One of the reasons author David Hill started writing war stories was because it became embarrassing for an “old guy” to try and write contemporary teenage slang.
So, after writing contemporary teenage fiction for more than 20 years, Hill decided to set his novels in the past so he can use more conventional language and the avoid the issue. It also solves his other problem – modern technology, which permeates the lives of the young people he writes for.
Just about every second they are awake teenagers are involved with technology, he says.
“I want to make it clear I’m not complaining about that, it’s just an observation. I could not describe authentically the way teenagers interact with technology now. I’m out of touch.”
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Kids, as readers have a built in BS detector, the New Plymouth writer says.
“They pick up on the false notes, so I knew I wasn’t going to get away with that any longer. As it happened I was thinking of writing a book about one of my uncles in World War I. I realised there were a lot of other conflicts to write about, they just happened to be war. What really appeals is writing about conflicts and war is an obvious answer to that.”
His first war story was My Brother’s War, which is set during World War I, came out in 2012. His latest book, his 31st, is called Flight Path, and is about Jack, an 18-year-old Kiwi who is a bomb aimer on a Lancaster bomber in World War II.
“Like my wife Beth’s uncle Les. He did fly in World War II.”
Hill had an uncle who served in the navy during the Korean War and his book Brave Company was set during that conflict.
He includes the experiences of people he knows and his own in his books, he says.
“One of the nice things about writing is you revisit situations you stuffed up and in the book you can do them better. I wrote sports stories a while back and the main characters usually include me taking the catch. I scored that try in front of admiring girls that I never scored in front of anybody.”
Perhaps he is a fantasy writer after all, he jokes.
The book he’s working on at the moment covers six or seven generations of two Kiwi families who live in rural New Zealand.
It’s essentially Puketapu outside Napier, near where he grew up.
“A helluva lot of my family comes into it. All the places I went swimming when I was a kid and the orchards we stole fruit from, some of the girls I was keen on. Names have been changed to protect the author.”
He’ll be surprised if it gets published, but he is really enjoying writing it, he says.
Hill usually spends four to six months planning and researching. Then it takes six months to write the book. And if he’s lucky it’ll come out a year after that.
“I do research. I plan each chapter. I do rough copy. I write draft after draft. It’s the technique that works best for me.”
An adult novel is usually between 80,000 and 100,000 words, he says.
“Mine are about 50,000 to 60,000. Some are shorter.”
Only twice has he ever had a moment or experience that made him think he must write a book about “that”.
The first was when the best friend of one of his daughters died when they were in Year 10.
“Fairly soon I decided I wanted to write about her and her courage.” And that turned into his first book See Ya Simon, which was published in 1992.
The other “moment” was about 12 years ago, he says.
“I was riding my bike down the street to Coronation Avenue and I got to the end, stopped and put my foot down on the road. And as I did so I thought you’re going to write a book about a meteorite impacting the earth.”
He did. But despite having ridden his bike the same route and having put his foot in the same place, no more ideas have jumped out at him, he laughs.
Instead they just kind of form in his mind – not a flash, more of a growing realisation.
”It’s seldom a specific moment, just the feeling has been growing within me for a while. If a lot of bills are coming in I tend to try rather hard to have that feeling grow within me.”
Hill writes for teenagers because they’re coming across ideas and experiences for the first time and that makes them exciting to write for, he says.
“They’re fresh and they’re meeting these concepts of conflict, loyalty, friendship. It makes them really interesting to write for. They’re really sophisticated readers, sharp about ideas for storytelling. You can’t get away with bad writing for teenagers, which sounds vain. But I believe a lot of adult readers, if they come to a boring page or paragraph, they’ll skip it and carry on – teenage readers chuck the book away. You have to be really focused when you write for them. A lot of what I do is cutting down, cutting down.”
Three or four years ago if he was writing about a 14 or 15 year old he watched his two grandsons, he says.
“I’d get little details like how they sit, like how their hands are so big when they’re 15 years old, just to make story a bit more realistic.”
However, his grandsons aren’t any help when it comes to picture books, which Hill has recently started writing. He wasn’t keen at first, he says, because he didn’t think he was good at writing for little kids. But his publisher found an amazing illustrator, Phoebe Morris, and Hill couldn’t resist.
The first was about Sir Edmund Hillary called First to the Top, the second, Speed King, is about the World’s Fastest Indian Burt Munro and the third, about aviator Jean Batten, is due out this year.
“They’re for ages seven and up, but apparently a lot of adults buying them and reading them.”
He’s having fun with the books because he gets to research lots of facts and bore his friends, he says.
“When I tell them at the pub quiz I’m doing another picture book, they go noooo.”