Braving the Spiders


Recently, I got a bit stuck with the plot for my new children’s book, and started casting around for inspiration. I had my inspiration box to give me some ideas (see, but I was still unsure how to move on. Looking through the bookcase, I started seeking for books that I hadn’t seen for a while, and then I remembered – loads of them were still in the boxes they’d gone into when we moved house a few years ago, and they were… horror of horrors… in the loft.

I don’t like the loft. To start with, there are spiders up there, and I’m scared of spiders. Secondly, the loft ladder is quite wobbly, and when it’s in position, it’s immediately at the top of the stairs. On the rare occasions when I’ve been up there, I quite like another adult to be not only in the house, but standing on the stairs holding the phone, with their finger hovering over the ‘9’ button, just in case I plummet the full depth of the stairwell to an almost certain doom. But, there were certainly a lot of boxes of books up there, and the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to have a look at them. Hmm, I thought – maybe I should be brave and go up for a rummage about.

I waited until another adult was in the house and then told the dog my intentions. He seemed interested in the idea that there might be another room in the house. Could he come too? I explained that it would be best if he waited downstairs for me to return from this dangerous expedition, but I agreed that if I found any dog biscuits up there, I’d bring them back for him.

The loft ladder came wobbling down and I climbed apprehensively up it, fumbling around for the light switch at the top. The dog watched from the hallway, fascinated, as I disappeared into the unknown. For him, it was as if I was climbing the ladder at the top of Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree, to see what strange magical land would be there. He could only hope that I’d come back down before the land moved on, sweeping me away, never to return.

Clambering from the top of the ladder onto the loft floor, I suddenly remembered another reason why I didn’t like it up there – it’s not an easy space to walk around; the head height is designed for hobbits, and the width of the boarded-out floor is ideal if you are the same width as a pencil. Certainly there was no room to turn around. I glanced about apprehensively, checking for cobwebs. I couldn’t see any blocking my route to the books at the far end of the wooden boards, but you could never be too careful. I started inching my way along until, finally, I reached the boxes I wanted. They were covered in dust and pretty battered, but I pulled the first one towards me, opened it and looked inside. Hmm, there were quite a few books in there that I’d forgotten I had. I put my hand in and then pulled it immediately out again. What was that?! Something had crawled over my hand!

A careful look showed that the box was half full of books and half full of flies – recently woken from hibernation, by the look of it, and not best pleased about it either. I wrapped a scarf round my hand and, grimacing, pushed my hand back in. I pulled books out as quickly as I could. Once I’d got a good haul, I tucked them under my arm and started reversing back down the loft towards the ladder, bent double so as not to bang my head on the roof. It felt as though I was bowing my way out of a royal presence.

There was a temporary glitch at the top of the ladder, when my hair got caught in some fly paper. I made a big effort not to panic, yanked my head away and started down the rickety ladder, the precious books held tight. As the dog watched me slowly returning from ‘Loftland’, his eyes grew wider than I’d ever seen them before, and as soon as I was back downstairs, he sniffed my ankles keenly. Wherever had I been, and thank goodness I was safe! But, more importantly, did I find any biscuits up there?

Once the ladder had been put away, I settled down on the sofa to see what I’d got. I seemed to have found some great, if quite dusty, books – there was a nice copy of The Voyage of the Beagle’ by Charles Darwin; ‘The Complete Illustrated Stories of Sherlock Holmes’ by Conan Doyle; a big, colourful book called ‘The Pirates’, that had previously belonged to my granddad, and finally, a huge hardback containing the William Morris Kelmscott Chaucer, which was full to the brim with prints of fantastic woodcut illustrations and illuminated letters. I hadn’t seen these books for years – it was like having a birthday! Plenty of reading to keep me going for a good while anyway – or at least until I came up with some more plot ideas for my own book!


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


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?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hmm, right, okay…

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

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


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

The Beano – Eighty Years Young


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

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

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

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

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


Clothes Shopping for Dogs


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!

Non-human friends


Sometimes I think about what a huge privilege it is, to have a non-human person as a friend. You may be worried that I’m about to start prattling on about an alien abduction experience (although, believe me, if such a thing happened, I’d tell you all about it!), but no, that’s not it. The non-human friend in question is the dog. During my life I’ve had many friends who were non-human; a couple of them being dogs, but most of them cats. We don’t have a cat currently as my husband is allergic to them, but whenever I did have a cat, it always amazed me what a big personality could be packed into such a small frame. A lot of people think that cats are too independent to be proper friends with humans, and think that they only use us to get what they need. I don’t think this is the case at all, and I expect most people who have ever sat in a companionable silence with a cat, would agree with me. Dogs however, or most dogs that I have known, do seem to be less independent, but this doesn’t make them better friends with humans; just different ones. Critics of dogs might say that they don’t think for themselves, and just blindly follow their owner’s directions. This is definitely not correct – certainly in my experience, as my own dog almost never follows my directions. My current dog is the most sarcastic (and often cynical), person in the house, which he makes clear by his many finely-tuned huffs and snorts, in answer to any comments made to him. As mentioned in previous blogs, he also has a very highly developed sense of humour, with a strong leaning towards slap-stick. But, for me, his quirky personality makes him all the more interesting, and valuable, as a friend. I’m not his ‘best one’ (that honour falls to my husband), but when I’m writing, the dog is remarkably tolerant when I read aloud to him, and his views on the story arc, character development and plot, not to mention grammar, are always very clear and insightful. Which is why, in my second book, there will be a dog. This book is currently at the final editing stage, but I can tell you that it will include a female Tibetan Terrier called Fizz; a puppy, acquired by the main character, Hannah, shortly after the story opens. I’m also working on a new book at the moment – with completely new characters and a very different plot. This one will probably be for slightly older children, but it too will feature a dog; this time a black Labrador called Shadow. In addition to this, I’m also working on a non-fiction book for adults; a hand-written World War Two diary, which I’m transcribing and preparing for publication. This was written on the home front in Loughton, London, by a Home Guard member in 1944 – of course he was also a dog lover, and he acquired a dog called Mick during the course of the diary.

So, with the extensive editorial input I receive from my very cool and stylish dog friend, I think it’s likely that most, if not all, of my future stories will feature main characters that also have non-human friends – and rightly so.

By the way, for anyone who read my last blog post, the dog’s answer to the question, ‘2 x 2 = ?’, is… wait for it… ‘many’.

Story ideas – where do they come from?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A loud slamming noise…


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wow! What a result.

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

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

‘A loud slamming noise’.

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

The Great Snail Race



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.


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!


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.