Braving the Spiders


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, 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?


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


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



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.


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


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


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’.

Story ideas – where do they come from?


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…


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!

It was a dark and stormy night…


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, 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…

‘i’ before ‘e’


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!