National Dog Day – what about a day for writers?!

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Last month there was yet another day of celebration for the dog – on 27th August it was National Dog Day, and just like on Christmas Day, Little Christmas Day (see blog post https://catherinerosevear.wordpress.com/2018/07/06/another-little-christmas/ ) and his birthday, there were presents, treats and cards galore – this time, all especially for him.

He absolutely loves opening presents. He was delighted to discover that we’d got him a new blanket, which he immediately lay down on. There were also home-made dog biscuits, and a game of ‘pass the parcel’ in which – surprisingly – the music always stopped when the parcel was in front of him. I think it’s safe to say that he really enjoyed himself, as, in fact, did the rest of us, but it got me thinking about all these special days we have, for this and that.

I found a list on Wikipedia of all the various special days that are celebrated around the world, and it was fascinating reading. There’s a huge list of them, including, of course, all the famous ones like Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. In reading down the list, I found it difficult to choose my favourite – I suggested to the dog that maybe it would have to be either World Chocolate Day, or possibly, Ice Cream for Breakfast Day! He immediately objected strongly to this, and suggested that if I was looking for something other than National Dog Day to celebrate, then it should be National Puppy Day. I had to explain to him that as far as Wikipedia could tell me, this was only celebrated in the USA. He huffed petulantly, and pointed out that I hadn’t even mentioned Take Your Dog to Work Day. I realised that on 24th June, when this day is apparently celebrated, I hadn’t even known about it. Quickly passing him a dog treat to ease my guilt, I decided to move on to looking into which days are related to writers and writing.

Wikipedia informed me that in various countries around the western world, there are several days that are linked to writing or literature. These are –

  • National Science Fiction Day (2nd January) – celebrated in the USA.
  • Family Literacy Day (27th January) – a day celebrating literacy in Canada.
  • Dr Seuss Day (2nd March).
  • World Writers’ Day (3rd March) – established in 1986, and founded in London by the International PEN club, to promote support among writers, internationally, and to bring together respected international writers for discussion.
  • World Poetry Day (21st March) – established by the UN.
  • Tolkien Reading Day (25th March).
  • International Children’s Book Day (2nd April).
  • World Book and Copyright Day (23rd April).
  • National Writing Day (27th June) – an annual day to inspire writing, across the UK.
  • Author’s Day (1st November) – established in Illinois, USA, in 1928 to celebrate American Authors.
  • International African Writers’ Day (7th November).
  • Day of the Imprisoned Writer (15th November) – an international day established in 1981, to recognise writers who stand up for freedom of expression.

All these days connected with writing and literature looked great, but what struck me was that none of them were just about generally celebrating writers, in the way that Mother’s Day and Father’s Day just generally celebrate mothers and fathers. And this in a world where the vast majority of writers (both self-published and traditionally published), earn very little money from their writing, with only the rare, famous few making a good living from it. In fact, the vast majority of unpublished and self-published writers slave away with no financial reward at all.

Surely, I suggested to the dog, it was time for a National (or even International) Writers’ Day, when all book-lovers would show their appreciation to any writers they happened to know, feting them with cards, flowers and gifts? He yawned – for some reason he seemed to be getting a bit tired of listening to me – and, settling down on his new blanket for a well-earned snooze, he pointed out that there were only six months to go until World Sleep Day came around again on 17th March, and maybe we should start celebrating that now, instead.

Oh well – it was only a suggestion!

 

With many thanks to Wikipedia and their wonderful (and very informative), ‘List of minor secular observances’.

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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 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’.

Story ideas – where do they come from?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was a dark and stormy night…

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

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

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

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

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