Q&A with Author Susan Brownrigg

  1. What inspired you to write Gracie Fairshaw and the Mysterious Guest? 

Gracie Fairshaw is a mystery set in 1930s Blackpool – and there were a few different inspirations for my book. I’m from Wigan and wanted to write a story set in the North – the first place that sprung to mind was Blackpool. I used to love going their on day trips with my family, it is a magical place with a long sandy beach, a fabulous funfair, three piers and of course the famous Blackpool Tower! When I started reading up on the resort I quickly realised that Blackpool is very special because so much of it’s seaside heritage has survived from Victorian times – but it also went through a resurgence in the 1930s with the Art Deco style making everything new and exciting for holidaymakers. Blackpool also has a long season because of the tradition of the Blackpool Illuminations. When I learned that the second VIP to turn on the Lights in 1935 was a 15-year-old Blackpool girl, called Audrey Mosson, I knew I had the perfect prompt for a historical mystery adventure.

I then needed to decide who my main character would be – I knew I wanted to her to have a disability like my mum, who uses an electric wheelchair, but was aware a wheelchair user in the 30s would really struggle with accessibility (still an ongoing battle today.) My great grandfather had limb difference, his lower left arm was amputated following a shrapnel injury in WW1, so I decided Gracie would have the same disability but congenital.

2. Can you describe this story using only three words? 

Seaside, Mystery and Magic

3. What was the process like writing about Gracie? Did it come easily? 

Ha! Gracie Fairshaw and the Mysterious Guest was my fifth attempt at a children’s book but I still went through all the usual ups and downs of writing a novel! I don’t plan, so the story is always a surprise to me. When I’m writing characters seem to just turn up in my imagination and I follow them on the adventure, but sometimes I end up down wrong paths and at dead ends! Gracie and her Ma and younger brother, George, have just moved to the Majestic, a typical Blackpool boarding house (small hotel) at the start of the book, and I knew Ma would then disappear and one of the guest’s would be responsible. In the original version, Ma comes back on her own accord halfway through the book! That ruined the suspense and Gracie’s agency! My plot also centred around the previous landlady who was in the whole book – which meant the plot didn’t impact as dramatically or personally on Gracie. Once I fixed those two big issues everything fell into place.

I am a member of SCBWI, so if I got stuck I always had my critique group to talk to. The monthly deadline for subbing a new chapter for feedback really helps to keep me focused on my work in progress (WIP).

I live about 50 minutes from Blackpool so I was also able to make regular research trips there, either to Central Library to look at old newspapers on the microfiche readers or by following in Gracie’s footsteps and visiting the places she goes to so I could soak up the atmosphere and create more sensory scenes.

My books are published by Uclan Publishing, who work in partnership with the university’s MA Publishing course. Students gain real life experience by working on Uclan’s books pre-publication, including editing, type setting and developing marketing plans. I have been fortunate to work with two groups of very talented students on my books, and their enthusiasm and attention to detail has really helped me to polish my manuscripts.  

The book also had different titles, it was originally called Blackpool Rock, and then Seaside Switch, before my publisher and I settled on the final title.

4. Can you recommend any other books that are similar? 

I love historical mysteries! Some of my favourites are the Rose Campion series by Lyn Gardner and Katherine Woodfine’s Sinclair Mysteries/Taylor &Rose series. I have recently enjoyed Isabel Feeney, Star Reporter, by Beth Fantaskey, Ship of Doom(The Butterfly Club) by M.A Bennett and Out of the Smoke by Matt Wainwright. Anyone looking for a seaside set adventure should read Malamander by Thomas Taylor and Mariah Mundi – the Midas box by G.P Taylor.

5. Which authors do you most admire and why?

Gosh there are so many!

I am a member of a team of historical authors called The Time Tunnellers – Ally Sherrick, Catherine Randall, Barbara Henderson and Jeannie Waudby who write amazing books. We have a weekly blog and YouTube channel with a writing prompt for children/schools – and have regular guests. They have become good friends and their passion pushes me to do more and work harder!

I also really admire Emma Carroll, Lucy Strange, Laura Wood and Lauren Wolk.

6. What were your favourite books growing up?

I loved the Magic Faraway Tree, the Five Find Outers and the Famous Five by Enid Blyton and I have fond memories of being read Roald Dahl in class at Primary School. Jo in Little Women and Anne of Green Gables made me want to be a writer too.

In my teens I survived on a diet of Judy Blume, Sweet Valley High and Agatha Christie’s Poirot books! There wasn’t the choice of books that there is nowadays!

7. Where is your favourite place to write?

I usually write on the settee in my living room though I have a lovely ‘office’ space upstairs. I also take a notebook ‘on location’ I especially enjoyed writing the Tower Ballroom scene with the Wurlitzer organ playing in the background.

8. What advise would you give to those who want to become published writers?

Find a good critique group who will give you honest feedback on your writing (but only when you’re ready to hear it.) Don’t give up – you might have to write several books before you get published but do take a break if you find your mental health is suffering from the rejections/tumbleweed. It took me over 20 years to get published and in the end, it was serendipity of a northern children’s book publisher being established at the same time as I’d completed a book that reflected my northern working class background.

9. Gracie Fairshaw and the Trouble at the Tower is your latest book can you tell us a bit about it?

I’d love to. Trouble at the Tower is a sequel but can be read as a standalone.

Gracie is invited to attend the dress rehearsal of the Blackpool Tower Children’s Ballet’s Christmas performance, but when the curtain rises things go horribly wrong for the young dancers. Accidents, pranks and a poison pen letter make Gracie wonder if someone is trying to spoil the show. She and her friends must try and stop the saboteur before their final act.

The story is set in Blackpool Tower and is inspired by the real children’s ballet that put on shows between 1902 and 1972. The tower was called the Wonder of the World because it had a circus, ballroom, aquarium, menagerie, roof garden, lift ascent and fabulous places to eat including the Oriental Lounge.

10. Are you writing anything else at the moment? If so, are you able to give us any clues? 

I have written a third Gracie Fairshaw book inspired by the filming of an old Black and white movie called Sing as We Go in Blackpool. I studied cinema as part of my degree and I love 30s films so this was an opportunity to showcase British film and have Gracie think about women place in the workforce.

This time Gracie gets to discover the incredible Winter Gardens and The Regent Cinema while solving a new mystery. It is earmarked for an early 2024 publication date.

I want to say a huge thank you to Susan for taking the time to answer my questions and feature on my blog. You can buy/pre order all of Susan’s books from all booksellers, online and of course using any independent local bookshop.

You can follow Susan on social media:

Twitter: @suebmuseum

Instagram: susanbrownrigg

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