There’s no time like snow time!

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A couple of weeks ago, my Sunday lie-in was interrupted at six thirty in the morning by the dog, who was screaming his head off, downstairs. I leapt out of bed and rushed down – was he ill, in pain, had he got his head caught on something? I could tell by the urgency in his high-pitched voice that something serious had happened. When I arrived in the kitchen, I gave him a quick look-over, but strangely he didn’t seem ill and the screaming had stopped. There was, however, a wild gleam in his eyes, and he was jumping up and down in a frenzy of excitement, giving occasional well-aimed kicks to the back door. He wanted to go out. I opened the back door and we both stepped outside. Aah, now it all made sense – it had snowed overnight.

Being a Tibetan Terrier, the dog is extremely keen on snow. With his thick, fur coat keeping the cold and damp away from his skin, and the fur between the pads on his feet forming natural snow-boots, he is in his element in the winter. Snow is definitely his favourite weather, but this was the first time he’d seen it for almost three years. He was completely beside himself with delight, and prancing up to me, he immediately proposed a snow-eating contest. I declined to take part, but watched as he tried to shovel as much snow into his mouth as possible. As I looked at him enjoying himself, I puzzled over how he had known that snow had fallen; he couldn’t see out of the window from his bed in the kitchen, and anyway, it was still dark. Could he smell it? Maybe, but however he knew, it was fair to say that he was pretty pleased about it.

Seeing the snow for the first time in such a long time, made me think about how difficult it can be to describe weather and give a feel for the correct season, when writing. Of the books I’ve written so far (one published, another soon to be published, and several still sat in the drawer), two have very clear seasons; one is set during a hot summer and another takes place at Halloween. When I was writing those two, I found it quite difficult to make sure that the reader would be able to get a feel for the weather and the time of year. For the summer book, I tried to evoke the season by talking about the flowers, buzzing bees, the heat of the sun, etc., and in the Halloween book I talked a lot about the chilly wind, the falling leaves swirling around, and thick coats and gloves. But it seemed hard to get it right. The problem, was that it was spring time when I wrote the summer book, and summer when I wrote the Halloween one. When I re-read them both later in the year, I realised that there was a lot more I could have included, if I’d waited until the right time of year to write it. For instance, in the summer I noticed how dusty my feet got when I walked around outside all day in sandals, and at Halloween it struck me how all the shops were filled with chocolates covered in orange foil, and plastic spiders, alongside stacks of tubs filled with ‘trick or treat’ sweets. I hadn’t included either of these things in the books, and a lot of other details, besides.

Obviously you can’t always wait until the right time of year to write a story, and what about those stories and books that take place over a long period of time, and might span more than one year, let alone several seasons? As I stood shivering in my dressing gown in the dark, snowy garden, with the dog dancing ecstatically around my ice-trimmed slippers, I realised that I need to start writing this stuff down in a notebook. So now I have a weather notebook, divided into four sections; one for each season. And my new year’s resolution? Not to leave it in the ‘big pile of notebooks’, but to fill it in as the year goes along, with notes and comments about the little details of the weather and the seasons. That way, next time I write a story set at a particular time of year, I can refer back to it, get into the feel of the season, and I’ll be all set to go!

In the mean-time the snow has, sadly, melted, and the dog has gone back to having a lie-in at the weekends, like the rest of us. If he’s lucky, he’ll see some more snowy weather before the winter ends. But if he does, I’ll be right next to him out there in the garden, writing it all down, as the flakes settle on the tops of our heads. Next time I write a story set in winter, I’ll be ready for it!

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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.

Story ideas – where do they come from?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A loud slamming noise…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wow! What a result.

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

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

‘A loud slamming noise’.

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

What If…

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So, my book is now out! There are quite a few pre-orders on Amazon, I’ve spoken to all the book shops that are within a few miles of where I live, and I’ve contacted local libraries. What’s more, I’ve got a box of books waiting in my cupboard, ready to take to primary schools in September. The publisher has contacted long lists of people and organisations as well, so as far as the marketing goes, it’s all good! Will they all sell? Who knows, we’ll just have to wait and see.

But the next thing coming up will be the stage where people who have bought the book, start to give me feedback. What will they think? Will they like it? And if they don’t, will they tell me the truth? And if they tell me the truth, will I like what they’ve got to say?! Hmm!

Worrying about what people will or won’t say about the book when they’ve read it (assuming they buy it in the first place!), makes me think how much many of us worry about things, over which we have no control. I like to think of myself as an optimist, but I still spend a good amount of time worrying, probably like most other people. A lot of us are constantly thinking about what could go wrong in the future, rather than focusing on what could go right, or even trying to relax and not think about the future at all.

As I mentioned in my last post, the dog always looks on the bright side, and it would never occur to him to think that something might not go well. But, more than that, not only does he not think about bad things happening in the future, he doesn’t really think about the future at all – he lives entirely in the moment, enjoying what he’s doing at the time, with complete concentration and with no thought to tomorrow. If he’s enjoying chewing a bone, that is enough for him, and he will just get on with enjoying it. When he’s had enough of it, he’ll move on to something else and put all his concentration into the new activity – even if the new activity involves stealing clothes out of the laundry basket, and tearing them into tiny pieces in a quiet corner of the kitchen.

I know that being human beings with complex lives, we do need to think about and plan for the future. However, as far as I can, I will certainly try to be more like the dog – at the moment, my book is published and much of the marketing work has been done – I’ll just enjoy the moment!

Roll up, roll up…

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Well, it has to be said that we all, including the dog of course, really enjoyed ‘Little Christmas’, and I would definitely recommend it! If you haven’t read my last blog post you will doubtless now be feeling confused, but have a look at the ‘Little Christmas’ post, and all will become clear.

Now that Little Christmas is over everything has gone back to normal, and the very exciting news is that my book is now actually published! This being the case, I’m thinking more and more about how to go about selling it. I’ve never been a very good saleswoman, despite spending some time in the marketing department of the organisation I worked for in America, years ago. Still, promoting other people’s products and services is one thing, but the idea of having to promote something I’ve made myself, goes against all my better feelings. Surely that’s just showing off?

The publishers are doing a lot of the marketing for me, but I need to get involved as well, and I’m now at the stage of working with them to promote and market the book. This involves a lot of online work, but also, horror of horrors, taking paper copies of my Advance Information sheet into bookshops, and talking to real people in buying departments about why they should order copies of my book!

If someone asks me if my book is any good, my natural response is, ‘Well, I think so, so hopefully you might like it too.’ However, in the wonderful world of marketing, apparently the right response is actually, ‘Yes, it’s brilliant, so order twenty copies at once and give them to all your friends for Christmas!’ The appropriate follow-up is then, ‘You should order them today as well, otherwise they’ll probably all be sold out, and you’ll kick yourself for missing out on the chance to get a first edition!’

I’m sat next to the dog as I write this, and I’m struck by the fact that he has no such problems with shameless self-promotion. For example, if a visitor tickles the dog’s ear and remarks that he’s a lovely boy, he does not respond by saying, ‘Oh, am I? I’m sure I’m not, but how very kind of you to say so!’ In fact, he leaps on the opportunity to chat to someone who agrees with his own high opinion of himself, and immediately congratulates the visitor on their good taste and their keen observational skills. He’ll then go on to suggest that they might like to expand on which aspects of him they think are the most outstanding.

It’s also interesting to see how he responds when a visitor arrives who is less fond of dogs. Does he sit quietly in the corner, wondering why they haven’t come over to admire him, and worrying about whether he isn’t actually a very good dog, after all? No – he assumes that, by some oversight, they haven’t yet noticed him. How awful it would be, he thinks, if this person missed the opportunity to stroke his soft ears, and view his beautiful fur from closer range. Then he launches himself across the kitchen, tail wagging wildly and paw confidently extended.

Once again I’m finding myself learning from the dog – instead of hoping people might like my book, and worrying about whether they won’t, clearly I should be assuming that they’ll love it, and worrying instead about the fact that some people might miss out on the opportunity to read it, if I don’t push it right under their noses.

So here we go – my book is now available to buy, earlier than expected (I think the printers must have worked through their tea breaks!), so don’t forget to order a copy of this brilliant new children’s book, ‘The Secret of the Wooden Chest’, either from Amazon (where it’ll be available as soon as they receive their stock) , your local book shop or direct from the publishers at http://www.troubador.co.uk/book_info.asp?bookid=4532

Happy reading, and please consider leaving reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, both of which will accept reviews regardless of where your copy was bought!

In my next post, I’ll talk a bit more about the process of marketing the book…

A little less noise, please!

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We’ve recently had some building work done in our house, and apart from the huge sense of relief now I’ve finally got the house back to myself again, I’m finding myself constantly checking for marks on the newly painted walls. Now everything is looking nice, I’m also more vigilant about keeping the dog off forbidden furniture.

It tends to go a bit like this –

Dog – ‘I’m going to sit on this sofa.’

Me – ‘No, that’s the good sofa – go on the chair, you’re allowed on that.’

Dog – ‘I prefer the sofa – I can stretch out there. That’s where I’m going.’

Me – ‘No, get off – you’ll damage the fabric!’

Dog – ‘Fair enough, I’ll go on the coffee table instead – there’s no fabric there.’

Me – ‘No – what are you thinking?! That’s for cups, not dogs!’

Dog – ‘Okay, I’ll go on the chair now, and then I’ll move to either the sofa or the coffee table when you’re out of the room.’

Me – ‘Fine!’

But having builders in the house for months on end, certainly taught me how to concentrate. When I first started trying to write a children’s book, I thought I had to have everything just so, before I could start.

I needed –

a lovely clear kitchen table with nothing apart from a new note-book, a pencil and a laptop on it,

a cup of coffee behind me (not on the table; I might spill it on the keyboard!),

the window open to let in some fresh air, but only if there were no car engines or lawnmowers roaring nearby,

and, most important of all, no other noise or people in the house at all – except for the dog of course, and only then if he had promised to sleep quietly and not snore.

After the builders had been working for a week or two, and the entire downstairs of the house had been taken over by piles of wood, rubble, dust, and radios permanently tuned into Smooth FM, my ideas about what made a good working environment changed. It seemed that I didn’t actually need such a quiet and tidy house after all. I could still write, while perched on a child’s stool in a corner of my bedroom, the kettle plugged in dangerously close to my left foot and the dog’s lead tied to my ankle, to prevent him leaving the house through the permanently-open front door. I didn’t lose the thread of what I was writing, even when I had to stop work every half an hour or so, to answer queries about where the towel-rail should go, or whether I needed to order either a new front door or some more teabags.

Now I’ve got the quiet and tidy house back again, the dog and I can resume our argument about what furniture he can sit on. I’m grateful to the builders for making the house look nice – but even more pleased that I’ve learnt that I can work in any environment – and with any noise level – even if I do have to stop work every few minutes, to get the dog off either the sofa or the coffee table!

Next time I’ll talk about how I’m planning to celebrate having the house back to normal!