The books, the process, and the story behind them.

Where it all began

How the writing started...

I’ve always enjoyed learning, though not necessarily in an academic environment, and while I could, and still can, devour whole libraries of books on a subject I find interesting, you’d be hard pressed to find a teacher or lecturer from my past who ever imagined me being able to do more than string together a single written sentence. School, college twice, university three times, and while it was mostly my choice to be there, I didn’t particularly enjoy myself, or excel for that matter. This was captured perfectly by a friend I’d studied with on my most recent trip through university when I published my first novel, Harry’s Game: First of The Few. She simply said ‘I’m impressed! I didn’t see you scribble a single word through three years of university, and I’m genuinely surprised you even know how to write!’

Assignments and dissertations aside, I started writing stories somewhere around 2012. It was a good way to relieve the stress after a long day, and while it was mostly nonsense, it was relaxing and enjoyable, and gave me something to get lost in. 

A couple of years later, despite my protests, a good friend who I didn’t know was going to be such a significant influence in my life, insisted on reading some of my work. I refused persistently, until I finally gave in and reluctantly sent a chapter. ‘I like it, and you really have to keep writing!’ came the unexpected reply. Whether or not they were being kind to protect my feelings, we’ll never know, but I did keep writing. Though I never did show anyone else the story I wrote. Come to think of it, I think I still have the manuscript somewhere...

Around the time my friend insisted I write more, Easter 2014 (I think), I had the idea that I’d write a children’s book. Something simple, and fun, and based on friends and people I knew. This is when Maddy Monday was born. A young girl who loved Mondays, which could well have been my own subconscious therapy to help me manage the dread of Mondays just that little bit better… Though the positivity that came with the writing seemed to truly irritate those who hated Mondays, which was all part of the fun. Regardless, the book was popular with children (and surprisingly with adults), so I wrote another, and another, and over a period of three years I wrote twelve Maddy Monday children’s books which, to my everlasting surprise, were bought not only by friends and family, but by strangers, both home and abroad! I was even invited to author readings, and was asked to sign copies of the books. It was all a bit surreal for something that happened as a bit of fun.

Fast forward to 2018, and I mentioned in conversation with a person that I worked with at the time that I would love to be able to draw, and having so many pictures in my head, and so little talent to get them out, was a constant source of frustration. My colleague, to whom I'll be eternally grateful, then (quite unexpectedly) challenged me to learn to draw in such a way that I really couldn't say no!

What came next was beyond any expectation or imagination I had at the time... I'd always appreciated the work of the famous aviation artist Romain Hugault, and as I started to teach myself how to draw, I decided that I'd like to be able to emulate his aviation based graphic novels. How hard can it be, right? Well, as it turns out, his years of studying art at university meant that while it wasn't particularly 'hard' for him (I once stood by his side while he watched a display by the world famous Red Arrows while simultaneously drawing me a picture of a Spitfire!), it was much more difficult for a talentless hack scribbling with his crayons. Anyway, not one to shy away from a challenge, I persisted (slowly), and accepted that it was probably going to take some time to achieve my goal. So, I decided it would be a good idea to write the back story of the graphic novel I was going to create, just so I had the reference material when the time came. Step forward Miss Harriet Cornwall...

Maddy Monday

A first

Despite having written for a few years, mostly for my own amusement and sanity, Maddy Monday was the first character I created that I was happy to share, and after a conversation with a talented illustrator who managed to interpret my confused ramblings enough to give Maddy a face, everything was set.

The challenge, though, was that instead of my usual writing, I’d decided to write a children’s book, but not only that, I’d decided to write in ‘rhyming prose.’ Something I’d never done before, and hadn’t even read that much of, with the possible exception of ‘The Cat in the Hat,’ and a few other Dr Seuss classics. There was no particular reason for this, other than I thought it would be fun. Fortunately, I knew a talented and experienced author and editor who was kind enough to give me a few tips and corrections along the way!

After publishing the first book, Maddy Monday and Baz the Troll, and being pleasantly surprised (totally amazed) that people not only bought it, but also enjoyed it and promoted it to others, I started to wonder whether Maddy had any other stories to tell. I’m happy to say that her adventures continued over twelve different books, some of which were written and released as special charity editions to raise funds for good causes, including The Ellie Penrose Fund, The Yorkshire Air Ambulance, and the BEAT Eating Disorder charity. A couple of the books covered subjects a little more serious than others, but they remained fun and light hearted, and they all carried a positive message.

The characters that Maddy shared her adventures with were all based on friends I’d met over the years, many at the Hell On The Humber (HOTH) endurance running event, or during my other sporting experiences. To my good fortune, every one of them was very happy to be immortalised in print (and drawing), and they enjoyed being involved in Maddy’s stories. 

Maddy herself was, and is, an incurably positive girl who sees the good in everything, even on the bad days, and it’s while she’s out running on her favourite bridge that she meets some interesting and quite unique characters who help her learn some valuable life lessons. While Maddy wasn’t based on anyone in particular, she was heavily influenced by people I've known, and is, I think, the ray of sunshine we all have inside us that sometimes we need to let out a little more. 

It's fair to say that there was just a hint of logical and rational thought behind the books, other than just the fun and the humour, and that was about how wonderful it would be if they were actually useful to the children and young people who read them. With this in mind, I tried to build a lesson into each story. Nothing particularly significant, at least in most cases, often just little things that help make the world a better place, such as the importance of learning, eating right, exercising, resting, and even how we interact with others. The books also cover sometimes difficult subjects, such as eating disorders, health, and even bereavement, but all of it is delivered in a way that children and young people can engage with. 

The other much simpler, yet constant, theme in the books, is the power of our thoughts. Many people proclaim loudly and proudly that they hate Mondays, usually because life can be pretty hard at times, work and school aren’t always what we would want them to be, and Monday can sometimes herald the start of a new cycle of the thing that we‘d really rather not be doing. I’ve been there, and I've lived it! With this in mind, as part of my promotion for the Maddy Monday books, I committed to making a positive statement on social media every Monday, to the point where I would frequently wish people a ‘happy Monday’ (while ducking the incoming projectiles and well intentioned insults). The amazing thing is that after a while, it worked. It became habit, and it became a positive routine. I started to look forward to Mondays, they no longer held quite as much doom as they used to, Sunday evenings were less stressful, and in general I was happier. 

Maddy Monday had a message to share!


Harry's Game

A mischievous and determined influence.

'I was never going to write an actual book!' That's been my response every single time somebody has asked me about Harry's Game, and as much as some refuse to believe me, it's as true now as it ever was. 

I enjoy history, probably more than most subjects, and for as long as I can remember, I'd always been fascinated with the events of the Second World War. Add to this a career surrounded by military history, during which I had the honour and good fortune to meet a number of veterans of the war, including pilots from both sides who'd flown in the Battle of Britain, it's hardly surprising that when I discovered a passion for writing, it was this era I chose. There was only one problem: everything worthy of reading had already been written! Furthermore, many of the 'official' histories of the period are often quite formal, statistics and narrative driven, and not always a joy to read (boring, in other words), and the contemporary accounts written by those who took part are more exhilarating, more fantastic, and almost more unbelievable than any fiction story ever could be. This didn't give me anywhere to go. I had nothing official to contribute from a formal historical perspective, and there was no way I could invent anything more thrilling than the reality lived by many who were there. Graphic novel or not, it was going to be hard work coming up with something that justified me spending countless hours learning to draw Spitfires and Hurricanes!

Then, it happened! Out of nowhere, a young female aviator popped into my head, and the rest, as they say, is history. By introducing a slight twist, one that with a little imagination could well have happened, I'd found a way of telling the story of the Battle of Britain in a way that hadn't been done before, while remaining true to  the historical facts, and recognising the many great acts of bravery and sacrifice told in the stories of those who were there. None of that really mattered, though. All I needed was a starting point for the graphic novel I was going to produce when I'd finally learned to draw. Nobody would actually be reading the backstory!

I wrote, and I wrote, and I wrote, and soon the drawing had taken a back seat while I got lost in the story that was spilling out of my mind and onto the page. I wrote so much that the opening scenes of the idea I'd had in my mind when I started became an entire book of over 120,000 words, and I didn't even get to start the story I thought I was going to write. A talented, determined, and immensely likeable young woman by the name of Harriet Cornwall had come to life, and almost entirely taken over mine!

I tell people repeatedly that I was never going to write a book, not a 'proper' one, at least, and even if I did, nobody was ever going to read it. That much was for certain. After all, despite Harriet's persistence, it was just a back story while I learned to draw. Nothing more. However... I soon found that it's impossible to spend every waking hour writing, or thinking about writing, or researching the intricacies of the carburettor fitted to the early Rolls Royce Merlin engine used by Hawker Hurricanes in 1940 without people noticing, and before long I was put on the spot. Despite my initial reluctance (which ran very, very deep), I was convinced to let somebody read it. So, with a deep breath, a significant cringe, and a great deal of nausea, I handed the manuscript to a close friend who I trusted to be honest with me. What they say is true, it's the not knowing that gets you. The wait was painful, but ultimately, I was told that it was good, and more than that, I should publish and let others read it, too!

To cut a very long story short, the first chapter of the story I wanted to tell became a book of its own, and after it was published and read, and people wanted to know what happened next, the story I wanted to write became the second book. The second book was written in much the same way as the first, with me mostly being the conduit for a story that felt like it was channelling from somewhere else, and when it was done, the third book of the trilogy was already half written. It was unrelenting, and I got lost in it. Despite the hell I put poor Harriet through in the stories, it was a world I escaped to and loved being part of. It was pure escapism, and I couldn't get enough of it. I read mountains of personal accounts and historical facts, including how carburettors really worked on early Merlins, and visited such diverse places as the Battle of Britain bunker deep under Uxbridge in North London, and the tunnels dug into the stone below Malta, where the siege defences were planned and led through the war. To say that Harriet and her story were a passion would be an understatement.

I'd made the decision to end Harriet's story with the third book. It was the perfect place to stop, and I'd spent so much time with Harriet that I thought it was about time I gave her some peace (and stopped putting her through hell!) The reviews were positive, the sales were good, and I was happy with what I'd achieved. Three novels from a back story was pretty good going. There was a problem, though. After all the writing, and reading, and research, I was kind of missing Harriet. Something made all the worse by a nagging thought that the story wasn't yet finished, which inevitably led to sleepless nights as I considered if, or how I could write more. 

Five years after I started, and one million words later, the ninth and final novel in the Harry's Game series was finally published in August 2022, and Harriet's story was told. Thousands of books have been sold worldwide (yes, that surprised me, too!), and I'd been through job changes, a global pandemic, and some significant challenges in my personal and professional life, and I'd be lying if I said Harriet hadn't got me through it all. 

While I'm immensely proud of what I achieved with Harry's Game, and I've loved every moment of the process on a deeply personal level, there have been some unintended, yet quite positive consequences along the way. I've learned much more about our shared history, I've heard the stories of so many people who gave and sacrificed so much for the world, and I've learned more about myself than I ever would have in a lifetime of therapy. I've also travelled, met new and interesting people, and made new friends. Above all, though, I've been told that I've found a way of bringing history to a new audience. People have read my books and been introduced to a world still within reach of our recent history, and gone on to read the very real stories behind Harriet's more creative exploits. That, more than anything, makes me proud. 

The end? Well... Maybe.

One of the things that I've come to know and love about Harriet Cornwall, is that she's most definitely in charge. That said, a few ideas have popped into my head in the time since the final book was published, almost like she's of the opinion that her story hasn't yet finished. You never know what's going to happen, I suppose. I was never going to write a book...

Oh, and I learned to draw. Kind of. It's not comic book or graphic novel style, and I think Monsieur Hugault is safe from my competition, but I managed to learn enough to draw my own book covers, and to create pieces people hang on their walls, and that's a pretty awesome thing for somebody who struggled to raw a stick person five years ago!

The writing, the drawing, the things that make me happy, none of it would have been possible without the people who believed in me, encouraged me, and supported me, and I'm eternally grateful to you all. From the moment I was challenged to learn to draw, people have helped me get to where I am now. Some consciously, some unconsciously, some real, and some mischievous influences, all are wonderful.

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