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Word hunters.

In 2004 I was sitting next to Terry Whidborne in a meeting with the team from the advertising agency Junior and a TV ad director, talking about our second campaign for Brisbane Marketing. Terry was the art director for Junior then and I was to be the face of the campaign and heavily involved in the writing. It was pre-GFC, so the meeting was happening over lunch in a Brisbane riverside restaurant.

In the middle of a strenuous debate with the director about how much content we could include in thirty seconds, I happened to glance in Terry's direction. He'd been doodling on his notepad, but this was no ordinary doodle. It was as if a fully realised work of art was just falling out of his pen. It was so good it threw me and I forgot about the debate and asked him how he did it. I still don't know how he does it.

At the end of the campaign, Terry approached me with a fundraising idea for War Child, the aid agency I was then chairing. He pulled it off too--he raised tens of thousands of dollars from an auction of pillowcases decorated by artists and celebrities, including Cate Blanchett and Missy Higgins.

Then he told me what he really wanted to do was illustrate kids' books. I had the usual talk with him about how hard it is to break into, etc, etc. But he showed me his ideas and his website and that's when I thought: Terry could be the next Shaun Tan. What he does visually truly amazes me and keeps amazing me, even though I've now had several years of seeing it at pretty close quarters (just take a look at

Around 2008, a bunch of us went away for a weekend of hiking and climbing. On the Saturday evening, after spending the day climbing a smallish mountain, we were making dinner when someone said something was 'okay'. It was Terry who said something like, 'What does okay mean, anyway? Where does it come from?'

Nerds like me dream of a break like that. Dinner preparation stopped, everything else stopped, I redefined my friends as my audience and, for who knows how long, dragged them down the rabbit hole of the possible etymology of 'okay'.

Most words don't have great stories behind them, but some do, and a few of those had stuck in my head. And then, when I got myself a better broadband connection, I'd occasionally find myself scouting around for more, before telling myself to get back to work.

A better solution: turn the hobby into work. I came up with the germ of an idea for a couple of characters who might travel back into the past discovering the stages in the evolution of some words with interesting stories. For a year or more I talked myself out of it--'You don't do etymology, you don't do time travel, you don't write for people under thirteen.'

I'm not one of those adult authors who think writing for children must just be an easier version of the real thing. Nor am I one of those adult authors who think there's not much on offer for young people, and that that bit of the market will be immeasurably improved by my presence. Australia already has some of the world's best and most entertaining writers for children--people who have truly mastered what it means to write for a ten-year-old.

But it turned out I couldn't beat the idea down with a stick. It was, simply, irresistible.

And I still wanted to work with Terry, so I put the idea to him. Turns out he's a lifelong Doctor Who fan and time travel didn't faze him at all. He was in.

Normally, I like to keep an idea to myself while I'm working on it, write the whole thing and then offer it to a publisher. This time, though, I knew I needed to break my habit of twenty years and let them in early. We wanted someone with expertise who got what we were on about, but who also totally got children's books, and could make ours better at the ideas stage.

One meeting with Kristina Schulz at UQP made it plain to us that she was the one. We went in with a proposal for five 6,000-word books for 7-8 year olds, each featuring one word quest, and came out with a plan for three 20,000 word books for 9-12 year olds, each featuring three word quests. Plus a big adventure story. Plus a bad guy.

What followed was a lot more googling and scheming from me and a lot more gadget-guy work from Terry (how would the characters move from one time period to another?--well, here's a 3D full colour image of the pegs they use ...). Into the story came inventors and kings and battles, and a librarian from 3000 years ago (3192 years ago, to be precise).

Soon it became apparent that they weren't 20,000-word books at all--they were 45-50,000 word books. We'd pitched a series totalling 30,000 words and were on our way to closer to 150,000.

Fortunately, we were also on our way to much better books books with more breadth and depth and detail. We found ourselves with fleshed-out characters, big stories, huge adventures, intricate illustrations, bizarre and fascinating details from the past and, yes, mindblowing etymology. Some words fought long and hard to get here, and it's very interesting to see where they've been.

(Review V56 N4 p28)
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Author:Earls, Nick
Publication:Reading Time
Article Type:Editorial
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Feb 1, 2013
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