also a nice peg to hang a story on, there's a lot you can tell about a person and their life through observation, which the genre lends itself to. Plus I like the visual clues and Dot has to work with things like half torn clues, hieroglyphics, secret writing and other visual aspects to find all the information she needs.

The children in my stories always do their detecting work on their own; no adult will ever know about them, it will be their secret and I think children need privacy, they need their secrets. These days we follow so closely what our children are doing and I think stories can give them something back; this is something they can do on their own.

Q: Have any children in particular helped inspire Dot's character?

A: To begin with, she was an entirely imaginary creation. With perhaps a little bit of the young Clara here and there...

But since I have been doing Dotty-themed events in schools and at festivals, I've met children (girls and boys) who have definitely influenced how Dot has developed.

Children are wonderfully inspiring company for bouncing new story ideas around, too - the authors and illustrators of the next generation!

Q: How hard is it to develop mystery stories for younger readers?

A: I find plotting a mystery story quite challenging, so I try to establish the bare bones of the plot, before getting carried away with the detail.

Whatever I am writing, it doesn't matter to me if my readers are very young, young or older - if the scaffolding of the story is sound, the rest will work.

Q: Which detective tropes do you think children recognise at this age, and which do you try to include in these stories?

A: The mystery, the clues, the list of suspects, the false lead and the final denouement when everything falls into place: I think children can follow it all as long as the plot is absolutely rock solid and clear. Some readers will be ahead of the characters in solving the case and some won't - both are equally good!

Q: How careful do you need to be when laying clues in your stories?

A: When I read a mystery novel or watch a detective programme on TV, it always irritates me when the case is solved with an unexpected reveal you couldn't possibly have predicted - a long-lost identical twin, for instance. So I make sure every clue is there to be discovered. I like the feeling at the end of a story when you think - OF COURSE! So that's why that happened!

Q: What inspired this latest story of a lost puppy and the backdrop of the school fair?

A: The posters for missing pets taped up on lampposts in the neighbourhood always catch my eye - rather touching and sad, one always hopes for a happy outcome and for pet and owner to be reunited.

I knew I wanted McClusky to have some friends of his own in this story, so Chipolata the sausage dog puppy enters their world. The school fair is an annual highlight - so exciting in itself, and also signaling the start of summer which is extra nice.

Q: Why did you decide that McClusky the dog should get to solve this case?

A: McClusky is the natural choice to sniff out the clues and solve this case! His only problem is getting people to listen to him - funnily enough, although he's a dog, I think children really identify with this frustration.

Q: It can sometimes be a struggle to get a pet's name. How did McClusky get his name and do you find it difficult giving your characters and their pets their names?

A: I find naming my characters (both of the two- and four-legged kind) one of the most fun treats of story writing - the downside is that you can only do it once! Dot, Beans and McClusky all introduced themselves to me by name straightaway, as soon as I had drawn them on the page.

A childhood friend recently told me that there was a dog living opposite us when we were growing up called McClusky. I'd forgotten, but maybe it lodged somewhere in my brain.

Q: There are hints through the story that Dot's family background is difficult, why don't you explore this more in the text?

A: Again, I didn't want to make heavy weather of it, so there are little hints of disruption to the family, perhaps the family has separated and they have moved because of that.

For whatever reason, her mum is a bit up against it and home is a little chaotic and there's not much money around, so Dot faces a period of upheaval and having to start a new school but she's excited about that. When she doesn't have anyone to sit next to at school in the beginning, she just signs up for all the clubs and she feels lucky.

Q: Your Dotty Detective books use lots of short paragraphs and notes, can you tell us why you decided to write them in this way?

A: I wanted the books to be a modern take on a diary so I wanted them to look contemporary and innovative. I'm interested in how we talk and the running commentary style of tweets and texts, which use the super present tense, and the narrator talks about what they are doing in a very 'present' way. So Dot shares the events of her life as they happen and as ideas pop into her head she tells them. It's about instant communication.

I also decided to keep the diary entries to a maximum of 140 characters, like a tweet. I wanted to see how much you can write in so few words and I found you can actually write quite a lot. So each paragraph entry, when Dot is out and about, has 140 characters maximum.

It showed me that you can say an awful lot in very few words and in using the super present style, you cut away anything you don't need, so if a thought pops into Dot's head she writes it down and that keeps the story direct and present. At the end of the day, her words have a more reflective quality and the text for those sections is longer.

I think writing like this helps to reflect how 'in the present' children are. As adults we long to get back to that gift of living in the moment. That's why it's so lovely listening to children talk, they are living in the moment.

Q: You've also made the books very visual, does this come back to your illustrator roots?

A: I wanted to make each of the books look like a visual scrapbook because I think it's nice to keep a scrapbook diary, so this book becomes Dot's book, it's her diary so there are doodles and lists and Polaroid images stuck down onto the pages and selfies, which gives it a quality of collage and it's also very intimate.

Dot is also a big doodler, like me, so Dot and I are sharing a mind's eye through those doodles. Also when you break up a page with lots of little drawings, it makes it exciting and inviting - the author is not separated from the reader.

But the style of the book also reflects the kinds of books I liked as a child. I didn't read detective stories because I wasn't a particularly good or strong reader, so I read things that were pictorial; strip cartoons and comics, books like Babar and Tintin.

The format has stayed the same for each book: a generous amount of images to break up the page - ideal for both strong and emergent readers - with lots of doodles, photographs and different fonts. I wanted the books to feel as if they are the real books Dot has written and drawn in.

Q: Can you give us some idea of what will the next case be for Dotty Detective?

A: In the next story there is a missing birthday present, a new boy in class, an Ancient Egypt project and an extremely good birthday party...

Q: What are you looking forward to doing most during the summer break?

A: Spending time with my grown up daughters who are home for the summer is really lovely.

I am by the seaside at this very moment - although it's raining today I plan a swim in the sea and an ice cream later!

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