Stories Out of Africa: A Guest Post by Lauren St John

Whenever I’m asked how my childhood in Africa influenced my writing, some memories stand out more vividly than others. One of the best days of my life? Easy. Being half-drowned in a thunderstorm as I watched the horse of my dreams, Morning Star, being born. I put my raincoat over him and touched the huge star that filled his forehead.

Or reading a book in our Zimbabwean game reserve, one lazy summer’s afternoon. Our pet giraffe, Jenny, came up silently and put her head around the tree I was leaning against. I looked up to see giraffe eyes above my page.

And one more. Crossing our weir with my sister, Lisa, when the Umfuli River was in full flood. I can still feel the current sucking at my legs and the slippery wall beneath my bare feet.

If one of us had fallen, I wouldn’t be here, writing this blog, but we didn’t. Instead, it gave both of us an appetite for adventure, just as the experiences above made me love, above all things, wild animals, horses, reading and being free in nature.

An African childhood might not seem the most obvious inspiration for The Secret of Supernatural Creek, my new Laura Marlin mystery about seemingly supernatural events in Australia, but that’s where it began.

For almost my whole childhood, my hero was the singer, Olivia Newton-John. Olivia was Australian and one of my favourite songs and videos was ‘Dolphin Song,’ which, years later, became the title of the second novel in my White Giraffe series.

Watching Olivia swim with dolphins made me dream of swimming with dolphins. On my first ever trip to Australia, I made a long pilgrimage to Shark Bay in the far north-west of Australia, where I swam with wild dolphins at Monkey Mia.

It was then that I fell in love with Australia. I’ve travelled the length and breadth of it and I’ve wanted, for years, to set a book there. It’s the perfect setting for a wild adventure.

To research it, I travelled first to Melbourne and then to Australia’s Northern Territory. I hired an SUV and drove over a thousand kilometres to the locations in my book – Darwin, Litchfield National Park and the Katherine Gorge. 

Growing up in Africa, I was fascinated by snakes and – briefly – kept three pythons, but the snakes in Australia are in another league altogether. I remember watching Steve Irwin’s The Eastern and Western Brown snakes are among the most venomous in the world. In the Secret of Supernatural Creek, one of the characters has a chilling encounter with one. Some readers might think that it’s far-fetched. In fact, it’s based on a real-life event that happened to a friend of close friend. Truth is almost always stranger than fiction.

In Africa, my sister and I would take our dogs swimming in a river populated by crocodiles. That was unwise, but not half as insane as it would be in Australia’s Northern Territory, where there are an estimated 200,000 saltwater crocs, the largest reptiles on earth. I went on a boat trip to see them and never felt safe for a minute. The way they watch you makes it absolutely clear they see you as prey.

Even the supernatural bit of Supernatural Creek came from my African childhood. My best friends and I had a teenager encounter with a ghost in a house that had a reputation for hauntings. That experience combined with the BBC’s Planet Earth II and an article in The New Scientist to form the basis of the plot.

It’s always a joy to write Laura Marlin mysteries, but researching and writing The Secret of Supernatural Creek was the most fun yet, especially the part where I got to bottlefeed a baby wallaby at a sanctuary in Litchfield National Park.

As a child in Zimbabwe I had many dreams, but what I wanted most passionately was to travel and have adventures. Now I’m fortunate enough to have the chance to do both. The best thing about writing adventure novels for children is that you get to have the adventure yourself!

This guest blog was kindly provided by Lauren St John. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Federation of Children’s Book Groups.

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