Just as Spider Circus started off as an unrelated story, Lizzie started off as a side character in what will eventually be one of the sequels. She appeared for a couple of chapters as a friend of Damien’s, as a very different person – older, much more aloof, and without the powers that she discovers in herself during Spider Circus.
Lizzie is an example of one of those characters who steps in and takes over the story. I’ve had a few like that before, Steve/Cherry from Footloose being the most obvious one. When I first started writing about her, I thought Lizzie’s story was going to be a one-off – part of the background to The Shadows. By the end of the novel, I realised that she was going to be one of the most important characters in the series.
Lizzie came from several different places. I mentioned earlier that she first turned up in some earlier writing, but barely as the same character. The Lizzie that we see in Spider Circus turned up in my head by chance one day, looking over my shoulder at some circus-themed pictures painted by my best friend Em. From then on, she fleshed herself out more and more. Parts of her came from things I’ve read and watched, both consciously and subconsciously. Looking back, I’ve realised that her mechanical skills came from three different places; Violet Baudelaire from A Series of Unfortunate Events, Kaylee from Firefly, and Daja from the Circle of Magic series by Tamora Pierce. Because of this, I wanted her to be named after an inventor, and so I chose Elijah McCoy, who worked with engines and engineering, and, it’s rumoured, gave rise to the phrase ‘the real McCoy’. (Lizzie made the Star Trek joke herself – she’s watched a lot more of it than I have).
Not only did Lizzie put herself into the story, but she wrote herself when she got there. I didn’t know that she was going to be a mechanic until she started mending things, or her relationship with her family until I saw it on the page. Writing Lizzie has taught me a lot, not just about her, but about the story itself. Watching her adventures unfold helped me see how the rest of it would fit together.
Despite the fact that she wrote herself to some extent, writing about Lizzie wasn’t always easy. I was very aware that I was a white author trying to write from the point of view of a black character, and that I was going to make a lot of mistakes. To try and avoid making more than necessary, I read as many stories and blogs about literature by POC writers as I could get my hands on, trying to find out the usual blunders. I know that despite this, my white privilege will have got in the way, and I will have made mistakes – and the best that I can do is learn from that and try and do better next time.
Lizzie is still going to turn up in that later story, although she’ll be completely different from that first, proto-version of herself. In fact, Lizzie has become so real to me that I know what she’s going to be doing long after she’s left her teenage years behind, more than I do so far with any of my other characters. I can’t give too much away, but she’s going to find that she has a talent for managing more than machines – and she’s also going to find that there are some puzzles that even a skilled mechanic can’t fix. At least, not all by herself.