Three Times the (Almost) Everything: on Writing a Trilogy

I learned today the precise Australian publication date for the second volume of Word Hunters (The Lost Hunters, to accord book two its subtitle). It’s 27 Feb. No idea why it’s a Wednesday, and I’m not planning to ask. But, as that’s only two weeks from today, I thought I’d share the news.

Book three is written, edited and being illustrated, and the moment I’m waiting for is the one when I can hold all three books in one hand some time in June. Then I can look at them and go: so that’s what those two years of my working life were about.

It wasn’t supposed to be two years. In early 2011, my friend Terry Whidborne and I pitched to some Australian publishers something smaller, far easier and, in retrospect far less ambitious and far less rewarding. Back then it was to be a series of five 6,000 word books for 7-8-year-olds, each one sending its characters on a fun dance through the possible etymology of a word.

But, since we pitched an idea rather than a finished product, our publisher rightly brought some ideas to the table too. Great ideas. Big ideas. And now we’re at a point where I can say that, instead of a 30,000-word series, we’ve written a 155,000-word trilogy. And a lot of the seven and eight-year-olds are probably better off turning nine before they start reading it.

Each book involves three of the things we’ve come to know as ‘word quests’, in which Lexi and Al, our 12-year-old co-leads, plunge into the past, hunting down the evolution of a word (and, it must be said, far more than that …). Each word quest involves 3-6 different time periods, so that meant knowing about wardrobe, architecture, food, etc, in more than 30 different places and times during the past 3000 years. And early on I came up with the idea that Al would take his pet rat, so I had to know what those 30 times and places would smell like too.

Each book became its own novel, and each one required more research and more facts than one of my adult novels, while at the same time needing to be chock-full of battles, danger, adventure, challenges and story.

Like any reader, in book one I got to know Lexi and Al and the intriguing Caractacus – a kind of 5th-century cross between Gandalf, Leonardo do Vinci and a certain early British wizard he’d prefer you didn’t mention. So, Terry and I at least didn’t have to invent them for future books. Or the model for time travel and shape of the word quests. But that was about it. Each book still called for its own vast quota of stumbling around on the internet, and its own big story.

In book one, Lexi and Al become Word Hunters, discover what that means and fight to survive in the past (without Mum, Dad, clean toilets and any mobile coverage at all …). In book two they’re back in the past in pursuit of their grandfather, who might be lost there (somewhere, some time). Also in book two they discover they have an enemy, who will stop at nothing to bring the word hunters down.

Book three will be the reckoning. I can assure you it’s a big finish.

But one thing I hate is a trilogy that sags in the middle and serves only to link books one and three. So, we didn’t even start writing until we knew we wouldn’t be doing that. Word Hunters Two ups the stakes from book one and has its own story. Despite the dangers, Lexi and Al have to keep going back to the past.

Book two takes in Chicago in the 1920s (for which Terry has done an amazing two-page cityscape that will be going on my wall), no fewer than three 19th-century US presidents (two major figures and one rather more obscure, yet crucial to the existence of one of the most commonly used words in the language), a visit to the Globe while Shakespeare and the King’s Men are workshopping Macbeth (a section I had far more fun with than I’d expected), Paris in World War One and a 9th-century Viking siege. And there’s more. Of course there’s more. Everything but the free set of steak knives.

Okay, not everything. While a lot of reviewers of book one totally got what we were on about and went with it, one found it a a bit Anglocentric and the history a bit male-dominated, and wished we’d taken Lexi and Al at least once to a matriarchal warrior society. Trust me, if I’d discovered one English word with a half-interesting story that owed its existence to a matriarchal warrior society, I would have send the kids there faster than any of us can spell Boadicea (or Boudica, or Boudicca or, if you believe wikipedia’s Old Welsh, even Buddug). I need to warn that person now, and any others of a similar bent, that we have still not tracked down that word. Book two does not feature a matriarchal warrior society.

But I can promise you I had to learn about a million new fascinating things to write it. Well, at least several, if I’m claiming that’s a promise. Dozens? Yes, dozens at least. I loved that. I have to admit I loved the research for these books, and couldn’t believe I got to call it work.

Terry found out plenty too – who could have guessed that the world’s largest airship actually did visit one of the places Lexi and Al do, and at the same time, allowing it to drift quietly into shot in one of his masterful illustrations. And, while we all know what Shakespeare looks like (or have settled on a common idea of it anyway), Terry had to track down things like a particular soap wrapper from 1865 and a particular coin from 1519. I can’t say I made it easy for him. At least he had free rein in creating the look of our villain, and close to it for some long-gone historical figures like the Viking warrior king Ivar the Boneless.

Yes, we got a chance to feature someone called Ivar the Boneless, at the head of the Great Heathen Army, on his way to seek revenge on a Northumbrian king for throwing Ivar’s father Ragnar Lothbrok into a pit of snakes. How could you even think of not including that little gem from the past in your book, once you’d found it? It’s in.

But all the facts we cornered don’t amount to much if the story doesn’t fly, so it needed to get at least as much attention. While these books are triggered by the words, they need to work as if it’s all about the stories.

It’s all come a long, long way from the quick and simple idea we took to publishers. It turned out to be neither. And, now that the writing’s done, I can say I’m glad about that.

We’re about to start previewing it in schools, but on 27 Feb we set it free in the wild. For now, here’s a glimpse on the UQP website and there’s more about it on the
Word Hunters website, with new material to be uploaded there some time soon.

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5 Responses to Three Times the (Almost) Everything: on Writing a Trilogy

  1. I think my year three class would thoroughly enjoy having book one read out loud to them. I will get a copy asap!

  2. On second thoughts I will wait until book two is released and buy both at once. They will keep us going for ages! Thanks, Nick.

  3. nickearls says:

    I love the idea that these books will be read aloud. Thanks for doing that.

  4. Kate Myors says:

    My son is 10 – hope he’s not too old for them, they sound great. I’ll buy them anyway and use them as research into writing kids books (whether or not I ever attempt that will remain between you and I!)

    • nickearls says:

      He’s just right. The publishers are calling the readership 9+, which extends at least to 12-year-olds, so 10 is good. And good luck with your own forays into writing for this age group. There was a bit I had to learn, or at least think through, but at least it seems to be a slightly more resilient section of the book market.

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