An Interview with Janet Fox, Author of THE ARTIFACT HUNTERS

Fellow Spooky Middle Grade Author Janet Fox has a new book coming out soon called THE ARTIFACT HUNTERS! It arrives August 25th and I had the pleasure of reading an early copy of this wonderful and spooky tale. Let me just say you’re in for a treat! Janet was kind enough to answer some questions about her book, but first, here’s an official description to whet your appetite:

With tensions in Prague rising at the height of World War II, Isaac Wolf is forced to leave home with nothing more than a small backpack and a pendant in the shape of an eternity knot. His parents believe the pendant will keep him safe–if he can discover what it really means.

This clue leads him to Rookskill Castle, home of the Special Alternative Intelligence Unit where gifted children can learn to harness their powers to support the Allies’ cause. With the help of his new friends and an antique watch that allows him to travel through time, Isaac must unlock his own powers and uncover the true meaning of the eternity knot. The only way he can do that, though, is by hunting for a series of magical artifacts that are scattered throughout the past . . . and Isaac isn’t the only artifact hunter. Soon he finds himself in a race against a threat just as deadly as the war itself–one that his parents had been trying to shield him from all along.

TANIA: The Artifact Hunters is a spooky and thrilling adventure that blends historical elements with fantasy and mystery. What was your inspiration behind the story?

JANET: Thanks, Tania! The Artifact Hunters is a sequel to The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle, but my editor and I wanted to do something different. But I also wanted it to be in keeping with the earlier book, and I loved how the chatelaine played such a crucial role there. While I was mulling ideas I came across an article about something called a Death’s Head Watch.

Well, as you can imagine (this is a spooky book, after all), that name alone made me sit up and take notice. And then I saw it and I was hooked. These watches were made in the seventeenth century – basically, they are pocket watches – and made to remind the bearer of their mortality. The one I read about belonged to Mary Queen of Scots, who was beheaded for treason.

I put the watch together with my new protagonist – Isaac Wolf – and wondered, what if the watch was a time travel device? And was one of many “artifacts” with magical properties? And what if those artifacts were in danger of misuse, by Hitler, or something else?

TANIA: The book takes place in multiple places across time including Prague and Scotland during WW2, Ancient Greece, and Pre-Columbian Bolivia, to name a few! That must have taken a lot of research. Did you get to visit any of these countries in person?

JANET: It was a lot of research, and took me a while to write. But yes! I have been to all those countries. Just not those times (though wouldn’t that be fun? Maybe?) My most recent trip was in the fall of 2018 to Prague, which is a beautiful city with a rich history. The Astronomical Town Clock is a wonder.

But I think Scotland has my heart. My ancestors are Scots/Irish, so perhaps it’s the draw of the past…

TANIA: The Artifact Hunters is a companion to your earlier novel, The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle, which features a lively cast of characters with magical powers. If you could have a magical power, what would it be?

JANET: Oh, what a great question. I think I would love to be able to fly. That way I could go anywhere I wanted at any time. (That’s the one thing about this pandemic that I’ve missed – being able to travel.)

I tried to give my characters magical powers that were just at the edge of believable. They can’t fly or become completely invisible (though, close), but they can talk to animals or commune with ghosts. That way a reader might feel that they, too, could develop a power with enough practice, even the power to find deeper meaning or understand the magic of science.

TANIA: As if Nazis weren’t scary enough, your book also features some terrifying supernatural villains based off of Scottish lore. Why do you personally think spooky stories are important for young readers?

JANET: I think young readers need a safe place to examine their fears. The world is a terribly scary place, especially now. When a reader feels the emotions of fear or horror or anticipation in a book, she can experiment. “What would I do if I met a monster?” “How would I deal with meeting a ghost?” “Who would I turn to for support?”

And I try to write teamwork and family into my books in these situations, so that readers learn to reach out to others for help. It’s awfully hard to be alone and scared. So adding the component of friendship in a scary book for kids is important to me.

TANIA: What is your writing process like? Was this a hard or easy book for you to write?

JANET: This book was hard in a way because I wanted it to live up to the first book, which did really, really well. And I wanted it to be different enough that it could stand on its own, but connect enough to answer reader questions about the things left dangling in the first book.

As to my writing process, I’m a dedicated pantser who is trying to plan more. I’m beginning to get a handle on a new process that works for me, to help me plan, rather than struggling to find my way through each and every new book as if I’m learning all over again, reinventing the wheel.

I’m actually teaching that process in September.  https://montana.scbwi.org/events/webinar-a-new-way-to-outline-with-author-janet-fox/

TANIA: Without giving away any spoilers, the end of the book leaves open the possibility for more adventures with Isaac and the Artifact Hunters. Will we be seeing more of them? (I hope so!)

JANET: Maybe. My publisher doesn’t want one right now. They’re considering an entirely new, somewhat spooky but very different idea that I’m excited about, so keep fingers crossed. But I never say never, and in fact have a rough plan for a third and final Rookskill book that would involve taking my SAIU kids to different places, so…who knows?

TANIA: Where can readers connect with you online, and feel free to add anything else you’d like to say to our Spooky MG readers!

JANET: You can find me at my website, www.janetsfox.com, on Twitter at @janetsfox, on Facebook at AuthorJanetFox, on Instagram at janetsfox and on Pinterest at janetsfox.

I’m also a book coach now, so if you are a writer in need of help, check out my book coaching biz at www.bigpicturestorycoach.com which is also linked on my website.

Happy Book Birthday: The Phantom Hour by Kat Shepherd

I am super excited to welcome our very own Kat Shepherd to the blog!!! Her new book, THE PHANTOM HOUR, releases today!! I recently had a chance to chat with Kat about her new book, a brand new mystery series and much more.

Q: You have a passion for animals, traveling and the outdoors, among many other interests. How have those passions found their way into your writing?
 
A: Like any author, I pull a lot from my own life to put into the stories I write. Lots of my characters are based on former students of mine or other people I know, but there’s always a little bit of me in there, too. In the newest Babysitting Nightmares book, THE PHANTOM HOUR, Clio shares my passions for travel and history and glimpses into the past. And in Book 2 we’ll meet Ethan, who has a really strong connection with animals. I train and foster dogs, so I really wanted to put a character in the series that reflects my own bond with animals.
 
Because I write suspense, I rarely put pets in my scary books, and there’s a really good reason for this. Anytime I see a pet in a scary movie or book, it immediately distracts me, because I get so worried that something is going to happen to it. (I blame Stephen King for this. Animals rarely fared well in his books!) So I intentionally avoid putting pets in, because I don’t want my readers worrying about them like I always did. But in PHANTOM HOUR I couldn’t resist bringing back my favorite dog, Wesley. He passed away in 2013, and I miss him every single day, so it was wonderful to get to write about him and see him come alive on the page. It was a little like getting to spend time with him again.
 
Q: Tell me more about microphilanthropy. Does it ever crop up in your books? How can readers get involved?
 
A: It’s important to me that my protagonists be kind and show compassion and generosity. Not because I’m trying to teach some big lesson to kids or anything, but because I have to spend a lot of time with my characters, and I don’t really like to be around people that aren’t kind or compassionate. Generosity and compassion are driving forces in my life; they absolutely give my life direction and purpose. That’s not to say that I am this supremely generous and compassionate person, but those are the qualities I am continuously striving toward. Failing to get there a lot, but always trying.
 
One of the biggest challenges of my life was that I have always wanted to be this great philanthropist, but I don’t really have any money. So in trying to figure out how to give meaningfully when the size of your wallet doesn’t match the size of your heart, I started pursuing a concept I call microphilanthropy. It’s based on the idea that you don’t need a lot of money to make positive, measurable change in your community. You just need people.
 
Basically, it’s crowdfunding, but rooted in the community. I find local organizations that need small, concrete projects funded: a science club at the library, blankets for the zoo’s chimpanzees, emergency rental assistance to keep a family from becoming homeless. Each project costs anywhere from $100 to $1200. Then I throw a party and invite the organizations to come a pitch their projects to my party guests. Then everyone at the party puts whatever money they can spare into jars we set up for each project. At the end of the night we count up and distribute the money, and the organizations go on to fund their projects. The average donation about $10 or $20 per person, but when you pool that money together, it makes these incredible things happen.It creates a really strong connection between people and their communities, and it feels really powerful to see that you made something amazing happen. The best part is seeing the excitement on my guests’ faces when they realize that they are the reason the library has a science club now, or a family didn’t lose their home. It wasn’t some rich person who did that. It was us.
 
I actually just wrote up a little how-to guide for folks who want to throw their own microphilanthropy party. They can email me at my website katshepherd.com, and I’m happy to send it over or help them strategize.
 
Q: What should readers expect from Book 2?
 
A: While Book 1 of Babysitting Nightmares took the girls into the Nightmare Realm, Book 2, THE PHANTOM HOUR, feels a little more grounded in this world. Clio gets a job babysitting for the Lee family, a new family who has moved into an abandoned old mansion at the edge of town. The Lees are lovely, and Clio is thrilled to get the chance to explore the old mansion… until she starts to realize it may be haunted. Luckily Clio has help from her friends and Aunt Kawanna, and she also gets some unexpected help from her new friend, Ethan, who has a few secrets of his own. Readers should expect a spooky ride of suspense, thrills and chills as Clio works to unlock the mansion’s mysteries before it’s too late.
 
Q: Are any of the thrills and chills from BABYSITTING NIGHTMARES based on real-life experiences?
 
A: Several generations of women in my family have had regular contact with ghosts. Ethan’s Great-Grandma Moina is based on family stories, but I made her backstory a lot more exciting than my own family’s. For my own great-grandmother ghosts very matter-of-fact and not at all mysterious; they were just around all the time. It was much more fun to make Moina a glamorous, professional medium who performed big, showy seances! To figure out how to do that I did a lot of research on the Spiritualist movement and the history of psychic mediums in the US. I even went to a seance in an old Victorian mansion! What I learned was that there were lots and lots of seances back then, but not a whole lot of ghosts. The magician Harry Houdini helped prove that most of the so-called mediums were faking it and using tricks and illusions to fool people into thinking that they were seeing and talking to ghosts. I’m not sure if I was disappointed or relieved to learn that!
 
Like the house in PHANTOM HOUR, my own house was vacant before we moved into it. We are only the third owners, and the last person who lived there was a woman who had lived there for 40 years. After she died her daughter held onto the house for another decade because she couldn’t bear to give up something her mother had loved so much. So we felt a little worried when we moved in that might find her ghost hanging around.
 
A few months after we moved in I went to bed early and my husband was still awake. For some reason he always keeps his dress shoes on after work, and it can be annoyingly loud when he walks around the house. I was awakened by his footsteps in the middle of the night, and I was super irritated that he hadn’t taken off his shoes. But then I rolled over and my husband was asleep next to me! I woke him up, and we both heard a man’s footsteps walking through the house. Our burglar alarm had been set and our dogs were sleeping peacefully, so we knew it couldn’t be an actual person. For some reason nothing about it felt scary at all, and we just went back to sleep. Our house was built by a judge, and we wonder if it was his otherworldly footsteps we heard. So we did end up having a ghostly encounter, just not with the ghost that we expected!
 
Q: What advice do you have for young fans who may be interested in writing their own stories?
 
A: I think one of the best things writers can do is to read a lot. Reading helps give you an instinct for story and language; you learn by seeing how other people do it. I also think it helps to read critically, with the eye of a writer. Read for enjoyment, but then take a minute to think about why you loved the story and what made it so good. Then think about those moments that weren’t so good. Did the story drag? Were there parts you got bored, or the action moved too fast? Reading like a writer is a big part of how I developed my own storytelling style and voice.
 
The other big part of writing your own stories is to WRITE THEM! Put them in a notebook, get a cool journal, or learn to type and store them electronically. If you’re excited to write but feel stuck for ideas, sometimes fanfic is a really fun place to start. Think of your favorite book and write a sequel, or choose a character from a book you love and put them on a new adventure. Create a mashup of your two favorite series. What would happen if the characters met? Spooky stories are also a great way to get started, because it automatically puts your writer’s imagination into overdrive! I teach a spooky story writing workshop, and I’m always happy to email aspiring writers the ideas and exercises I use to get started.
 
Once you get your stories down on paper, make sure you share them! Writers need readers. Ask your friends and families to read your work and share any moments where they got confused or needed more description, as well as those parts that made them laugh or jump out of their seats. Take that feedback and use it to make your story really sing. Writing a first draft is important, but revising is where the magic really happens. Most writers I know absolutely love to revise, because it lets us forget all the nitty-gritty and just focus on making the story the best that it can be.
 
north starQ: What can readers expect next from Kat Shepherd? I hear you may have a new mystery series coming later this year?
 

A: I have a new mystery series The Gemini Mysteries, that debuts on March 5 with THE NORTH STAR. I have been a huge mystery fan for as long as I can remember; so much so, in fact, that I have a mystery-themed tattoo sleeve that continues to evolve as I add more favorites to it. One of the things I loved most about mysteries is the interactive experience of reading one. You’re constantly taking in information, evaluating, predicting, and then re-evaluating based on a changing landscape of clues. So exciting as a reader, and such a great tool as a teacher! This series is especially fun because there is a picture at the end of every chapter with a clue hidden in it, and the reader gets to work alongside the detectives to find the clues that lead to the next step in the mystery.

 
It’s been fun for me, because Babysitting Nightmares and Gemini Mysteries are so different, but there is a lot of crossover between mystery and horror. I like to write fast-paced adventures with a little bit of humor and lots of suspense, and I think both series allow me to do that. I hope my readers will have as much fun reading them as I have writing them!

Spooky Stories All Year Round

There are many different types of spooky stories. Some feature humor, adventure and straight-up chills, while others explore sensitive topics and tug at readers’ emotions. No  matter what type of story you love, spooky books have a place in the classroom, library and beyond all year round, not just at Halloween. To delve deeper into this topic I spoke to some of today’s foremost authors of middle grade spooky stories.

Jan Eldredge

Why do you write spooky stories?
I guess I write spooky stories for the same reason I love to read them. They allow us an escape to dangerous, exciting worlds, worlds that we get to explore from the comfort of our safe, everyday lives.

Why are spooky stories important all year round?
Spooky stories are chock full of benefits, particularly for young readers! Reading about young protagonists defeating evil can be very empowering for children. Spooky stories can also provide safe ways for kids to explore fear and experience a sense of danger, sort of like trying on a costume to see what it feels like to be someone else for a while. Spooky stories are great reminders that our boring lives aren’t quite so bad after all.

S.A. Larsen

Why do you write spooky stories?
For me, spooky stories are like passageways into the unknown and the misunderstood, mysteries that keep me on the edge of my seat. I’ve always been curious about the great beyond and the aspects of life we can’t see – like what really goes on inside a cemetery when none of the living are watching. Writing spooky tales with otherworldly or ghostly elements gives me the freedom to explore life themes such as the importance of family, self-esteem and confidence, and friendship in new and unexpected ways for young readers.

Why are spooky stories important all year round?
Tales with spooky and eerie elements explore the same important life struggles, hopes, dreams, and challenges that contemporary stories do. They also help kids see that fear is a part of life – fear of change, fear of a new school, fear of taking a test – and helps them see and workout solutions to overcoming fear. These are universal emotions and challenges that can be discussed throughout the year. The possibilities are endless!

Janet Fox

Why do you write spooky stories?
Really, the spooky part of THE CHARMED CHILDREN OF ROOKSKILL CASTLE was accidental! My original idea was more mystery/fantasy, but as I wrote the antagonist she became darker and darker and more nuanced for it. And the darkness of the antagonist reflected something in my own mood, something I needed to sort through. But my son said something recently that was inspired in this regard. He said that he loves dark, spooky stories because that one tiny glimmer of hope within the darkness – even if it’s just a candle – can feel like a brilliant light. And I thought, yes. That’s what I like, too. Magnifying the light in the darkness or the happiness within the spookiness. That’s the secret.

Why are spooky stories important all year round?
I would say that’s why spooky stories are always in season – they offer that recognition that hope flickers brilliantly in the dark.

Samantha M. Clark

Why do you write spooky stories?
I get scared easily when I’m reading spooky stories, but I still love them. Spooky stories get my blood pumping, and I need to know if everything’s going to end safely. When it does, it helps me know that when I’m scared in real life, everything can be okay. So when there’s an opportunity to put some spookiness into my own stories, I jump at the chance. Getting scared can be fun, especially when we know we can always close the book if we need a break.

Why are spooky stories important all year round?
Halloween is, of course, when we celebrate spooky stories the most, but reading spooky stories is fun and good for us at any time. They remind us that it’s okay to be scared, and show us that we can be brave just like the characters in the stories. Eleanor Roosevelt said, “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.'” And with spooky stories, we can build courage and confidence safely while facing our fears within the pages of the books and with the characters as our guides and companions. Spooky stories help us grow, and that’s a good thing every day.

Jonathan Rosen

Why do you write spooky stories?
I’ve always loved spooky stories. Much more so than horror. I like the creepiness factor of the unknown. What’s there lurking in the shadows? The mystery, to me, is much scarier and interesting, than having the monster actually appear on the stage. Why is the ghost there? What’s the story behind it? How was that monster created? I loved these stories as a kid, and always felt fascinated by them. I like to write to my younger self and kids who were like me.

Why are spooky stories important all year round?
There is no bad time to read scary stories. Yeah, they’re much better to read at Halloween time, but the kids who love them, don’t want to be relegated to one season a year for books. Kids like to be scared, to a degree, but then they know they can put the books away. They’re safe again. I also read a long time ago, and it’s true, spooky stories give kids the consequences of not following rules. Your Mogwai will turn to a Gremlin if you don’t follow them. Your vampire neighbor can get in your house, if you don’t follow the rule about not inviting him in. Spooky stories also open the mind to think of different possibilities. I know when I read them, I always went searching for more. More stories about the subject. I wanted to read about haunted places. The times when the ghosts came from. I think reading leads to more reading.

Kim Ventrella

Why do you write spooky stories?
I have always been interested in the intersection of darkness and whimsy. I love the space where macabre tales meet deeply-felt emotions and discoveries. Adding a spooky element allows me to explore difficult real-life topics in a way that I find more palatable and easier to understand.

Why are spooky stories important all year round?
Spooky stories aren’t just about Halloween. They’re about exploring the mysterious all around us, searching for new possibilities, confronting our deepest fears and stepping out into the darkness to find that courage and resilience that resides within us all.