Lindsay Littleson is a Primary School teacher in Glasgow and a children’s author. Her books are historical fiction but well researched and rooted firmly on factual knowledge. As a teacher, Lindsay is very aware of the ways in which historical fiction can be utilised in a classroom. Her Titanic Detective Agency children’s story is supported by a range of resources for classroom use. Lindsay’s earlier works have been nominated for awards by the Dundee Great War Society.
Your stories are aimed at Primary School children. Why did you choose this audience?
I’ve been a primary teacher for a long time, so it made perfect sense to write for an audience I know really well. My novels are all aimed at pupils aged 9-12 and being a primary teacher helps me to ensure that my characters are relatable, their dialogue is realistic and the vocabulary is pitched at the correct level.
Having said that, the main reason I choose to write for primary school children is that the books which still mean the most to me are the ones I read as a child. When anyone asks me to name my favourite books, I mention The Secret Island, The Borrowers, Mrs Frisby and the Rats of Nimh and The Family from One End Street before any novels I’ve read as an adult. As a child, I was an avid reader, and those books kept me company, built empathy and helped me to determine the sort of person I wanted to be. I loved my childhood favourites deeply and hope very much that my own stories are ones which children will remember fondly years from now.
The Titanic is a topic that many children will know lots about. When you plan writing about historical subjects such as this, how conscious are you of prior knowledge?
I’m aware that Titanic is a really popular topic in UK schools and that a lot of children are fascinated by the subject, so it’s a big plus that the book will have ready-made, eager, well-informed audiences. However, The Titanic Detective Agency isn’t a textbook and I was keen to avoid long, detailed descriptions of the ship’s fixtures and fittings. Similarly, I didn’t include masses of technical detail about the construction of the ship. My research was thorough, and I learned how many rivets were used to build the ship (3 million), but I didn’t feel the need to include information children could find out by googling 5 Fascinating Facts about the Titanic.
My aim was to create an exciting, engaging adventure story, one which would include interesting information the children might find less easy to access, mainly about the ordinary people on board the ship. This was the stuff I found fascinating, and knew would engage my readers.
As a reviewer said “It is refreshing to see a book recently written that is based on the real-life people who experienced these events and emanates with well-researched historical facts and information not just from what is widely known of the Titanic such as the class divides but also the more minor details that are often overlooked or missed entirely including the staggering humiliation of the medical examinations for third-class passengers and the recognition of the difficulties in communication for those foreign passengers on board.”
The review can be read in full here.
How do you research topics such as the Titanic?
Museums and exhibitions are a great place to start. When I was writing A Pattern of Secrets, my historical adventure story set in Victorian Paisley, the local museum was an invaluable source of inspiration and information. The map of old Paisley that I bought for £3 in the museum shop was crucial, although a magnifying glass was necessary to help decipher the text!
When I started to research The Titanic Detective Agency, I visited the wonderful Titanic Museum in Belfast. The exhibition was extremely helpful, as I could see how cramped conditions were in both 2nd and 3rd Class cabins. The cutaway models of the ship were much larger than the diagrams I was trying to examine online, and the survivors’ stories were incredibly moving.
It was really important to me to get my facts absolutely right, and even though I wasn’t going to use all those tiny details in the novel, I found out so much fascinating information, like the fact there were only two baths available for over 700 3rd Class passengers and that a bugle was played to call 1st Class passengers to dinner, a gong for 2nd Class and a bell for 3rd.
There is a mass of information available online about the night of the disaster and initially, it seemed overwhelming. First-hand sources seemed a good place to start but it was a tricky business, as many of the accounts contradict each other and finding the exact truth of what happened aboard ship on 14th-15th April 1912 was never going to be possible when so many crucial witnesses didn’t survive.
Focusing on my characters’ own eye-witness accounts enabled me to write what they remembered seeing, and on their feelings during the sinking.
I have to admit, that while doing my research it was all too easy to scurry down rabbit holes. There were so many fascinating dramas and tragedies involving Titanic survivors in the years after the sinking, and I did have to rein myself in quite often.
With stories such as The Titanic Detective Agency, how do you balance the facts and the fiction?
In A Pattern of Secrets, one of the main characters is Jessie Rowat Newbery, a real-life Paisley girl, who became a well-known artist and close friend of Charles Rennie Mackintosh. The other main character, Jim, is fictional and the plot isn’t based on real events. The story, in which Jim escapes from the Poorhouse and must save his little brother from the same fate, was created to show the grim reality of the gulf between rich and poor in Victorian times.
All the characters in The Titanic are real-life passengers and crew on the ship. This was really important to me, as there are records of all victims and survivors, and it didn’t feel right to add people who didn’t exist. One of the most visited Titanic graves is of a 23-year-old fireman called Joseph Dawson. His grave is marked J. Dawson and fans of the Titanic film think he’s Jack!
My publisher, Anne Glennie at Cranachan Books, asked me to write a story set on the Titanic, with a Scottish twist. I searched the passenger lists for a Scottish child and found 12-year-old Bertha Watt from Aberdeen. She was perfect, being both the right age and travelling in 2nd Class with her mother. Bertha’s father had travelled to America six months earlier to start a new job as an architect in Portland, Oregon and this was good news, both for him and for my plot, as only 8% of 2nd Class male passengers survived the sinking and it wouldn’t do to have my main character suffering such a close family bereavement at the end of the book. I was well aware that my audience are young children and while there is no avoiding the fact that the sinking was a terrible tragedy, I didn’t want The Titanic Detective Agency to be a harrowing read.
One benefit of writing about real-life characters is being able to contact their relatives. I got in touch with Bertha’s granddaughter, Nancy, and she was able to give me information about her granny and great-granny which matched details I’d included in the book. It was so exciting to be in touch with one of Bertha’s relatives, although I was a little concerned that she’d feel I hadn’t got Bertha’s personality quite right. Luckily, Nancy loved The Titanic Detective Agency.
My other main character, Johan Cervin Svensson, was more difficult to get right. He was a passenger in 3rd Class, and I knew only very scant details of his background and travelling arrangements. When I discovered Johan spoke virtually no English, I did consider bending the truth! But I decided to stick to the facts, and Bertha’s efforts to communicate with him during their hunt for the hidden ‘treasure’ provide some light relief in the story before the much darker drama on the night of the sinking.
Before beginning my own research, I read a lot of children’s novels set on the Titanic and found several shared the same flaw. Rather like the Titanic movie, there are no exciting events until the ship starts to sink. After all, the voyage wasn’t necessarily a thrilling experience, particularly if you were sea-sick, like Johan, or seeking adventure, like Bertha. To avoid my plot having a dull beginning and a saggy middle, I invented the Collyer-Watt Detective Agency, set up by Bertha and her new friend Madge Collyer to solve mysteries aboard ship.
The setting up of the detective agency and The Mystery of the Strange Boy and the Treasure Map are the only parts of the story which are pure fiction, and while the adventure creates an exciting and entertaining plot, I didn’t allow it to interfere with the real-life timeline of events. The other mystery which Bertha’s detective agency attempts to solve, The Case of the Mysterious Mr Hoffman, is completely factual, and proves that the truth is often stranger than fiction!
You provide resources to support teachers using your books. Could you tell us a little more about the types of resources you provide and what their objectives are?
As well as being a publisher at Cranachan Books, Anne Glennie is also the author of Reflective Reading and Phonics Forever, and owner of The Learning Zoo. The free resources for The Titanic Detective Agency are laid out in the Reflective Reading format and are downloadable from Cranachan’s website. There are six Task Maps, each covering three chapters of the story, and each providing a week’s worth of literacy activities from which the teacher and/or pupils can choose. Along with Task Maps, there are Short Read non-fiction and poetry texts and activities, all Titanic related.
Clearly, your books are intended to be used by teachers and pupils. How would you expect them to be used?
The Titanic Detective Agency is a thoroughly researched novel and all of the historical detail is accurate, but it isn’t a textbook and I would be perfectly happy if a teacher made the decision to read it to their pupils solely for enjoyment. Alternatively, teachers may choose to use The Titanic Detective Agency as a relevant text to help engage pupils and to bring the Titanic topic to life. Reading it will help the pupils to understand that the passengers and crew on board were individuals, with their own fascinating stories to tell.
Characters and events in the novel provide so many opportunities for pupil writing: diary entries, persuasive letters, annotated maps, fact-files, advertising brochures and posters, newspaper reports and magazine articles, descriptions and poetry, but again, that’s the teachers’ choice. I just write the stories and provide resources for teachers to use if they wish.
I noted that you have done author visits to schools. What sort of thing do you do on these visits and how do pupils respond to them?
Organising author visits has been a challenge while I’ve been working full-time as a teacher, but I have managed to fit in local ones during my non-contact time and they’ve been really well received. I’ve made the decision to take early retirement from teaching in August, so will be much more available for visits to schools, libraries and book festivals.
As a primary teacher, I am confident about working with primary aged children and am happy to do upper school assemblies lasting three-quarters of an hour to an hour. My goals during these talks are to encourage and inspire primary aged pupils to write their own stories, by telling them about my own journey to publication and by talking about my inspirations in writing my books and the importance of creating an interesting setting and characters with distinctive voices. I’ll read an extract from one or two of my novels, depending on teacher/organiser preferences, and will finish with a question and answer session. If preferred or as an add-on to the assembly, I can organise creative writing workshops with individual classes.
Feedback from pupils and teachers has been very positive. The pupils seem to particularly enjoy my childhood brushes with death and disaster!
What plans do you have for future writing?
I have many plans! My retirement from teaching in the summer will hopefully mean I have more time and energy to focus on writing. My seldom-used dining room is about to be transformed into a magnificent writer’s room, probably with help from Ikea. I’ll have time to start work on redrafting my YA novel, The Reader of Caledon, a dark fantasy with echoes of The Hunger Games, set in an alternative Glasgow, and on redrafting The Superpower Switch Off, a MG adventure about four young superheroes who lose their superpowers after a misuse of powers incident in school, and have to continue to battle a Supervillain without them.
My autumn calendar is already filling up with invitations to book festivals, libraries and schools, and it will be lovely to balance my working life between writing and talking about writing!
Have you any tips for aspiring authors?
Don’t be like me. Be the opposite of me. When I was a child, I wrote lots of stories. When I was a teenager, I wrote poetry. When I was 20, I entered a writing competition and didn’t win… I came second, but that wasn’t good enough. I gave up and didn’t write again for thirty years. So, don’t be like me. Start now. Keep going, keep practising, keep improving. Accept valid criticism and act on it. Pick yourself back up again after every disappointment. Try again and keep trying. You only fail when you give up.
What is your planning process?
Once I have a rough idea for a plot, I’ll do all the necessary research. Even a fantasy adventure like Guardians of the Wild Unicorns required lots of research: I needed to look into the history of unicorns in Scotland and find out about animal conservation issues before I created my characters. Guardians might be fantasy, but in the novel the unicorns are real animals, being poached for their horns, so I needed lots of background knowledge.
Then I create my characters and a timeline. The Titanic Detective Agency’s timeline seems straightforward. The story begins with the ship leaving Southampton on the 10th April and Titanic goes down in the early hours of the 15th. But there are two main characters, often having very different experiences of the voyage in separate parts of the ship. Johan and Bertha only meet on three occasions. I had to be very careful that their timelines matched.
Creating characters is my favourite part of planning a story, but when you’re writing about real-life people, it gets more complicated. I annotated a photograph of Bertha, noting everything I’d discovered about her: she loved gymnastics, attended Sunday School, owned an autograph book, had extremely squinty teeth. I decided that she might have been self-conscious about her teeth, although my only clue was that she married a dentist. Once I’d a clear idea of Bertha, her likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, I was ready to write her story, first as short chapter headings on a series of post-it notes. I often use post-it notes as they ensure that I know where the story is going and how it is going to get there. Then I dive in and write the book.
The Titanic Detective Agency
Unlock the secrets of the unsinkable ship…
Bertha Watt, tree-climber and would-be polar explorer, is excited to be on RMS Titanic’s maiden voyage, as she leaves Aberdeen behind for the glamour of a new life in America.
But Bertha quickly realises that some passengers are behaving strangely, and she determines to unravel their secrets.
With a new friend, Madge, Bertha sets up her own detective agency to try and solve the mysteries onboard, but they have no idea that disaster is looming for Titanic.
Can they help Johan find the hidden treasure and unmask the identity of the enigmatic Mr Hoffman before time runs out on the ‘unsinkable’ ship?
A Pattern of Secrets
The worlds of rich and poor collide in this gripping Victorian adventure as Jim and Jessie unravel the past and its pattern of secrets… Paisley 1876. 12-year-old Jim has escaped from the Poorhouse and now he must save his little brother from the same fate. His only hope lies in a mysterious family heirloom—a Paisley patterned shawl that has five guineas sewn into its hem—the price of freedom. Jim must find the shawl and break into the big house to steal it back. But the girl with the dark hair is always watching…
Lindsay Littleson has four grown-up (ish) children and lives in the village of Uplawmoor near Glasgow. Her younger son is studying drama and Lindsay is unfailingly supportive, not wanting to repeat her faux pas of nearly thirty years ago when she tried to talk a young Ewan McGregor out of becoming an actor. She’s a full-time primary teacher and loves her job. Before becoming a teacher she spent eight years as possibly the worst PAYE auditor ever to be employed by the Inland Revenue.
In 2014 she began writing for children and won the Kelpies Prize for her first children’s novel The Mixed Up Summer of Lily McLean. The sequel, The Awkward Autumn of Lily McLean, was published by Floris Books in March this year.
As a child, Lindsay developed a keen interest in the past, thanks to the Ladybird Adventures from History series. If only she’d held on to all those early editions…
In 2015 her WW1 novel Shell Hole was shortlisted for the Dundee Great War Children’s Book Prize and she enjoyed engaging in research so much that she was inspired to write another historical novel, A Pattern of Secrets, this time focusing on her local area.
Her two latest children’s novels, The Titanic Detective Agency and Guardians of the Wild Unicorns, were published in early 2019.
Chris Turnbull – a range of books largely set in the Victorian era, plus a World War Two novel and one set in late 19th century Paris
David Pilling – the Longsword Series, set in the reign of Edward I
Alex Marchant – stories suitable for Primary school children and KS3, set against the backdrop of Richard III’s life
Zenta Brice – a story based in Latvia as the Soviet Regimes grip on the Baltic loosened
Jeri Westerson – an author in 3 genres, most relevant here are the Crispin Guest novels, described by Jeri as Medieval Noir
Simon Schama – an excerpt of a conversation about the way in which Historical Documentaries are produced