This week, I’m delighted to be kicking off the Gangster School blog tour with a guest post from Kate Wiseman. I believe our environment shapes us dramatically, affecting our ever-changing moods and attitudes, and that setting is, therefore, incredibly important in fiction. World building has to be infallible, whatever your genre or theme or intended readership. so I shall hand you over to Kate and her excellent post on Building Blaggard’s, a school for gangsters…
Writers are always being advised to write about what they know. If you’ve been a police officer, write a crime novel. If you’ve worked in a pet shop, write about working in a pet shop, etc, etc. So when I finally screwed my courage to the sticking place and decided to try to fulfil my lifetime’s ambition of writing a novel, the obvious choice for me was to write something based in a school.
I’d worked in schools for a long time, doing everything from mopping up sick in the kindergarten to helping teenagers with learning difficulties. Of course this isn’t exactly undiscovered territory, so I needed a way of making my school a bit different. Luckily enough the solution to that conundrum wasn’t hard to find, thanks to my son, Harry. As a small boy, he always answered queries regarding his ambitions for when he grew up by saying that he wanted to be an evil genius. He was a strange child. But it planted an idea in my mind – a school for evil geniuses!
I was off to a good start. The name for the school was quite easy to find. I wanted something that conveyed its criminal ethos. I grabbed my trusty thesaurus and looked up synonyms for evildoer. One of the first ones was blackguard, which I thought had the right swash-buckling ring to it. But lots of kids wouldn’t know that blackguard is pronounced blaggard, so I changed the spelling. Blaggard’s School for Tomorrow’s Tyrants was starting to take shape.
I’ve always loved history, especially the gory variety and it seemed important to me to know who had started Blaggard’s, and when, and what had happened to it since. Enter Sir Thomas Blaggard, born in a mud hut in London in Tudor times, eater of stinging nettles because there was nothing else available, bear wrestler and in time, the most successful villain in Tudor London. In my world, he cut off Anne Boleyn’s head and pinched her emerald necklace when the deed was done. Sir Thomas’ first wanted poster has pride of place in Blaggard’s reception. Other famous alumni followed. There’s Sir Bryon de Bohun, the Devilish Dandy and Blaggard’s most infamous ex student. He died when his bullied butler shook up a bottle of champagne and aimed the cork at his heart. His portrait is in Blaggard’s reception too, looking as if butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth. My favourite is Sally Masters, the 18th century highwaywoman. Her nickname is Blunderbuss Sally and she’s the idol of my protagonist, Milly Dillane.
Knowing the school’s history had a big influence in shaping its appearance and layout. In acknowledgement of its Tudor founder, Blaggard’s has a thatched roof (adorned with bear statues, Sir Thomas’ emblem, concealing remote controlled look out cameras) and half-timber walls. It also has a huge, arched front door that Sir Thomas pinched from the Tower of London because he thought it was important to set a bad example. Another example of how the school’s history shaped it can be found in the artefacts on display in the Assembly Hall. My favourite is the badly stuffed body of Sir Bryon de Bohun, a relic of Blaggard’s long-defunct and famously unsuccessful Taxidermy Club. It sits in a glass case and has proved surprisingly vital in several of the stories I’ve written so far.
The gigantic spectre of Hogwart’s hovers over any attempt to write about school life, and I was keen to differentiate between Harry Potter’s haven and Blaggard’s School for Tomorrow’s Tyrants. One way that I tried to tackle this was by the introduction of numerous high tech touches. As well as the cameras in the swivelling bear heads, there are fingerprint detectors instead of registers and glass shields that spring up in front of the serveries in the dining room, when one of the frequent food-fights kicks off.
OK, I had a school, a rich history, a layout and a location (the sleepy town of Borage Bagpuize, where a stolen wheelbarrow merits a headline in the local paper). Now down to some of the logistical stuff.
For a start, what would the local Dependable (non criminal, to you and me) population think of having a school like Blaggard’s on its doorstep? Obviously they couldn’t know. The school needed a cover identity, so the sign outside Blaggard’s states that the school is Constance Bottomley’s Academy for the Rural Arts, specialising in sheep topiary and corn dolly weaving.
Then the lessons. This was tricky. There was an awful lot that that I couldn’t and didn’t want to include: murder, terrorism, torture, all the dark stuff. But would it be right to leave them out altogether? I consigned these to Blaggard’s rivals – Crumley’s School for Career Criminals, crouching on a hill like a medieval gargoyle. What were the skills that a criminal kingpin would need in order to climb to the top of the felonious tree? They’d need to be very good liars, so I introduced Fabrication (it sounds so much grander than lying). They should be willing to let anyone down at the drop of a hat, so Betrayal was added to the curriculum. They should be nasty and unpleasant so my favourite lesson, Defiance and Discourtesy, became a staple at Blaggard’s, taught by the unfailingly rude Jane Vipond. There are lots of others, of course.
I really feel that all the thought I put into building Blaggard’s was worth it. Knowing my setting came before knowing my characters and it has given rise to much of the madcap action that peppers the Gangster School books. With the introduction of Milly Dillane and Charlie Partridge, two secret Dependables from long established criminal families (to create an immediate problem and sense of their not belonging), I was ready to dive into a world where good is bad, bad is good and where apologising to a teacher lands you in detention.
I love writing about Gangster School. I find it devilishly entertaining and I promise that no useful criminal knowledge is imparted. Or am I Fabricating?
About Kate Wiseman: Kate is a late developer when it comes to writing. She started writing Gangster School, her first novel, about five years ago. Early incarnations were shortlisted for three national kids’ lit prizes. Her first book deal was with Piper Verlag, Germany, who have published two Gangster School books to date, with two more to come (so far). She is proud to be the very first author chosen for publication by new Manchester-based publisher, ZunTold. The series will also commence publication in Holland in August this year. She is currently working on a new MG series. You can learn more about Kate here.