I was lucky enough to have a childhood surrounded by books. Both my parents read to me and my sister, so I absorbed a love of the written word very early.
In terms of inspiration, I also need to mention my late grandfather, H Mills West. He belonged to a poor farming family, and was one of many children who had to leave school early so that he could work and help make ends meet. He was extremely intelligent, however, so he used books to educate himself, to the point where he was able to get a place in a teacher training college. Not only did he become a teacher, he went on to write about a dozen books which were accepted by a local publisher. I'm very proud of him for achieving so much despite the odds stacked against him.
How much research do you usually put into your books?
I tend to do a lot of research, and as far as I'm concerned it's one of the fun parts! It's also helpful in terms of accuracy and realism, and can often give an author new plot ideas.
Volcanoes play an important part in my third book, so part of my research involved running around volcanic landscapes. I watched giant geysers erupt, wandered around inside the craters of active volcanoes, saw multi-coloured silica plains and peered into giant bubbling mud cauldrons.
My fifth book was set underground, so I visited a lot of underground places – crypts, buried streets, caves, etc. Since my heroine in that book was apprenticed to a cheesemaker, I also went on a day-long cheese-making course. Reading about making cheese is all very well, but I wanted to know how the curds actually looked, felt and smelt.
The book I am working on at the moment is set in the 1920s, so I have to do a lot of research so that I can try to avoid historical inaccuracies. Sometimes this involves getting in touch with people and asking weird questions. The staff at the London Transport Museum were very patient with my questions about 1920s trams, even when I was asking them how easily people could climb out of the windows...
What do you do when you're not writing?
I love travelling, scuba diving, games of all sorts, reading and spending time with my friends. I enjoy hiking, and try to go for a ten mile hike at least once a week. I'm also incurably curious, and addicted to trying new things.
I have taken part in some historical re-enactment, and so I have a wardrobe packed with period costume and other oddities. This does at least mean that I have first hand experience of wearing a lot of the clothes I describe in historic settings. I know which corsets are more constricting, which dresses trip you when you run, and which bonnets tend to blow off in the wind.
What keeps you motivated?
There are some authors who manage to keep to the same rigid schedule every day, and are scarily self-disciplined. I'm afraid I'm not one of those! I find I work better if there is a deadline looming, so I belong to two different writers' groups, each of which meet weekly. If I turned up to the meeting without having written anything, everyone would laugh at me, so the meetings give me a regular deadline.
My writers' groups are very useful to me in other ways as well. Writing is a very odd job, and a lot of the time you feel as though you're working in a void. It can be really helpful to get feedback, and get a sense of whether you're taking your book in the right direction. The other members of the group also provide support, solidarity and advice.
When did you first realize that you wanted to write books?
I have wanted to be an author for as long as I can remember. I was scrawling down stories almost as soon as I could wield a pencil, and I used to make up serialized stories for my sister when we were both trying to get to sleep. When I was thirteen I gradually wrote a novella-length story, which was a mish-mash of all the spy thrillers and murder mysteries I enjoyed. I still have that story in a drawer somewhere, and to be honest the drawer is the best place for it. It wasn't very good.
What is your book about? Target age range?
Most of my books are marketed at age 10+, but in reality readers range from 10 to about 100. The books are read by a lot of teenagers and an increasing number of adults. This may be because I don't believe in treating younger readers like idiots, so my novels tend to have plenty of plot twists, and language that isn't 'dumbed down'.
My latest book is A Face Like Glass, a curious tale set in a subterranean world.
In the underground city of Caverna, the babies do not smile. Expressions must be learnt one at a time, and never become second nature. There are no natural smiles, no genuine frowns, only countenances donned deliberately, like hats. In Caverna lying is an art and everybody is an artist.
Everybody except one. Into the limelight of Caverna's venomous Court stumbles Neverfell, an amnesiac child with a face that shows her every thought, a girl that cannot lie surrounded by perfect liars. In this city of exquisite and esoteric luxuries, she is the ultimate novelty. Neverfell is surrounded by those who wish to use her, own her, deceive her and display her, even kill her...
Which are you - panster or plotter?
I always plot out my books before I write them. Sometimes I only establish the over-arching plot and all the main incidents, but for some books I create a full chapter-by-chapter plan.
Even when I am writing to a plan, however, there is still plenty of room for making things up as I go. A book should be a journey of discovery for the writer as well as the reader, and often I am surprised by the way a tale will work itself out. Sometimes certain characters develop in unexpected ways. Occasionally I even change my mind about the the plot structure, and end up altering it. It's still good to have the initial plan, though, even if I do end up rethinking it.
What is your outlook on fan fiction?
I have no problem with it at all. Creativity is a wonderful thing, and people should be encouraged to express it. Whenever I discover that somebody has created fan fiction (or fan art) based on my books, I feel very flattered.
If you could have time travel abilities and could meet anyone from any time, who would you like to meet?
There are many figures from history that I would want to visit! I would love to drop in on the wily Elizabeth I, though I am a little worried that she might out-fox me and steal my time machine.
Another person I would very much like to meet is Mary Kingsley, the Victorian explorer who canoed around unknown parts of West Africa, climbed Mount Cameroon, discovered new species of fish, befriended cannibals, survived a fall into a spiked pit trap due to her copious petticoats, cuffed a crocodile across the nose when it tried to eat her, and wrote witty, no nonsense accounts of all her adventures.
Frances grew up in an old house in rural Kent, England where the wind wuthered. She has always liked dark stories – when she was six, she wrote a short story that included an attempted poisoning, a faked death and a villain being thrown off a cliff – all in just one page! Later she read English at Oxford University amid medieval towers and gargoyle-strung chapels. You can find out more about Frances and her many books and awards at her website, www.franceshardinge.com.