Little Christmas

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In my last blog I talked about my recent experience of trying to write while having builders in the house. One of the things I’d found myself thinking about, while the rubble was crashing around me, was how nice it had been at Christmas; the house had been all tidy and cosy and the tree looked so pretty. I couldn’t wait until next Christmas, by which time I hoped the house would be all tidy and cosy again. Then it occurred to me that it was barely spring and Christmas was, sadly, a very long time away.

I looked down at the dog and thought about what a shame it was that he had so long to wait for his next Christmas – he loved all celebrations and at Christmas he firmly believed that all the presents under the tree were for him. He was thrilled when he was given a present to open, but then immediately outraged that other people were daring to open some of the (presumably his!) other presents. But it was easy to placate him with a screwed-up piece of wrapping paper, which, if he was lucky, would have a dog treat hidden inside it.

As I picked bits of plaster out of my hair, it occurred to me that it would be great if Christmas, or at least the non-religious aspects of it, such as the presents, the tree and the Christmas dinner, really did come more than once a year. But then I thought – why shouldn’t it? We could have another Christmas; a ‘Little Christmas’, if you will, once the builders had finished and the house was back to normal – probably the end of June would be the best time for it!

I explained the concept to the dog, who immediately agreed that it was a great idea, as long as presents were involved. I set to work, ordering crackers from EBay, putting in a shopping order for the Christmas dinner ingredients, and buying everyone in the house a small, ‘ten pounds or less’, present.

‘Little Christmas’ is now getting closer, and I can’t wait, and neither can the dog. You never know, if the weather is nice we might even be able to have Christmas dinner in the garden, Australian style!

In my next post, I’ll be thinking about the trials of marketing my book, as well as letting you know how ‘Little Christmas’ went. But in the meantime – a very happy Little Christmas!

A little less noise, please!

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

It tends to go a bit like this –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Me – ‘Fine!’

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

I needed –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Once Upon a (more grown-up) Time…

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In my last blog, I wrote about my favourite children’s books, and I had a great response with plenty of people letting me know which their own favourite children’s books were. It’s really nice to hear about books that I’ve either forgotten about or never heard of, and then go and have a look at them.

Now I’ve moved on to books for grown-ups (not that grown-ups shouldn’t read children’s books as well, of course; they definitely should!). The dog asked whether any of the books I’ve chosen feature either food or dogs, and I was able to reassure him that the second book features both! Here goes with the first one…

‘Something Fresh’ by P. G. Wodehouse (first published in the UK by Methuen and Co, 1915) – this was one of the first ‘grown-up’ books that I read, and is the first of the Wodehouse books in the Blandings Castle Saga. It features the castle and its occupants; Lord Emsworth, his family and friends and of course his beloved pig, The Empress of Blandings. I’d never heard of P. G. Wodehouse until one evening in the 1980s when I was helping my dad to paint a bedroom, and we had the radio on in the background. A dramatization of one of the Blandings stories was on Radio 4 at the time, and it was so hilarious that the next day I went straight off to the library to see what Wodehouse books they had. Ever since then, if I need cheering up at a time when the dog isn’t available, I turn to a Wodehouse book.

‘Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog)’ by Jerome K. Jerome (first published by J. W. Arrowsmith in 1889) – the most complete book I’ve ever read, having a little sad bit and comments on society as well as being really funny nearly all the way through, and certainly the only book I’ve had to put down for a full five minutes while I laughed properly, before I was fit to carry on reading. This was at the bit where they try to open a tin of pineapple – if you haven’t read this book, it’s worth reading it just for this section alone. Incidentally, the dog has asked me to point out that Montmorency (the dog in the book), is one of the best characters – he may be right.

‘Walden’ by Henry David Thoreau (first published by Ticknor and Fields, Boston, 1854) – I first came across this book when I was living in New York in the early 1990s. I’d never heard of the book or the author, but for a while it seemed that every time I went into a bookshop (which was quite often!), it was the first book that I noticed on the shelves. After it had caught my eye about three times, I bought a copy, and it was a life-changer. It’s the story of the author’s experience of trying to live a simple, almost-self-sufficient life, living in a small, wooden house in the woods. Reading this book in my mid-twenties didn’t make me want to become self-sufficient, but it did change my sense of what’s important in life.

‘The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold’ by Evelyn Waugh (first published by Chapman and Hall, 1957) – I’d never heard of this book until a friend gave me a copy as a birthday present. It was the first Evelyn Waugh book I’d read, and it’s a fascinating and partly-autobiographical account of a time when Waugh suffered from hallucinations, brought on by some medication he’d been taking. The book tells the story of a man who starts to hear voices while on a sea voyage. As it’s written very much from the main character’s point of view, it’s hard to tell, at least until the end of the book, which voices are real and which aren’t. This book made me realise how incredibly skilled authors like Waugh are, at weaving a convincing story from the main character’s perspective.

The sharp-eyed reader might have noticed that I had more favourite children’s books in my last blog, than I have favourite grown-up books in this one. What can I say? Children’s books must be the best books – and a furry friend, who’s been waiting (almost) patiently for his walk, has just reminded me that this is especially the case if the books in question feature dogs!

Please, please tell me if you have a favourite grown-up book that isn’t on this list, and I’d also love to hear if any of my favourites are also yours.

Next time I’ll talk about my experience of what it’s like trying to write, while the house is full of builders!

Once Upon a Time…

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What children’s books have influenced you the most? I was thinking about this the other day, when I was reading a story to the dog (yes, he is terribly indulged!). I was reading ‘The Magic Porridge Pot’, from the 1970’s Ladybird ‘Well-loved Tales’ series. When I was a toddler it was one of my favourite books, my kids also loved it when they were younger, and it’s nice to see that now (I like to think!) the dog enjoys it equally. Whether it’s the idea of limitless supplies of porridge that appeals to him, or whether he just likes listening to the rhythm of the spoken words as he falls asleep, who can say?

It made me think about which books I would put on my list of favourite children’s books, so here they are –

‘The Magic Porridge Pot’ by Vera Southgate (first published by Ladybird Books Ltd, 1971) – This is a great story for toddlers (and dogs!), all about a pot that supplies a never-ending supply of porridge. It features lots of repetitive phrases and, in the original version at least, some lovely pictures.

‘Paddington Abroad’ by Michael Bond (first published by Collins, 1961) – always my favourite of all the Paddington books as, unusually for the Paddington novels, it has a continuous story (about the Brown family’s holiday to France), running throughout. As a result of this hysterically funny book, the first French word I knew the meaning of was ‘escargot’. If you’ve read the book, you’ll know that the chapter featuring ‘escargot’, is one of the best bits. I can remember sitting up in bed looking at the cover when I was about five years old, and thinking that I couldn’t wait until I could read, so that I wouldn’t have to wait for an adult to read the rest of it to me.

‘Five Children and It’ by E. Nesbit (first published by Unwin, 1902) – When I was about seven, I went to the school fete and noticed this book on the tombola stall. It looked interesting and I was determined to win it. When the stall-holder told me that I had a winning ticket, I reached out happily to pick up the book, but was firmly told that I had won a bar of soap instead, and should be pleased that I had won anything at all. I was very disappointed, but within a year or so I’d managed to somehow get hold of a copy, which became one of my most-read books for the next few years. I loved the idea of normal, down-to-earth children who somehow got involved in magic, and this was in the back of my mind when I had a go at writing my own children’s book.

‘The Magician’s Nephew’ by C. S. Lewis (first published by Bodley Head, 1955) – another book featuring normal children who get involved in magic, but this time a whole, magical world. Although this is officially the first book in the ‘Narnia’ series, I think that it is a shame that it often gets overlooked or even completely forgotten, in favour of the second book, ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’. In my opinion, ‘The Magician’s Nephew’ is the best one in the series.

‘Jennings goes to School’ by Anthony Buckeridge (first published by Collins, 1950) – this is the first in a series of twenty-three books, all about an eleven year old boy called Jennings and his best friend Darbishire, who go to boarding school. The whole series is hilarious, and I read these books over and over again as a child, buying most of my copies from jumble sales and second-hand shops. Since I’ve become a grown-up, I’ve been able to extend my collection via the wonder of Ebay (although I still don’t have them all), and I still think they are brilliant, side-splitting books.

‘The Sword in the Stone’ by T. H. White (first published by Collins, 1938) – the first long-ish book I bought and read as a child, mainly as a result of stubbornness. I was in a bookshop with my mum, and, glancing round the shelves, I picked this book up. The bookseller looked at me with raised eyebrows. ‘You don’t want to buy that one,’ he said, in a smug, knowledgeable way. ‘It’s far too old for you.’ There was nothing he could have said, that would have made me more determined to buy and read that book. It’s an excellent story, all about the fictional childhood of the legendary King Arthur (known as ‘Wart’ in the story), and as well as excitement and adventure, has some great funny bits as well.

If you’ve got a favourite children’s book that isn’t on my list, let me know.

Typing away for this long about my favourite books has inspired me to go and dig through the bookshelves to see what else I’ve got. Next time, I’ll write something about my favourite fiction for grown-ups. In the mean-time I need to go and read the dog his bedtime story…

Are you laughing yet?

 

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My dog has a very well developed sense of humour. He thinks it is hilarious to put a ball down at my feet, nudge it towards me and then step back carelessly, as though the last thing in the world that he would want to do, is to pick up that ball ever again. Then, just as I reach down to pick it up, he leaps forwards and gleefully snatches it away from my fingers at the last minute. He shakes his head in delight and goes prancing away, the ball in his mouth, snorting and sneezing to himself at his amazing ability to trick me. A few seconds later he’ll come back and lay the ball at my feet again. He looks at me innocently. ‘Go on,’ he says, eyes wide, ‘it’s yours… just pick it up!’ He knows I can’t resist, and the joke starts all over again. Mind you, he can dish it out, but he can’t take it back – if I try the same trick on him, he looks at me with hurt surprise, before wandering away sadly, shaking his head at his misfortune at living with such a cruel owner.

Like the dog, I like a bit of humour. I’ve always loved funny books, both as a child and as an adult, so when I started writing my children’s book, I really wanted it to have some funny bits in it – it didn’t necessarily need to be laugh-out-loud funny all the way through, as most of it is mystery/drama/magic, but in my opinion and experience, all the best children’s books have at least some humour in them, and at least one character who is funny (either intentionally or unintentionally), most of the time. In my first book, Hannah’s dad is the character who brings in most of the humour – often at his own expense.

When I told the dog that I was planning to start a second book in the series, he thought it was a good idea, but he was very firm with me on one point – the second book needed to include at least one dog. I bowed to his (as always, excellent), opinion, and so near the beginning of the second book, Hannah got a puppy. Although Hannah’s dad continued to have a humorous role in book two, the puppy helped out a lot with adding in plenty of extra funny bits, and at the dog’s insistence, I made sure that Hannah’s puppy, although a girl, was the same breed and had the same markings, as my dog.

When I’d finished the first draft, I read it out-loud to the dog and he seemed very pleased; laughing away, in his sneezy doggy-way, as I read the section about the puppy’s arrival. The dog and I smiled at each other – I’d entertained him and helped to keep his (already well-developed), sense of humour alive – my job, for that day at least, was done!