How East Anglia inspires award-winning children's author
- Credit: Tom Soper
Award-winning East Anglian author A.M Howell takes a trip back in time to the Edwardian era in her latest book, Mystery of the Night Watchers. And Bury St Edmunds plays a starring role.
It’s May 1910 and blazing Halley’s comet is drawing close to the earth.
Some people are arranging comet parties to celebrate its arrival in our skies, a phenomenon which happens once every 76 years.
Others, fearful that the comet’s tail is made of poisonous gas, are taking anti-comet pills to ward off sickness.
In the midst of this Nancy has been uprooted from her home in Leeds to Suffolk to stay with her grandfather, but no-one must know that she and her sister, Violet, are there.
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And at night-time her mother and grandfather creep out of the house – but where are they going?
So the scene is set for Ann-Marie Howell’s third novel for eight to 12-year-olds, Mystery of the Night Watchers.
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And Bury St Edmunds, and one of its landmark buildings, plays a starring role in the gripping adventure.
In the book, Cupola House is filled with secrets.
“I’ve lived in Bury for 20 years now, and know and love the town really well,” says Ann-Marie.
“When I was writing this book I suddenly thought that if I write about a comet, I need a building to really focus the story on where my characters can watch the comet from.
“And it just came to me that Cupola House would be the perfect place.
“It’s very historical, it’s got an amazing history, and I could imagine my characters creeping up there at night to look through a telescope and look over the rooftops of the town.
“It’s currently occupied by a Japanese restaurant and they let me go and have a look at the cupola when they found out I was writing a book.
“And it was that moment where the whole story seemed to come alive, when I was up there looking out across the rooftops and thinking, imagining Nancy with all these gathering mysteries.”
Like Ann-Marie's previous novels, Mystery of the Night Watchers is inspired by real-life historical events.
The idea for her debut, The Garden of Lost Secrets was sparked by the discovery of a 100-year-old gardener’s notebook at Ickworth House in Suffolk.
And The House of One Hundred Clocks, which was named book of the year at the 2020 East Anglian Book Awards, was inspired by Moyse’s Hall Museum.
She came up with the idea for Mystery of the Night Watchers from a newspaper article about the comet from 1910.
“There was a lot of superstition about the comet, because science wasn’t very far advanced in terms of astronomy. People didn’t know a lot about comets, but they did know that there was a gas in the comet’s tail,” says Ann-Marie.
She began working on the book before coronavirus, but there are obvious similarities between the fear and misinformation surrounding the pandemic and the arrival of Halley’s comet.
“They thought that the gas from the comet might poison people,” says Ann-Marie.
“Some scientists said ‘that’s rubbish, you’ll be absolutely fine’, but other scientists said ‘no, there’s going to be a real problem here’ and so people jumped on the bandwagon and said you need to seal up your doors and windows, people started selling anti-comet pills that were just made of sugar, that were pointless. And a lot of that was inflamed by articles in the press, by sensationalist headlines as we get today. It’s quite interesting seeing those parallels.”
When the first lockdown began last March, Ann-Marie was working on editing the book, and taking her daily exercise in Bury’s deserted streets helped to her imagine what the town would have been like in Edwardian times when it’s set.
“I would have the Abbey Gardens to myself at lunchtime, there would be nobody else there because of the stay at home order and that was my local green space and so I would walk there and back,” says Ann-Marie.
“And it actually immersed me more in the story, because I could imagine what it would have been like for people 110 years ago, living in the town when there were no cars around.”
Ann-Marie likes creating feisty girl characters for her stories.
“I think it’s really important in books to show that representation, that girls can so whatever they want to do, but it has to be within the realms of history.
“I like to make them really, really feisty, but obviously within the constraints of the society they were living in at the time.
“So in Edwardian England, children were much more constrained. They followed their parents’ instructions, much more than children do these days, much more than my kids follow my instructions for sure, and children were afraid to disobey their parents.”
Ann-Marie has always been an avid reader, back from when the library van would roll into the village in Nottinghamshire where she lived and she could take out unlimited numbers of books, devouring the likes of Louisa M Alcott, Noel Streatfield and Enid Blyton.
She has also always loved to write. When she was eight she won a story writing competition and she also kept diaries as a teenager.
She was all set to study English and drama at university, but then swapped to geography, which she felt was more a more practical choice.
That was followed by a masters in town planning and Ann-Marie joined West Suffolk Council.
But the urge to write never left her and in 2015 she took the Curtis Brown Creative Writing for Children Course.
Through that she got an agent and started out writing contemporary teen fiction.
She wrote several books which came close to getting published.
Then during a spell when her husband was in hospital she had the idea for Garden of Lost Secrets and moved to historical fiction.
“[Writing] It was an escape for me because it was a very difficult time,” she says.
“I sent it off to my agent and she very quickly came back and said ‘we absolutely love this’.
“Within about three weeks there had been interest and it went to a two-way auction and Usborne bought it. And it was just the book that was meant to be.”
She said that it felt hugely “special” when The House of One Hundred Clocks was named the East Anglian Book of the Year 2020. Previous recipients have included Sarah Perry, author of The Essex Serpent.
“It meant so much to me because my books are set in this area. It’s incredible to think that my book won. I still look at the little trophy on my mantelpiece and occasionally at dinner my husband will say ‘you won the East Anglian book of the year.’”
The Mystery of the Night Watchers is published this week, but Ann-Marie is already editing her fourth book.
She can’t give much away at the moment, but it’s set in a slightly later time period, after the Second World War.
“It is inspired by a treasure discovery in East Anglia, but maybe not the one that everybody would think about necessarily,” she says.
It sounds like there’s another intriguing read to look forward to.
The Mystery of the Night Watchers, by A.M Howell, is published by Usborne and out now.