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Losing Myself in a Book: The Crystal Run by Sheila O’Flanagan

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Sheila O'Flanagan © 1 May 2017.
Posted in the Magazine ( · Children & Young Adult · Interviews ).

When I was a child I loved nothing more than finding a quiet corner, out of mum’s reach, and losing myself in a book. I liked adventure stories, particularly ones where children had to fall back on their own resources without the help of any adults. In fact, if the adults were impediments to the resolution of whatever problem existed, so much the better!

When the idea for an adventure story of my own came to me – an idea that was very far removed from the novels I usually write for adults – it seemed right that I should write it for younger readers instead. I realised that I would be able to throw myself completely into the situation Joe and Kaia find themselves in without having to deal with the messy relationship that would no doubt evolve if my main characters were grown ups. It also gave me the freedom to question the behaviour of adults and of our sometimes blinkered views about how things should be and how we should live our lives, while giving my younger characters the opportunity to decide for themselves what they should believe.

Joe, a mid-teen, is an ordinary boy who is bullied in school because of a slight hearing disability. Trying to escape from two classmates who want to rob his new earphones, he passes through a portal that brings him into another world. The country he’s landed in, Carcassia, is engaged in a long-running war with its neighbour, Kanabia and has erected a shield to protect them from their enemy. Because no outsider should be able pass through the shield, Joe is immediately suspected of being part of a a terrorist cell trying to disable the shield from within, in order to allow the Kanabians attack.

Kaia, a native Carcassian, is a Runner. She’s been brought up for a specific task which is to leave Carcassia and travel through Kanabia placing special crystals in specific locations which help to maintain the shield’s strength.

Joe and Kaia eventually team up, but as he tries to help her with her task and find a way home for himself (as well as change her mind about taking a deadly poison at the end of her mission), they realise that not everything is as clear-cut as they first believed and that they have to depend on each other and trust their own judgement if they are to achieve their objectives.

At its heart, The Crystal Run is the kind of adventure story I enjoyed when I was young. As I was writing it I tapped into my younger self and remembered what it was about the books of my childhood that most appealed to me. I remembered liking the sense of danger, worrying about my favourite characters and feeling that I absolutely had to keep reading to find out what happened next. I tried to bring those elements of danger and excitement to my own writing, while also developing Joe and Kaia’s characters and making the relationship between them believable and evolving. Because their backgrounds and upbringing have been so utterly different, they both have their own way of looking at the same situation. Kaia’s belief is in self-sacrifice for the greater good. Joe can’t understand her single-minded determination, nor her unshakeable trust in authority. Both of them have to learn to understand the other’s point of view.

Although there are some deep moral issues in the book, I hope they’re simply woven in as part of the story rather than being centre stage. My main aim was to keep readers involved in what was going on and wanting to turn the page. As that’s very much my aim when writing an adult novel too, there wasn’t much difference in terms of how I approached the task of writing it.

What was different, though, is that The Crystal Run is plot driven whereas my books for adults are more character driven, albeit around individual themes. As far as The Crystal Run was concerned, I had a very clear view of what was going to happen from beginning to end, although obviously as the novel developed I was able to alter the action sequences to take account of new ideas.  In my adult books the potential ending is less clear at the start and the plot changes occur because of the development of the characters themselves.

Whether writing for adults or younger readers, though, it’s the characters who are the most important elements of the novel. It doesn’t matter what causes them to change throughout the narrative but they certainly have to be different people at the end than the beginning. They have to grow and shift perspective and this must be done in a credible way. Of course it’s easy to lose any kind of credibility when you’ve created an entirely new world! One of the hardest and yet most fun things about writing The Crystal Run was keeping track of the very different type of environment Joe finds himself in. The vegetation is different, the animals are different, the food is unfamiliar – and the technology is completely new, sometimes more advanced and sometimes not. I liked the idea of having a teenager with a smartphone in a world where nobody takes photos!

Writing The Crystal Run tapped into a different part of my creative brain, although I didn’t make concessions to children in terms of the language I used, or indeed in terms of the action that takes place. In the end, all I tried to do was write an exciting book for them (and hopefully their parents) to read. However I did run out of space to do it all, which is why I’ve recently finished writing the sequel!

(c) Sheila O’Flanagan

About The Crystal Run:

The gripping children’s debut from the Sunday Times and Irish Times No. 1 bestselling author.

A page-turning fantasy quest for children aged 10 and older and fans of Cornelia Funke, Susan Cooper and Philip Pullman.

Joe is being chased by bullies from school when he accidentally runs through a portal to another world. He finds himself in a training camp for a group of teenage boys and girls who will become Runners.

Runners are the protectors of Carcassia. They must travel through the Kanabian enemy territory to replace the rare and powerful Kerala crystals which power the shield that protects Carcassia. Once the Runners have achieved their objective, a toxin is released into their bodies and they die. No one is permitted to return through the shield. And nobody can remain in the enemy territory.

Hoping to find a way back to Earth, Joe accompanies the Runner, Kaia. A delicate friendship develops between the two, and Joe wonders if he can save Kaia as well as himself. But as they pursue their Run, they come to question the histories they’ve been given, and the ambition of their enemy. The Run becomes more dangerous than anyone could have envisaged.

Order your copy online here.


Sheila O'Flanagan is the award-winning author of over twenty titles, including the Sunday Times bestsellers THE MISSING WIFE, MY MOTHER'S SECRET and IF YOU WERE ME, and the winner of the Irish Independent Popular Fiction Book of the Year Award, ALL FOR YOU. She has also written the bestselling short story collections DESTINATIONS, CONNECTIONS and A SEASON TO REMEMBER.

Sheila has always loved telling stories, and after working in banking and finance for a number of years, she decided it was time to fulfil a dream and give writing her own book a go. So she sat down, stuck ‘Chapter One’ at the top of a page, and got started. Sheila is now a full-time writer and lives in Dublin with her husband.

THE CRYSTAL RUN is her first novel for children and young adults.

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