Wednesday, April 6, 2016

100 WRITERS _____ Here's writing advice from HEIDI SHAMSUDDIN, author of THE DOOR UNDER THE STAIRS series set in Malaysia

NOTE This post is part of my 100 WRITERS project

When I was younger, I was a big Enid Blyton fan. So were many of my friends. We had our own Famous Five and Secret Seven groups. We explored the neighbourhood around our school, and hunted high and low for anything that seemed mysterious or curious or odd. We were determined to investigate anything and everything. I actually wondered why Enid Blyton didn’t set some of her stories in Singapore. Surely she must have heard of this lovely island? After all, it was once a British colony. And we spoke English too. Also, why didn’t the adults in Singapore write and publish books like hers, full of adventure and mystery and fun, and sometimes a bit of magic? There were some titles, of course, just a handful, although these were mostly not as much fun to read. After all these years, I still have the same feeling. That’s why we created Super Cool Books. To help young readers in Singapore and Malaysia open up their imagination and see the world around them as a place where fantastic adventures can happen. Earlier this year, thanks to Brigitte Rozario, Malaysian editor and picture book author, I was delighted to discover Heidi Shamsuddin’s THE DOOR UNDER THE STAIRS series. She has written three books so far, all published by Oyez!Books in Malaysia. You can visit their website and order the series here. Thanks to Heidi for taking the time to do this interview and introduce her series to our readers. And also for her advice on writing stories.

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Tell us about yourself! And how you got started writing books for children.  
My name is Heidi Shamsuddin. I am a writer and I write mainly for kids. In my bio it says that I used to “arrest ships and feed people.” This is true – I used to be a maritime lawyer and whenever a ship owner was naughty, I would arrest their ship. It was tremendous fun! And then for a while, I decided to open a restaurant with my best friend – it was a great, big, purple café, with a comfy sofa and a bookcase full of books. That was really fun too, except that I spent more time on the sofa reading books, than actually feeding people. So after careful thought, I decided I would do what I’ve always wanted to do – write stories. I didn’t start off writing for kids but somehow, all my stories were about young people and all the experiences I had when I was a kid. And that’s how it all started.

What's the concept for your series?
My series is called ‘The Door Under The Stairs’ and it’s about three Malaysian kids who find a secret, magic door under the stairs at their school. The door takes them back in time where they meet our heroes. In the first book, they meet Malaysia’s first Prime Minister and help him solve a mystery when the national anthem goes missing. They eventually meet other heroes like the movie star P. Ramlee, the footballer Mokhtar Dahari and they even go back in time to when Singapore was first opened as a port by the British. There are eight books planned for the series and three books are already out, which are ‘The Mystery of The Missing National Anthem’, ‘The Case of the Talented Trio’ and ‘The Case of the Football Champion’.

What are some of your favourite bits?
There are three main characters in the book – Hanna, the sporty girl, Emil who is the smart Mr Know-It-All and Joe, who is an ordinary boy who, like most Malaysians and Singaporeans, just loves his food. Joe is also football crazy and desperately wants to be on the school team. In the third book, ‘The Case of the Football Champion,’ Joe meets a famous football player who trains him to become a defender and in the last scene of the book, Joe gets a chance to score the winning goal for his team. I love this scene and I actually heard the crowd cheering Joe on when I wrote it.

For writers who want to create similar stories, any advice?
I would say, stay true to your Malaysian or Singaporean or Asian roots. Most of us grew up on a diet of books set in the West – in America or the UK, and we have a tendency to emulate those writers. I know this because I do it all the time. The first few drafts of my book sounded so terribly English, because I read English books and I lived in England for 17 years. So I’ve had to consciously tone this down and try to inject some local flavour into the stories. You can still write in proper English if you want to – you don’t have to pepper your books with ‘lahs’ or use Singlish, but you need to make sure the characters are real. Go out and observe how people around you talk and move to make your characters realistic.

If you’re going to write historical fiction, you must read up on the era. Try to get a flavour of the time you want to write about – for example, what did people wear, how did they have fun, what did they eat. In one of the books, the friends go back in time to 1785 when Malacca was under the Dutch. I got a history book on that era and there were tiny details like the fact that the Stadthuys was painted white (not red) and that there was a communal bakery where people could bring their dough to bake their own bread. These little details really make the stories come to life not just in my mind, but in the minds of my readers.


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