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Fifteen Minutes with Robin Stevens

Robin Stevens is an award-winning crime writer for children. Her Murder Most Unladylike Mysteries are a series of novels based in a girls boarding school in the 1930s. 

We managed to snatch 15 minutes with her at the start of the World Book Day Share a Million Stories Campaign.

We were thrilled to find out that she has a bearded dragon called Watson and needed to find out about that first of all.

I used to go to the second hand bookshop with my Dad when I was little and I will never forget when I got my first copy of My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell. I totally fell in love, and devoured it and determined to have a zoo just like his in Corfu. Sadly the Corfu bit didn't happen but when I moved out of home at 22 I celebrated my new-found independence by getting myself my very own bearded dragon.  

I wondered if it was the idea of looking after something that drew her into the Durrell thrall or was it the fascination with the creature itself?

It was definitely the observation that I loved more than the actual caring for it I think initially. I just find watching an animal's behaviour to be an endless source of fascination. 

Is watching and observation key to writing good crime fiction?

I think observation is something to really encourage at an early age. It is so much fun to watch people, how their characteristics define them and also be wary, of everyone, at all times.

Children are so inherently resourceful. They are the ones who can make a difference to their future. It is important that they are reminded of what is right and what is wrong and to feel brave enough to dig their noses in other people's business to make sure that wrong is righted.

Another thing I think is key for children is to carry around with them a healthy distrust of adults. A vital life skill.

What is it that drew you to crime writing in the first instance?

What is wonderful about crime writing is there is a structure that she finds enormously helpful. There are so many rules about how things are constructed. You need to 'solve' a crime. There has to be a resolution. You can play with it in a lot of ways. 

I studied English Literature at Warwick University and my dissertation was on crime fiction, so I learnt the rules.

I was brought up in Oxford so there are many elements of my childhood that I can equate with that of Philip Pullman's Lyra. I was forever looking for secret passages in and around the extraordinary buildings that my father worked in. 

My father was a criminal lawyer and my mother a magistrate while my great grandfather was a policeman so there is a strong vein of morality running through my childhood. I like knowing what is right and what is wrong and solving things the right way.

Was there anyone particular who influenced you?

If I was murdered I would definitely want Miss Marple to solve the crime. She is such a brilliant character and picks her way through the clues with such particular nosiness that she is irresistible.

I adored the writers from the Golden Age of crime writing. New Zealand author Ngaio Marsh and her gentleman detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn. Agatha Christie of course and I did hugely enjoy Arthur Conan Doyle's sensational Victorian viewpoint with the crimes for Homes to solve as crazy and gothic as anyone could wish for.

How dark do you let your writing get?

I don't actually like scary things at all, blood and guts are fine but I will never get too graphic. I don't mind the odd knife here or there, but the only thing that I would stop at is guns. I don't want guns in my books.

Why did you set your books in a girls' boarding school?

I went to a girls' boarding school myself so I was really writing from my own experience, but I can't say that I solved any crimes.

I am very aware that it's hard being a kid and adults are tricky commodities but with my girl detectives the power dynamic has suddenly shifted and it lies in the hands of the children. They can connect with murder mysteries and ultimately be a part of triumphing over what is bad.

Are you a night or morning person?

I am definitely a morning person. I am way more alert and effective in the early hours and when I have a germ of an idea I write everything down first in a notebook. What? Who? Where? Why?

It's a Cluedo set up and each and every alibi needs to be plausible, I then create a spreadsheet plotting out who was where and what they were doing at the relevant times and then I go for it and try to write up to 2,000 words a day.

Nothing is better than being in the grip of a mystery where you write out what you know is going to happen. 

Your latest book is a World Book Day short story The Case of the Drowned Pearl, how are you enjoying being a World Book Day ambassador?

I have to admit that getting through the plot in 12,000 words was quite a challenge, but I am so thrilled to be a part of the wonderful World Book Day and the Share a Million Stories campaign is hugely exciting. We must all find a child somewhere and read to them, for 10 minutes a day, every day. 

The joy of World Book Day and the free books is there is something for everyone in this year's list. 

Can you share any advice on how to encourage children to read.

I think that it is vital not to put children off reading, so whatever they are reading is GOOD, comics are good, ebooks are great, newspapers, menus, picture books anything with a story. This will ignite a love of a narrative and a curiosity in the world that makes living so much more enjoyable.

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