Story inspired by a gardener's notebook
11th Jun 19

Story inspired by a gardener's notebook

Author AM HOWELL was inspired to write THE GARDEN OF LOST SECRETS after discovering a gardener's notebook from 100 years ago, inspiring a story that is brimful of secrets and mysteries!

Set during the First World War, the novel follows Clara when she is sent to stay with her aunt and uncle while her father convalesces from his battle injuries.

Soon, however, she is caught up in the mysteries on the estate; who is the strange boy who keeps disappearing? What are her aunt and uncle hiding? And who is stealing the earl's precious pineapples from the hothouses?

This is a fabulous mystery story set at a time of great change. We asked author AM HOWELL to tell us more about THE GARDEN OF LOST SECRETS:

Q: What encouraged you to become an author?

A: My love of books and reading started when my mum took me to visit the library van which visited our small village every few weeks. I would take out the maximum number of books allowed and devour them, then count down the days until the van returned.

When I started writing, I kept thinking of my childhood self and how amazing it would be if I could invent worlds and stories that children would love to disappear into in the way I used to.

Q: Are there any children's books that influence you as a writer?

A: I love a good family saga and Little Women by Louisa May Alcott is a book I have read and re-read many times. I love how Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy are all so different in nature and it was perhaps the first book that made me think about the importance of characterisation.

A few people have said that The Garden of Lost Secrets has quite a classic feel which makes me very happy, as I love books like The Secret Garden and Tom's Midnight Garden. I also enjoy reading newer historical fiction by authors like Lucy Strange, who has written the captivating MG book The Secrets of Nightingale Wood, set just after WW1.

Q: Can you tell us a bit more about the gardener's notebook that helped inspire your novel?

A: The notebook was discovered by garden staff when they were having a rainy day clear out of the sheds at Ickworth Park, the country estate where the story is set. It turned out to be a century old and I spent a while dreaming about what secrets the notebook might tell about how the gardens used to be and who worked there.

It was in fact a record of planting and the different varieties of fruits and vegetables grown in the gardens, which gave me the idea of a character in my story, Will, using a similar notebook - but his would contain even bigger secrets about the mysterious goings on in the gardens!

Q: So the setting of the house and its gardens was based on a real house?

A: The book is set in the walled kitchen gardens of Ickworth House, near Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk, now run by The National Trust. It's one of my favourite places to visit and I can happily spend hours wandering around the gardens.

I think it provides the perfect setting for a story, with its large enclosed red brick walls, small houses for the garden staff, summer house and various doors leading to the woods and different planting areas. I've been doing some school visits with local schools and they recognised the gardens from the extract I read to them, which was lovely.

Q: There are several interweaving stories through the novel, why did you decide to make your book a mystery story?

A: I've always loved reading books that have multiple layers and a family secret at their heart, a book that makes you want to keep turning the pages to uncover the mystery, so it seemed quite natural to try and write that type of story.

I love writing quite complicated adult and child characters who are facing challenges that aren't always clear at the start, but come to a satisfactory resolution at the end, although it might not always be the ending you are expecting!

Q: And why are the pineapples at the heart of the main mystery - who is stealing the fruit from the hothouses?

A: There are a few derelict pineapple houses remaining at Ickworth and I find it fascinating that this tropical fruit used to be grown locally, so wanted to somehow include them in the story.

The breakthrough moment came when I did some research into the history of pineapples and found out how difficult and expensive they were to grow in Europe, so they became very sought after and a symbol of wealth. It then seemed to follow that someone might steal them, particularly in a time when food was being restricted. As for the fruit thief in the book, you will have to read it to uncover that mystery!

I ate lots of pineapples during my research - both fresh and dried - and I still gravitate towards them whenever I am in the supermarket. I even bought an ornamental pineapple which I am struggling to keep alive.

Q: How much research into this period did you need to do to write The Garden of Lost Secrets?

A: It was really important to me that the characters' experiences felt realistic, so I spent some time walking around the servants' quarters of Ickworth House to get a sense of what it would have been like to work 'downstairs'.

I also met the head gardener for a great chat about how the gardens used to look and work and went over to Cambridge Botanical Gardens to sit in the hothouses so I could write authentic scenes when Clara and Will are staking out the hothouses trying to catch the pineapple thief.

I've tried really hard to keep the historical detail authentic but also quite light so it doesn't drown the story, and wanted to get across how the war was impacting on different people at a personal level. For example, there is a scene where Clara comes face to face with a soldier injured in the war who talks quite openly about his experiences. This is a revelation to her, as her parents have censored what she hears to try and protect her, and also because it was just too terrible to talk about, which I think was quite common.

Q: Were there parts of the story you found more difficult to write?

A: There are a few really sad parts in the book that involve death and grief and I did find those hard to write. As a mum myself I kept imagining my own children struggling to cope in these situations so I did have a few tearful writing sessions, particularly when Will asks Clara for help following the death of his father, a scene which still makes me well up every time I read it.

Q: Where is your favourite place to write and when do you do most of your writing?

A: I do much of my writing at my kitchen table as it overlooks our small garden and I like glancing up at the greenery every now and then, plus I'm within easy reach of the kettle and biscuits which are essential tools on a writing day!

I try and do a couple of hours writing when I get home from work, then a few hours at the weekend, but I'm very flexible and don't feel bad at all if I have a few days/weeks off because of family/work priorities.

Q: What are you writing now?

A: I've written a second historical fiction novel set in Edwardian Cambridge - a time of great social change and invention - which will be out next summer with Usborne. It features a town house full of mysterious clocks, a rather precious parrot and a very juicy mystery for the protagonists to solve.

I'm also about to start work on a third book which is again historical and I am very excited about, as I don't think this particular event has been much written about in children's fiction, but I don't want to say more than that as the idea is still at such an early stage!

Q: What are your favourite escapes from writing?

A: I love swimming, which is a brilliant release after sitting hunched over my laptop all day. My family and I are quite big cinema goers and we also enjoy long walks in the countryside and still visit Ickworth very regularly, which feels extra special now my book is being published, and we love stopping off in the cafe for a cream tea afterwards.

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