After completing a BA and MA at the University of Manchester, A M Howell now writes policy documents for local government.
In 2015, she was one of 15 writers selected to take part in the Curtis Brown Creative Writing for Children Course, tutored by children's author Catherine Johnson.
A M Howell lives in rural Suffolk with her husband and two sons, and was inspired to write The Garden of Lost Secrets by the discovery of a 100-year-old gardener's notebook at Ickworth House in Suffolk.
THE HOUSE OF ONE HUNDRED CLOCKS
THE HOUSE OF ONE HUNDRED CLOCKS is a tense, atmospheric story for 9+ readers about a girl's quest to discover what mystery lies at the heart of the house where she and her father now live - a house that is filled not with furniture, but with clocks.
We asked author AM HOWELL to tell us more about THE HOUSE OF ONE HUNDRED CLOCKS:
Q: What The House of One Hundred Clocks about?
A: It's a historical mystery set in a clock-filled Edwardian house and the protagonist, 12-year-old Helena, must unravel the strange goings on before time runs out, including a ghostly figure in the clock rooms, strange notes and disappearing winding keys!
Q: The book is set at the turn of the century. What draws you to writing historical fiction and why did you decide to set this book then?
A: Historical fiction is such fun to write as you already have a whole world to research and explore. I love feeding in real historical details, for example in this story the owner of the clocks summons an early vacuum cleaner, invented by Hubert Cecil Booth, from London to clean his house.
Q: As with your earlier novel, The Garden of Lost Secrets, The House of One Hundred Clocks is also set in the early 1900s. Is there something that draws you to this period?
A: I think the early 1900s were a time of great invention and social change which makes it an interesting period to write about. I think I might set one more story in this period then I've an idea for a very different period in time so watch this space!
Q: There are some lovely details in the story, including a rather gruesome hat collection. How much research to you do into the period before you begin writing?
A: I tend to read a lot about the period, both fiction and non-fiction, before I start writing to get a feel for what people wore, how they spoke and what was happening socially at that time.
The dead birds on Miss Westcott's hats are very gruesome, but there was the beginnings of a real movement against them in the early 1900s, as the RSPB had been founded not long before, something I touch on in the story.
Q: There is a big focus on clocks in this novel, was there one thing you saw or read about that sparked this idea? Where did you go to learn about clocks and their workings?
A: The clock collection at Moyse's Hall Museum in my hometown of Bury St Edmunds was bequeathed to the town by Frederic Gershom Parkington as a memorial for his son who died in the Second World War. I've been to visit the clocks a number of times and on one visit I wondered why Gershom Parkington had collected so many timepieces.
While I think he just really liked collecting them, this made me wonder about writing a story about an obsessive collector of clocks and the book idea developed from there.
After I had the idea for this book, the museum staff very kindly let me meet their resident clock winder who showed me how the different clocks were wound, and I even got to wind one myself!
Q: If you could have any one clock that you describe in this book, which one would it be?
A: I think it would have to be a chronometer invented by John Harrison, a famous 18th century clockmaker. He devoted his working life to solving the problem of longitude - how far east or west you are from your home port while at sea.
He developed many clocks to try and solve the problem, but they failed to work. He eventually found a solution in 1765 when he was in his 70's and he was awarded a substantial prize.
The chronometers are now on show at the Clockmakers' Museum in London and at Greenwich Observatory in London - they are really worth a visit!
Q: How well do you know your characters before you start to write them?
A: I map out a rough profile of the characters before I start writing, but I find they only really reveal themselves after the second or third draft of the book.
It's a bit like peeling back the skin of an orange sometimes and it does take me a while to make sure the characters all have different wants and needs and that their paths all result in personal changes at the end! I think Miss Westcott was the most surprising character to develop - but I don't want to say too much in case I spoil the story!
Q: Orbit is fabulous - was he based on any parrot you know?
A: My children were fascinated by a large Macaw we used to see in a local pet shop, which gave me the idea for a parrot as a companion, particularly as they were so popular as pets in Edwardian times.
After doing some online research I settled on an Amazon-Blue parrot for the story, a stunning species. I decided I could have a lot of fun developing Orbit's character as he's quite mischievous!
Q: Through the mystery of the house full of clocks, you explore what restrictions on women were at the time, for example that they can't get university degrees. Why did you decide to bring this so strongly into the novel?
A: I wanted to use the Cambridge setting to the maximum and the information about women and the restrictions placed on them by the university was something I was very keen to bring into the book, as it will seem like such an alien concept for children today. It will be interesting to hear their thoughts on the issue!
Q: You explore Cambridge through the novel, why did you decide to set it in there and how much time have you spent exploring its streets yourself?
A: I lived and worked in the city for a few years after graduating from university in Manchester and I spent days just wandering the small side streets and colleges and looking up at the historic buildings in wonder. Kings College is stunning and I used to cycle along the river and past it on my way to work - it was the best start to the day.
Q: How do you fit writing into your day, if you're also working full time?
A: No writing day is ever the same. I need to fit it in around my day job, which is a part-time town planner for the local council, so I often write in the gaps between the kids getting home from school and cooking dinner and then on my one day off during the week.
I'm currently working on another historical fiction story inspired by two spectacular buildings in my hometown and an event that isn't often written about - that's all I can say for now!
Q: Are there any other children's books you've read this year that you'd like to recommend to our members?
A: There are so many! I love reading historical fiction and very much enjoyed Emma Carroll's latest book The Somerset Tsumani. I also really like Katherine Woodfine's books and am currently working my way through The Sinclair's Mysteries. I also absolutely adored my fellow Usborne author Sophie Anderson's book The Girl Who Speaks Bear, which is inspired by Russian folk tales and is enchanting.
THE GARDEN OF LOST SECRETS
THE GARDEN OF LOST SECRETS by AM HOWELL - which was inspired by the discovery of a gardner's notebook written over a century ago - is brimful of secrets and mysteries.
Set during the First World War, the novel follows Clara when she is sent to stay with her aunt and uncle while her father convalesces from his battle injuries. Soon, however, she is caught up in the mysteries on the estate; who is the strange boy who keeps disappearing? What are her aunt and uncle hiding? And who is stealing the earl's precious pineapples from the hothouses?
This is a fabulous mystery story set at a time of great change. We asked author AM HOWELL to tell us more about THE GARDEN OF LOST SECRETS:
Q: What encouraged you to write for children?
A: My love of books and reading started when my mum took me to visit the library van which visited our small village every few weeks. I would take out the maximum number of books allowed and devour them, then count down the days until the van returned.
When I started writing, I kept thinking of my childhood self and how amazing it would be if I could invent worlds and stories that children would love to disappear into in the way I used to.
Q: Do you have other work beyond writing for children?
A: I work part time as a town planner for a local council which keeps me very busy! My employer is very supportive of my writing which allows me to work flexible hours which has been invaluable in all the busyness leading up to publication.
Q: Are there also any children's books that you have read and loved that influence you
as a writer?
A: I love a good family saga and Little Women by Louisa May Alcott is a book I have read and re-read many times. I love how Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy are all so different in nature and it was perhaps the first book that made me think about the importance of characterisation.
A few people have said that The Garden of Lost Secrets has quite a classic feel which makes me very happy, as I love books like The Secret Garden and Tom's Midnight Garden. I also enjoy reading newer historical fiction by authors like Lucy Strange, who has written the captivating MG book The Secrets of Nightingale Wood, set just after WW1.
Q: You have mentioned that a discovery of a 100-year-old gardener's notebook inspired The Garden of Lost Secrets - can you tell us a bit more about the discovery, and what you wanted to follow through with your novel?
A: The notebook was discovered by garden staff when they were having a rainy day clear out of the sheds at Ickworth Park, the country estate where the story is set. It turned out to be a century old and I spent a while dreaming about what secrets the notebook might tell about how the gardens used to be and who worked there.
It was in fact a record of planting and the different varieties of fruits and vegetables grown in the gardens, which gave me the idea of a character in my story, Will, using a similar notebook - but his would contain even bigger secrets about the mysterious goings on in the gardens!
Q: Why did you decide to set your story during WW1?
A: I'm particularly interested in how the war impacted people on the Home Front in rural areas. The threat of zeppelins was surprisingly present as they would sometimes drift off course, which would have been incredibly scary and is something the characters in my book have to deal with.
I discovered that during the Great War the owners of country estates often allowed local rifle regiments to come and practice in the grounds in preparation for moving out to the Front, so the presence of rifle fire in these normally quiet areas must have made the war a little too close to comfort for many - an issue I was keen to explore.
Q: Was the setting of the house and its gardens based on a real house?
A: The book is set in the walled kitchen gardens of Ickworth House, near Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk, now run by The National Trust. It's one of my favourite places to visit and I can happily spend hours wandering around the gardens.
I think it provides the perfect setting for a story, with its large enclosed red brick walls, small houses for the garden staff, summer house and various doors leading to the woods and different planting areas. I've been doing some school visits with local schools and they recognised the gardens from the extract I read to them, which was lovely.
Q: There are several interweaving stories through the novel, why did you decide to make your book a mystery story?
A: I've always loved reading books that have multiple layers and a family secret at their heart, a book that makes you want to keep turning the pages to uncover the mystery, so it seemed quite natural to try and write that type of story.
I love writing quite complicated adult and child characters who are facing challenges that aren't always clear at the start, but come to a satisfactory resolution at the end, although it might not always be the ending you are expecting!
Q: And why are the pineapples at the heart of the main mystery - who is stealing the fruit from the hothouses?
A: There are a few derelict pineapple houses remaining at Ickworth and I find it fascinating that this tropical fruit used to be grown locally, so wanted to somehow include them in the story.
The breakthrough moment came when I did some research into the history of pineapples and found out how difficult and expensive they were to grow in Europe, so they became very sought after and a symbol of wealth. It then seemed to follow that someone might steal them, particularly in a time when food was being restricted. As for the fruit thief in the book, you will have to read it to uncover that mystery!
I did eat lots of pineapples during my research - both fresh and dried - and I still gravitate towards them whenever I am in the supermarket. I even bought an ornamental pineapple which I am struggling to keep alive.
Q: How much research into this period did you need to do to write The Garden of Lost Secrets? Were there particular issues from this time that you wanted to include in the story?
A: It was really important to me that the characters' experiences felt realistic, so I spent some time walking around the servants' quarters of Ickworth House to get a sense of what it would have been like to work 'downstairs'.
I also met the head gardener for a great chat about how the gardens used to look and work and went over to Cambridge Botanical Gardens to sit in the hothouses so I could write authentic scenes when Clara and Will are staking out the hothouses trying to catch the pineapple thief.
I've tried really hard to keep the historical detail authentic but also quite light so it doesn't drown the story, and wanted to get across how the war was impacting on different people at a personal level. For example, there is a scene where Clara comes face to face with a soldier injured in the war who talks quite openly about his experiences. This is a revelation to her, as her parents have censored what she hears to try and protect her, and also because it was just too terrible to talk about, which I think was quite common.
Q: Were there parts of the story you found more difficult to write?
A: There are a few really sad parts in the book that involve death and grief and I did find those hard to write. As a mum myself I kept imagining my own children struggling to cope in these situations so I did have a few tearful writing sessions, particularly when Will asks Clara for help following the death of his father, a scene which still makes me well up every time I read it.
Q: Where is your favourite place to write and when do you manage to do most of your writing?
A: I do much of my writing at my kitchen table as it overlooks our small garden and I like glancing up at the greenery every now and then, plus I'm within easy reach of the kettle and biscuits which are essential tools on a writing day!
I try and do a couple of hours writing when I get home from work, then a few hours at the weekend, but I'm very flexible and don't feel bad at all if I have a few days/weeks off because of family/work priorities.
Q: What are you writing now?
A: I've written a second historical fiction novel set in Edwardian Cambridge - a time of great social change and invention - which will be out next summer with Usborne. It features a town house full of mysterious clocks, a rather precious parrot and a very juicy mystery for the protagonists to solve.
I'm also about to start work on a third book which is again historical and I am very excited about, as I don't think this particular event has been much written about in children's fiction, but I don't want to say more than that as the idea is still at such an early stage!
Q: What are your favourite escapes from writing?
A: I love swimming, which is a brilliant release after sitting hunched over my laptop all day. My family and I are quite big cinema goers and we also enjoy long walks in the countryside and still visit Ickworth very regularly, which feels extra special now my book is being published, and we love stopping off in the cafe for a cream tea afterwards.