Spirited away!
18th Jan 21

Spirited away!

Look out for an empty coffin and a possible murder in A CASE OF GRAVE DANGER by Sophie Cleverly.

Here, SOPHIE CLEVERLY answers some questions about The Violet Veil Mysteries and the first book in the series - A CASE OF GRAVE DANGER:

Q: We loved Scarlet and Ivy mystery books - your first series. Can you tell us what your new series, The Violet Veil Mysteries, will feature?

A: The series is set in the Victorian era, where Violet Veil is an undertaker's daughter. She finds her life a little dull - she would like to be her father's apprentice, but he thinks she's not up to the task because she's a girl.

The series sees Violet seeking mysteries and adventures as she tries to find her place in the world. She also has a little help from her faithful greyhound Bones, and her curious sixth sense that allows her to perceive ghosts.

Q: What is the first book, A CASE OF GRAVE DANGER, about?

A: Well, luckily for Violet, a mystery falls right into her lap! A boy named Oliver is found dead and brought to them. But later that night, Violet and Bones hear some spooky noises out in the cemetery. They go to investigate and find that Oliver is actually alive and well. Now they must help Oliver find out what really happened to him and solve his own "murder" before it's too late.

Q: Why do you enjoy writing books where a mystery needs to be solved? Is this what you enjoyed reading as a child?

A: I think most books contain an element of mystery - a question that keeps us reading. It's so fun to write and really gripping for readers.

I definitely loved mysteries when I was a kid (including classic ones like Famous Five and Nancy Drew), but then I would read absolutely anything!

Q: Who are your favourite detective / mystery authors?

A: There are some great ones at the moment like Robin Stevens, Katherine Woodfine, Sharna Jackson, Fleur Hitchcock...

I also have a real soft spot for fantastical mysteries. Jonathan Stroud's Lockwood & Co and Philip Pullman's Sally Lockhart series are big favourites of mine.

I think my favourite author Terry Pratchett also wrote some great mysteries - The Watch books in the Discworld series are particularly brilliant.

Q: Why did you decide to set this series in the Victorian era? Did you need to do any research for it?

A: Part of the reason was because I have always had a particular fascination with Victorian cemeteries. I've spent a lot of time hanging out in graveyards over the years and I find them to be really interesting and almost magical places.

One of my all-time favourite books is The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, and I had always wanted to write my own graveyard story. When the idea for Violet's character came to me, it seemed like the ideal opportunity to do it.

The Victorian era was the heyday of the cemetery and the undertaker and there was such a culture around these things that is fascinating to learn about. I definitely had to do a lot of research - I read a fair few books and web articles, but my absolute favourite thing was to visit real 1800s cemeteries.

Highgate in London and Arnos Vale in Bristol in particular are amazing places with some brilliant events and tours. I think I learnt the most about Victorian life and death from these visits, and they really sparked my imagination.

Q: What for you would have been the hardest thing about being a Victorian girl, like Violet?

A: I think that not being allowed to have a full education and just being expected to marry a bachelor if you were rich, or go to work if you were poor, would have been a real struggle.

By Violet's era things were a lot better and the Education Act meant that everyone was able to go to school, at least when they were young - but Violet's family have been in a rather unique situation, and they choose to prioritise her younger brother's education over hers. Even in the 20th century, this happened to my Grandma - she was very smart, but she was sent out to work as a teenager while her brothers were given further education.

As someone with a chronic illness as well, staying alive would be a huge challenge! I'm so grateful to live with modern medicine.

Q: Do you enjoy creating the 'bad guys'?

A: Definitely! I always like to try and make it clear that no matter how awful a villain is, they are still a human being. There's no excuse for their behaviour, but I think it's important to understand what is driving them.

Miss Fox in Scarlet and Ivy is truly nasty, but once you learn more about her, you begin to realise that the damaging society around her is what has left her that way.

Q: How well do you need to know your characters and settings before you start to write?

A: I find I usually have to have a rough idea, but that often they will introduce themselves to me in the first draft. A lot of times I'm discovering characters at the same time that the reader does! And researching can often give me new ideas while I'm writing, too.

Q: Is it important to plot out your stories in advance so you can build in clues etc?

A: Yes, I think especially with mysteries, it's pretty vital. You want to be one step ahead of your reader, and to know the whole solution so that you can tease it bit by bit. There can still be surprises, though. Sometimes I've written in a minor detail and suddenly realised later that I can make it into an important clue.

Q: Do you find it hard to write, or do you enjoy the writing process? What do you do when you get stuck?

A: A bit of both, haha! It can be hard to really get into the right headspace for writing. When I do, though, I find it hard to stop because I'm so immersed. And I have an illness/disability and a young daughter, so those are two things that definitely add to the difficulty.

I do find that generally having a good plan before you start is the best preventative measure for getting stuck. But even then I still have the odd bit of writer's block.

Sometimes I pause and re-brainstorm the chapter until I have a little plan for it and feel more confident about what I'm doing. If it's really a struggle, I might just skip to the next bit where I know what should happen!

Q: Can you tell us what you have planned next for Violet Veil?

A: I'm currently writing book two in the series. Violet is definitely going to be hungry for more mysteries to solve. For a sneak peek: this one involves a Victorian theatre, a fortune teller who claims to speak with the dead, and a seemingly magical necklace...

Q: Where and when do you prefer to write?

A: I used to always write in the evenings, but since having my daughter I find I have to grab time whenever I can.

I'm most comfortable writing on my main computer which is in my office/dining room at the back of our house. My desk has a nice view of my garden (which currently has a friendly hedgehog visitor) and a little bookcase with all my different editions on it.

Q: Can you describe what would be your ideal writer's shed?

A: Another of my most favourite books is A Hat Full of Sky by Terry Pratchett, and ever since I read it I have desperately wanted a shepherding hut on wheels just like the one that Tiffany's Granny Aching has! I would love to fill it with fairy lights, a log fire and preferably a dog...




The Whispers in the Wall is Sophie Cleverly's atmospheric and page-turning follow-up to her debut, The Lost Twin, in the Scarlet and Ivy series about twin girls who are sent to board at Rookwood, a creepy and restrictive school. The stories are set around the early Edwardian era when strict regimes, harsh corporal punishments and unappetising meals were what you would expect from school life and which Rookwood School amply delivers.

In the first book, Ivy is sent to Rookwood to 'replace' her twin, Scarlet, who the family believes has died at the school and the story uncovers what might really have happened to the lost twin. In the latest book, The Whispers in the Wall, Ivy has been reunited with Scarlet but when the sadistic and autocratic head Mr Bartholomew returns to Rookwood, terrible secrets from the past begin to emerge and the twins are determined to uncover what happened to former pupils at the school.

We spoke to author SOPHIE CLEVERLY about the SCARLET AND IVY books and where she plans to take Scarlet and Ivy next:

Q: You are still only 25 and you are now a published author, writing full time. How did you get here?

A: I have always wanted to be a writer from when I was really small, I was trying to write stories and famously wrote a whole page that was just one sentence about a princess called Diana. I'd write stories for my friends in school and would make my own books, so it was something I had always wanted to do.

After school, I studied creative writing a Bath Spa university. The course is led by Julia Green and our tutors included people like Lucy Christopher and Steve Voake, solid names from children's fiction.

I began writing Scarlet and Ivy during one of my creative writing classes. We had to write a story about someone returning to a room where they hadn't been for a long time. I imagined two beds in the room and I knew the girl who was returning to it was a twin who had lost her other twin. I knew it would be a mystery and that it would be set in the past; it had to be historical because in the modern day the mystery would have been too easy to solve, so it is set in the past and a lot of the story is told through letters and diaries.

Q: Have you read a lot of historical fiction?

A: As a child I read a huge amount of gothic-type stories but a lot of my inspiration for these books has come from modern books set in historical periods, like The Moth Diaries by Rachel Klein which is set in the 1960's but at a very creepy boarding school.

My real love is fantasy - my favourite author is Neil Gaiman - but I wrote so much fantasy on the course that they suggested I write something different and this is what I wrote. Now I've got quite hooked on the historical mystery genre and I have other ideas for mysteries set in the past - but I'd still like to go back to writing fantasy at some point.

Q: What was it like to have twins as your main characters?

A: The fun part is playing around with them having different personalities although they are also very close to each other. The difficult bit is making them sound different enough from each other so they don't feel like they are the same person.

I'm not sure if I have a favourite twin but I have spent so much time with Ivy, the whole of the first book is about her, that I became very attached to her. But I also like how mischievous Scarlet is and how she gets into a lot of trouble. I got some of my ideas for them from twins I was at school with. One was very shy and quiet, the other was really outgoing.

Q: There are a lot of incompetent adults in your stories, why do you make your grown-ups so hopeless or nasty?

A: Yes, the adults in my stories are largely failing and negligent, although that wasn't intentional. It was more to do with not wanting to have adults who would prevent the children from having adventures and exploring.

Miss Fox, who is running the school in the first book, had to be really mean because she's the antagonist but the twins' parents had to be negligent so that the story could move forward.

Miss Fox is my favourite, I loved writing her and she's your typical really scary teacher, everyone has one of those at some point. I liked giving her those weird twists in her personality, like having a room full of stuffed dogs. One of these stuffed dogs goes missing during the second book so I think we'll be seeing more of her in book three.

When you're writing about mean characters, there's a device called 'save the cat' where you make them more sympathetic by getting them to do something good, like saving a cat. In my story I do the opposite for Miss Fox; I get her to stuff dogs.

Q: Is there any specific place that inspired the house, Rookwood, where your story is set?

A: Rookwood School is a big old house that my own old school helped inspire. It was a creepy old building, which was probably someone's home at one point as there were fireplaces in the rooms so some of that went into my books.

I really loved the idea of an old house that has secret places and being able to discover things that have been left over from the past, so Rookwood has a secret room in the basement.

Corsham Court, where I studied, was also part of my inspiration. The building is part of Bath Spa University, it's a big old manor house and for some of our lessons we'd go to the top floor. They had a hatch that led out onto the roof although we weren't allowed up there.

Q: How different are our schools now from what children would have experienced then?

A: The main difference between Rookwood School and modern day schools would definitely be in the punishment regime. You could be caned for very small crimes in those days and that continued until quite recently, which is shocking.

Teaching has also changed a lot since then. At that time you would have been expected to learn long lists of things, like dates, and you would have had a lot to remember so styles of teaching have changed.

In my mum's school, so relatively recently, children were still being caned and teachers would wear their mortar boards and gowns. Her experiences also inspired the story of the skeleton in the cupboard in The Whispers in the Walls; my mum and her classmates were told the skeleton they used was the skeleton of a former pupil!

There were a lot of details I had to research for the books, like the kinds of school work they'd be expected to do and what their beds would have looked like, and that's where the internet is really useful.

Q: Asylums make an appearance in the first book; did you need to do a lot of research to find out how asylums were used and run in that period?

A: A lot of what I needed came from a programme I had watched about people trying to trace their ancestors. Many people found that their mothers had had to give them up as babies because they were born out of wedlock so the mothers would be forced to go to these big old houses to give birth and then had to hand their babies over to the institution.

I also looked up the reasons why people were put into asylums and you'd find long lists of records with things like, 'This person is hysterical'. There was little understanding of mental health problems and if someone was ill, they were often just shut away. I also remember coming across instances where people were just put away to get rid of them. In The Whispers in the Wall, a girl called Rose is put into an institution because her family don't want her to inherit their wealth, and that kind of thing did happen.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about what happens next to Scarlet and Ivy?

A: Going forward, there is a bit of mystery about the girls' identity. In the first three books, the question of identity is really key. Ivy finds herself being identified as Scarlet to the point where she's sometimes not sure who she is; then the twins find out that there is a question over their parentage and they are not who they think they are.

Book three begins with everything seeming to be okay. The twins are back at school, they have defeated the main villain and so they think everything is a bit better. But then things start to slip and go wrong around the school, there's something going on but they aren't sure what and so the story is about them trying to work out what's going wrong and, at the same time, investigating their family background. I've just finished writing the first draft.

Q: Where do you write?

A: I write full time, in my study in my cottage, which has quite a nice view of a church that always seems to be full of crows so it's very atmospheric. I use a computer rather than writing free hand which just takes far too long. I tend to handle the more business side of things during the day, emails to my publisher or writing articles, and I do most of my creative writing in the evenings.

Seeing my first book published was brilliant, it was what I had always wanted, so it was completely amazing to see it on the shelves. But it can also be a bit underwhelming because you're expecting lots of celebrations and fireworks when your book comes out! But there is long term satisfaction from being an author, especially getting letters from readers who have enjoyed your books, and I'll be starting to do events as well.

Q: What are your favourite escapes when you're not writing?

A: I like to go swimming and to go to concerts, I'm a big fan of rock music and heavy metal. There are other things I like doing like making jewellery, I use 'hammer beads' to make little pictures and I put those on necklaces and earrings. And I enjoy Poi, a type of juggling where you juggle with long things like flags and spin them round.

Q: Where will you be spending Christmas this year?

A: We'll spend that with my family this year, they live in an old pub so it's quite atmospheric. They have a really big living room and the kitchen is in the old beer cellars. I'm looking forward to it.

reading zone homepage
Young Adult SchoolZone FamilyZone Library zone
ReadingZone Book Shop