Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Finding the Forgotten Stories by Claire Fayers

At the bottom of my street there is a cemetery. I walk through it as a short-cut to my coffee shop writing sessions at least twice a week. I like watching the squirrels, and this time of year it's a welcome break from seagull attacks. For some reason, seagulls avoid the cemetery. Maybe they can see dead people.

I've rarely stopped to wonder about the people buried in the cemetery, so when my friend and fellow writer, Stephen Burgess, told me about a guided evening of stories among the gravestones, I had to go. Stephen belongs to a theatre group that meets in the graveyard chapel every week, and he'd written two of the pieces for the evening.  They were performed by the A48 Theatre Company.

On a cold and damp June evening (remember those?), we gathered.

The stories we heard were tragic, uplifting, sometimes comic and always fascinating. We listened to George Arthur Clare, aged nineteen, speak about the shipping accident that claimed his life and the lives of most of the crew. A French naval captain spoke of his battle with depression following World War 1, leading to his suicide one Christmas. Three watchmakers mused philosophically on the passage of time.

We learned about people whose legacies have outlived our memories of them. Frances Batty Shand was the daughter of a Scottish plantation owner. Born in Jamaica, she was sent to Scotland to live with an aunt and later moved to Cardiff where she founded the Cardiff Institute for the Blind. Shand House has recently been converted into student flats, but its name remains. Then there was Dr Henry James Paine who established a free hospital on a ship in Cardiff Bay, and whose work on sanitation saved some 15,000 people from diseases such as smallpox and cholera.

It's ironic that the most memorable character of the evening was a forgotten woman. Minnie McGuire, who gained temporary fame as the most arrested woman in Cardiff before dying at the age of fifty-eight and being buried in a mass grave. She doesn't even have a headstone, but for one evening she came to life and we relived her story with her.

I was struck, as I watched people's lives unfold, how many stories lie forgotten. And I realised this has been a theme of my writing for a long time. It's in my very first book:

The people who’d lived, the stories they’d created with their lives, the way they’d shaped the world, they all mattered. (Accidental Pirates: Voyage to Magical North)

Whenever I'm wondering why I'm still trying to write (it happens to us all), I come back to this simple thought. I write because stories matter. They matter because people matter.

My friend Stephen summed it up far better than I can:

Graveyard Voices is about bringing life back to the stories of some of those buried in Cathays Cemetery. Turning real lives into drama is both a privilege and a responsibility. I tried to always imagine the ghosts of those I wrote about at my elbow as I wrote, tried always to be fair, both for them and for their descendants. The project connected me to Cardiff in many new ways, hearing stories that I was astounded I had never heard before, despite their traces being present across the city, especially in the names of buildings, pubs, parks and roads.

We might not all have cemeteries on our doorsteps, but we all have pubs, parks and roads. How many of their names have stories behind them, I wonder: stories that have been largely forgotten? I'm going to make more of an effort to seek out the forgotten stories around me. Let's keep those memories alive.

Claire Fayers is the author of the Accidental Pirates series, Mirror Magic and Storm Hound. Website www.clairefayers.com Twitter @clairefayers

Monday, 15 July 2019

On Learning. And on learning again - by Rowena House

This month I bought two more writing advice guides: On Editing by Helen Corner-Bryant and Kathryn Price, and Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott, both of which I’ve been meaning to read for ages.

The contrasts between them are remarkable; you’d be forgiven for thinking they aren’t about the same subject at all.

On Editing is practical, clear, logical and full of excellent editing advice, like how to develop a Show Not Tell mindset, how and why to control viewpoint, and classic ways of plotting your story’s shape.

Bird By Bird is personal, wise, endearing, and full of excellent creative writing advice about the importance of not taking yourself too seriously, of finishing whatever small portion of a story you’ve started, of silencing inner critics, of freeing your imagination.

Devouring them both, it became clear that On Editing is the right book for me as a mentor for writers seeking publication, but I dithered about whether Lamott’s vision might be more relevant to where I am at the moment as a writer: i.e. starting over.


(Yup, I know. Sadly, after a year or so exploring the WWII story I’ve blogged about before, I found I didn’t believe in it enough to keep on keeping on. Never mind. There are galaxies of stories out there, and we only need to discover one star.)

Anyhow, if you’re a writer you’ve no doubt discovered long since that there is no ‘right’ way to write a story. This is a truism of our business. We each do what we do. Plot or not. Start with a hunch or refine a premise. Run with an obsession. Fall in love with a character. Ask What If…?

After a decade of attending writing courses, and running them myself, this tenet of individuality had come to seem rather obvious and run-of-the-mill. Trite, even. I certainly thought I knew myself: I plot, I structure, I edit. Guides like On Editing, Story and Into the Woods were the books for me. Then…

I attempted to teach creative writing skills to young people who weren’t remotely interested in the subject (!) but had, nonetheless, to write an original story for their exams. In the classroom, all the received wisdom, all the insights about creativity I’d gained over the years seemed to count for naught.

My enthusiasm for conflict, for protagonists, for rising tension and turning points simply didn’t translate into 450-600 word coherent narratives, with varied sentence structures, and good spelling, punctuation and grammar, to be written in 45 minutes.

Worse still, my research into effective ways of teaching creative writing in schools and colleges unearthed an alarming amount of academic evidence that professional writers teaching in class have statistically insignificant effects on official measurements of pupil attainment and progress.

 [It was a relief to read the Literacy Trust’s report (link below) which showed author visits do have positive benefits for literacy, but that report came too late to offer any comfort during my teacher training year.]

Suitably humbled, and with a brand new toolkit marked “author visitor”, I’ve now returned to the realm of the writer with renewed appreciation for the magic and wonder of the creative process. What a gift it is to be able (eventually) to say what you mean, and shape that into a story worth sharing.

It no longer seems to matter a jot whether one writes methodically, with a guide like On Editing to hand, or as a free spirit, completing each nugget Bird by Bird. What to write remains a big question, of course. But how to write it? Any damn way you please.



Sunday, 14 July 2019

A Fruity Tale by Lynne Benton

When asked “Where do you get your ideas from?” how many of us reply, “From the dictionary”? 

But strangely enough, that was where some ideas came from at the recent writers’ retreat I went to in the Oxfordshire countryside.  There were 23 of us, all writers, and although some had deadlines to meet with their own projects, most attended the various sessions on offer.

One of these was called Flash Fiction, and it involved a group of us being given a random word from the dictionary and, without any previous thought or planning, having to write for 15 minutes (timed exactly) inspired by that word.

It was fascinating to discover what our brains came up with.  I’m sure the combined creative energy in the atmosphere of the place fuelled our ideas, and although there wasn’t time to hear everyone’s pieces, we heard enough to know that we all tackled the words we were given in different ways.  Some came up with a definition, some with a description, while others used the word as part of a story.

One of the words we were given was “Peach”.

One of the group wrote a description of a peach that was so exquisite that you could almost taste it.  I, on the other hand, found a story leaping into my head, and finishing it as the words “Time’s Up” were pronounced I discovered that I’d actually managed a whole story, complete with punchline, in exactly 15 minutes. 

But where my brain found it from I have no idea.  This was my story, unedited, exactly as I wrote it at the time:


     “What shall we call her?” Annie asked.  “She’s so beautiful, just like a ripe peach.”
     “Let’s call her that, then,” said Matt.  “Peach.  It’s a nice name for a little girl.”
     Annie thought for a moment as she stroked her daughter’s downy head.  “She won’t have many others with that name in her class when she goes to school,” she said.  “Peach it is.”
     The registrar looked slightly doubtful as he entered her name in the register.  “No second name?” he queried.  “In case she doesn’t like her first?”
     “No.”  Matt shook his head.  He had volunteered to go and register the baby’s birth.  “Just Peach.”
He’d been rather afraid that if he left it to Annie she might change her mind and call the baby after her mother or her grandmother.  And he couldn’t imagine saddling a child with their names – they were so old-fashioned.
     Peach, though, was different.  New, modern, unusual.  And it suited her.
     Ten years later, it still suited her, with her pink cheeks, though she often threatened to deck anyone who tried to call her “Peachy”.
     “My name is Peach,” she said loftily.  “Like the fruit.”
     “Round and squashy, you mean,” said Charlie, so she decked him.  She was sensitive about her shape.  It wasn’t her fault that she looked like her grandmother, who was shaped rather like a barrel.
Things grew harder for her as she grew up.  She envied the tall, slim girls in her school, while she remained short and round.
     “But you’re so pink and sweet,” said Annie, when Peach confessed to her one day.
     “I don’t care!  I wish you’d given me another name – one that didn’t mean anything!” sobbed Peach.  “You didn’t even give me a second name I could use!”
     “Blame your father for that,” said Annie crisply.  “He registered your birth.  I wanted to call you Melanie Peach.  That would have been all right, wouldn’t it?”
     “NOOOH!” wailed Peach.

I promise I’d never thought of the name Melanie as being remotely fruity – until the moment I’d written it and suddenly realised how very apt it was for this story!  Maybe I should have called it “A Tale of Two Fruits”, except that it would have given the ending away...

visit my website: www.lynnebenton.com

Latest book: The Mermaid of Zennor (pub. Franklin Watts)


Saturday, 13 July 2019

The Charm of Old Friends -- even when they're scruffy

Not an especially careful child 

Paul May’s lovely post about Jane Gardam last week struck a real chord with me. Partly because I’ve always loved Jane Gardam, and A Long Way From Verona one of my all-time favourite books, but also because of Paul’s celebration of the paperback Puffin. Like him, I grew up with those books, and my bookcases are full of them, often in deplorable condition: I was not an especially careful child, and my books were read over and over again. 

tatty but special 

Take Noel Streatfeild’s A Vicarage Family, for example. It’s tatty; in fact the back cover is detached from the rest of it. I’ve replaced it with a lovely, mint-condition hardback. Well, not exactly replaced… When I had a recent clear-out, my paperback of A Vicarage Family survived the cull when many a book was moved on to the Oxfam Bookshop.

Why? Because it was the copy I had as a child, the one I reread often, the one whose pages absorbed my tears when cousin John was killed in the war. Every time. It’s my copy in a way that the lovely new one will never be. Yes, the Shirley Hughes cover illustration has a charm the hardback lacks, but that was never the point.

ALWFV with some pals 
I’m not a serious book collector – any aspirations for a complete set of first edition Chalet School hardbacks in dust wrappers were set aside the day I left my sensible job to be a fulltime writer; but I do have hundreds of old children’s books, many with beautiful covers, and sturdy and fresh despite their age, because they were built for endurance.

Still, I often find myself drawn to a dog-eared 1970s Malory Towers ‘Dragon’ paperback for exactly the same reason I couldn’t get rid of A Vicarage Family. Nostalgia. I have to restrain myself sometimes from buying up all the 1970s paperback pony books in charity shops. The covers are often dreadful, and bear no relation to the ponies of the story, but they call to me like old friends.

Much of my childhood reading was courtesy of the local library, so the books I owned were very special to me – though the specialness didn’t prevent my reading them in the bath and up trees, hence the sorry state they ended up in. I had hardly any hardbacks, and those I’ve collected as an adult are often ex-library copies, which have the merit of being identical to the editions I borrowed but could never have owned as a child. More old friends, but the posher kind. 

older and built to last

My old paperbacks weren’t built to last — especially not when you read them in the bath — but I’ll always have a soft spot for the book covers of my youth.

Friday, 12 July 2019

Time to Write by Vanessa Harbour

L to R Gordon Smith, Antoinette Moses,
Melvin Burgess and me
Photo courtesy of Gordon Smith

Recently I had the pleasure of appearing at the Fly Festival of Literature for Young People. Before our event, Antoinette Moses, the brilliant organiser, author and lecturer, Gordon Smith, author and patron of the festival, and I were sat together having a wonderful natter about writerly things, as you do. The subject of finding time to write came up and it made think… a lot. Antoinette was very strict; she always writes a thousand words every day. Gordon admitted he used to write for many hours every day, but since having children it wasn’t quite so easy. This I could empathise with. I have periods of time when I can, like Gordon, write for hours on end, but then there are other times when I find it almost impossible to squeeze in even ten minutes, let alone finding time to write Antoinette’s thousand words.

Driving back to Winchester from Norwich I contemplated the idea of time even more. Time is so precious and time to write even more so. There is so much pressure on us that eats away at this precious writing time. It is almost impossible to be ‘just a writer’ these days. In 2018 ALCS produced a report which highlighted how an author’s income solely from actual writing had dropped to £10,437. With the best will in the world, this is not a salary anyone can realistically live on. (The government’s national living wage equates to £15,269) Consequently, the majority of authors are having to supplement their income through having another job, doing events, if children’s writers they might be doing school visits – though we all know due to funding cuts those are getting few and far between too, writing articles, anything that might bring in additional funds. These all require time and effort that take writers away from writing.

Personally, I have two jobs as well as being an author. I am a senior lecturer in creative writing at the University of Winchester and Head of Academic and Business
Preparing to do a Skype
Relations/Mentor and Workshop Leader at the Golden Egg Academy. I love these jobs as it means I get to work with people who love to write. However, it also means my head is often full of other people's works. During a recent marking period, I looked at nearly 300k words worth of work belonging to others, including my external examining work. That is not including my Golden Egg work. It is in these moments that it can be particularly hard to find the time to write. I have had to develop strategies in order to deal with all the words belonging to others floating around my head. I have written about it here. Basically, it is all about emptying those words out of my through freewriting before writing, literally vomiting on the page. Or refocusing by reading a different format, for example reading poetry before I write prose.  

Add into this mix the fact that being an author itself is time hungry. Gone are the days of writing your novel, handing it over and disappearing back into your ivory tower to write your next one. Now there is all the social media activity, maintaining your website as well as the events. Don’t get me wrong I do enjoy these, but they take time, a time when you could potentially be writing. I do have to be strict with myself over Twitter, for example, or I would be on there forever as there are some wonderful people on there. Fabulous teachers and librarians, other authors and aspiring writers, who are all fascinating to talk to. But conversing with them doesn’t give you time to write.  It is about prioritising. I allocate certain times of day for social media and use scheduling tools such as Tweetdeck to help me manage my time better and so that it doesn’t become overwhelming. However, I still feel I am not doing enough and not making enough connections. It is such a difficult thing to balance.

Also, when considering actual writing time, it is not just about time for putting words on a page. It is allowing time for pre-writing, latent processing where you are mulling ideas and plot issues over, doing research, world building and creating three-dimensional characters. There is so much more to writing than putting words on a page.
Time for latent processing

Going back to the wonderful Antoinette and her determined thousand words a day. This is something I am going to give a go at. I am very conscious that when I don’t write my mental health suffers, so I think I might also be helping myself by trying it. I have always been a bit wary of being determined to write every day because of that sense of failure if you don’t achieve it. However, listening to Antoinette talk about it, I realised that it didn’t matter what words were written, it was the fact you were writing that was the most important thing. This really inspired me as it felt less pressurised. It would mean that it didn’t matter how tired I was, or how full of other people’s words, something would come out of it. I already carry a notebook always to jot down moments of inspiration as they come, and I am going to make more use of that. I am going to take snatched moments to write as well that can feed into the focused thousand words. As Antoinette said, ‘It’s all about habit.’ I am going to create this habit as I think this will help me timewise in the long run. I’ll keep you posted, and we’ll see how I get on. I am looking forward to it. I also hope you all find time to write, feel inspired and a little less pressurised. 

Vanessa Harbour
Flight - Firefly 2018


Thursday, 11 July 2019

Can we ditch Boris and have Cressida Cowell instead? - Kelly McCaughrain

If you happened to see my shameless namedropping on Twitter yesterday, you’ll know that I managed to blag my way into the ceremony announcing the new UK Children’s Laureate, Cressida Cowell, held at Shakespeare’s Globe in London. (I know! The potential for embarassing fangirling is endless.)

Rabbit in the literary headlights
So here’s the lowdown:

First, this place is fantastic. I’d never been to the Globe and it’s beautiful. It doesn’t feel like you’re in London, it feels like a historical theme park (a very convincing one) in rural England. The Laureate ceremony was in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, an intimate and beautiful space that I’d love to see a play in. 

Diana Gerald, CEO of BookTrust

The seating was randomly allocated, and I walked in to find I was sitting RIGHT NEXT TO MICHAEL ROSEN! Did I have the nerve to speak to him? I did not. I restrained my inner fangirl and didn’t disturb him. But he was great, giving huge whoops for both the outgoing and incoming laureates. And when Lauren Child’s PowerPoint clicker failed, he said, ‘Never use PowerPoints’. So there you go, good advice from a former laureate.

In her opening speech, Diana Gerald, CEO of BookTrust, said the role of the laureate was “not just an honour and not exactly a job” but involves a “commitment to share the joy and inspiration of children’s books, creativity and reading and to remind adults occasionally that children’s books really really matter.”

I do think adults need to be reminded of that and I’ve written before on this blog about how children’s literature gets less media coverage, fewer reviews and less respect generally than books for adults. Apart from the obvious societal benefits of raising readers (who, as Cressida Cowell later pointed out in her speech, make smarter, more empathetic citizens), if publishers and bookshops are facing falling profits because people aren’t reading as much, then childhood reading is surely the place to start fixing that. It’s much easier to convince a six-year-old of the joy of stories than a stressed out, busy 30-year-old. So start there.

Then we had a speech from outgoing laureate, Lauren Child. Her speech was as beautifully funny, whacky and full of the unexpected as her books. Her laureateship has been about allowing ourselves to focus on the small things. To daydream, to do nothing, to be bored. And I think that was brave, to be handed such a big role and make it about little things. As a terminal-case daydreamer and starer-into-space myself, I found this wonderfully reassuring and I’m sure she’s inspired many children and adults in the last two years to allow their inner daydreamer out.

Lauren Child

Reviewing her two years as laureate, she admitted she was anxious and intimidated when asked to take on the role, but said, that ‘yes is usually a better answer than no’. Wise words.

She then talked about what it is about stories that supports us and appeals to us. She said that we are just stories, and collections of stories from people around us, stories of our fears, funny stories, scarring stories. These are our bones and where our ideas come from as writers. But you need time to access them and put the fragments together or you can’t be creative and write books.

So we need time to think about nothing, to be bored, to not seek constant distraction. She said that a large part of the process of writing stories is just staring out the window and that we should allow ourselves to do that. To not be absorbed in our phones when walking to work or to school. To see what’s around you instead.

She also said that you don’t have to be good at something to enjoy it or learn from it and that illustration is an empathetic artform because you have to observe other people and think about why they look they way they do, why they move the way they do etc. So even if you can’t draw, it’s worth trying illustration because of what you’ll learn from it. I liked that idea because isn’t that the soul of creativity? And often the hardest part of writing? The fear of doing something you might not be good at?

She then handed over to Deborah Texeira, deputy headteacher and part of the laureateship steering group, who talked about how powerful books can be in a child’s development and how important libraries are for children whose families have no spare money for books, a situation her own family was in when they came to Britain as refugees.

Deborah then announced the new UK Children’s Laureate – Cressida Cowell, who ran on stage like a mad thing and was obviously SO thrilled to be there. 

Medal presentation from Lauren Child (who was wearing FABULOUS shoes, btw)
Her speech, which I found very inspiring was centred on two key messages:

  1. Books and reading are magic.
  2. This magic must be made available to everyone.

She talked about the competition books face from TV and movies and how books can develop magical powers in a reader that TV can’t. TV is very visual and bossy and tells you what everything looks like. A book requires you to imagine and participate in the story and bring it to life. Reading literally changes your brain.

(Of course the headlines today are ‘Cressida Cowell wants to take on TV’, although actually that was just a small part of her speech. Most of it was about libraries and how reading makes us better people but that’s not as sexy, I guess.)

She said that reading develops three vital qualities in children – intelligence, creativity and empathy and that although all three powers are necessary, empathy is maybe the most important because “without empathy you’re just a highly intelligent, creative villain.”

Empathy is something I feel very passionate about and that I’ve been planning to write more about in the coming months (more on that later) so I was really pleased to hear both Cressida Cowell and Lauren Child mention it. As Cressida said, on TV things happen ‘out there’. In a book they happen inside you.

Cressida quoted research that shows that if you read for the joy of it you’re more likely to be happier, healthier, more likely to vote, own your own home, and less likely to go to prison, and that all these statistics apply no matter what socio-economic class you come from. It’s a bedrock of society and we can’t stress its importance enough.

But the magic isn’t getting to everyone. Librarians are disappearing, bookshops are closing, kids are playing video games, review space is shrinking and parents are knackered. So Cressida has made a giant impossible To Do list. Ten kids came on stage to hold up placards to illustrate her list and each of the points got a round of applause.

Children have the right to:

  1. Read for the joy of it (“Books should be sweets not brussel sprouts!” Yes!)
  2. Access NEW books in schools, libraries and bookshops
  3. Have advice from a trained librarian or bookseller
  4. Own their OWN book
  5. See themselves reflected in a book
  6. Be read aloud to
  7. Put a book down if they're not enjoying it (Yes, you can.)
  8. Be creative for at least 15 minutes a week
  9. See an author event at least ONCE (“Authors bring the magic to life” Why, thank you.)
  10. Have a planet to read on (Cressida is passionate about environmental issues and applauded Greta Thunberg, and said we can learn from children because children know that the most important problem facing us is environmental, while adults get caught up in the little things.)

For her laureateship she’s going to try to do ALL of this (brave woman) but will focus on two things:
  1. Campaigning that school libraries should be statutory and campaigning for public libraries
  2. Children should be allowed to be creative for at least 15 minutes a week

I was interested to see just how many of the laureates have focused on supporting libraries. They’ve probably all been involved in that to some degree and some have made it a major point and I’m sure they’ve all done a lot of good and yet it’s still very necessary, which suggests that the politicians aren’t listening. I hope that will change.  

Cressida made the point that the creative industries make £101 billion for this country, outperforming the rest of the economy by double. (I did not know this.) We export more books than any other country in the world and this is our only export of which this is true. So it follows that there should be more creative space in the curriculum.

She’s been promoting a practical campaign she started last year with the National Literacy Trust called Free Writing Friday. Kids are given a special book where for 15 mins every week they can write whatever they want and the teacher can’t mark it. As she explained this, the kids on stage looked utterly thrilled by the idea. One little girl’s jaw just dropped open, it was so cute. So she’s going to draw up practical plans to introduce this into schools as part of the laureateship.

She finished by saying that adults learn from children’s lack of prejudice, hopefulness, constant questioning and belief in the impossible. They “are the most creative people in the world because they don’t know the rules yet” and we need every ounce of intelligence, creativity and empathy to come up with solutions to the political and scientific challenges we’re facing.

And after that it was just drinks on the very fancy Globe balcony, chatting to writers and publishers and generally Cinderella-ing it up until the FlyBe pumpkin ride back to Belfast. 

Chris Riddell - he is the loveliest guy
Liz Canning of BookTrust and Alex T Smith. Comparing school visit stories, Alex told us he was once asked by a school kid, 'What did you do in the war?'

Axel Scheffler, who kindly let me take a picture for my Gruffalo obsessed nephews

View from the balcony. I felt like the Queen.


So I had a fantastic day, and I have no doubt that Cressida Cowell will be an energetic and inspiring laureate and I’m looking forward to seeing what she’ll get up to!

She's lovely but she makes me look like a giant!

But it's OK, Philip Ardagh makes me look tiny. And like I have bunny ears.

Kelly McCaughrain is the author of the Children's Books Ireland Book of the Year,  

She blogs about Writing, Gardening and VW Campervanning at weewideworld.blogspot.co.uk