The Meaning of ‘Arpeggio’

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The dog has a pretty good vocabulary, considering that he is, after all, a dog. For a long time I thought he understood only simple, single words such as ‘sit’, ‘down’ and ‘no’. Then, a few months ago, I saw him trying to get into the kitchen. The door in front of him was shut, but I knew that around the other side of the kitchen there was an open door. Without thinking, I said, ‘Go round – the other one’s open.’ He looked at me with complete comprehension, nodded and then turned, trotted purposefully away and disappeared into the kitchen through the open door at the other end. I sat, open-mouthed, listening to the familiar sound of him jumping up at the kitchen worktops. Was it a coincidence? Was there one word in the sentence that he’d latched on to – or had he understood the whole thing? Since then I’ve seen him respond in a similar way to other sentences, so I’m pretty sure that he understands a lot more than he should. Mind you – he is exposed to a lot of complex language. I never talk down to him as if he is just – a dog. I chat to him, the same as I would to anyone else.

Children also need to be exposed to a lot of language to extend their vocabularies. There’s been a lot of talk about this recently amongst the children’s writers’ community, and mainly because of the acceptance speech that Geraldine McCaughrean made, when she received this year’s CILIP Carnegie Medal for children’s literature. In her speech, she spoke at length about what she perceived as the ‘dumbing down’ of children’s books, by publishers. She said that, in her opinion, without exposure to complex language children would have ‘brains far less receptive to the acquisition of vocabulary’. I think that she is completely right. As she said, ‘we master words by meeting them’.

My first memory of wanting to read by myself, is that of sitting up in bed holding a Paddington book. I think it may have been ‘Paddington Abroad’, as that was always (and still is), my favourite Paddington chapter book. I couldn’t wait until I was capable of reading the words myself, rather than having to wait until a grown-up had some time free to read it to me.

The reason I was so keen to read the Paddington books, was the type of language used – I loved it! In writing the books, Michael Bond hadn’t ‘written down’ to children, but rather, had used the language that I imagine he would have used in any situation, whether children were there or not. Words such as ‘itinerary’, ‘consult’, ‘particular’, ‘commissionaire’, ‘immigration’ and ‘circumstances’, were strewn happily across the pages, and I hoovered them all up, asking an adult to tell me what they meant when I needed to – but mostly working it out for myself by looking at the rest of the sentence and the context. It felt as though Michael Bond was writing the books as if I, and the other children who were reading them, were his intellectual equals. He trusted us to work it out for ourselves, as and when we needed to. Rather than changing the words to others that might have meant nearly the same thing, such as ‘ask’ instead of ‘consult’, or ‘doorman’ instead of ‘commissionaire’, he spoke to us on his own level, and in the process, gave the Paddington books their unique feel and a lot of humour, and gave us, the readers, a huge amount of new vocabulary. I even learnt my first French words from ‘Paddington Abroad’; they were ‘escargot’ and ‘gravillons’ and I’ve never forgotten them.

I was very pleased to see in the most recent, and sadly to be the last, Paddington picture book (a book aimed at children aged two and up), the use of the word ‘arpeggio’ – a word that I’m still not one hundred percent certain of the meaning of, despite my daughter’s violin lessons! But I can’t help wondering; if the author had been anyone other than Michael Bond, would the publisher have let him get away with including it?

But maybe what works for me – or the dog – isn’t right for everyone. Certainly there are children who need, or just prefer, a simpler structure; children who either want or need to be able to access the story easily, and without long words that they may find off-putting. To me, it seems very important to have both types of book available – some with, and some without, complex language and words that are likely to be unfamiliar. And why not – there’s plenty of room in the world for children with different needs and preferences, with varied senses of humour and dissimilar styles of learning – and hopefully plenty of room for a wide range of books… not to mention lots of different types of dogs, too.

…and if you can tell me the definition of ‘arpeggio’, please do!

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The Water Cooler

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Writing can be a lonely task. Sometimes I look at our dog and wonder if he occasionally finds his work lonely, as well. He is an only dog – he does get to meet lots of dogs when he goes out for walks, of course, but it’s not the same as having other dogs around all the time. Most of his ‘dog work’ – helping me to edit my writing, clearing up any crumbs on the floor, and making sure that all the food is stored safely in one place (his stomach), takes place without the aid of any furry friends to help him. With this in mind, a few weeks ago we took him to a Tibetan Terrier festival in Leicestershire, to give him a chance to meet loads of other dogs – all at once, and all roughly the same size as him. He had a wonderful time with all the other Tibetan Terriers who came along – playing, sniffing, and presumably working out which of the other dogs were his cousins, aunts and uncles. It was great fun to see so many of them having fun together in one place, but then we went back home and he returned to life as an ‘only dog’.

Writers often find themselves in a very similar situation. The majority of writers are ‘only writers’ – most households can’t afford to keep more than one at a time. Writers, after all, are expensive to feed, and notorious for polishing off the coffee supplies at lightning speed. With a dog, you can usually find a high cupboard where expensive food and beverages can be placed out of reach, but it’s not often so with writers.

It’s true that most writers love spending time alone – and we probably need to like doing that at least a little bit, in order to get any writing done at all. But there comes a time, at least once a day, when you stare at the laptop and think, ‘Is this right? I need someone else’s opinion’. If I was still working in an office, I’d just poke my head through my colleague’s door, or maybe wander along to the kitchen or the water cooler, to see who was taking a break and might be prepared to listen to whatever I’m stuck on. But when you’re the only person in the house it’s not that easy, and this was something that I struggled with when I first started writing – where to find colleagues who I could consult for advice, and who would understand what I was trying to do?

Then I discovered SCBWI (The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). I can’t remember how I first came across it, but when I did, I joined straight away. It’s an amazing organisation, operating across the globe, but with regional chapters as well. Through their workshops, Facebook groups and critique groups, I was immediately put in touch with hundreds of other writers – some with years of experience as published authors behind them, and some, like me, just starting out, and many of them have become friends. All of a sudden I had a water cooler to go to, whenever I needed to, and it’s completely changed the speed at which I learn as a writer. There are just so many people to learn from!

So if you’re a writer, and you haven’t already joined a writer’s group, club or society, consider doing it – you might find yourself wondering how you ever managed to lift a pen, or switch on a laptop without it!

 

Abracadabra! Magic in children’s books

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Dogs believe very firmly in magic – if I pretend to pull a treat out from behind my dog’s ear, he will truly believe that that is where I found it. And if I make something ‘disappear’ by hiding it under a cup, then he is confident that I have made it vanish for ever (in case you’re wondering – no, he didn’t pass this particular test in ‘Measure Your Dog’s IQ’!). If I could make the chair levitate several inches off the kitchen floor he would accept it as just another one of my amazing skills, probably without even batting an eyelid.

A bit like when my children were small and magic tricks were ‘magic’, but not ‘tricks’ – just truly magical. There’s a lot of magic in children’s literature, and fantasy is one of the most popular children’s genres with good reason. We all love a bit of escapism, but often for a child, the magic in the books they read is real. When I was small and reading the E. Nesbit books, I believed that there was really no reason why I couldn’t find my own sand-fairy to give me three wishes, if I looked hard enough in the right places. Maybe even a phoenix and a magic carpet, to take me on my own adventures. Because of this, I think that when writing for Middle Grade children or lower, there’s an important thing to remember – for the child reading a fantasy book, the magic might be real – and why shouldn’t it be? – So it helps to make it realistic!

All the children’s books I’ve written or am currently working on – whether chapter books for 7 to 10s or Middle Grade for slightly older readers – feature magic in some way, but usually set into an otherwise very commonplace world. I love the idea that, like in E. Nesbit’s books, we can have what at first glance appears to be a normal, everyday modern setting, where the characters are believable children who do normal things and use ‘down-to-earth’ language, but as you get into the story you find that there are elements of their world that are magical – whether this is a sand-fairy, a phoenix, a flying carpet, or – in my case – a magic bronze pendant. These magical items or characters lift the reader out of the ‘normal’ world and into a new, exciting place where anything may become possible – and believable. And you never know – for some children, this might make any difficulties that they are experiencing in the ‘real’ world, easier to cope with.

My EU GDPR Compliance Statement

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The EU GDPR is coming into force later this month, and, like all authors, I have prepared a EU GDPR Statement of Data Protection Compliance. Because many people have subscribed to my blog (which, if you have subscribed, I hope you are enjoying !), I’m posting a copy of it here, as today’s post, and apologise in advance if you find it terribly boring. I will also attach this statement to the ‘About’ section of my site, for the benefit of new readers or subscribers. Just to sweeten the pill, I will, as usual, attach a cute picture of my dog!

My EU GDPR Statement of Data Protection Compliance

I have read the Information Commissioner’s Office Guidelines for compliance with the new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) rules, and the following explains how I comply with this. If you have given me your email address (by subscribing to my blog and or contacting me via my contact form, for example), you should read this to reassure yourself that I am looking after your data responsibly. I value the security of your information extremely highly, and will never intentionally breach the rules; the rules are designed for large organisations, and most authors are sole traders, just we are just doing our best to keep up.

Awareness.

I am a sole trader, so there is no one else in my organisation to make aware.

The Information I hold.

Email addresses of people who have contacted me via my contact form or via email, or people to whom I have replied, are automatically saved. I do not share this information with anyone – ever. From time to time other members of my immediate family use my laptop, but they do not have access to my email account, my WordPress account, my Facebook accounts or my Twitter accounts. I am the data controller but not the data processor for these external databases. I always use strong passwords.

Communicating privacy information.

I have attached this information to the ‘About’ section of my WordPress site, and will also send it to my WordPress followers via a post on 21st May 2018. I will also send it to the followers of my Facebook author page and Twitter author account.

Individuals’ rights.

On request, I will delete data. If someone asks to see their data, I would take a screenshot of their entry/entries and send it to them.

Subject access requests.

I will aim to respond to all requests within 24 hours, although there are some times when I am away from home, and will not see requests until my return.

Lawful basis for processing data.

If people have emailed me, or contacted me via my ‘Contact’ form, they have given me their email address. I do not add this to a list, database or spreadsheet, but my email server will automatically save it.

Consent.

If in the future I set up an email list, I will ensure that those people who wish to be on my list receive reminders about the T and C of my holding their data, and I will regard this consent as confirmed for a year. Consent is not indefinite, so I will make sure that I remind subscribers that they can unsubscribe or ask for their information to be removed.

Children.

I only know the ages of the people who email me, or otherwise contact me, if they tell me, and I only have their word for that. If I became aware that a child had contacted me, I will reply to the email but not contact them again. Since I am not ‘processing’ their data, I am not required to ask for parental consent.

Data breaches.

I have done everything I can to prevent this, by password-protecting my lap-top, my mobile phone, my WordPress account and the accounts I use within organisations such as Twitter and Facebook. If the organisations with whom I have accounts were compromised, I would take steps to follow their advice immediately.

Data Protection by Design and Data Protection Impact Assessments.

I have familiarised myself with the ICO’s code of practice on Privacy Impact Assessments as well as the latest guidance from the Article 29 Working Party, and believe that I am using best practice.

Data Protection Officers.

I am not a major organisation so I do not need to appoint a Data Protection Officer.

International.

My lead data protection supervisory authority is the UK’s ICO. This may change after Brexit, but for that, we will just have to wait and see!

Looking to the Future

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Sometimes, when I’m having a bit of a ‘down-day’ on the writing front, I think about the possibility that I may never get a children’s book traditionally published. When this happens the dog always jumps in (literally, usually!), and with a few kind licks, assures me that I’ll get there in the end. Then he settles down next to me, rests his chin on his paws, and gives me a look of reassuring confidence. However, despite his earnest assurances, it remains a possibility that traditional publishing may permanently elude me.

In my experience, writers all have wobbles – days when that we’re writing seems rubbish; when we might have had one too many rejections come bouncing into our inboxes, or maybe a less-than-perfect review. On these days, it seems that traditional publication will never happen. We’re all aware that for some of us this will be true, but it’s impossible to say whether that unfortunate group will include us or not.

When a day like this comes along, I try to think about why I’m really writing in the first place – is my main aim to be traditionally published? Well, it would be wonderful, but surprisingly, no, it isn’t the main reason I write! Do I want children to read the books I’ve written and self-published, enjoy them and find themselves drawn into another world as they read? Well, yes, I do! And what about the books I’ve written but not self-published, and not yet found a traditional publisher for? Well, I think it would be nice to think that in the future – maybe a few generations into the future, even – my descendants might dig them out of a dusty, old box in the loft, read them and enjoy them.

I can imagine the scene – my great-great-grandchildren, sat around in their futuristic living room, holographic screens hovering magically before their eyes. Suddenly another great-great-grandson shimmers into the room, silver future-suit all agleam, and makes an announcement. ‘Hey, guys, look at this!’

The rest of them raise their eyebrows quizzically, and then look with distaste at the dusty bundle being held aloft. ‘Ew! What’s that? It looks all dirty!’

‘No, this is really interesting – I’ve found some stories written by great-great-grandma Rosevear, up in the loft. Look, they’re printed on paper and everything!’

They lean forwards. ‘Paper? You mean what they used even before ebooks came along? Not a hollo-book?’

He brandishes the bundle and dust showers onto the floor, before being rapidly sucked up by an eager housework-bot. ‘Yes. People could print stuff off onto paper whenever they wanted, in those days. Paper wasn’t rare like it is today… I think in those days there were still trees growing in some areas, even – waiting to be made into paper.’

They nod sagely. ‘Oh, yes! Of course that was before World President Trump cut them all down to build the Space Fence… So, what are these stories about?’

He passes the pages round, and they all marvel at the feel of the sheets between their fingers, before squinting their eyes up to read them. ‘Hey,’ someone says in a moody tone. ‘The back-light isn’t working on this page!’ He bends lower in an effort to read it.

After a few minutes one of them puts their paper carefully down on the floating coffee table, next to the cup recylcator. ‘I like this stuff – her stories are quite good!’

‘Yes,’ chimes in someone else. ‘I wonder why she didn’t let a publisher make it into a paper book – you know those fiddly ones they had with lots of bits of paper stuck together?’

‘Oh, yes’, says another. ‘She really should have thought of doing that. I guess she didn’t want to. But maybe, if she could write stories like this in the olden days, we can do it now! Someone pass me my hollopad and thought-transcriber – I’m going to make a start right now!’

A buzz of excitement goes round the room as they all consider the possibility of writing their own stories…

Hmm… If I can give a good reading experience to some children right now, with my self-published books, that’s great – but if I can also leave a legacy of stories for future generations of my family to enjoy, then that will be even better!

Gold dust – learning from other writers

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Since I started writing children’s books, I’ve been casting around for some good advice about how to write more effectively, and some of it has come from unexpected places. Often it’s the dog who gives me the best advice, as you might have picked up from previous posts. In fact, without his input, I don’t think I would have been able to write anything at all; even though at the moment he is gazing out of the window, lost in thought and doubtless planning his own novel.

Recently however, some of the most useful tips I’ve picked up have come from writers that I hadn’t read for many years, and a short time ago I read two really helpful books, which I have reviewed below.

The first one is ‘A Slip of the Keyboard’ by Terry Pratchett (Doubleday, 2014), the famous English fantasy author, who sadly died last year. I’d read some of his Discworld novels a few years ago, but I found ‘A Slip of the Keyboard’, very different; to start with, it isn’t a novel, but a collection of essays giving his views on everything including writing, animals, and death. Amongst it all, I found some wonderful tips for writers, including his views on what you should read in order to improve your writing, what fantasy is, and how difficult it is to write humour well.

The second author I came across with a wealth of brilliant tips for writers was Stephen King. I’d read some Stephen King books as a teenager, and had found them entertaining, but I hadn’t read one for years. Then another writer recommended that I read ‘On Writing’ by Stephen King (Scribner, 2000), so I gave it a go. It was a fascinating book which is roughly divided into three sections. The first section is really autobiography, and includes Stephen King’s childhood, how he started writing, and how he dealt with those inevitable, initial rejections before hitting the big time. The second section is his advice to writers, which is very extensive, but includes his views on different forms of dialogue attribution, and the use of ‘show not tell’. The third section of the book talks about a terrible accident that he was involved in, how he dealt with it, and finally recovered from it, and, ultimately, how he then returned to writing.

If you find particular writers inspiring, or have picked up brilliant writing tips from other books, let me know! And good luck to the dog, with his novel – or whatever else he’s planning – as he sits there lost in thought. I hope he’ll decide to go for it – just so long as it doesn’t involve tearing anything up!

Queen Cakes

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I thought I’d do a recipe for this blog post, as sometimes when I’m writing, I need a bit of a break – and this is usually a good excuse to make something nice to eat. Queen Cakes are one of my favourites, particularly if I’m making something with the children (yes, it is the school holidays again, already!). They are just so easy to make and fun to decorate. Often the dog puts his paw up to say ‘please’ as well, when we start getting the ingredients out, but unfortunately he is always disappointed and has to be content with a dog biscuit – Queen Cakes are far too sugary for him! 

Just in case you’d like a break from your own work as well, or you’ve also got kids to entertain, here is the recipe –

You will need –

100g (¾ cup US) self-raising flour (or just under 100g plain flour plus an extra 2 teaspoons of baking powder, if you’ve run out of self-raising);

100g (½ cup US) sugar (ideally caster sugar, but it doesn’t really matter);

100g (Just under ½ cup US) soft butter or margarine;

2 eggs;

1 level teaspoon baking powder.

If you want to make the chocolate version (and who wouldn’t!), replace approximately 25% of the flour with cocoa powder.

You will also need some paper cake cases or muffin cases. This recipe makes between 10 and 20 cakes, depending on the size of paper cases you use.

If you’d like to decorate them, you will also need icing sugar, butter cream, cooking chocolate, sweets, wafer flowers, wafer butterflies – or anything else that takes your fancy.

 

Method

Pre-heat the oven to 350 F (180 C/gas mark 4). Slightly reduce the temperature if it is a fan oven.

Put all the ingredients into a mixing bowl, in any order, and mix them all together until there are no lumps left (yes, it really is that simple)! You need to end up with a ‘dropping’ consistency, where the mixture will just drop (but not run) from a spoon when held up. If it seems a little too stiff, add a splash of milk, and if it seems slightly too runny, add a little more flour, until you get it about right.

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Then dollop it out into the cake cases or muffin cases with a teaspoon. Fill each case until it is just under half full, but don’t worry too much about getting them all exactly the same. Then, they go into the oven for about 10 to 15 minutes. The cooking time depends on whether you’ve gone for the smaller cake cases or the larger muffin cases – bigger cakes are always better in my experience, but the bigger they are, the longer they’ll take to cook. While you’re waiting, this is a good chance to do the dishes and the clearing up. If you can, try to persuade one of your children to do this for you, while you have a cup of tea and relax.

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Get them out of the oven when they are slightly golden on top (or spongy to the touch for chocolate ones) and put them onto a wire rack to cool.

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Leave the cakes alone until they are completely cold – if you can. Personally, I always like to try one while they are still warm – just to make sure that they are nice!

Once they are completely cold, decorate as you like – maybe with chocolate buttercream and chocolate stars –

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Or maybe with vanilla buttercream and wafer flowers and butterflies –

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Or maybe with both –

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Then summon the rest of the family, and tuck in. Enjoy the cakes and the school holidays – until it’s time to get back to the writing!

New Children’s Book – Chapter One!

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This week my second children’s chapter book will be hitting the shelves, so I thought it might be a good idea to post the first chapter here, to give people an idea what it is all about. I had a chat with the dog about it, to get his opinion. He loudly agreed, although I can’t help thinking that this may be because, for my second book, he served as the model for the dog that appears in the front cover illustration.

What is it about, I hear you ask? Well, here is the blurb –

Hannah is very excited when she finds out that her parents are finally going to let her get a puppy, but her excitement is soon dashed when Dad tells her that they are going to have to sell the woods at the bottom of their garden, to pay for repairs to the house.

Hannah is sure that there are deer living in the woods – whatever will happen to them if the trees are cleared away to build houses? Can she think of a way to save the woods, as well as learn to look after her new pet? Hannah will need help from her Italian friend, the mysterious Mrs Oberto, but will they have to use the secret that only they know about, and call for help once more from the world of the Ancient Romans?

This is the second in the ‘Roman Magic’ series, but can also be read as a ‘stand-alone’ story.

Anyway, here’s chapter one, and I hope you enjoy it!

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Mystical Moonlight

The Second ‘Roman Magic’ book

 

Chapter One

Hannah put her hands over her ears and tried to concentrate on her homework, but it wasn’t easy, with Dad hammering up on the roof above her. She looked around her bedroom, trying to distract herself from the noise, and her eye was caught by the damp stain on the ceiling. For several weeks now it had been growing bigger, and some of the other rooms in the flat had been showing signs of damp as well.

As always with Hannah’s parents, any spare money was used to improve the lives of the people who lived in the nursing home below their flat. Hannah’s mum, the home’s matron, and her dad, the handyman and general ‘fixer’, would never even dream of keeping any money back to make their own small, top-floor flat more comfortable. Things were getting more serious, now though. After weeks of trying, even Dad was nearing defeat when it came to repairing the roof.

Maybe it was worth leaving the homework until later. Hopefully by the evening Dad would have stopped hammering, and would be settled in his armchair with his newspaper. Mum would still be busy, of course. She was always rushing about, running the nursing home, managing the nursing assistants and other staff, and doing all the office work – but usually her work was a lot quieter than Dad’s.

Hannah put the homework away in her desk drawer and, after checking in her bedroom mirror, gave her long dark hair a quick brush and tied it back in a ponytail before trotting down the stairs. Hopefully her two favourite nursing home residents would be free for a chat. She smiled as she thought about them. There was lovely little Mrs Beadle, who had been known as ‘Mrs Beetle’ ever since Hannah was small and hadn’t been able to pronounce ‘Beadle’ properly. In response, Mrs Beetle had always called Hannah ‘Grub’, after the name for a baby beetle – she loved her little jokes. Then there was Mrs Oberto, a large, Italian-speaking lady from Sicily who had seemed quite scary and unfriendly when she had moved in a few months ago, but who was now one of Hannah’s best friends.

Hannah had some exciting news to tell her the two ladies. For many years she had wanted to have a dog, but Mum and Dad had always been reluctant to get one as they were too busy to look after a pet. However, the previous evening they’d told Hannah that they had decided she was now old enough to be responsible for a dog herself. But there was one condition – she would have to do all the feeding, training and walking. She did a little skip as she walked along. It was so exciting! She couldn’t wait to get a puppy and start teaching it to do tricks.

Reaching the bottom of the stairs, Hannah headed for Mrs Oberto’s room. Hopefully Mrs Beetle would be there too, having a cup of tea and a chat.

Just as she had thought – as she knocked on the door, she could hear Mrs Beetle’s high-pitched giggly voice, and the lower but louder tones of Mrs Oberto’s Italian accent.

‘Come in, don’t just stand out there.’

As she went in, Hannah saw the two ladies sitting together beside a small table, which held two cups and saucers and an enormous teapot. Mrs Beetle, with her pretty pink dress and rosy cheeks, sat on one side of the table, almost buried in the depths of an armchair that made her look even tinier than she really was. Mrs Oberto, wearing her usual thick black dress and black headscarf, was hunched over to bring her head down to Mrs Beetle’s level.

As Hannah walked in, Mrs Oberto raised her bushy dark eyebrows and her strong Italian accent boomed out. ‘Come on in, Hannah. Have you got any news for us this afternoon?’

 

Well, there you go – that’s chapter one! If you’d like to read more, Mystical Moonlight is published by Matador This April, and available to pre-order on Amazon!

 

 

Braving the Spiders

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Recently, I got a bit stuck with the plot for my new children’s book, and started casting around for inspiration. I had my inspiration box to give me some ideas (see https://catherinerosevear.wordpress.com/2018/01/19/the-inspiration-box/), but I was still unsure how to move on. Looking through the bookcase, I started seeking for books that I hadn’t seen for a while, and then I remembered – loads of them were still in the boxes they’d gone into when we moved house a few years ago, and they were… horror of horrors… in the loft.

I don’t like the loft. To start with, there are spiders up there, and I’m scared of spiders. Secondly, the loft ladder is quite wobbly, and when it’s in position, it’s immediately at the top of the stairs. On the rare occasions when I’ve been up there, I quite like another adult to be not only in the house, but standing on the stairs holding the phone, with their finger hovering over the ‘9’ button, just in case I plummet the full depth of the stairwell to an almost certain doom. But, there were certainly a lot of boxes of books up there, and the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to have a look at them. Hmm, I thought – maybe I should be brave and go up for a rummage about.

I waited until another adult was in the house and then told the dog my intentions. He seemed interested in the idea that there might be another room in the house. Could he come too? I explained that it would be best if he waited downstairs for me to return from this dangerous expedition, but I agreed that if I found any dog biscuits up there, I’d bring them back for him.

The loft ladder came wobbling down and I climbed apprehensively up it, fumbling around for the light switch at the top. The dog watched from the hallway, fascinated, as I disappeared into the unknown. For him, it was as if I was climbing the ladder at the top of Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree, to see what strange magical land would be there. He could only hope that I’d come back down before the land moved on, sweeping me away, never to return.

Clambering from the top of the ladder onto the loft floor, I suddenly remembered another reason why I didn’t like it up there – it’s not an easy space to walk around; the head height is designed for hobbits, and the width of the boarded-out floor is ideal if you are the same width as a pencil. Certainly there was no room to turn around. I glanced about apprehensively, checking for cobwebs. I couldn’t see any blocking my route to the books at the far end of the wooden boards, but you could never be too careful. I started inching my way along until, finally, I reached the boxes I wanted. They were covered in dust and pretty battered, but I pulled the first one towards me, opened it and looked inside. Hmm, there were quite a few books in there that I’d forgotten I had. I put my hand in and then pulled it immediately out again. What was that?! Something had crawled over my hand!

A careful look showed that the box was half full of books and half full of flies – recently woken from hibernation, by the look of it, and not best pleased about it either. I wrapped a scarf round my hand and, grimacing, pushed my hand back in. I pulled books out as quickly as I could. Once I’d got a good haul, I tucked them under my arm and started reversing back down the loft towards the ladder, bent double so as not to bang my head on the roof. It felt as though I was bowing my way out of a royal presence.

There was a temporary glitch at the top of the ladder, when my hair got caught in some fly paper. I made a big effort not to panic, yanked my head away and started down the rickety ladder, the precious books held tight. As the dog watched me slowly returning from ‘Loftland’, his eyes grew wider than I’d ever seen them before, and as soon as I was back downstairs, he sniffed my ankles keenly. Wherever had I been, and thank goodness I was safe! But, more importantly, did I find any biscuits up there?

Once the ladder had been put away, I settled down on the sofa to see what I’d got. I seemed to have found some great, if quite dusty, books – there was a nice copy of The Voyage of the Beagle’ by Charles Darwin; ‘The Complete Illustrated Stories of Sherlock Holmes’ by Conan Doyle; a big, colourful book called ‘The Pirates’, that had previously belonged to my granddad, and finally, a huge hardback containing the William Morris Kelmscott Chaucer, which was full to the brim with prints of fantastic woodcut illustrations and illuminated letters. I hadn’t seen these books for years – it was like having a birthday! Plenty of reading to keep me going for a good while anyway – or at least until I came up with some more plot ideas for my own book!

‘Telegram for Catherine’ – Why have I got so many messaging services?

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As a children’s writer, I spend a lot of time communicating with other writers, schools, and the publisher for my self-published books. But I often think that I spend too much time reading and sending messages and emails. A while ago, I looked at my mobile phone and realised that almost the entire top two rows of icons were messaging services of various kinds, and it made me think about how much time each day I spend reading emails, texts, etc. I started wondering if they were all really necessary, and I had a look at which ones I had. There were text messages and emails (of course!), but also Messenger, Facebook notifications, ParentMail, Ebay notifications, WhatsApp, Twitter notifications and finally Voicemail (in case anyone should actually want to physically speak to me). A lot of them double up as well – if there are several Twitter notifications I haven’t opened yet, Twitter will send me an admonishing email telling me to look at them, and so will Facebook, ParentMail and Ebay. A lot of these notifications pop up as banners on the home screen of my phone, as well, just to make sure I don’t miss them – or at least they used to, until I realised that I could turn them off in settings. But there are so many, it’s hard to keep track.

The other day my phone started making pinging noises, which is unusual; I don’t normally like my phone to make a noise unless someone is actually ringing me. When I looked at the home screen, there right in the middle, was a notification instructing me to look at my ‘news’ app. Why? If I’ve got time on my hands and I want to read the news, I’ll do it without being prompted, thank you very much!

Sometimes it feels as though I’m a slave to all these various methods of communication, and although I can appreciate that it’s necessary, and a lot of the messages are ones that I want or need to see, it really does seem a bit much sometimes. I can’t help wondering if the great and powerful now employ not only a PA, but an additional full-time PA, whose sole job is to monitor and respond to all the various messages that arrive, every second of the day.

The dog has no such problems managing his incoming communications, or indeed, his outgoing ones. He occasionally receives cards in the post for his birthday, and when he does, he absolutely loves reading the cards and ripping up the envelopes, but usually the only communication he finds acceptable, is face-to-face. If a member of the family is away and rings up in the evening to say hello to everyone, we often hold the phone to the dog’s ear, so the absent family member can chat to him. He doesn’t think much of this at all, and will usually narrow his eyes suspiciously at the sound of the disembodied voice, before huffing loudly and stalking away to a quieter part of the room. Not for him, the task of checking and responding to messages and emails each morning – he can just get straight on to his mid-morning nap.

I’m sure that in the ‘olden days’ people weren’t bombarded with messages all the time, and they all seemed to survive well enough, most of the time. In many of the black and white films I’ve seen, boys in smart uniforms were often to be seen wandering around the lobbies of fancy hotels, shouting ‘Telegram for Mr Brown, telegram for Mr Brown!’ Of course, Mr Brown, if located, would usually give the telegram boy a generous tip for his trouble, but everyone seemed to find it perfectly acceptable that there would be some messages that they wouldn’t get until later, if then.

When I was a child most people, but not everyone, had a land-line. The hand-set for this would be rented at an astronomical cost, from the phone company, and it would sit regally on a table in the hall, from which it could never be moved. But when you were out and about, no one could get in touch with you at all. I can remember SOS messages being broadcast on Radio 4, usually along the lines of asking if Mr John Smith could please get in touch with Central Hospital, where his brother was seriously ill. I always hoped that the right person heard the message, but I knew that, sadly, there was a very good chance that many of them never did. Similarly, when, in my early twenties, I came back to London after six weeks in Thailand, I felt quite apprehensive on the plane – what if there had been a family tragedy while I’d been away? I’d had no communication with anyone in England for weeks; anything could have happened.

Thinking back to those days, I realise that instant and constant communication can be a very good and helpful thing, but surely there’s a limit somewhere to how much time each day I should spend keeping on top of it all? Anyway, enough ranting on – I can see from my phone’s home screen, that while I’ve been writing this I’ve received twelve emails – I’d better go and read them all!