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!

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.

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…

Have some patience!

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The other day someone asked me a question that stuck in my mind – they asked, ‘how long did it take you to write your book?’ I found it really difficult to answer, as it all really depends on what you mean by ‘write your book’, and it made me realise that writing a book does need quite a lot of patience.

I’m not always the most patient person, but the dog is even less so, although he does have a ten minute rule. I’ll explain. Sometimes, as a treat, we go to the pub for a meal and take the dog with us. He is always terribly excited about this, as the pub is his very most favourite place in the whole world (when he first went there, someone gave him a roast potato, and he has never forgotten it). We go in, the dog pulling frantically on the lead to get in faster, chose a table, sit down and order some food. The dog licks his lips. ‘Right’, he says to himself, as he nods and smiles at the regulars, ‘they’ll need to cook that now.’ He sets his invisible stopwatch and settles down to wait… As soon as ten minutes have passed, he leaps to his feet, looks at the door to the pub kitchen and lets loose a volley of barks. ‘Oi!’, he shouts at the top of his voice. ‘You’ve had long enough – where’s my food!’ We try to drag the dog back under the table while smiling in an embarrassed way at the waitress, and crossing our fingers that the food will come soon. It’s the same anywhere that serves food – or at least, anywhere that is thick-skinned enough to let the dog in.

But I’ve come to realise that you do need to be patient for longer than ten minutes to write a children’s book, and for me, at least, it’s been a long process.

I think it started about eighteen years ago, when I first decided that I’d like to write a children’s book that was set in a nursing home, and which would be about a mysterious, magical lady who would become friends with the child who was the book’s main character. I remember having a go at writing the first chapter at this stage, but it was awful, and I don’t think I ever made it past the end of page one. Then, about eighteen months ago, I decided that there was no excuse for not giving it another go.

Actually sitting down to write the first draft of the book, which was well over a year ago now, took me about three weeks. After that, I spent another three weeks going through it, re-drafting it, changing it about, taking bits out, adding bits in and polishing it all up. Then I went back and spent another two weeks editing it for spelling and grammar. At this point I looked at the amount of words that spell-check was still underlining for me, and realised that using a professional editor might be a good idea. It took me a week or so to find one, and then about six weeks went by while they worked on the manuscript, before I got their edited version back.

After this, I decided that I should have a front cover illustration. I looked into all the options and finally chose an illustrator. I then needed to send him some segments from the book, so that he knew what the picture should be about, and then again, I needed to wait a few weeks, while he worked on the picture.

I then started the process of looking into publication. This took a while as there are so many options, but when I’d finally chosen to go with Matador, I went through the whole manuscript again, just to be on the safe side. Then it all needed to be proof-set. After this stage, it was time for proof-reading. As well as having it proof-read professionally, I also went through it yet again, as this was my final chance to spot any mistakes.

Finally – it was ready to go to the printers!

So, how long did it take me to write my book? I’m not sure, but it might be somewhere between three weeks and eighteen years. Now, I need to go and give the dog his tea – I promised him I’d get it ready eight minutes ago, so I’ve only got two minutes left!

‘i’ before ‘e’

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One of my hobbies is collecting old books; the older the better, and I have a few eighteenth and nineteenth century books, with a couple of seventeenth century books amongst them. One thing I’ve noticed about old books is that there’s very little regard paid to spelling, and the older the book, the truer this seems to be.

I’ve read, via the wonders of Wikipedia, that that in the sixteenth century Shakespeare spelt his own name in several different ways throughout his life, and that, over the years since then, other people have spelt it in even more different ways, until the spelling of his name finally became more fixed in the last hundred years or so. The same seems to apply to most words in written English.

What I like about old books and manuscripts, apart from the fact that it feels like you are touching and reading an actual piece of history, is that as far as spelling went, the writers just didn’t care. They happily spelt words in different ways, even on the same page. It was of no concern to them, or to their readers come to that, how the words were spelt, as long as everyone could tell what word it was supposed to be and get the general meaning of the sentence.

I find this carefree lack of concern about spelling really refreshing, and most likely this is because I was so shockingly bad at spelling at school. I’d wait apprehensively at my desk as the marked spelling tests and essays were handed out, covered in red ink, and often with the terrifying comment, ‘See me’, emblazoned across the top corner. Did it really matter if I’d got my ‘i’s and ‘e’s the wrong way round? Was putting only one ‘t’ instead of two, such a terrible crime? Was there ever a time when the word I was aiming for wasn’t obvious to the teacher? Probably not.

The dog can’t spell, and does it bother him? Not at all! Whether it says ‘dog fude’ or ‘dog fud’, or even ‘dog food’, on the packets in the kitchen cupboard, doesn’t bother him at all. He’s happy, so long as we can read it well enough to understand what the contents are when we’re shopping. And he’ll stay happy, so long as the contents of the packets get put into his bowl at breakfast time and tea time (he definitely can tell the time, by the way, and in fact, takes time-keeping very seriously, but that’s another story, for a different day).

So I have a lot of liking for those long-gone authors who were so happy-go-lucky about what letters should go where, even when it came to their own names. Well done them for not caring about it, and what a shame for those of us in these modern times, who have to get it right. Still, it could be worse – at least these days we have spell-check to do some of the work for us!

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!