This month, we talk to author Beth McMullen about her series, Mrs. Smith’s Spy School for Girls. Beth shares with us one of her favorite writing exercises, the first time she heard her writing read out loud, and how her own boarding school experience inspired her books.
Want to catch up? Check out last month’s Ink Splat here.
This month’s challenge comes straight from Beth herself!
Beth says, “Sometimes I will write an existing scene from the point of view of another character. Because the Smith School books are in first person, from Abby’s point of view, it’s fun to see what things will look like through the eyes of Izumi or Charlotte or Toby. I haven’t done Mrs. Smith herself yet, but soon!”
For your writing prompt, take a scene from one of your favorite stories (one you’ve written or one someone else has written) and retell that scene from the point of view of another character.
We’d love to hear your story! Submit your responses by emailing submit@younginklings and you might be published on our website.
An Interview with Beth McMullen
The protagonist of the series, Abby, learns from multiple mentors—from her frenemy Veronica Brooks to her mother. Who are the mentors or teachers who have had an effect on your writing life?
In high school, I answered a Civil War exam question with a fictionalized account of two brothers on opposing sides of the fight. I was supposed to write a proper essay but I really didn’t want to. The teacher ended up loving it and reading it to all his classes. It was the first time I heard my words read by somebody else and it blew my mind.
I also had two outstanding creative writing professors in college who taught me to pull my work apart, nothing is too precious, and start over again…and again….and again. Understanding how important editing and revising is to the writing process was eye-opening.
How do you come up with ideas for your stories? Do you typically think of characters like Abby and her group of friends first and structure the plot around the characters, or do you have an interesting plot idea—like an international spy adventure—and then find the characters through the plot, or do you use a different method?
There is always one element that comes first. In The Mrs. Smith’s Spy School for Girls series, it was setting. I always thought a boarding school setting would make for a great book. But I really struggled with how to use it. First, I wrote an adult version that was terrible and ended up on in the manuscript graveyard. Second, I tried Young Adult but I hated my main character so I ditched that, too. Finally, I came up with Abby Hunter and suddenly it all made sense.
But sometimes it’s the character that shows up first. I’m currently working on a story where I have to craft a plot to go around a character I love. It’s taken me a few tries but I think I’m close. In either case, the element that I’m building on has to be very clear in my head and work as a foundation for the rest of the story. Otherwise, the whole thing collapses.
Boarding schools are such an interesting setting. What inspired you to set Mrs. Smith’s Spy School for Girls and its sequel, Power Play, at a boarding school?
I went to boarding school as a kid and The Smith School looks an awful lot like The Taft School, where I went. I’ve read a number of novels with boarding school settings and I can always tell when the author actually went to one. There are details that you might only consider if you had the experience yourself. This is not to say that there aren’t great boarding school books by people who never attended one. It’s just something I pick up when I read.
When I was in boarding school, there was never any shortage of drama! There were close to six hundred students, living together, eating meals together, going to class, playing sports, and no parents. Sure, there were teachers and faculty and all that but it’s not the same. I always knew I would use it eventually but a middle grade series was not what I envisioned at first. I had only ever written for adults so I was as surprised as anyone!
In what ways do you see yourself in Abby? In what ways are you different?
My favorite thing about Abby is that even when she is afraid, she does not let fear paralyze her. She pushes through it. When I was a kid, I avoided things I was afraid of. That felt easier than confronting them. Looking back, I wish I had been braver. Abby is certainly braver than I was. She is also not overly concerned about what people think of her. When I remember the amount of energy I wasted worrying about what my classmates thought of me (or didn’t think of me!), I want to kick my younger self. There were so many other things I could have used that energy for!
If you could tell your younger writing-self something, what would it be?
I would tell myself to have the confidence to finish. You cannot make a living as an author if you don’t finish your work. It took me a very long time to believe I had just as good a chance at getting a book published as anyone else. This is still something I tell myself almost every day.
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Beth McMullen is best known for the Mrs. Smith’s Spy School for Girls trilogy, middle-grade spy thrillers, packed with action and adventure. She also writes the Sally Sin series for adult readers. Beth lives in Northern California with her husband, kids, cats and a very tolerant parakeet named Zeus. Follow her on Twitter at @bvam.