The Meaning of ‘Arpeggio’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Water Cooler

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

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

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

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

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

 

Looking to the Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gold dust – learning from other writers

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

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

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

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

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

Queen Cakes

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

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

You will need –

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

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

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

2 eggs;

1 level teaspoon baking powder.

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

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

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

 

Method

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Or maybe with vanilla buttercream and wafer flowers and butterflies –

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Or maybe with both –

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

New Children’s Book – Chapter One!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mystical Moonlight

The Second ‘Roman Magic’ book

 

Chapter One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hmm, right, okay…

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

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

 

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

The Beano – Eighty Years Young

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

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

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

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

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

 

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!