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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Happy Big Christmas!

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Anyone who read my post from late June 2017 (https://catherinerosevear.wordpress.com/2017/06/22/little-christmas/), will know that here in my house,  we decided to have a ‘Little Christmas’ in the summer – we just couldn’t wait until the winter to have presents and crackers, and very nice it was too! But now we’re in December, and there are only three days to go until ‘Big Christmas’, or ‘Real Christmas’, as some might prefer to call it. The schools have broken up, the shopping has been done and we can relax. Or at least we can until we realise that something essential has been forgotten – but so long as it isn’t the dog’s special Christmas biscuits, we should be okay – you can see from his expression in the picture above, what his views will be if anything should go wrong with his festive supplies!

I’m looking forward to next year; I’m planning to publish my second book, which will be a follow-up to ‘The Secret of the Wooden Chest’, and will follow the same characters into a new adventure, called ‘Mystical Moonlight’. I’m also hoping to finish another book, which is totally different to the chapter books I’ve written so far.

So, whatever you’re doing over the festive season, and whatever holiday you will be celebrating, have a lovely time and a very happy New Year – see you in January!

Clothes Shopping for Dogs

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I don’t know why, but recently I’ve had a fancy for buying clothes for the dog. I’ve always hated seeing animals dressed up, and I definitely won’t be buying him any fancy-dress outfits or little boots (not this year, anyway!). A few months ago I’d bought my dog a rain coat, and very useful it is too, especially as his fur is so thick and takes so long to dry out. But I’d never before considered buying him something non-practical to wear…

I’d recently finished the latest round of edits on a new story I was writing, so I decided to have a few days break from the lap-top, before starting on it all again. Taking the dog out for a walk, I saw a local dog walk by, wearing a jumper, and I was struck by how nice he looked. I checked online, and within a very short time had ordered a bandana in a rather fetching red and white paisley print. When it arrived I put it on the dog straight away; he looked fantastic. I took a photo of him, and it was a good thing I did – only a few days later, I accidentally left the bandana lying around on the coffee table, and it was spotted, picked up and torn up into a hundred pieces within about five seconds. Maybe he didn’t like my taste in fabric patterns, and if so, fair enough, but I persevered and sent away for another one – red with white stars this time, and this one hasn’t – as yet – been chewed up.

I turned my attention to other dog clothing, and, it being close to Christmas, decided that I’d like to get him a Christmas jumper. Asking around, I heard that the pet shop attached to my local garden centre had some Christmas jumpers for dogs in stock, and so a few days later we both hopped into the car and drove over to have a look.

The dog was excited as soon as we got out of the car, and as he dragged me into the shop, I heard a lady in the car park remark, ‘He’s in a hurry!’ He certainly was – there were so many toys, chews, and bags of dog food to be investigated, and he wanted to get on with it straight away. A large, blue parrot watched our sudden entry suspiciously, from his perch on top of the till. Holding the lead as firmly as I could, I reined the dog in, and, still with one eye on the parrot, asked an assistant if they had any Christmas jumpers in stock. Apparently, they did. The assistant led us to a stand covered in festive woollies, but I was a bit concerned that they all looked a bit small. What size did he think my furry friend would need, I enquired. Drawing himself up to his full height, and brushing some dust off his invisible lapels in the manner of a Saville Row tailor, the assistant told me that my companion would need to be measured. He spun on his heel and swept away, returning moments later with a tape measure. I watched with interest as he instructed his client to stand still. There was a brief tussle, and I couldn’t help thinking that it was a good thing he only needed to measure the dog’s back; if he’d tried to get his inside leg measurements, there might have had a lot more trouble. Eventually, wiping the sweat from his brow, he told me that we would require a jumper between eighteen and twenty inches long. We had a look; which one would fit him? But what a shame – they were all too small.

Never mind, there was another garden centre, with yet another pet shop, only a short drive away. We thanked the assistant and jumped back into the car.

Going into the next shop, I made the mistake of stopping just inside the door to have a look at a stand covered in dog calendars and diaries. Out of the corner of my eye, I glimpsed the dog starting to lift his leg against a Springer Spaniel calendar, and I pulled him away, just in time. This trip really wasn’t turning out to be as relaxing as I’d imagined. Again, I asked an assistant if they had any Christmas jumpers in stock, and again, we were escorted to the right isle. At first it looked like there were only a few jumpers on display, and I thought we might be disappointed, but the assistant reassured us that she had loads more in the back, and she rushed away. When she came back she was carrying a huge black bin-bag which was stuffed full of jumpers, and she tipped them all out onto the floor at our feet. There was an amazing selection – some had reindeers on, some holly, some bells and some Father Christmas. I picked one up to read the label, but what a shame – these ones weren’t sized in inches but were labelled, small, medium, large, etc. Yet again, I didn’t know what size he would need.

I thought the dog was probably medium-sized, so I picked up a medium jumper and held it up against him; it was tiny. Medium indeed – maybe for a cat! The assistant saw the problem and immediately asked if he could try some on. Could he? Yes, of course he could, but getting him into clothes that I hadn’t yet paid for, without him snatching playfully at them with his sharp teeth, was another matter. Again, the assistant came to our rescue. Would it help if she fed him treats to keep him still, while I wrangled his front legs through the arm holes? The dog nodded enthusiastically. He was pretty sure that it would help a lot.

After emptying the best part of a pot of treats, he was finally dressed in a jumper that fitted him. It was labelled ‘XXXL’, which seemed incredible, as he is only slightly bigger than a spaniel. Surely, factories would never dream of labelling human clothes so inaccurately; I certainly would think twice about buying a clothing brand in which I only fitted into ‘XXXL’. The dog, thankfully, didn’t seem concerned about it, and he trotted happily alongside his new best friend, as she made her way back to the tills, treat pot in hand.

When we got home we tried it on again, and he certainly looked festive. Now, outing over, it’s back to the laptop for a bit more editing. Or should I just have another quick look online, first… Who knows what else I might find to add to his wardrobe!

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.

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!

The Great Snail Race

 

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While having a break from writing during the recent school holidays, I thought it would be nice to grow some strawberries in a pot on the patio. I went out and bought a box of strawberry plants, labelled ‘giant variety’. Everyone in our house, including the dog, loves strawberries, and as I carried them home and planted them in a large patio pot, I thought how nice it would be later in the summer, when we could go outside and pick our very own, home-grown strawberries for tea. I told the dog about it, and let him have a sniff at the green and red leaves peeping over the rim of the pot. He was clearly impressed.

I watered the strawberry plants every day and a week or two later, I noticed some buds appearing. I called the children and the dog to come and look at them, and they were all very pleased. But the next day when I went outside to do the watering and check on the size of the buds, I was horrified to find a snail sat inside the pot. I had assumed that planting them in a pot instead of in a flower bed would remove the slug/snail problem, but I was clearly wrong – snails could climb.

I had no wish to harm the snail but at the same time I couldn’t allow him/her to stay in the plant pot; doing so would spell disaster for the strawberry buds. Also, I knew that snails could carry diseases that were really bad for dogs, so he and the dog needed to be kept well apart. I picked the snail up and carried him to the far side of the garden, placing him carefully down on a tree stump, then I watered the strawberries and went back inside, thinking no more about it.

The next day, there were not one but two snails inside the strawberry pot. Once again, I moved them to the other side of the garden. Snails, I knew, were very slow moving, so I was pretty sure that, once moved, they would trouble the strawberry plants no more, but several days, and a lot of snails, later, it occurred to me that some of them were looking a bit familiar; one or two had quite distinctive markings on their shells, and I had a nasty suspicion that I might have moved some of them more than once.

I googled it, and yes, apparently snails can travel a lot faster than you might think, and are also pretty good at smelling out and tracking down their meal of choice, from wherever they happen to be in the garden. I started wondering about whether some snails were better at this than others, and then the idea for the great snail race was born.

Every time the children or I found a snail in the strawberry pot, we marked the shell with a tiny dot of paint, before carrying them to the tree stump across the garden. It was decided that the winning snail would be the first one to reach the pot three times. As the weeks went by, it became more and more common to find snails in the strawberry pot that were already decorated with a small dot of paint, but for a long time, one-spot snails – those who had now returned to the pot for a second time – were the best we had. Then, one marvellous day, we checked the pot and found a two-spot snail – here was the champion who had made a third successful trip across the garden and had valiantly climbed the slippery sides of the strawberry pot no less than a record three times!

With much excitement we marked his shell with the prized, third spot of paint, before carrying him back across the garden to the tree stump, in triumph. But this time he wasn’t left on the stump to wander away, and immediately start the long journey all over again – oh no. He was presented with a large slice of cucumber, which google had told me is one of a snail’s favourite foods. We were delighted to see him get started on his prize straight away, and later that day only a tiny piece of peel remained. The rest was gone and so was the winning snail – back on his mission to set an even more impressive record for the number of attempts to climb a strawberry pot.

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Interestingly, the strawberry buds never came to anything, and we didn’t get a single strawberry. Still, if it was the winning snail that ate them each night, storing up energy for his next lawn crossing, I don’t mind. It’s not often you get the chance to help a true sporting hero on his way to victory.

Time for a rest!

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Well, it’s that time of year again, when the children have gone back to school and life returns to normal. In the holidays it’s nice to spend time with the family, go away for a few days and do some day trips, etc., but school holidays are really not that restful for parents – or dogs. There’s noise and activity around the house all day long, arguments to be resolved, uniforms and shoes to buy and label, and seemingly constant meals and snacks to be provided. All in all it’s really difficult concentrating on doing any writing, even more so than when the builders were here a few months ago, when, amazingly I managed to work through all the disruption.

I’d started work on the first draft of a new book a few weeks before the holidays started, and by the middle of July had got to the end of chapter two. I remember at the time, feeling pretty pleased with it, and even thinking that I might have the first draft finished by the end of August. This week I switched on the lap-top and there I was, still at the end of chapter two. I could barely remember the names of the main characters, and the plot, which I’d been hoping would all come together over the summer, remained a mystery to me. Still, now I could get back to it. I made a cup of tea, gave the dog his usual handful of mid-morning dog-biscuits and sat down to stare at the screen.

All I could hear was the gentle hum of the freezer and the ticking of the kitchen clock.

The dog resumed his usual place on his chair next to me and heaved a huge sigh – whether it was a sad sigh as he thought wistfully about his small human friends who would otherwise be playing with him all day, or whether it was a contented sigh as he enjoyed the peace and quiet of being in a house that was, but for the two of us, completely empty, I really wouldn’t like to say.

At least if it gets a bit too quiet I can reassure him by pointing out that there’s only six weeks until the next school holiday… if I’m lucky, I’ll get to the end of chapter ten before then.

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…