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On the beach, he develops his seafaring stories

Iain Lawrence's ''The Shifting Sands," an original story for young people, will be published in eight weekly chapters in the Living/Arts section beginning next Tuesday. The story is set in a seacoast town in Scotland in 1803.

Lawrence, a journalist, travel writer, and sailor, is the author of many children's books, including ''The High Seas Trilogy" (''The Wreckers," ''The Smugglers," and ''The Buccaneers"), ''Lord of the Nutcracker Men," ''B for Buster," and the upcoming ''The Convicts."

He began writing short stories after graduating from high school and continued to write fiction during a 10-year career as a journalist.

''But journalism has a way of sponging creativity," he said, ''so I went to work at a fish farm, in hopes of having more time to do my own writing." When the fish farm went out of business, Lawrence got serious about writing. Five years later, his first book for young people, ''The Wreckers," was published by Random House.

He writes every day, except in summer, he says, when the days are too tempting to stay inside.

Lawrence was interviewed by phone from his home on one of the Gulf Islands of British Columbia, Canada. He answered questions about himself and his work.

Q: Your story ''The Shifting Sands" is fiction, but is it based on historical facts?

A: This story begins with a frightened man standing at the very edge of England, peering across the sea to France. Much of England shared his fears then, in 1803. Napoleon had conquered Europe, and England was preparing for an invasion. The man flees with his wife and his son, the young hero of the story. They arrive in wintry Scotland, at a very real place called Culbin Sands.

Here, enormous sand dunes stretch for miles along the seashore, slowly marching inland, driven by winds. This much is true. My mother grew up near Culbin and was ordered very sternly never to walk the Sands.

It's true as well, as my hero discovers, that a great mansion is buried there, along with the orchards and gardens and farms of a vanished barony. The tale that is told to him, with its hints of witchcraft in the shifting sands, was the popular explanation of how the baron's mansion came to be buried very suddenly in 1694. For hundreds of years, the Culbin Sands were a terribly lonely place, where the storms that rolled the dunes along would uncover the tops of chimneys and bits of ancient walls. But now the Sands are shrinking, the wild dunes tamed. Forests have been planted, and grasses sown, and apartment houses stand overlooking a land that was once believed to be haunted.

There are other truths in the story. The Culbin Sands often gave up old coins like the ones my hero hunts for. The ships of the Spanish Armada, scattered by storms and the pursuing English, blundered their way around Scotland. At least one found its way into Moray Firth, where the Culbin Sands are found.

Q: Many of your stories for young people are adventures that take place on ships or are set in a place situated by the sea. Why?

A: I grew up far from the sea, in Ontario and Alberta. But my father, from England, filled my brother and me with a love of ships and oceans. He saw that we learned to sail on a slough in the prairies and heard old seafaring tales like ''Treasure Island." I bought a little sailing dinghy long before I owned a car. After I moved to the ocean with my parents, in my last year of high school, I didn't ever want to live inland again.

Q: How does the writing process work for you?

A: My stories begin with very small ideas, then grow bigger and bigger until they reach the size of a book. It's like a hailstone expanding from a tiny speck of dust, layer after layer. In ''B for Buster," for example, my novel about a boy flying in the Canadian air force, the little speck at the heart of it all was that the huge bombers of the Second World War carried pigeons as a way to send messages in an emergency. Once I have the idea, I start with an outline. ''Buster" grew forwards and backwards until the outline was complete, so that I knew the story's ending before the beginning.

The actual writing is fairly fast. In comparison to people who spend years with a novel, it takes me about three or four months to produce the manuscript.

Q: Do your characters develop in your imagination or are they similar to people you know?

A: My characters are all imaginary, though I often give them the names or characteristics of people I know. The villain in one of my novels is named after a boy who teased me very much in school. I was rather gloating to myself as I wrote the scene where he gets his comeuppance. In my newest novel, ''The Convicts," I named the villain after a friend of mine, not because he's villainous -- he's really a very kind and likable man -- but because I liked his name.

I don't really see the characters in my mind, but I hear them. As I walk the dog along the island's beaches, I sort out problems in the plot by imagining the characters in conversation. If the fictional people are properly developed, they seem to arrive at the solutions themselves.

Q: What activities do you enjoy when you're not writing?

A: I spend a lot of time just walking the dog. For the outward half of our walk, we just plod along, and I think about the story I'm writing. She becomes very excited when we turn around and head back, because I spend the rest of the time throwing sticks for her and not thinking at all about writing.

The dog hates sailing. But she loves going for short trips in the dinghy, so I spend many summer days riding out to the smaller islands, just puttering around and looking for things cast up by the sea. I like looking for artifacts on the beaches where villages once stood. I have quite a collection of stone tools and bone tools, and little trinkets of various types.

Q: There are many universal ideas in your writing: good versus evil, family relationships, courage to try to make things right, belief in oneself. Do you consciously try to address these things?

A: I never thought about these things until an interviewer pointed them out. I imagine that they just appear in my stories because of the way I see the world and the way I live my life. But now I can't help but think about them, though I doubt if anything will change because of it. I believe that themes and symbols appear naturally in stories; maybe they develop in a writer's subconscious.

Q: What makes being an author of children's books special for you?

A: Most adults get to do childish things with their children. I don't have kids, so I have to make do with imaginary children. Only in writing can I go fishing with a boy or see a little girl run across a field. I get to relive my childhood over and over -- not only my real one, but any life I choose to imagine. It pleases me very much, of course, if a young reader tells me that a book of mine has brought pleasure. But, really, I write to please myself. There's nothing I would rather do than write children's books.

More information about Iain Lawrence is on his website at

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