Non-human friends

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Sometimes I think about what a huge privilege it is, to have a non-human person as a friend. You may be worried that I’m about to start prattling on about an alien abduction experience (although, believe me, if such a thing happened, I’d tell you all about it!), but no, that’s not it. The non-human friend in question is the dog. During my life I’ve had many friends who were non-human; a couple of them being dogs, but most of them cats. We don’t have a cat currently as my husband is allergic to them, but whenever I did have a cat, it always amazed me what a big personality could be packed into such a small frame. A lot of people think that cats are too independent to be proper friends with humans, and think that they only use us to get what they need. I don’t think this is the case at all, and I expect most people who have ever sat in a companionable silence with a cat, would agree with me. Dogs however, or most dogs that I have known, do seem to be less independent, but this doesn’t make them better friends with humans; just different ones. Critics of dogs might say that they don’t think for themselves, and just blindly follow their owner’s directions. This is definitely not correct – certainly in my experience, as my own dog almost never follows my directions. My current dog is the most sarcastic (and often cynical), person in the house, which he makes clear by his many finely-tuned huffs and snorts, in answer to any comments made to him. As mentioned in previous blogs, he also has a very highly developed sense of humour, with a strong leaning towards slap-stick. But, for me, his quirky personality makes him all the more interesting, and valuable, as a friend. I’m not his ‘best one’ (that honour falls to my husband), but when I’m writing, the dog is remarkably tolerant when I read aloud to him, and his views on the story arc, character development and plot, not to mention grammar, are always very clear and insightful. Which is why, in my second book, there will be a dog. This book is currently at the final editing stage, but I can tell you that it will include a female Tibetan Terrier called Fizz; a puppy, acquired by the main character, Hannah, shortly after the story opens. I’m also working on a new book at the moment – with completely new characters and a very different plot. This one will probably be for slightly older children, but it too will feature a dog; this time a black Labrador called Shadow. In addition to this, I’m also working on a non-fiction book for adults; a hand-written World War Two diary, which I’m transcribing and preparing for publication. This was written on the home front in Loughton, London, by a Home Guard member in 1944 – of course he was also a dog lover, and he acquired a dog called Mick during the course of the diary.

So, with the extensive editorial input I receive from my very cool and stylish dog friend, I think it’s likely that most, if not all, of my future stories will feature main characters that also have non-human friends – and rightly so.

By the way, for anyone who read my last blog post, the dog’s answer to the question, ‘2 x 2 = ?’, is… wait for it… ‘many’.

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Story ideas – where do they come from?

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A long time ago, when I first started thinking about ideas for a children’s book, I knew that I wanted to set my first story in a nursing home. I’d worked for years as a Social Worker in an older people’s team, which had involved visiting many different nursing homes, and I’d also visited my own relations in nursing homes, so I felt that I knew a fair bit about the setting. I liked the idea of a friendship developing between a girl and a very old lady; people separated by an entire generation, but with plenty of common interests, upon which they could build a friendship. It was obvious what the old lady would be doing there – she would be living in the nursing home – but what about the girl? I decided that her mum would be the matron who was in charge of the nursing home, so she would live in a flat on the top floor. As an only child without siblings to play with, she would get to know the old people, and form friendships with them.

I also knew that I’d like the book to involve some type of magic; but what type? I toyed with the idea of a magic tree, out in the nursing home’s garden, or should the old lady be a witch of some kind? But when I tried to put these ideas down on paper, it didn’t seem right. I put the story away in a drawer and left it alone for a while.

Years later, I was watching a TV programme about the Romans. The presenter was wearing a gold pendant in the shape of a crescent moon, and she mentioned in passing that it was a genuine, Roman pendant, two thousand year old, that she had bought in an antique shop. This amazed me; until this point in my life, I had always assumed that such things were so rare and so outrageously expensive that they were all kept under lock and key, in museums or in private collections belonging to the very rich. I had a chat with the dog about it, and he also found it hard to believe that normal people could possibly buy something that was two thousand years old. In fairness to him though, he was hampered by the fact that he can only count up to two.

The next day, I started googling ‘Roman pendants’, and found that although gold ones were indeed pretty pricy (I think TV presenters probably get a decent wage), silver and bronze ones were not only available for sale, but were quite affordable. After a bit more research into which outlets could be relied upon to sell genuine items, I found a pendant I could afford, and bought it. When it arrived, I held it carefully in my hand. It was amazing to think that I was holding something so old! I put it on a chain so that I could wear it, and started wondering about what the original owner had been like. Had it been a gift? What had happened when she’d lost it? Had she been upset? If she was young at the time, had she got into trouble? Had she searched for it? Had she bought a new one to replace it?

I wished I knew more about her. Although there was no way for me to find out any more, I felt that in some way the pendant was a connection between us, even though we were separated by almost two thousand years. If only I could use the pendant as a way of contacting her, how amazing that would be!

Suddenly, it occurred to me that here was the magic I needed for my story. The mysterious old lady would own an ancient Roman object that would allow my main character to contact a person from the distant past; maybe even a girl of her own age. The story all started to fall into place in my brain, and I talked it through with the dog, who agreed that it sounded like a good plan.

Okay, I had my story; I was ready to start writing it down…

Post script – although it is true that the dog is only able to count to two, he was able to give his own answer to the question in the picture. Can you guess what it was? If you think you know, post it in the comments. I’ll tell you his answer, in my next blog post in two weeks’ time.

A loud slamming noise…

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Now that my children’s book is published, a few weeks ago I decided that I’d like to have a go at setting up some school author visits. I spoke to my local primary school about the possibility of visiting, and had a chat with one of the teachers, who said that they’d be very happy to have me come in. She identified that year five would be the best group for me to speak to, and we talked about the book in general, and then I went away to think about what I might do.

How should I structure it? I asked around, and got some great tips from more experienced writers, who advised me that children like listening to adults read, but also like to do an activity as well. Slowly things started to fall into place, and I designed a plan for the visit; I would spend about five minutes telling the children why I’d decided to write the book and how I’d gone about it, and then I’d read a section of the book to them, for maybe about twenty minutes. After that, they could ask me any questions they had, and then we’d do an activity related to the book for another twenty minutes. As there are references to the Ancient Romans in my book, I decided that it would be fun to get the children to decorate Roman-style pendants made out of shiny card. After that, I’d have a few minutes left at the end, in case any of the children wanted to buy a book from me, although I’d give a copy to the school library, as well. Just before I left, I’d give them all a bookmark. All in all, it would take about an hour, and the children would have the pendants and bookmarks to take home with them, at the end of the day.

It all sounded like a good plan, and I ran it past the teacher, who agreed. The next job was a trip to the stationary shop to buy plain white card for the bookmarks, and shiny gold/silver card for the pendants. Then back home to design the bookmarks, print them off, and cut them out, and finally design and cut out the templates for the pendants. Until that moment, I had no idea that cutting out thirty, card pendants with curved edges, one after another, would be so painful on the hands, but now I definitely do. It might well be that I need to invest in some proper craft scissors if I want to do many more school visits; possibly the old kitchen scissors just couldn’t quite cut the mustard (excuse the pun!).

Right, I had a pack of thirty bookmarks, an envelope with thirty pendants in it, a bag with thirty copies of my book in it (always be optimistic!) and a copy of the book for me to read from.

Next, I selected the section of the book that I would read to the class and timed myself reading it aloud, to make sure it would be twenty minutes long. The dog sat next to me as I read, offering moral support in exchange for treats, and listening with his head on one side. I looked at his sweet little face – was there any chance at all that a class full of children would sit that nicely while I was reading? Clearly I couldn’t bribe them with treats; I was just going to have to keep my fingers crossed, on that one.

The day before the school visit I was slightly apprehensive; by the time the actual day dawned, I was really nervous. How would it go? Would they sit still and listen? Would I get a massive fit of hiccups or coughing? Would they ask questions I couldn’t answer? Would they hate it?

I put on my lucky socks and drove to school, feeling very much on edge.

How did it go? Well, amazingly, everything went according to plan and the kids were great. They listened quietly in all the right places (even without the treats), they asked thoughtful questions, and they seemed keen to know what would happen next in the story. Several of them bought copies and one even told me that he had now decided to become an author. I went home for a celebratory cappuccino, very pleased with myself.

It was a couple of days later, when I was collecting my daughter from the playground, that a group of boys ran up to me. They had bought the book, stayed up late reading it to the end, and wanted to tell me what they thought.

‘I’ve finished your book!’ one shouted.

‘Yes, we all have!’ his friends joined in.

I was a little uncertain; it looked like I was going to get some feedback, and I hoped I could handle it. But it seemed I had nothing to worry about. ‘We loved it!’ they burst out.

One stepped forward. ‘Thank you for making it!’ he said.

Another took up the reins. ‘I loved it from the first four words!’ he told me happily. I felt a bit dazed; they liked it! Then they were gone, dashing off across the playground.

Wow! What a result.

When I got home, I thought about how enthusiastic children were. I was pretty sure that if they didn’t like it, they would be equally forthright, but when they liked something, they really let you know all about it, in no uncertain terms.

And what were those amazing first four words, I hear you ask? I had to look it up myself, to remember, but here you go –

‘A loud slamming noise’.

I’ve done two more school visits since then. It’s definitely a great way to connect with potential readers, but mainly, it’s really good fun. I’ll definitely do more!

The Great Snail Race

 

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While having a break from writing during the recent school holidays, I thought it would be nice to grow some strawberries in a pot on the patio. I went out and bought a box of strawberry plants, labelled ‘giant variety’. Everyone in our house, including the dog, loves strawberries, and as I carried them home and planted them in a large patio pot, I thought how nice it would be later in the summer, when we could go outside and pick our very own, home-grown strawberries for tea. I told the dog about it, and let him have a sniff at the green and red leaves peeping over the rim of the pot. He was clearly impressed.

I watered the strawberry plants every day and a week or two later, I noticed some buds appearing. I called the children and the dog to come and look at them, and they were all very pleased. But the next day when I went outside to do the watering and check on the size of the buds, I was horrified to find a snail sat inside the pot. I had assumed that planting them in a pot instead of in a flower bed would remove the slug/snail problem, but I was clearly wrong – snails could climb.

I had no wish to harm the snail but at the same time I couldn’t allow him/her to stay in the plant pot; doing so would spell disaster for the strawberry buds. Also, I knew that snails could carry diseases that were really bad for dogs, so he and the dog needed to be kept well apart. I picked the snail up and carried him to the far side of the garden, placing him carefully down on a tree stump, then I watered the strawberries and went back inside, thinking no more about it.

The next day, there were not one but two snails inside the strawberry pot. Once again, I moved them to the other side of the garden. Snails, I knew, were very slow moving, so I was pretty sure that, once moved, they would trouble the strawberry plants no more, but several days, and a lot of snails, later, it occurred to me that some of them were looking a bit familiar; one or two had quite distinctive markings on their shells, and I had a nasty suspicion that I might have moved some of them more than once.

I googled it, and yes, apparently snails can travel a lot faster than you might think, and are also pretty good at smelling out and tracking down their meal of choice, from wherever they happen to be in the garden. I started wondering about whether some snails were better at this than others, and then the idea for the great snail race was born.

Every time the children or I found a snail in the strawberry pot, we marked the shell with a tiny dot of paint, before carrying them to the tree stump across the garden. It was decided that the winning snail would be the first one to reach the pot three times. As the weeks went by, it became more and more common to find snails in the strawberry pot that were already decorated with a small dot of paint, but for a long time, one-spot snails – those who had now returned to the pot for a second time – were the best we had. Then, one marvellous day, we checked the pot and found a two-spot snail – here was the champion who had made a third successful trip across the garden and had valiantly climbed the slippery sides of the strawberry pot no less than a record three times!

With much excitement we marked his shell with the prized, third spot of paint, before carrying him back across the garden to the tree stump, in triumph. But this time he wasn’t left on the stump to wander away, and immediately start the long journey all over again – oh no. He was presented with a large slice of cucumber, which google had told me is one of a snail’s favourite foods. We were delighted to see him get started on his prize straight away, and later that day only a tiny piece of peel remained. The rest was gone and so was the winning snail – back on his mission to set an even more impressive record for the number of attempts to climb a strawberry pot.

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Interestingly, the strawberry buds never came to anything, and we didn’t get a single strawberry. Still, if it was the winning snail that ate them each night, storing up energy for his next lawn crossing, I don’t mind. It’s not often you get the chance to help a true sporting hero on his way to victory.

Time for a rest!

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Well, it’s that time of year again, when the children have gone back to school and life returns to normal. In the holidays it’s nice to spend time with the family, go away for a few days and do some day trips, etc., but school holidays are really not that restful for parents – or dogs. There’s noise and activity around the house all day long, arguments to be resolved, uniforms and shoes to buy and label, and seemingly constant meals and snacks to be provided. All in all it’s really difficult concentrating on doing any writing, even more so than when the builders were here a few months ago, when, amazingly I managed to work through all the disruption.

I’d started work on the first draft of a new book a few weeks before the holidays started, and by the middle of July had got to the end of chapter two. I remember at the time, feeling pretty pleased with it, and even thinking that I might have the first draft finished by the end of August. This week I switched on the lap-top and there I was, still at the end of chapter two. I could barely remember the names of the main characters, and the plot, which I’d been hoping would all come together over the summer, remained a mystery to me. Still, now I could get back to it. I made a cup of tea, gave the dog his usual handful of mid-morning dog-biscuits and sat down to stare at the screen.

All I could hear was the gentle hum of the freezer and the ticking of the kitchen clock.

The dog resumed his usual place on his chair next to me and heaved a huge sigh – whether it was a sad sigh as he thought wistfully about his small human friends who would otherwise be playing with him all day, or whether it was a contented sigh as he enjoyed the peace and quiet of being in a house that was, but for the two of us, completely empty, I really wouldn’t like to say.

At least if it gets a bit too quiet I can reassure him by pointing out that there’s only six weeks until the next school holiday… if I’m lucky, I’ll get to the end of chapter ten before then.

It was a dark and stormy night…

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There I was, sat on the living room floor at three o’clock in the morning, wrapped in a blanket and reading a story to the shivering and quaking dog who sat huddled beside me. Outside, and safely barricaded out by the thick curtains, the lightening flashed and the thunder roared. It was, indeed, a dark and stormy night.

Our dog hates thunder just as much as he hates fireworks. When he was a puppy, I read somewhere that dogs pick up a fear of such things from the reactions of the people around them, so I was always very careful to completely ignore any such loud noises, hoping that, that way, he wouldn’t learn to be afraid. That worked about as well as my plan to train him to load and unload the washing machine. But does he react immediately when he hears a roll of thunder or the crack of a firework? Oh, no. He needs thinking time first, to process the sound he’s heard and decide what to do about it.

There he is, tucked up in his bed and sleeping soundly, when the first crash of thunder smites his ears – he opens one eye. What was that? The second crash – he lifts his chin from his blanket. Right, this scary noise has now happened more than once. It could happen again, and if so, will it come into his bedroom (or the kitchen, as some people sometimes call it), and try to fight him? The third crash – he sits up. This is getting serious. What to do? The fourth crash – he jumps to his feet. This noisy invisible enemy isn’t giving up easily – what if it comes in and tries to eat his dog food? It’s time to shout for reinforcements. It’s usually about two minutes after the first clap of thunder, when he makes his announcement that he does not intend to fight the monster alone.

So there I was, sat on the floor, reading to the dog when I should have been asleep in bed. As I listened to the thunder, it occurred to me that the phrase, ‘a dark and stormy night’, which is now famously thought of as a bad novel opening, is actually pretty great. How many people don’t sit up and take notice when someone starts a story with this line? I did a bit of googling, and learnt from a website called phrases.org.uk, that it was first used by a Victorian writer by the name of Sir Edward George Earle Bulwer-Lytton, who wrote in a very melodramatic style. This phrase has since turned into a bit of a laughing stock, but you know what? I like it, and I like Sir Edward for writing it. It plunges you straight into the heart of the story. When I read it, straight away I’m wondering whether the hero/heroine is all safe and cosy inside a gothic mansion, listening to the storm through the rattling window panes while wearing a fleecy dressing gown and drinking a mug of cocoa. But I have a nagging doubt that they might not be – they could be scared and alone in the middle of a desolate moorland, in imminent danger of being either struck by lightning or blown into a storm-swollen river and washed away, never to be seen again… I’m just going to have to read on, to find out.

I started to wonder if any other writers had since used this phrase to start their novels. According to Wikipedia it has been used again since, not only as a novel opening, but also as a writing contest and even as the title of a board game. Is it hackneyed? Maybe. Do I like it anyway? Yes. Although, thinking about it, it’s probably not the best thing to read aloud, when I’m trying to take the dog’s mind off the storm that’s raging outside…

Have some patience!

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The other day someone asked me a question that stuck in my mind – they asked, ‘how long did it take you to write your book?’ I found it really difficult to answer, as it all really depends on what you mean by ‘write your book’, and it made me realise that writing a book does need quite a lot of patience.

I’m not always the most patient person, but the dog is even less so, although he does have a ten minute rule. I’ll explain. Sometimes, as a treat, we go to the pub for a meal and take the dog with us. He is always terribly excited about this, as the pub is his very most favourite place in the whole world (when he first went there, someone gave him a roast potato, and he has never forgotten it). We go in, the dog pulling frantically on the lead to get in faster, chose a table, sit down and order some food. The dog licks his lips. ‘Right’, he says to himself, as he nods and smiles at the regulars, ‘they’ll need to cook that now.’ He sets his invisible stopwatch and settles down to wait… As soon as ten minutes have passed, he leaps to his feet, looks at the door to the pub kitchen and lets loose a volley of barks. ‘Oi!’, he shouts at the top of his voice. ‘You’ve had long enough – where’s my food!’ We try to drag the dog back under the table while smiling in an embarrassed way at the waitress, and crossing our fingers that the food will come soon. It’s the same anywhere that serves food – or at least, anywhere that is thick-skinned enough to let the dog in.

But I’ve come to realise that you do need to be patient for longer than ten minutes to write a children’s book, and for me, at least, it’s been a long process.

I think it started about eighteen years ago, when I first decided that I’d like to write a children’s book that was set in a nursing home, and which would be about a mysterious, magical lady who would become friends with the child who was the book’s main character. I remember having a go at writing the first chapter at this stage, but it was awful, and I don’t think I ever made it past the end of page one. Then, about eighteen months ago, I decided that there was no excuse for not giving it another go.

Actually sitting down to write the first draft of the book, which was well over a year ago now, took me about three weeks. After that, I spent another three weeks going through it, re-drafting it, changing it about, taking bits out, adding bits in and polishing it all up. Then I went back and spent another two weeks editing it for spelling and grammar. At this point I looked at the amount of words that spell-check was still underlining for me, and realised that using a professional editor might be a good idea. It took me a week or so to find one, and then about six weeks went by while they worked on the manuscript, before I got their edited version back.

After this, I decided that I should have a front cover illustration. I looked into all the options and finally chose an illustrator. I then needed to send him some segments from the book, so that he knew what the picture should be about, and then again, I needed to wait a few weeks, while he worked on the picture.

I then started the process of looking into publication. This took a while as there are so many options, but when I’d finally chosen to go with Matador, I went through the whole manuscript again, just to be on the safe side. Then it all needed to be proof-set. After this stage, it was time for proof-reading. As well as having it proof-read professionally, I also went through it yet again, as this was my final chance to spot any mistakes.

Finally – it was ready to go to the printers!

So, how long did it take me to write my book? I’m not sure, but it might be somewhere between three weeks and eighteen years. Now, I need to go and give the dog his tea – I promised him I’d get it ready eight minutes ago, so I’ve only got two minutes left!

‘i’ before ‘e’

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One of my hobbies is collecting old books; the older the better, and I have a few eighteenth and nineteenth century books, with a couple of seventeenth century books amongst them. One thing I’ve noticed about old books is that there’s very little regard paid to spelling, and the older the book, the truer this seems to be.

I’ve read, via the wonders of Wikipedia, that that in the sixteenth century Shakespeare spelt his own name in several different ways throughout his life, and that, over the years since then, other people have spelt it in even more different ways, until the spelling of his name finally became more fixed in the last hundred years or so. The same seems to apply to most words in written English.

What I like about old books and manuscripts, apart from the fact that it feels like you are touching and reading an actual piece of history, is that as far as spelling went, the writers just didn’t care. They happily spelt words in different ways, even on the same page. It was of no concern to them, or to their readers come to that, how the words were spelt, as long as everyone could tell what word it was supposed to be and get the general meaning of the sentence.

I find this carefree lack of concern about spelling really refreshing, and most likely this is because I was so shockingly bad at spelling at school. I’d wait apprehensively at my desk as the marked spelling tests and essays were handed out, covered in red ink, and often with the terrifying comment, ‘See me’, emblazoned across the top corner. Did it really matter if I’d got my ‘i’s and ‘e’s the wrong way round? Was putting only one ‘t’ instead of two, such a terrible crime? Was there ever a time when the word I was aiming for wasn’t obvious to the teacher? Probably not.

The dog can’t spell, and does it bother him? Not at all! Whether it says ‘dog fude’ or ‘dog fud’, or even ‘dog food’, on the packets in the kitchen cupboard, doesn’t bother him at all. He’s happy, so long as we can read it well enough to understand what the contents are when we’re shopping. And he’ll stay happy, so long as the contents of the packets get put into his bowl at breakfast time and tea time (he definitely can tell the time, by the way, and in fact, takes time-keeping very seriously, but that’s another story, for a different day).

So I have a lot of liking for those long-gone authors who were so happy-go-lucky about what letters should go where, even when it came to their own names. Well done them for not caring about it, and what a shame for those of us in these modern times, who have to get it right. Still, it could be worse – at least these days we have spell-check to do some of the work for us!

Goodreads Giveaway!

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Now that my book release date is here, I’m celebrating by offering UK readers the chance to win one of two free copies of ‘The Secret of the Wooden Chest’, on Goodreads.

If you are a member of Goodreads, please enter the giveaway – it runs from 10th to 28th July. Good luck!