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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hmm, right, okay…

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

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

 

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

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The Beano – Eighty Years Young

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Inspiration Box

 

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A few weeks ago, a friend asked me if I would spend a couple of hours, one Saturday, doing a short writing workshop with her son and some of his friends. He had been very enthusiastic when I’d visited his class, during a school author visit a month or two earlier, and he and his friends wanted some tips on writing.

I had a think about how to structure the workshop, and decided that it would be best to keep it practical. We’d have a look at story arcs, and then focus on where to get inspiration from. I had a look round the house and, doing so, realised that my inspiration for stories comes from lots of different places. The inspiration for my first book, ‘the Secret of the Wooden Chest’, had come from a bronze Roman pendant, when I started wondering what the original owner of the pendant had been like. The inspiration for as-yet-unpublished stories that had followed, had included some deer that lived in local woodland, a statue outside a local school, and a Halloween costume. I realised that sometimes you just need a little prompt to get the idea for a story, and I set about making an ‘Inspiration Box’.

I found a small, pretty box and filled it with the following things –

An interesting shell,

An ammonite fossil,

A small mirror,

An old key,

A ring,

A little clock,

A foreign coin,

A piece of polished amethyst,

A button,

A shiny stone,

A piece from a jigsaw,

And an exotic-looking, lidded pot that I’d bought, years ago, in India.

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The dog watched in fascination as I filled the box with all kinds of bits and pieces. Surely at least some of them would be edible, he suggested. Would I like him to have a chew at them all, one by one, to find out? I declined, but he pressed his case. It was really no trouble at all, he assured me, snatching up the jigsaw piece and running off behind the chair with it.

Once I’d manage to catch him and regain full control of the contents of the box, I had a good look at all the things I’d gathered. Who knew what stories could come out of all these intriguing things, but it got me thinking, straight away. What kind of beach had the shell come from? It might have come from a desert island, silently waiting for its first castaway. Had the button been lost by a spy? If so, it might have a secret formula engraved on it, in writing so tiny that you would need a magnifying glass to read it. What door did the old key open, and was someone trapped in a locked room behind it, locked in centuries ago, as an awful punishment for an equally terrible crime? Did the mirror have the power to magically transport  you into another world, or would it allow you to see the last person who looked into it? Which country was the foreign coin from, and what exotic item could be bought with it, at that country’s local market? Had the amethyst ever been set into a princess’s crown, and, if so, how had it been lost? Did the mysterious pot contain fairy dust, or gold, or was it maybe something more spine-tingling; a piece of mummy-wrapping perhaps, or a crumpled-up ancient parchment on which was written a terrible curse?

Suddenly, I had more story ideas than I knew what to do with.

Once I’d done the workshop, I carefully put away the notes that I’d prepared for it, but I didn’t put away the inspiration box. Having made it, this was something that I knew I’d use again; not just for any future workshops, but also for myself. So now, whenever ‘Writer’s block’ strikes, I pick up the inspiration box (being careful to keep it well away from the dog). Who knows what story might come out of it next…

 

 

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!

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.