The Way We Work: Nick Earls and Terry Whidbourne on Word Hunters
How do authors and illustrators work together? Author Nick Earls and illustrator Terry Whidbourne discuss their relationship during the making of Word Hunters: The Curious Dictionary, a terrific new book for ages 9+.
NE: From the start, I felt as if I only wanted to go ahead with Word Hunters if it was a chance to work with Terry and could be a genuine collaboration. I wanted someone with a better visual brain than mine who could bring something to the story rather than come along later and fill in some designated blanks with pictures.
At the same time, I can’t deny I’m a control freak, but I thought (hoped) this would work, since most of the time he’d have his turf and I’d have mine.
TW: Nick is a legend at story telling and to be part of his world, to be part of forming a story with him was a gift, only to be topped off with what he had in mind for the books.
When Nick called me to talk through Word Hunters, it wasn’t a short call. As he talked he mentioned history of words, mysterious characters and time travel. As far as I was concerned he could’ve said it like that, just three bullet points and I would’ve said yes.
NE: We talked through the broad idea of the story – 12-year-old twins being hurled back into the past and having to find the steps in the evolution of a word in order to make it home again – and I went looking for the words we’d use and the kind of details I needed, while Terry started thinking through the visuals.
Sometimes we’d end up finding the same image, and I’d instantly know what he was doing when I saw his rough illustration. Sometimes we needed something brand new. For instance, we decided our characters, Lexi and Al, would travel back through time not merely to witness the stages in the evolution of particular words but to pin them down in some way so that the words would continue to exist in the present. I mentioned the term ‘pegs’ to Terry. I was thinking tent pegs.
TW: Ah yes, the tent pegs. Nick did mention a way of pinning down the words with these pegs. My mind went crazy with ways of showing these pegs. They needed to be something special, just like the words. I grew up with old Jules Verne films like Journey to the Centre of the Earth which have recently spawned a genre called Steampunk, a crazy mix of Victorian fashion and gadgets powered by science, in some cases steam. The pegs were perfect for this.
I began designing these metal pegs, added some mechanical arms that folded down to grip the ground. A locking mechanism that involved a key would lock the arms and the peg in history. I felt the lock was important so stop anyone from just pulling it out.
NE: It made me realise gadgets could play quite a role in these books, and that Caractacus – the character Lexi and Al meet in the 5th century and who is pivotal to the existence of the curious dictionary that sends them off on each word quest – could be a kind of secret Dark Ages Leonardo da Vinci.
TW: I love mysterious gadgets, but they have to make sense. The pegs made sense with every component playing a role in the operation of the device. Nick sent me an email about another gadget that Caractacus had made and he wanted me to give him an idea of what it looked like. So I gave it some thought and also did some research. I did a quick sketch and fired it to Nick with a breakdown of what it was and also how it operates. Describing how it operates gave Nick other thoughts to add to the story.
Caractacus is a very interesting character and I wanted to show him in the book using certain gadgets that we don’t even mention in the story. I feel this all helps the reader get a sense of who he is visually.
NE: We had a meeting with our publishers where we decided to really ramp up the adventure. Fortunately the history of some words gave us plenty of scope to drop Lexi and Al into exciting and sometimes dangerous situations. Then Terry said, ‘What about a bad guy?’
TW: Certain memories have stuck in my head from childhood. Daleks from Dr Who and the Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang are among the top. I hated that Child Catcher guy, he scared the crap out of me. When they finally got him netted in the castle by the other kids, it was a great moment. When Nick and I were talking about Word Hunters and the big story arc across the books I thought it would be great to have a memorable bad guy. Someone who could threaten Al and Lexi’s assignments through time. Someone who wanted power. Someone to be scared of.
NE: That’s the first time you’ve mentioned the Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, but you’re so right. He scared the crap out of me too. A really memorable bad guy. For me the idea of a bad guy meant that, as well as the past itself often being challenging to deal with, suddenly there was the prospect of an enemy who might be working against them. So, even though Lexi and Al might start to master some of the skills a word hunter needs, it’s never going to be easy.
We see hints of the bad guy and his minions in book one, and there’s a lot more of them to come …
TW: I’m not going to give away who this bad guy is but here’s a hint.
Word Hunters: The Curious Dictionary is out now in paperback ($14.95).