Nicki Thornton FAQ

You write about mystery and magic. What are your favourite books and writers?

My favourite books always have a mystery in them. I grew up reading Enid Blyton and Agatha Christie (both very famous for their mystery stories). It wasn’t until I had children of my own and ran a bookshop that I started to read quite so many children’s books. I was pleased to see mystery stories are still very popular.

Robin Stevens’ Murder Most Unladylike series have a great detective team in them and I really enjoyed Lauren St John’s Laura Marlin mysteries and also the mysteries that Gareth P Jones writes, like The Thornthwaite Inheritance. Another big favourite is Julie Berry’s The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place. I think Derek Landy’s skeleton detective Skulduggery Pleasant is a brilliant creation. My current favourite series is Lockwood & Co by Jonathan Stroud. I really wish I could have written them.

You ran the independent bookshop, Mostly Books in Abingdon, for more than ten years. You must like books very much. Did you like running a bookshop?

I had the most amazing time running a bookshop with my husband, Mark. I knew it would be all about books, which is great as I LOVE reading. I think reading is the best and there are so many books you want to tell people about. But I discovered that running a bookshop is about bringing a community together – around books. Bookshops are incredible cultural hubs and any town that has one should treasure it. We ran author events, we took authors and book fairs into schools and supported a love of reading wherever we could – and we got to know people in our town well and received incredible support.

Are you now a full-time writer?

I spend a lot more time now writing than I have ever done. I am really grateful to have turned my hobby into a job and to have been able to do this in more ways than one – first running a bookshop and now writing books. But that’s not all I do. One of the things we learned through running the bookshop is that Abingdon is one of the best places in the whole world for science. And this inspired me and my husband, Mark, to want to do something similar in our town that we had done for books – only to do it for science!

People are doing amazing, world-beating science on our doorstep and we felt not enough folk knew about this and we felt people did want to know, but would find it as fascinating as we did when we met many of these people as customers in our shop.

So we have launched a podcast where we interview scientists locally and get them to tell us about their jobs. You can go and listen at Stories from Science.

Both myself and Mark worked in science before the bookshop, so it is as if our lives have come full-circle. 

Is a firefly cage a real thing?


One of the questions I get asked a lot is - is there really such a thing as a firefly cage?

Well, Yes there is. And when you hear more about fireflies and about the incredible natural source of light they produce, I'm sure you'll be as fascinated as I am by these incredible creatures. I've put a few details together here.

Technically, fireflies are actually not flies at all, their proper scientific name is Lampyridae and they are a family of insects in the beetle order Coleoptera, so they are winged beetles. Although we know them fireflies or sometimes lightning bugs. 

The family name, Lampyridae comes from the Greek lampein, meaning to shine just like a lamp and there are stories that early miners used them to light their way underground. 

People have long captured fireflies for their amazing and rare ability to give off natural light. 

It is from Japan, where fireflies populations have traditionally been common, that the firefly cages come from. Tiny cages or baskets, often made out of bamboo, were delicately carved to capture these creatures to bring their light indoors or to private gardens. 

Firefly hunters would capture thousands of the insects to illuminate hotels and private gardens and these expeditions are familiarly captured in Japanese art.

Today, more often fireflies are captured in the twilight of early summer to put in jars to give off a light. It is a light that you look and and think surely it must come from fairies - or from aliens!

With air holes and a damp cloth fireflies can be kept safely in a jar - although always should be let go, because like many creatures, firefly populations are crashing in many areas due to a combination of light pollution, pesticide use that pollutes the water they live by and habitat destruction. They are becoming ever more rare and precious.

Here's the science bit about fireflies

The light from a firefly's tail is almost as good as magic because the light produced by the firefly is the most efficient light ever made. 

Almost 100 percent of the energy in the chemical reaction is emitted as light, compared with a light bulb, which only emits closer to 10 percent of its energy as light, the other 90 percent is lost as heat. The firefly could no survive if the light in its tail emitted this much heat.

Fireflies are an incredible creature. A beetle that gives off what looks like ethereal enchantment? How does that work?


If you are lucky enough to see fireflies or glow worms they are best enjoyed in their natural habitat, which is often woods, near standing water or marshy ground.
Fireflies  make light within their bodies to communicate - to attract prey or a mate. This lighting up process is called bioluminescence. So, how does it work?

In a firefly's tail, you'll find the naturally occurring chemical luciferin and it is a chemical reaction that creates the spectacular light.

The lucifern combines with a superoxide anion (a form of molecular oxygen that contains an extra electronoxygen), so that the chemicals are able to combine. 

Do any other creatures glow?

The firefly's ability to generate light is incredibly rare in plants and animals that live on land. We may not see many creatures that light up, yet it is an ability shared by many other organisms. Yhey are mostly sea-living or marine organisms. Glowing creatures are common in the oceans.

Where can I see fireflies in the UK?

We don't have fireflies in the UK, but we go have glow worms. Virtually all the glow worms seen in Britain are Lampyris noctiluca. 

Key glow worm facts:
•  Only adult females glow, to attract the flying males
•  Adult glow worms can't feed, so they can live only for 14 days or so
•  Once a female glow worm has mated, she turns out her light, lays eggs and dies

So although to capture a fireflies might feel like capturing a bit of magic, as well as being beautiful - they really should be left alone so that future generations can enjoy them.

And, if you can, try to capture them in photographs.


Can I get you to come to my school?

I love talking to children about reading – and particularly about mystery stories, and how I went about inventing the mystery and magic in my novel The Last Chance Hotel. I'm really happy to come and visit a school for a book event - although I'm really keen to make sure you get the best out of any visit. So I have put together a page which explains how we can try to make this happen!

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