Exploring Diverse Worlds

Cheryl Burman discusses her writing journey, the inspiration behind her diverse genres, and her dedication to fostering creativity in young writers through her initiative, Dean Scribblers.

Cheryl Burman, an author deeply inspired by her roots in Australia and her adopted home in the Forest of Dean, UK, brings a rich tapestry of settings and characters to her diverse body of work. From historical fiction to middle-grade fantasy, Burman’s storytelling is shaped by the landscapes and histories she loves. Her unique blend of personal experience and meticulous research gives her narratives a compelling authenticity that resonates with readers of all ages.

Her latest work, Walking in the Rain, continues the story of a beloved character, Alf, from her earlier novel, Keepers. Readers were captivated by Alf’s journey of love, regret, and second chances, leading Burman to explore his character in greater depth. Additionally, her historical fantasy River Witch, inspired by a real witchcraft trial in the Forest of Dean, weaves together elements of myth and societal struggle, showcasing Burman’s skill at blending historical fact with imaginative fiction.

Beyond her writing, Burman is dedicated to fostering creativity in young people through initiatives like Dean Scribblers. Her commitment to encouraging the next generation of writers reflects her belief in the transformative power of storytelling. In this interview, Burman shares insights into her creative process, the inspirations behind her novels, and her passion for historical and fantastical narratives.

Your experiences in both Australia and the Forest of Dean have significantly influenced your writing. How do these diverse settings inspire the themes and characters in your stories?

Readers are often told to ‘write what we know’. While Australia and the Forest are indeed diverse settings, they are both places I love and are familiar with, and each provides a deep well to draw on. They are, however, different wells.

As the country where I was born and grew up, I burrowed deeply into memories of places and people from my childhood in Australia for my women’s fiction novel Keepers and its two spinoffs. Set in post-world war two Australia, the story is loosely based on family lore, weaving real events into a dramatic tale. I had fun playing fast and loose with the personalities of friends and family, creating new characters, and placing the combined cast into historical places they may or may not have visited.

The Forest of Dean provides a different, more vicarious, inspiration given I moved here relatively late in life. This is a place full of history, legend and ancient traditions, and a landscape scattered with the remains of a fascinating past. It’s these second-hand experiences which whisper a hundred stories in my willing ears.

From middle-grade fantasy to historical fantasy, your writing spans multiple genres. What motivates you to explore such diverse literary landscapes, and how do you approach the challenge of switching between genres?

I’ve been an avid and eclectic reader of fiction since childhood. So while I started writing with middle grade fantasy, I saw no reason why that should be my only genre, just as I wouldn’t read only one type of book. Switching between genres is not a challenge for me, but an opportunity to tell a new story in a way appropriate to that story and its target audience. I have much to draw on as examples. Having said that, over time I’ve developed a style of my own – what authors call ‘voice’ – and this can work as a unifying factor. It makes life easier for me, and it helps my readers feel comfortable that this is ‘another Cheryl book’ and therefore they are likely to enjoy it whatever the genre.

Your latest work, Walking in the Rain, delves into themes of love, regret, and second chances. What inspired Alf’s journey, and how did you develop his character throughout the series?

Dear Alf, everyone loves him. In fact, it was Alf’s situation at the end of Keepers which led to Walking in the Rain – many fans were outraged at his fate! Alf’s journey from being Teddy’s self-sacrificing sidekick to finding his own true happiness was a delight to write. His fumbling honesty with Raine, and how she responds, his ongoing inner turmoil and, finally, his decision to stop moping and get a life of his own, has endeared Alf to many. His character arc needed to be steady and thoughtful, taking time and with some backward steps, as he worked his way through his self-doubts to that ‘lightbulb’ moment.

In River Witch, Hester battles societal expectations and personal ambitions in 19th-century England. What drew you to write about this historical period and the themes of witchcraft and empowerment?

The story behind River Witch fell into my lap when I was asked to edit a non-fiction account of a Forest of Dean woman tried for witchcraft in 1906 (yes, 1906). My initial intention was to write a biographical novel, but the research was thin. As a lover of magical realism, I decided to combine elements of myth and legend from the Forest and go with historical fantasy instead. Much more fun! So the true story inspired the witchy vibes. The empowerment? That fell out of the tale as I wrote it, as did other themes such as resilience and reconciliation.

As a founder of Dean Scribblers, you encourage young people to explore creative writing. How has this experience influenced your own writing, and what advice would you give to aspiring young authors?

Helping young people craft a story is always a joy. In terms of my own writing, it’s shown me that kids as young as ten have a good grasp of the realities of the world (a little sad), tend to be a tad bloodthirsty and at the same time can portray deep emotion. It means I don’t need to be bland when writing for middle graders!

My advice to them? Keep writing.

Your novels often weave elements of history, myth, and personal struggle. How do you balance these components to create engaging and relatable narratives for your readers?

All readable fiction is about personal struggle, ‘the hero’s journey’. In fact, one piece of advice I do give young people is to throw as many obstacles as possible in your character’s path and see how they cope. But writers and readers have preferences for different settings of the tale: fantasy, historical, romcom, women’s fiction etc.

History and myth provide the backdrops to my stories. But more than that, they also drive the way characters behave and make choices, and thus they inform their struggles. In Keepers, the social mores of 1951 dictated Raine and Teddy’s behaviour and triggered the whole messy tale. Similar, River Witch is a story of the time’s prejudices and their impact on Hester.

Relevance is key for a relatable narrative – characters must be believable in their setting

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