Cameron Macintosh: The Windy Road to the Bookshelf

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Cameron Macintosh, author of the Max Booth Future Sleuth series shares with us how the series came to life. Thanks to Cameron and Books on Tour for this article.

Writing any kind of book is an unpredictable journey, but attempting to write a series certainly adds twists and turns, and several extra kilometres! It always feels like a gamble – who knows if the first book in the series will be published, let alone the other five you’ve already convinced yourself the world needs to see. And what if readers don’t embrace the first one – will the publisher think it’s worth pursuing any of the others?

If you’re passionate about writing, probably none of these questions will serve as any kind of deterrent – and nor should they. Any series will follow a long and curious path to existence. Here’s a little bit about mine.

Since 2013, I’ve been working on a science fiction series for 7-10 year olds: Max Booth Future Sleuth (Big Sky Publishing). There are now four titles in print: Tape Escape (2017), Selfie Search (2017), Stamp Safari (2018) and Film Flip (2019), with more coming soon.

The main character of the series, Max, is an 11-year-old orphan, living in the year 2424. He’s fascinated by long-forgotten objects from the distant past, particularly from the very strange 20th and 21st centuries. In each book, Max and his robo-dog attempt to identify one of these objects for their friend, Jessie, a museum storeroom supervisor who secretly lets them take shelter in the storeroom and gives them her bonuses when they identify an item for her.

The genesis of the series snuck up on me unexpectedly, on a research trip I didn’t even know I was undertaking at the time. A decade ago, exploring the Archaeological Museum in Naples, I developed a fascination for certain artefacts from the Pompeii and Herculaneum excavation sites. The more mundane and commonplace these artefacts were, the more interesting I found them. I suppose it was the fact that they seemed so innocent when juxtaposed with the immense tragedy they’d been witness to. Their mundanity only amplified the sadness of the circumstances that destined them to become museum pieces.

As I left the museum, I couldn’t help but wonder whether people of future generations will look back on objects from our everyday lives with similar fascination, and whether they’ll find any emotional resonance in them.

I found myself wondering if this perspective could translate into fiction, and if so, what form it might take. I wasn’t expecting it to take the form of a children’s sci-fi series, but in the following months, an idea began to take shape in my head – of a future detective who is fascinated with 20th and 21st century artefacts. Max soon popped into my head to audition for the role.

I decided that the artefacts Max investigates should hold secrets that could lead Max into intrigue and adventure. They were never going to carry the emotional weight of Pompeian housewares, but I didn’t mind, as long as they opened some kind of window for Max to learn about our primitive present-day technologies.

The next step was the tricky bit – to actually choose these items. The first one I went for was a 1980s cassette tape – this appealed because it could potentially contain a long-lost recording. In the case of Tape Escape, it contained a lost song by a still-revered rock icon, David Snowie. Fortunately, the good people at Big Sky Publishing saw potential in it and the next phase of the journey began. Subsequent stories have featured a 2017 mobile phone, a 2019 postage stamp and a 2006 photo film reel, each leading Max into unexpected escapades.

Even though I’d sketched most of the series out before pitching it, the process of writing further episodes has been a constant challenge. Given that each story follows a similar trajectory (Max finding the object / identifying it / dealing with troubles caused by the discovery), I’ve had to work hard to keep them from becoming formulaic. Each story is designed to be read without prior knowledge of the series, so a certain amount of world-building needs to be reiterated in each book. Ensuring that kids who’ve read other titles in the series aren’t bored by exposition has become one of the biggest challenges. Each book is only about 12500 words long, so there’s no time for getting bogged down in static detail. To deal with this, I’ve needed to keep the future-isms relatively uncomplicated and as self-explanatory as possible.

I was also keen for the series to be useful to teachers and parents, particularly in engaging reluctant or struggling readers. While writing, I’ve tried to keep an eye on the vocab and expression, and make sure any invented words are easily decodable.

Taking all these factors into account, it did take some time for the character/plot stars to align with the accidental research I’d engaged in back in Naples. But one way or another, it happened. I hope this humble journey can serve as a reminder to other writers to keep exploring and journaling, and never to assume that your experiences are wasted – or that playtime is self-indulgent. You never know when you might be inadvertently bumping into an idea that can bring value to young readers.

Review of Max Booth Future Sleuth: Film Strip is coming soon.

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