Looking for Emily by Fiona Longmuir is a mystery story about a secret museum, a missing girl and a forgotten piece of local history.
Fiona was born in Paisley, Scotland. Shortly after, she picked up a pencil and never really put it back down. She writes stories about stubborn, oddball kids, having had a lot of personal experience in this area. Fiona now lives in the Irish countryside with her brilliant partner.
Looking for Emily (Nosy Crow Books)
Looking for Emily, Fiona Longmuir's debut, is an adventure story with a mystery at its heart - why is there a secret museum dedicated to a girl called Emily at the heart of a seaside town?
When Lily moves house to a new home beside the sea and a town, Edge, where nothing ever seems to happen, she feels miserable and lonely. However, when she stumbles across a mysterious museum in the town, a new adventure and unexpected friendships emerge. Author Fiona Longmuir tells us more.
Q&A with Fiona Longmuir
1. Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your writing career to date?
I'm from a town called Paisley, in Scotland, where pretty much everyone loves to tell stories all the time. You'll go into a corner shop to buy a pint of milk and come out with the full family history of the person behind the counter. And now I live in the Irish countryside, where that's even more true!
I don't really ever remember not telling stories. I could almost always be found with either a book or a pencil in my hand. When I was really little, I wanted to be a poet or an inventor and to write a children's book; I think you have to be a little bit of both.
Looking for Emily is the first book I've had published but I've had loads of fun writing other stories over the years. I even had a couple shortlisted in some writing awards! There have been loads of exciting moments, but I don't think anything compares to opening the envelope with Looking for Emily inside and being able to hold a copy for the first time. I can't wait to see it in an actual shop!
2. What did you enjoy reading as a child? And what kinds of stories do you like to tell now?
My mum used to say that I'd read the back of a cereal box if there was nothing else, and that's still true - I find myself reading shampoo bottles in the shower! My absolute favourite stories are exciting, adventurous stories with cosy moments. So, when I was younger, I loved things like Time Stops for No Mouse and Danny, Champion of the World. And now I love Rooftoppers and the Pages & Co series for the same reason.
I think the stories I loved as a kid definitely shaped the stories I write now. In Looking for Emily, there's lots of excitement and adventure but there's also lots of curling up somewhere with the people you love, eating something delicious.
3. How would you describe Looking for Emily?
It's a story about a secret museum and pirate treasure and a grand adventure, but at its heart, I think Looking for Emily is really about finding your way home. And I don't think that's just about a place! Lily finds her home in lots of ways throughout the story. She settles into the town of Edge, but she also finds a sense of home by being brave enough to make new friends. And by opening up, I think she also feels more at home in herself. If I had to describe Looking for Emily in three words, I'd say exciting, heartwarming and fun.
4. What sparked the idea of a museum of an ordinary child, with a mystery attached?
I started thinking about a story set in a museum while I was on holiday. When we travel, my partner and I always try to visit a local museum, the more obscure the better! We were in Bratislava and decided to visit their clock museum. It's this strange little narrow building on a corner with a bright green door and the most gorgeous little brass museum sign. And the inside is all rickety stairs and little wallpapered rooms filled with clocks. I just thought it felt like something straight out of a storybook!
I initially started thinking about a museum of lost things, which became the museum of a lost person - Emily. I had the museum almost fully sketched in my head before I had any idea of what the story would actually be about!
5. What for you makes for a great mystery story?
I once heard someone clever say "the end of a story should feel both surprising and inevitable" and that feels really true to me. My favourite kind of mystery is when you suddenly realise what's going to happen, a split second before it happens. I'm rubbish at guessing though - any time I watch or read a murder mystery, I seem to accuse everyone except the actual murderer!
6. Is the finished book very different from your early ideas?
In some ways it's very different, in some ways it's exactly the same. I don't really plan before I write, so I started writing the story without knowing who had created the museum or why. I like to discover the story as I go, so it felt a bit like I was solving the mystery alongside Lily!
But the feel of the book was there from the very beginning. I knew what Edge looked and felt like, I knew who Lily was and what she needed from her friends. It's lovely, when I read it now, Edge feels so familiar to me, it's like going back to visit somewhere I grew up.
7. Is the setting - the sleepy town of Edge - based on somewhere you know?
My grandad lives in a little seaside town in Scotland called Troon. I spent so much of my childhood there, clambering over rocks to look in rockpools and eating chips from a paper bag in the driving rain, and I loved every moment of it. I always think there's something magical about the seaside, especially in the autumn and winter, when Looking for Emily is set. When there's no one around except you and the sea, there's this real sense that anything could happen, that there's an adventure waiting just under your fingertips.
8. What is your main character, Lily, like and what are some of the challenges she faces during this adventure?
Lily is as stubborn as anything, likes books better than people and is absolutely determined not to give her new hometown a chance. She's also brave and creative and completely tenacious - once she gets a bee in her bonnet about something, she'll never, ever drop it. When she stumbles onto the secret museum in town, there's no way she's giving up until she's solved the mystery - even when it gets dangerous.
She faces lots of challenges throughout the book! She's the new girl at school, in a town she didn't want to move to. She struggles to find the information she needs to solve the puzzle of the museum. And of course, there's the nefarious villain lurking around her and her friends.
But most of the challenges Lily faces are internal ones. She's frightened to open herself up to new possibilities - although she'd never admit that! She's worried about making friends and then when she does, she's so worried about losing them that she pushes them away. Her adventure really becomes possible when she faces her fears and learns to let other people help her.
9. As an author, do you always like or try to like your characters?
I usually like my characters far too much, I almost can't bear to have anything bad happen to them! Except our villain, Horace Snyde, who is the absolute worst and who I would take great pleasure in pushing down a well. I know lots of writers love to put their characters and their readers through the wringer, and take great pleasure in breaking their hearts. But I just can't bring myself to do it. I love a happy ending. I'm so fond of Lily, Sam and Jay because all of them are trying their best, all the time.
10. A library features in the story - how have libraries featured in your own life?
Libraries have been a huge part of my life. When I was younger, my mum would take my sister and I to the local library every week, and we'd be allowed to take out two books. I think I loved being in the library and choosing my books nearly as much as I loved reading them! As I got older, the young writers' groups I joined were also through my library.
Our library was this huge, beautiful, old building - it felt like a church. I can still remember the smell of the paper and the old stone and the dust - I'm sure that smell snuck into Looking for Emily somewhere! I was always a total bookworm and the existence of such a gorgeous space dedicated to books and the people who love them always felt like the most amazing thing in the world to me.
11. Where and when do you prefer to write? And what are your favourite distractions from plotting?
I like to write in the mornings, before the day has a chance to use up all of my brain. When I can, I set myself up at a proper desk with a window nearby, a cup of tea in a nice mug and a candle lit. But I've written all over the place, really! I've gone into work early to bash out a few chapters on my computer before starting the day job, I've written on my phone while on the bus or waiting in queues, I've leaned out of the shower with my hair full of shampoo and yelled at my partner to write an idea down for me.
I carry a notepad everywhere because I find that the best ideas usually come when you're out and about, not thinking too hard about them. I think we talk about writing sometimes like it's a mystical, magical process - and it often is! But equally often, it's about using the pockets of time you have to scribble something messy on the back of a receipt, and figuring out the magic later.
When I sit down to write, I'll quite often have a pile of books beside me. I take lots of inspiration from books I love, so it's good to have them nearby. But I do sometimes sit down at my desk and get up again a few hours later, having reread a book I love and not written a single word!
12. How long do you think about a plot and characters before you start to write?
When I start to write, I usually have a first scene, an overall theme and a handful of characters in my head. Sometimes I have an ending, but not always! And I almost never have anything at all in between. Vibes only, as the cool kids probably don't say. By the time I get started, I usually have the first chapter pretty much written in my head.
I write exactly how I talk, so that first part always feels easy - like I'm just narrating my own thoughts. And then the fun begins! I'm sure my life would be easier if I planned out my stories before I wrote them, but I think part of the joy is the feeling of discovering the story as I write. My favourite moments are when it feels like the story is inventing itself around me, when I look at something I've written and think "oh, of course - obviously that's what happens next!"
At the moment, I'm playing with a story about a little girl who wishes for a best friend but accidentally ends up summoning a demon instead. It's very different from Looking for Emily but has a lot of similar things at its heart: finding friends in unexpected places, learning to be proud of who you are and not judging people before you get to know them.
13. What do you most enjoy doing to relax when you're away from your desk?
I love spending time outdoors. Like Lily, I've recently moved out of the city! Last year, I moved from London to the Irish countryside and it's been absolutely amazing to be surrounded by so much nature and to see how the seasons change here. I can often be found pillaging the hedgerows for flowers to press or fruit to make into jam. But even in the city, I was always up to my elbows in dirt, whether that was wandering around my local parks, making pressed flower jewellery or turning our tiny flat into a jungle. I grew two full sized tomato plants on my windowsill during lockdown - they hit the ceiling!
As a writer with a full-time office job, I spend a lot of time in front of a screen thinking about terribly sensible, grown-up things. Being able to go outside and get a bit feral, whether that's rolling in some grass or jumping in a lake or kicking a big crunchy leaf pile, helps me throw off that sensible grown-up brain. Writing is basically a form of play for me, and it's impossible to write a fun story if you don't remember how to have fun!