Updated: Nov 30, 2021
Well, it’s been a busy couple of months for me! Back to teaching creative writing in my residency schools and running workshops for a few exciting projects. It’s lovely to be back teaching again, as it’s one of my passions, but it does mean I get less time to work on my writing and, obviously, writing is my first love.
Still, I’ve been making progress with the books. The Last Beekeeper (book one of the Silent Skies trilogy) is with my brilliant editor at the moment, and I’m working on developmental edits for The Hive Child (book two) before it goes to my beta readers. I’m really excited to release this trilogy next year and, seeing as it’s not far off the release of book one, I thought I’d share some of my writing journey to get you all ready for the book’s release!
Researching for The Last Beekeeper
If I’m completely honest, I pretty much wrote this book by accident. That makes it sound like it was easy, which it wasn’t. I went through all the usual ups and downs of the writing process, the crippling self doubt, the fear of finishing, the fear of not finishing, the horror of looking at the first draft and thinking ‘what have I done?’ and then finally producing something I’m proud of.
But the genesis of the book was a complete accident.
When the first lockdown hit the UK in March 2020, I was in a pretty terrifying position. I’d had six months of projects and workshops booked, but with schools closing, theatres already shut and no social mixing allowed, my work quite literally dried up overnight. I lost thousands. And the money situation was scary, but it was also the awfulness of feeling like all my contacts were going dark, everyone I could rely on for collaboration and work was in a similar situation to me and might not even still be trading by the time this was over. It was really frightening.
Luckily for me, my two residency schools kept me on to produce creative activities for their students, run some reading groups and provide literacy support during the lockdown. It was on a reduced basis, so my pay was less, but nevertheless, I still had some money coming in, which was a lifeline.
For one of my schools, I was tasked with producing a booklet of creative activities to support students with developing their creative writing. As part of this, I wrote a scene that later became chapter three of The Last Beekeeper. It was a scene between a brother and sister as they discovered the first bee seen in a century after flying insects had died out of their world.
After writing this chapter, I couldn’t stop thinking about that brother and sister. What was it like living in their world? What challenges did they face? What were their lives like?
Later, I used that same scene as the springboard for an adult creative writing class to help my students develop voice. They read the scene and, pretty much unanimously, went ‘where’s the rest?’
And that was that. I knew I was going to turn this into a book. The only trouble was, I knew absolutely nothing about bees.
The Tiny Engines of Our Natural World
I mean, don’t get me wrong, I loved bees. I still do (obviously). I’m pretty much fascinated by all creatures. I’m not great with slimy things,
but my philosophy is that every creature has a right to live and I don’t have a right to destroy it simply because I’m scared or disgusted by it.
And I’d been vaguely aware of the plight of bees for some time. I knew our insects were in decline. I knew the loss of bees was supposed to be a real problem, but I didn’t really understand how or why, or the unbelievable ignorance and carelessness of those in power who are more interested in profit than protecting the natural world.
So I started to learn. I read The Little Book of Bees by Hilary Kearney (with beautiful illustrations by Amy Holliday) and I chatted with the beekeeping niece of a friend, who was extremely helpful. I quickly learned that honeybees were probably not the species that would suit my story best, but that bumblebees had a life cycle that pretty much exactly fitted what I wanted to do with my story.
Bumblebee nests are formed in the spring and die again in the late autumn, leaving behind a handful of daughter queens who burrow deep into the earth and hibernate through the winter, emerging in spring to establish a new nest for the spring and summer months.
The best thing I learned about bumblebees, though, was that new queens will incubate their first brood by sitting on it, like a bird sits on her eggs.
Amy Holliday has a beautiful and adorable illustration of this in The Little Book of Bees.
I also learned a lot about how heavily we rely on insects for pollination of our food. Around 87% of all plant life (according to Goulson’s fabulous book, Silent Earth) are pollinated by animals and the vast majority of that is done by insects. Insect-pollinated plants account for roughly a third of our food and, across the globe, it isn’t just bees that are dying. It’s all insects.
I read Goulson’s book and was genuinely shocked and dismayed by what I learned. I would highly recommend that everyone read it, to fully understand the scale of the problem and what we need to do to fix it, but I’ve summarised a few of the main things I learned below.
Dave Goulson’s Silent Earth
Dave Goulson is a British biologist and conservationist who studies insects, primarily (I believe) bumblebees. He’s a Professor of Biology at the University of Sussex (at the time of writing) and he really knows his stuff. I’ve read several of his books and would recommend all of them. Particularly his A Sting in the Tail and Bee Quest, from which I learned a lot that I used to help me write The Last Beekeeper.
So here’s a few things that Silent Earth taught me:
Pesticides are killing our insects. They’re not being properly regulated and we use them before we fully understand their impact.
Pesticides that are banned for agricultural use (because they are harmful or lethal to our pollinators) can still be readily bought in garden centres in weed killer and are prevalent in flea treatment we use on our dogs and cats.
The vast swathes of farmland we use to create monocultures (big areas that grow only one type of crop) mean our insects aren’t getting the variety they need and pests are rife.
The changing climate means many of our pollinators are being driven away from their native habitats to find more suitable temperatures and environments and humans have been very irresponsible in shipping insects all over the world for their own gain. As a result, lots of invasive species all over the world are competing with native species and the native species are in decline.
There are things we can do to stop this!
Not using pesticides in our gardens and planting pollinator friendly plants are two simple things, but lobbying our leaders to put the needs of our pollinators before the demands of the huge agrochemical companies is something we need to do more often. We need our farmers, and they need to be supported to make the necessary changes to ensure our food production industry is sustainable and works with the environment, rather than against it.
In short, I feel, having read Goulson’s book, that our leaders are too preoccupied prioritising profit over sustainability. That can’t last. We have to start prioritising the creatures we rely on for food production and make sure they’re healthy and thriving. They can do without us, but we can’t do without them.
How Stories Can Save the World
Maybe I only believe this because I’m a writer. I don’t know.
But I do, truly, believe that stories can save the world.
For this, I cite the late, great Ursula K. Le Guin who, in her acceptance speech after winning the National Book Awards in 2014, declared that the world needs artists who can imagine a different kind of future, and grounds for hope.
That speech is brilliant, and you can find it on YouTube here.
It’s something I feel is proved true every day. I often have conversations with friends or colleagues, lamenting the state of politics at the moment. The response from those friends and colleagues is almost always along the lines of ‘yeah, but politicians always lie, don’t they?’
And I think, isn’t it sad that we can’t even imagine a world in which politicians don’t lie? In which profit is secondary to sustainability and compassion? In which our systems and our leaders are held to a higher standard?
We’ve become complacent and we’re too quick to accept things as they are.
And that, as Ursula K. Le Guin so eloquently points out, is where stories come in. Stories can help us imagine an alternative to the way things work now. They can help us see that other things are possible. And other things ARE possible.
Our insects don’t have to die out. Our planet doesn’t have to keep changing until it can no longer support us. We don’t have to put up with world leaders who lie and corporations that have grown so huge they’ve almost become sentient entities in themselves.
There is a choice. And I really, really hope that my humble story can, at least, help others to imagine an alternative to the way we live today. If we can imagine it, we can make it happen.
But first, we have to imagine it.
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