Ahead of her middle-grade fantasy debut, The Strangeworlds Travel Agency, being published by Orion Children's Books, we spoke to author L.D Lapinski about her writing process, world building on an epic scale, and the importance of writing incidentally-queer characters in children's fiction.
The Strangeworlds Travel Agency is about the adventures of a twelve year old girl named Flick, or Felicity, who discovers an old, abandoned-looking travel agency in the village she has just moved to. Inside the travel agency, as well as rather rude and prickly owner Jonathan, are dozens of different types of suitcases. And Flick soon discovers that the suitcases are magical – when you step inside one, you are transported to another world!
I didn’t always see Flick and Jonathan being a duo, no! Jonathan wasn’t supposed to be in the book for more than a couple of chapters, but as soon as he got down on paper he refused to budge. Jonathan strolled out into the book fully-formed, but Flick took some work for me to get to know her – in fact it probably took most of the very first rough draft for me to get to grips with her and her story, but I love writing her all the more for it.
I really love the dynamic Flick and Jonathan have, I feel like they bounce off one another quite well. They don’t have much in common when they meet, but both of them are trying hard to come across as something other than they are, which unites them as the story goes on. I didn’t want to write a typical master-and-student relationship, so their friendship has ended being more like The Doctor and their companion(s) – there’s a flat team structure… most of the time!
As a queer writer, it is really important to me that books include queer characters who aren’t defined by their gender or sexuality alone. While coming out stories are still so important, I feel that it’s equally important to show queer characters having adventures, forming non-romantic relationships and doing things where their queerness isn’t actually a factor. I’ve head-canoned so many characters as queer during my lifetime of reading, but until very recently I’d never had a middle-grade book in my hands where it was canon that a character wasn’t straight or cis. I didn’t set out to consciously correct that, but when Jonathan arrived in my head I knew he was trans and gay, and when Flick got down on paper I knew she wasn’t straight.
I did however consciously include a non-binary character whose pronouns are they/them, because on my read-through of the very first draft, I noticed that I hadn’t included any non-binary characters. Which took me aback slightly because that’s how I identify! I think that says a lot for how much cis normativity everyone unconsciously absorbs, and that was my oversight to correct, so I rewrote several chapters and replaced a cisgender character with one who is non-binary. It felt really great to be able to write a non-binary character in a children’s book, because I’ve not read any middle-grade with a character who uses they/them pronouns before. It is the sort of incidental rep a younger me would have loved to see, so it felt like doing justice for my child self.
We’ve had incidentally straight and cis characters in children’s fiction for so long, that I think we are due a swing in another direction! Ultimately, no one should assume that straight or cis is the default, and it’s also vital that children are able to see themselves in books targeted at their own age range. Queer people certainly don’t spring into being, fully-formed at the age of fourteen, so why shouldn’t books for younger readers include queer characters?
I think of the Strangeworlds series as one enormous book that’s been chopped into pieces – that helps me to keep track (at least in my head!) of the bigger elements of the plot. The individual books take more organising for me, personally. Each book has to drive both its own plot forward, and carry the larger plot as well, like a sort of literary car transporter. I do worry sometimes about dropping the ball with the different plot strands, and have a lot of papers and post-it notes to keep track of it all. Also a fantastic editor, who asks the right questions to keep me thinking about the smaller and larger plots and how they weave together.
I’ve found that as I’ve written the books, the order in which I write them has changed. With the first book, I wrote it chronologically, beginning to end. With Book Two, I wrote the ending first because I knew how the book had to end to tie up events from the first book, and now I’m drafting Book Three completely out of order! I’m writing the important scenes that I know won’t change first, like a sort of skeleton, and I will build the rest of the book around it.
There are ten worlds in the first Strangeworlds Travel Agency book! Because there are so many, I felt that creating a believable setting was absolutely crucial. For the reader to buy into the idea of the multiverse, each world had to feel as unique as the last, and as important. There are worlds of crystal, worlds where the gravity is much lower than ours, worlds where people use magic as we would use money, and worlds where if you stayed long enough, you would never grow up. Designing the worlds for The Strangeworlds Travel Agency was simpler when I assigned a role to each world – one had to inspire awe, one had to be frightening, one had to be fun, and so on, so the reader could see as many of the possibilities held by the travel agency as possible. I couldn’t possibly show them all, as there are over seven hundred, but by giving Flick a range of experiences I hope to have given the travel agency enough potential to keep bringing believable surprises.
My top tip for world-building would be to think about how a world feels to all of a character’s senses – including their sixth sense of feeling about a place. I love it when a world is described in a way that gives the impression of being, for instance, creepy – but it gives the characters a sense of hope, or happiness! It intrigues me, and makes me want to find out more.
I much prefer drafting to edits! I love the freedom of a first draft – to me it feels like when you’re a kid, running down a hill and letting your coat fly out behind you and for a second you think you might just fly. You can do anything with a first draft, and I love the endless possibilities. That being said, I am super lucky to work with a fantastic editor on The Strangeworlds Travel Agency. Lena is great to work with, and she helps me to turn drafts into a real book, and to effectively tell the story I wanted to tell in the first place.
I usually distil an editor’s letter into a bullet-pointed list of tasks, and then cross them off as I go because it helps me to feel productive. I always leave anything to do with how a character reacts or feels until the last, so I can read through the book and feel the feelings for myself before transferring them into the novel.
My favourite type of books growing up were all pure escapism. I am a huge His Dark Materials fan – I remember at school trying to convince people to read it because it was better than Harry Potter (and I was right). Pullman’s work really clicks for me because all of his worlds feel as established and important as each other – there’s no throwaway world of non-importance at any time, and that’s something I wanted to emulate in my own work. I love Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl books; Artemis is such a fantastic character, and it really is wonderful storytelling how he has to work for multiple books to become a good person and get a redemption, because although we might root for him in the early books, as a kidnapper and thief he really isn’t a nice boy! I was lucky enough to meet Colfer at YALC last year and embarrassed myself thoroughly by proclaiming my undying love for his books during his signing. I’m also firmly in the Pratchett and Gaiman camps for fantasy books. I came very late to Discworld, and I’ll forever be kicking myself for not picking them up sooner. And I push Gaiman’s Neverwhere and The Graveyard Book onto everyone I meet – again, portal fantasy is very much where my heart lies! And I am a massive fan of Good Omens – I have seventeen different editions of the book on my shelf!
I’ve wanted to be an author since I was five, but didn’t actually know how to go about doing it besides writing stories and books. I didn’t really believe that I could be an author for a long time; even on my BA Creative Writing we’d been told repeatedly that it was difficult if not impossible to be any form of artist as a career. So, out of fear, I trained as a teacher so I could have a ‘proper job’. But, I really wasn’t happy teaching, and when the contract I was on came to an end I was lucky enough to be in the position where I could leave teaching to start an MA in Creative Writing - figuring that I owed it to myself to at least try and focus on writing for a bit. And in doing so, I remembered why I loved writing and storytelling so much. I learned a bit about the industry, and I owe a great deal to the late Graham Joyce who was one of my tutors. He told me how literary agents worked, how to use the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, and even overlooked the manuscript that would, eventually, put me in contact with Claire Wilson, who is now my agent. Sadly, he died before I got to show him how much he had helped me.
As it turned out, getting my dream literary agent was just the start of the next leg of the journey! It would be another few years before I’d be sitting here writing this, but it has definitely been well worth the wait.
I’m currently drafting Strangeworlds Book Three and editing Book Two, so my head is in a lot of different worlds at the same time! It’s an interesting process for sure, but I love these characters and their adventures, so it’s not a chore. I’m also toying with the idea of working on a novel for adults, but that will depend on whether I find the time to focus properly on it.
Persevere. Every author who is published has a history of trials behind them, and no two paths to publication are the same. Eventually, you will find someone who loves your work as much as you do, and that’s the most magical day ever.
L.D. Lapinski lives just outside Sherwood Forest with her family, a lot of books and a cat called Hector. When she isn’t writing, L.D. can be found cosplaying, drinking a lot of cherry cola, and taking care of a forest of succulent plants.You can find her on Twitter @ldlapinski or at ldlapinski.com. The Strangeworlds Travel Agency is available to pre-order via Waterstones or Hive.