Inside-out and Outside-in: Thoughts on Setting in SNOW FOAL and Beyond, a guest post by Susanna Bailey
When I began writing Snow Foal, my debut novel, I knew that setting would be important. Remote Exmoor, where the main part of the story takes place, is a writer’s dream: vast colour-changing moorland, forests that are home to ancient species like the snow foal and his family—first known to have lived on the moors in around 50,000 BC! Wide, wide skies. Legendary tales of a mysterious beast that roams the moors. Sudden snow. Sudden, disorienting moorland mists, said to steal people away. So much to stir the imagination. And if I could paint it well, to immerse young readers in Addie’s ‘adventures’ there. And that would be wonderful.
However, I hoped to do more with this rich setting. Addie, in her eyes unfairly wrenched from her mother, moves from tiny inner-city home to a remote, rural farming location, where she must stay with strangers. (Including existing foster-child Sunni, who makes it clear that Addie is not welcome). In this dramatic change of scene, I try to highlight the culture-shock and emotional trauma that can accompany any child’s removal into Care—whatever the location—where every sight, smell, sound—and face may be unfamiliar, and all control is lost, often to strangers.
So, Addie finds herself further and further way from her town with its pale streetlamps and vivid neon signs, its squashed rows of brown brick houses. She swaps the always-hum of traffic, the slamming of doors; the night- time call of cats for endless flat fields, shadowy forests, spiked hedges, and trees edged with white, wavering like ghosts; for silence, and the deepest dark she has ever seen.
Heavy snow falls overnight, cutting off the remote farm. And even the snow is different. Perfect it may be: glistening silvery-white as far as Addie can see, on her first morning at the farm, but it becomes a powerful adversary in her story; ‘sharp’ and cruel’, stealing the last of the colour from the world; blocking her desperate attempt to escape back to her mam, with its terrible teeth that bite at her fingers and toes; its whirling flakes and blinding gusts of ice and sleet. Weather, and remote location, literally and figuratively stand in the way of the reunification with Mam that Addie is determined to effect. Her social worker’s promised visit cannot happen, and any hope of being with Mam as she recovers, is pushed further and further into the distance. Addie feels more alone than ever. And helpless. Just like the tiny wild foal, separated from his mother in drifting snow, too young to survive such punishing conditions, but terrified of his human rescuers….
Later in the novel, Addie’s night-time flight with the foal almost ends in disaster, when dense Exmoor fog descends without warning. And just maybe, the legendary Beast is stalking her: more than a legend, after all…
However, in line with the latest scientific studies, nature, the antagonist, is also key in Addie’s healing process. As the snows recede, she witnesses new life. Brave spring flowers push through the recently frozen ground. Bright leaves dress the skeleton trees, and birds return to nest in their solid arms. A great oak tree house becomes a refuge; a hiding place when she is at her lowest. And there, teen foster ‘brother’ Gabe teaches her about the ‘tree wisdom’ that once helped him, too. She witnesses the adoption of motherless new-born lambs by bereaved ewe mothers; experiences the turning of the seasons, each bringing its own kind of beauty and hope. She, too, begins to grow and to envisage new possibilities.
Through her relationship with the tiny snow foal—himself a product of the wild setting—Addie begins to process the complex realties of her own life; starts to see hope in a future that remains uncertain.
In all of this, the exterior landscape around Addie influences her ‘interior’ landscape. But as I ‘travelled with her’ I realised there was more here. That this natural landscape, shifting with the seasons, was also holding up a mirror to her interior ‘feeling state’ at every stage of her journey. That it made what was on the ‘inside,’ visible on the ‘outside.’ It felt, to me as author, that she was ‘sharing’ this with me as I wrote. Perhaps, I thought, the complex emotions that Addie feels—and that, sadly, children experience in the real world but may struggle to articulate—or interpret in narrative prose—are most clearly communicated in this vivid ‘pictorial’ form. Here, setting might facilitate the sharing of similar feelings of grief, loss, isolation—and HOPE amongst young readers.
Thus, as summer warms the land, and roses burst into colour around the farmhouse door, Addie is feeling the warmth of friendship with Jude, Gabe, and the foal. She learns from their owns stories. As skies stretch blue and clear over golden fields, she is able to separate out the needs of the wild foal form her own; to confront the need to let him go, she is able to face some of the painful realities of life with her alcoholic mam. To allow herself to be nurtured by others, for now, whilst Mam continues her own journey.
In the final chapter, Addie can look forward to the return of winter—and even hope for snow. Pure white Exmoor snow. Snow for building things…
The use of exterior landscape to illustrate what is going on ‘inside’ my characters is now a feature of my writing in general. In fact, setting was the starting point for my second novel Otters’ Moon, becoming a character in its own right. I saw a bleak, isolated island cove with sharp, grey sand. A still, hissing sea; seabirds with blood-red feet and malevolent eyes. A boy stood looking out to sea, kicking at the sand. And I knew that I was seeing this beach—this island—through his eyes: that the bleakness was inside him. This was Luke. Why, I wondered? What was his story? And what would he go on to discover in other parts of this island, and within himself…?
Footnote: The back pages of Snow Foal include helpline and contact information for children affected by any of the issues in Addie’s story. These are UK specific and so not included here.
Meet the author
Susanna (Sue) grew up in Middlesbrough town, in Northern England, close to purple moorland and long, silvery beaches. Books – and animals – were her earliest friends. Later, she had amazing adventures with her five children and various pets (including a stick-insect called Dennis!) Some adventures were ‘real’, others were journeys into imaginary realms…
Sue was lucky enough to share in the real-life stories of many young people, through her previous career in social work for children and families and saw the power of stories in helping children process difficult feelings; the healing offered by animals and the natural world.
She decided to try and write about these things, and, in her fifties, began studies in Creative Writing. She holds a First-Class Honours Degree in Creative Writing and an MA (Distinction) in Writing for Young People, awarded by Bath Spa University
Sue’s debut novel, Snow Foal, was shortlisted for the 2017 Joan Aiken Future Classics Prize and given ‘Honorary Mention’ in the Bath Spa/United Agents Prize of that year. It was published in November 2019, to critical acclaim, listed for the BBC Blue Peter10 Best Stories Award, and nominated for the Lancashire Libraries Fantastic Fiction Award 2021. It has been published in Denmark, Ireland, Czechoslovakia, and Romania, and publishes November 2022 in the USA.
Her second novel, Otters’ Moon, published in October 2020 and is the basis for the UK’s National Federation for Education Research/ Bite into Writing Book 3 – a school curriculum workbook (Year 6). It won joint first place in the Made for Mums Awards 2021 (9-12s category) as the ‘standout fiction’ title for this age group.
Susanna’s third novel, Raven Winter, was published in December 2021. It has been nominated for the prestigious Yoto Carnegie Medal for Writing 2023.
Her fourth middle grade novel will follow in July 2023. She lectures part-time in Writing for Young People.
Most importantly of all, Sue now has two beautiful grandsons (one born and being raised in LA, one in the UK) and a granddaughter soon to arrive, in Spain.
About Snow Foal
A beautiful and heart-wrenching middle grade debut, this title is a memorable story, full of love, healing, friendship, and hope.
When eleven-year-old Addie goes to stay with a foster family on a remote Exmoor farm in the midst of a very cold winter, she is full of hurt, anger and a deep mistrust of everyone around her. But when she rescues a tiny wild foal from the moorland snow, Addie discovers that perhaps she’s not so alone after all.
And as adventure and unexpected friendship blossom, Addie is determined that both of them will know what it is to be home again soon…
Author Susanne Bailey delivers a warm, evocative debut set in the natural world that’s sure to inspire readers who are eager for an adventure story about the healing bond between humans and their animal friends.
Publisher: Holiday House
Publication date: 11/29/2022
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years
Filed under: Guest Post
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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