We chat to Ann-Marie Howell about her Ickworth based children’s novel

Bury St Edmunds author Ann-Marie Howell reflects on her Ickworth based children’s novel which spins an intriguing wartime tale of mystery and secrets in a very local setting

Posted: July 8, 2019

Ann-Marie Howell

Is the novel a combination of things? Perhaps an interest in the period WW1, grand houses, gardens and secrets?

The Garden of Lost Secrets is a historical mystery with lots of secrets, combining three of my favourite things. The WW1 setting is a period I’ve always found really interesting and this had a huge impact on those who lived and worked in grand country houses like Ickworth, something which I found fascinating to research and write about. There are also lots of mysteries in the book – a locked door and a hidden key, a strange boy who appears in the walled gardens of the country house at night, and a scheming pineapple thief!

How did you go about your research? Have you learnt a lot more about Ickworth?

The walled kitchen gardens at Ickworth are one of my favourite places to visit in Suffolk, and once I’d decided to use them as a setting for the story, I wanted to accurately represent some of the things that happened there during the Great War. I was helped enormously by the National Trust’s brilliant online resources which tell how the Hervey family allowed the Ickworth estate to be used by the military for training, including the setting up of two firing ranges.

I imagine this must have brought the war a little too close for comfort forsome people – and the sound of rifles being fired in a normally quiet rural area is something I have tried hard to convey in my book.

Were you surprised at what you found? Pineapples being grown there seems rather exotic for West Suffolk at that time?

I found out lots of surprising things, but the biggest one was perhaps the sheer number of hothouses that used to be in Ickworth’s walled gardens, the derelict pineapple houses sadly the only ones now remaining. Home grown pineapples were very sought after as they were so difficult to grow, and the mystery element in the book comes in to play when the main character, Clara, discovers that pineapples are being stolen from the Earl’s hothouses and she sets out to discover who the thief is, leading her to uncover many other secrets in and around the gardens.

Why children’s books and not adult?

Because children’s books were where I discovered my love of reading and writing, and if I can do that for other children that would make me very happy and it all worthwhile.

Weaving history into novels seems to be popular – presumably it makes the writing/story telling more interesting? I love historical fiction, as whichever
era you write about there is immediately a great starting point for the story, with the opportunity for including lots of interesting details from that time.

Are there other parts of Suffolk that interest you novel-wise?

Yes, lots! I have another idea for a book based in Bury St Edmunds bubbling away and I would love to write a book set on the Suffolk coast.
My second book (published in 2020) is set in Edwardian Cambridge, so not too far from Suffolk. People often say, ‘write what you know’, and there is so much interesting history in this beautiful part of the country I think I’ve got enough material for quite a few books yet!

How do you write – do you have fixed times of the day? Is it an hour here and an hour there kind of regime?

I work part time, and after the school pick up I tend to sit down and write for a couple of hours. I have one day off a week and treat that as my main writing day when the house is nice and quiet.

Ever had writer’s block?

There are many times when I’ve sat at my computer unsure of what to write next, but I’ve just gritted my teeth and got something – anything – down on the page. My motto is, ‘some bad words are better than no words’, as at least then you have something to work with when you’ve finished, however terrible they may be.
I think you live in Bury St Edmunds or near to the town? Do you have a family? I’ve lived in the Bury St Edmunds area for the last 17 years and have recently moved into the town with my husband and two children. We love being so close to all the facilities, particularly the bookshops.

How long have you been an author – what did you do before?

I didn’t think seriously about being an author until I did a creative writing course in 2015. I was lucky enough to get an agent soon after the course inished, and then a two-book publishing deal with Usborne last year. I currently work in local government writing policy documents, so a lot of writing is involved in my day job too!

Are you inspired by other writers?

Hugely. I really admire adult fiction author Laura Purcell, author of The Silent Companions and more recently The Corset, as she effortlessly weaves historical fact with riveting mysteries. There are many children’s authors who inspire me, including the queen of historical fiction, Emma Carroll, who has the perfect blend of great plots, historical settings and characters, and a children’s author called Lucy Strange who wrote a fantastic mystery called The Secret of Nightingale Wood.

When is the book out and where can people buy it?

The Garden of Lost Secrets was published by Usborne on June 13 2019 and will be available in all good bookshops and the usual places online. I think it would be a great read for anyone who loves Ickworth (no matter what their age) but is primarily a wonderful read for children age 9-12.

Purchase Ann-Marie Howell’s book via Amazon

As featured in David Burr Rooftops Summer Edition

Article extracted from David Burrs Rooftops Summer Edition