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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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.

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!

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!

Character development in children’s writing – how hard can it be?

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Something I’ve been struggling with lately, in writing, is character development. Recently, I sent off a manuscript to an agent, but instead of getting back the standard ‘your manuscript is not right for us’, email, this time I got a more detailed response. This agent told me that she liked the idea and the writing, but she found the main character boring. What? I was astounded! What was wrong with my main character? But I had another read through the manuscript and after a few hard looks at it, I had to admit that she could be right – the personality of the main character wasn’t really that interesting, and I wasn’t always making it clear why she behaved as she did.

How could I do something about this? Luckily, I had just joined a writer’s critique group, so I took the manuscript along, and got some good feedback. When I got home I re-wrote the manuscript with the suggested changes, but it still felt as though something was missing. I had another think about it, and realised that I didn’t really know what made my main character tick at all. I had to do something about this, but what?

Browsing around for advice from other writers, I came across a really useful Facebook thread that dealt with how writers can get to know their main characters, and it gave a suggestion that I thought I could try, even though it sounded strange… The advice was to interview your character.

Hmm. But, how can you interview someone who doesn’t really exist?

Various people contributed to the thread, and suggested questions to think about – what response would your main character be most likely to give? Some of the questions were –

  • What are their favourite and least favourite foods?
  • Are they neat and tidy, or a bit messy?
  • Are they quite uptight and controlling or a bit more free and easy?
  • How would they react to waiting in a bus queue?
  • What do they do to recharge their batteries?
  • What do they keep in their pockets?
  • If they had a magic wand, what would they wish for?
  • What do they want more than anything else?
  • Where is their favourite place?
  • What is their ideal job?
  • What does their bedroom look like?
  • What is their favourite animal and why?
  • What is their biggest regret?
  • What lies do they tell themselves, and why?

I decided that I would have a go at it, but before I could get started, the dog suggested that I should try the questions out on him, first.

Hmm, right, okay…

  • Q. So, what are some of your favourite and least favourite foods?
  • A. What do you mean by favourite? All food is great, isn’t it?
  • Q. Are you neat and tidy, or messy?
  • A. Tidy, of course. What do you mean, my toys are all over the floor!
  • Q. Are you controlling or easy-going?
  • A. Easy-going – unless there’s food involved!
  • Q. How would you react to waiting in a bus queue?
  • A. I don’t think I’d have any problem with that at all – so long as there are plenty of people to make a fuss of me, while I’m waiting – and maybe some snacks to keep me going.
  • Q. How do you recharge your batteries?
  • A. Plenty of beauty-sleep, and as much food as I can get!
  • Q. What do you keep in your pockets?
  • A. Are you serious?!
  • Q. Hmm. Moving on… If you had a magic wand, what would you wish for?
  • A. More food… and the chance to chew the wand.
  • Q. What do you want more than anything else?
  • A. A few moments alone with the kitchen bin.
  • Q. Where is your favourite place?
  • A. In the pub, having a huge meal, with a few ice-cubes to refresh my palate between courses.
  • Q. What is your ideal job?
  • I’ve always thought I’d make an excellent sheriff dog. I certainly suit the hat!
  • Q. Really, I didn’t know that! Anyway, next question – what does your bedroom look like?
  • A. You’re standing in it – some ill-informed people call it the kitchen.
  • Q. What is your favourite animal?
  • A. Me!
  • Q. What is your biggest regret?
  • A. Not rushing quickly enough to eat that pie that fell on the floor, before it was taken away.
  • Q. What lies do you tell yourself?
  • A. I never tell lies – I’m always a good boy. Can I have a treat now?

Right – that’s the dog done. Now it’s time to get to know my main character…

 

(With thanks to Jenny Shippen, Michele Simonsen, Mandy Rabin, James Nicol, Andrew Guile, Kathryn Evans, Emma O’Brien, Tracey Mathias Potter, Kathryn Kettle Williams, and everyone else I may have missed, who contributed to Jenny’s original SCBWI British Isles Facebook post).

The Beano – Eighty Years Young

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A few years ago, the dog, along with my son, achieved a level of fame that they had previously only dreamt about; they had their picture printed on the letters page of The Beano! Outside the UK, it’s possible that quite a few people exist who have never heard of The Beano, so for their benefit, I’ll clarify that it is a children’s comic – but not just any old children’s comic.

The Beano, published by DC Thomson, has actually been around since before the Second World War. Although we have a lot of old copies of The Beano in our house, I certainly don’t have an original copy of issue Number One, from 30th July 1938. In fact, a couple of years ago, I saw a newspaper article which reported that a first issue had sold at auction for £17,000! However, I do have a reproduction of this first issue, which DC Thomson produced in 2003, to mark this iconic comic’s 65th anniversary. It’s an interesting read; there are some aspects of the first issue, such as some references which we would now consider racist, which would, quite rightly, never be included in a modern-day comic. Also, the threats of being ‘whacked’ with a parent’s slipper or the teacher’s cane, which was often featured in the issues I read in the 1970s and 80s, are also, thankfully, long-gone. But although much of the comic has changed, and only one original character is still featured (Lord Snooty), some of the long-forgotten personalities such as ‘Big Eggo’ the ostrich, ‘Uncle Windbag’ and ‘Whoopee Hank, the Slap-dash Sheriff’ still look fun today.

Today’s cover star in The Beano, is Dennis the Menace; he has ruled the roost on page one since the 1950s, and has since been joined by his dog, Gnasher (an Abyssian Wire-haired Tripe Hound who arrived in the 1960s), his pig, Rasher (who first appeared in the 1970s) and his little sister, Bea (who came along in the 1990s). In my house, the dog rather fancies himself as Gnasher, and in all fairness, he does look quite a bit like him when his fur is nearly ready for a trim… even more so, when he’s wearing the traditional menacing colours of red and black stripes.

Why has The Beano been successful for so long? As a writer this question interests me, because when you write something, it’s important to remember how quickly it might become dated, if you’re not careful. Looking at The Beano, I think it’s because the main characters in the first issue made their mark with the pre-war kids of the day by cheering on cheekiness, and ensuring that the kids in the comic-strips always challenged the authority of the adults. They didn’t usually win in the end, but at least they enjoyed themselves trying! This is something that kids through the ages have always loved. Also, it’s a comic that has managed to move with the times without losing its intrinsic sense of fun. My children look forward to ‘Beano day’ with as much enthusiasm as I did in the 1970s.

In 2013, DC Thomson put on an exhibition at the Southbank Centre in London, to celebrate the comic’s 75th anniversary. It was great, and I think I enjoyed it as much as the children did. Incredibly, this year will be the comic’s 80th anniversary. I can hardly believe that it has been going for that long, and can only hope that DC Thomson will take the opportunity to put on some more Beano-themed events. For myself, I’m wondering what they will do to celebrate their 100th anniversary in 2038 – now that will really be something to write a blog-post about!

 

The Inspiration Box

 

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A few weeks ago, a friend asked me if I would spend a couple of hours, one Saturday, doing a short writing workshop with her son and some of his friends. He had been very enthusiastic when I’d visited his class, during a school author visit a month or two earlier, and he and his friends wanted some tips on writing.

I had a think about how to structure the workshop, and decided that it would be best to keep it practical. We’d have a look at story arcs, and then focus on where to get inspiration from. I had a look round the house and, doing so, realised that my inspiration for stories comes from lots of different places. The inspiration for my first book, ‘the Secret of the Wooden Chest’, had come from a bronze Roman pendant, when I started wondering what the original owner of the pendant had been like. The inspiration for as-yet-unpublished stories that had followed, had included some deer that lived in local woodland, a statue outside a local school, and a Halloween costume. I realised that sometimes you just need a little prompt to get the idea for a story, and I set about making an ‘Inspiration Box’.

I found a small, pretty box and filled it with the following things –

An interesting shell,

An ammonite fossil,

A small mirror,

An old key,

A ring,

A little clock,

A foreign coin,

A piece of polished amethyst,

A button,

A shiny stone,

A piece from a jigsaw,

And an exotic-looking, lidded pot that I’d bought, years ago, in India.

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The dog watched in fascination as I filled the box with all kinds of bits and pieces. Surely at least some of them would be edible, he suggested. Would I like him to have a chew at them all, one by one, to find out? I declined, but he pressed his case. It was really no trouble at all, he assured me, snatching up the jigsaw piece and running off behind the chair with it.

Once I’d manage to catch him and regain full control of the contents of the box, I had a good look at all the things I’d gathered. Who knew what stories could come out of all these intriguing things, but it got me thinking, straight away. What kind of beach had the shell come from? It might have come from a desert island, silently waiting for its first castaway. Had the button been lost by a spy? If so, it might have a secret formula engraved on it, in writing so tiny that you would need a magnifying glass to read it. What door did the old key open, and was someone trapped in a locked room behind it, locked in centuries ago, as an awful punishment for an equally terrible crime? Did the mirror have the power to magically transport  you into another world, or would it allow you to see the last person who looked into it? Which country was the foreign coin from, and what exotic item could be bought with it, at that country’s local market? Had the amethyst ever been set into a princess’s crown, and, if so, how had it been lost? Did the mysterious pot contain fairy dust, or gold, or was it maybe something more spine-tingling; a piece of mummy-wrapping perhaps, or a crumpled-up ancient parchment on which was written a terrible curse?

Suddenly, I had more story ideas than I knew what to do with.

Once I’d done the workshop, I carefully put away the notes that I’d prepared for it, but I didn’t put away the inspiration box. Having made it, this was something that I knew I’d use again; not just for any future workshops, but also for myself. So now, whenever ‘Writer’s block’ strikes, I pick up the inspiration box (being careful to keep it well away from the dog). Who knows what story might come out of it next…

 

 

A Grand Goodbye

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The dog’s best ‘hard stare’.

 

Last week, I went to a memorial service at St Paul’s Cathedral, held to celebrate the life of the great children’s author, Michael Bond. Most famously, Michael was the author of ‘A Bear called Paddington’, but this book was only one of his many publications, during a career spanning many decades. Many of his other books do, of course, feature Paddington, but he also created lots of other characters, some for children and some for adults.

I love St Paul’s Cathedral anyway, but on this occasion the setting was even more special, as it features in the new Paddington film, ‘Paddington 2’, in addition to which, it will also be the setting for the last Paddington picture book that Michael wrote, ‘Paddington at St Paul’s’, which is due to come out in 2018.

I got there early, and asking the doorman on the side door which way I should go, was told, ‘You need the posh doors, round the front.’ It seemed fitting that such a spectacular location, including use of the ‘posh doors’, had been set aside that day, to celebrate Michael’s life and achievements.

When I got inside, I was sat almost right under the dome, next to the statue of Nelson. I could feel a real sense of community and like-mindedness amongst the assembled crowd; some were family members, some were celebrities who had known Michael or who had featured in the Paddington films, and many, like me, were just children’s book fans for whom Paddington was a special character; almost a real person, who had instilled so much humour and adventure into our younger selves. But for everyone present, Paddington had been a big part of our lives.

Several members of the family spoke, escorted to the front one by one, by the fabulously-dressed but terrifyingly-formal, cathedral Wandsmen. Michael’s daughter spoke movingly about how her father was always writing ideas for characters down in notebooks, and three of his grandchildren – grown-up now, but really brave, just the same, in front of such a crowd – read out excerpts from some of his books. His publisher and agent talked about how Paddington had always remained a big part of the author’s life. Apparently, when asked about Paddington, Michael had once said, ‘He isn’t me, but I wouldn’t mind being him!’ He had also sometimes tackled tricky business decisions, by asking, ‘Well, what would Paddington, do?’ Hearing this, it occurred to me that you couldn’t go far wrong in life, when following the advice of a bear with such a keen eye for a bargain, as Mrs Bird used to say, as well as a strong sense of right and wrong!

The sermon referred to Paddington’s status as an immigrant, and an illegal immigrant at that, and spoke about how the Paddington books promoted inclusion. Finally, three actors from the latest Paddington film, read out some of the tributes that the family had received from members of the public. Many of these echoed my own feelings, and reminded me something that had happened to me when I was about five years old. My mum had been reading me a chapter from a Paddington book for a bedtime story. When she’d finished, she’d left the room, and I’d sat in bed holding the book and stared fixedly at the cover, desperately wishing that I could read, so that I could get on to the next chapter. Looking around the cathedral, I could see that some groups of school children had been invited, and I hoped that they too might have had a similar experience.

When I can out of the cathedral (through the ‘posh doors’, of course), an amazing sight met my eyes. Standing at the top of the steps I was looking down into a sea of cameras and photographers, all gathered at the bottom, and ready to take pictures of the celebrity guests as they left the service. It felt right that the press should be there too, to record the event for posterity. As I walked back to the station, clutching my Order of Service, I felt aware that although Michael’s life had been important nationally, it had also been significant for me personally, and for many others who had grown up thinking of Paddington as a friend.

When I got home, the dog wanted to know if Paddington liked animals, and I was able to reassure him that although nothing was said about dogs, the publisher had mentioned that Michael had been a life-long fan of guinea-pigs, and allowed his guinea-pig pets to roam freely about his house. The dog seemed to find this acceptable and he nodded solemnly. In many ways he is a very traditional dog, and there is much about him that reminds me of Paddington, not least of all his hard stare; which he always uses if you promise to save him a piece of toast and then forget – as I often do.

So, goodbye to Michael Bond, but hopefully not goodbye to Paddington. With his strong values and community spirit, I hope that the books will live on, for many generations to come.

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’.