Friday, 18 August 2017

Down in the Woods by Lu Hersey

 Much of the action in my latest book takes place in a woodland grove. Without giving too many plot spoilers, the grove turns out to be a point of contact between here and otherworld. I didn’t just make this idea up – it’s my contemporary take on ancient folklore.

Roman records tell us that the Celts didn't worship their gods and goddesses in temples, but outdoors, in sacred woodland groves. Which makes perfect sense, as their deities were strongly connected to the land and their environment. 

(from the Gundestrup cauldron) 

The Celts probably weren’t the first, either. Forests provide the setting for so many myths and fairytales, it seems they've been stuffed with ghosts, nature spirits, gods, goddesses and demons (not to mention big bad wolves) since primordial times. There’s something mysterious and magical about woodland and forests, and our stories and legends reflect this.

Arthur Rackham illustration (from Mother Goose)

Britain was once covered in woodland, but we’ve been cutting it down to create farmland, and coppicing and managing most of what’s left, for thousands of years. But there are still some pockets of ancient woodland scattered here and there, and they're well worth exploring.

An article published in the Guardian a few years ago listed Britain's top 10 legendary woods. Legends associated with these woods include stories of giants, ghost animals, dragons, magical white harts, mysterious black dogs, phantom coaches and a headless woman. 

The closest one to where I live is Shervage Forest, set high in the Quantock hills in Somerset. This oak woodland is famed for its Gurt Wurm, the dragon who once lived there and went about ravaging the land and creating havoc. Before it was slain, the wurm laid an egg, which no one has ever found...
Dragons were known as wyrms and were depicted as huge serpents with wings right up until medieval times - they only grew legs and became fire breathers more recently. So the legend of the Gurt Wurm, like Shervage Forest itself, is probably very old.

The Gurt Wurm (illustration by fountainsflowing)

Not included in the Guardian's list, but a personal favourite, is Wistman's Wood on Dartmoor. Legend has it that this dwarf oak woodland was once the site of a ancient druid grove, and it's reputed to be haunted. When no one else is around, the gnarled, twisted branches of the old lichen covered oaks and the strange shapes of the granite boulders can send chills down the spine. My parents used to take me there when they went bilberry picking, and I saw some very strange things – but only ever when my parents had disappeared out of sight...

Wistman's Wood, Dartmoor

I went to Canada this year, and for the first time in my life got to see what totally uninhabited, untouched, virgin (non-tropical) rainforest is like. It's extraordinary. I've never experienced anything like it, as there’s nothing here that's so primordial, untamed - or so BIG. 

Forest in British Columbia

Somehow, it explained everything. It took me straight back to a time when woods were full of scary creatures, nature spirits and ghostly mists, and were deeply magical, spine tingling places.

And it reminded me why a woodland grove was the perfect setting for my story.

Lu Hersey
Twitter: @LuWrites
Blog: Lu Writes
Deep Water, published by Usborne, out now

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Reading Stories Aloud! by Margaret Bateson-Hill

I fell into writing quite by accident. My real interest lay in performance - with my background in drama, singing and dance I wanted to be a musical theatre star. Instead, two-children-who-didn’t-like-sleeping later, I found a perfect job as an under-fives storyteller for Lambeth Libraries (when councils did things like that). I cut my teeth on interpreting other people’s picture books - not only reading the text, but using the illustrations to help unpack the subtext and of course by adding comments, rhymes, songs and questions of my own.

I love unpacking books! It takes me about twenty minutes to tell the brilliant Dear Zoo by Rod Campbell by the time I’ve been the postman, attempted to push the elephant inside my house, lost numerous fingers to the lion, and have you tried putting that jumpy frog back in the box?

I’m also very accomplished at making all sorts of munching sounds, from eating cloud fluff mash potato (I Will Not Ever Never Eat A Tomato by Lauren Child) to gingerbread- hungry foxes, and don’t get me started on how to eat a plate of sandwiches in one big mouthful! Owp!’ (The Tiger Who Came To Tea by Judith Kerr).

Of course I don’t get it right first time, I need to read and tell a story numerous times before I start to discover all that’s been packed away inside.

I also work as an oral storyteller – telling stories with no book- where no telling is ever quite the same as the one that went before.

What fascinates me with stories read/ told aloud is how they change from one telling to the next; even with a similar group of children, the group dynamic can be so different.  The story ‘happens’ in the space between the storyteller and the story listener.  Of course the age, number of the audience, adults in support, formality of setting, purpose of telling, inform you on what type of interaction is effective. Size of room, volume of voice, pitch, pace, movement, position in relation to audience all need considering.

Some tales need small quiet spaces, whilst for another; a large hall and a good strong voice are what are required. I was using ‘Brown Bear, Brown Bear’ by Bill Martin Jr in a drop in under fives museum setting. As the session went on the group got larger and larger, until it had grown from 30 to 70. My gestures and voice grew in proportion to my audience until I was nearly dancing the story – and the story held its own, like all good stories do!

Audiences change the telling by their reactions, bringing out humour, or giving a new importance to an action, which previously seemed unimportant.
I love this fluidity and the reinventing of the story, keeping it fresh and alive and full of surprises.

Even though I am now a published author I still like to keep certain fluidity around my texts in my school visits – certainly around my picture books.

I ‘tell’ rather than ‘read’ my folktales, Lao Lao of Dragon Mountain and Masha and the Firebird. Although I know them well, I’m still (consciously) not word perfect. In fact as I have told them over the years I have changed details, even the order in which things happen – partly because written text and spoken text work differently and partly because simple things like my memory have changed the details over the years. Before I start I explain that to children, asking them if they can spot any differences if they already know the story, or to look out for them when they come to read the book themselves.

I have also been able to add back in details that I liked in an earlier draft and that have been cut in various edits.

Recently those two folktales have returned to their original editor and have been reissued by Alanna Books. I took the opportunity to tweak the text, and make some of those changes that have evolved through my various ‘tellings.’

Do other authors ever have an opportunity to revisit a book and change things? Do they want to? I wish I could revisit all my texts now that I’ve worked with them over the years. I would cut large chunks and rewrite so many passages. There is nothing like reading a text out loud to find its imperfections!  Perhaps publishers should be building in opportunities for rewrites every five years or before a reprint?

Some of my favourite read aloud books...

Margaret Bateson-Hill is both an author and a storyteller. Having grown up in Blackpool, studied English and Drama at Hull University, she now lives in Brixton, South London, one of the crossroads of the world and an ideal place from which to journey into the world of story. She has published both picture and fiction books. Her books have been translated into many languages, including French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Danish, Catalan, Korean and Polish. Find out more at

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

The Secret Message in All Stories – Heather Dyer

According to Joseph Campbell, all stories contain certain elements – or archetypal motifs – in common. He designed a universal story structure or ‘mythic archetype’ that he called The Hero’s Journey.

Typically, the hero (whom Campbell is careful to say can be masculine or feminine) faces various challenges and meets archetypal characters who perform specific roles. The hero confronts a dragon or the equivalent, and either dies or appears to die in order to be resurrected. Only then does he receive a boon, or gift, which he takes back to the known world to benefit humanity.

The mythic archetype fits nicely into the other recognized ‘story structures’ such as the 3-act structure, the 5-act structure, and the 8-point plot arc. Christopher Vogler, author of The Writer’s Journey, recognized the pattern of The Hero's Journey in contemporary literature and film, and interpreted Campbell’s structure for use by Hollywood screenwriters. The Hero’s Journey, says Vogler, represents ‘the pattern that lies behind every story ever told’.

But if all stories adhere to this archetype – more or less – might there be an underlying message contained within this pattern, which remains consistent despite the content or theme of a story?

I am studying the mythic archetype for my doctoral thesis at the moment, and it occurs to me that The Hero’s Journey is in fact a metaphor for the creative process itself.

The Creative Journey

Look at the five-step process of creativity as described by people like Milhay Csikszentmihalyi:

1. a period of preparation, of ‘becoming immersed, consciously or not, in a set of problematic issues’
2. … followed by a period of incubation, during which ‘ideas churn around below the threshold of consciousness
3. … which leads to one or more insights
4. … followed by a period of evaluation during which the person ‘must decide whether the insight is valuable and worth pursuing’
5. … and finally, elaboration, which consists of applying the insight or doing the work.

When Vogler studied The Hero's Journey, he said, ‘I came looking for the design principles of storytelling, but on the road I found something more; a set of principles for living’. I conclude that the principle for living is: ‘live creatively’.

In both the creative and mythic journeys, the hero or creative individual must first experience a sort of dissatisfaction with the way things are (often translated into a desire for something specific, which is often not what’s needed!). This desire motivates the hero or creative individual to leave the familiar behind, step off the familiar tracks, and venture into the unknown.

After a series of challenges and trials during which the tensions between opposites increase and the hero or creative individual gathers information and experience, there follows a period of incubation, in which the hero or creative person must defeat his or her own ego, since self-annihilation – or a deconstruction of the old self (or a letting-go of old ideas) is necessary in order to assimilate new knowledge. Once the gift of insight has been received, the creative hero must then bring the story full circle by returning to the known world and applying the new insight to benefit themselves and the world at large.

So, to live creatively like the hero we need to leave our assumptions and certainties behind, go bravely into that state of ‘not-knowing’, tolerate uncertainty and rise above our egoic fears and conditioned thinking in order to acquire new insights and expand our consciousness.

If we don’t do this, we end up enslaved by our conditioned thinking, defensive and insecure, stuck in our ruts, and intolerant of change. We can see this happening in the world around us now, and we have a choice: to grow, or die.

Only by adopting this creative mindset can we become the creative heroes of our own lives and of the world in general – which has been the message implicit in the archetypal structure of our stories all along...

Heather Dyer, Royal Literary Fund Consultant Fellow

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Writers, can’t afford a holiday? Try awe instead – by Rowena House

Midway through August, and feeling disgruntled about not being able to get away this year, New Scientist came to the rescue with an article about the psychological, emotional and creative value of experiencing awe.
Apparently, feeling a sense of awe breaks down our habitual patterns of thinking, reducing the expectations and assumptions which otherwise colour our view of the world, and thus enables us to see better what’s actually going on.
“Feeling awestruck can dissolve our very sense of self, bringing a host of benefits from lowering stress and boosting creativity to making us nicer people,” says Jo Marchant in Awesome Awe (issue No 3136, July 29th, 2017).
Awe combines amazement, a hint of fear, and a sense of transcendence: that humbling knowledge of things beyond us.
Experiencing awe quietens regions of the brain normally occupied with self-interest and self-consciousness, increasing a sense of connection to others, and leading to more charitable thoughts and altruistic actions.
Astronauts are subject to awe so often when they look down on Earth from space that they’ve given it a specific name: the overview effect.
“Researchers have also reported increases in curiosity and creativity. In one study, after viewing images of Earth, volunteers came up with more original examples in tests, found greater interest in abstract painting and persisted longer on difficult puzzles, compared with controls,” Marchant says.
All of which reminds me of a conversation that creative writers often have with each other: what on earth should we do when inspiration dies?
Eating chocolate or cake are popular remedies. Taking hot baths or showers help a lot of us, too, along with walking the dog, meditation etc. etc.
The New Scientist article suggests that we’d be better off taking a daily dose of awe instead. (Controlled doses of psychedelic drugs seem to work as well, but I’ll leave it up to you to check out what the article has to say about that.) To benefit from awe, all we have to do is find out what triggers it in us, and do that as often as possible.
Maybe it’s taking time to absorb a sublime city skyline, or to lose ourselves in some great monument: a ruined temple of the Ancient World, a medieval cathedral or the Sky Tree in Tokyo. Staring into the branches of an ancient oak tree does it for me, or encountering a wild animal unexpectedly, or sitting by the untamed sea or under a starry sky.
One thing I miss most about not going on holiday is watching the churning wake of our ferry as we pull away from land, and the crying of gulls, which always leaves me with a liberating sense of surrender to the journey and the wider world.
This loss of self, with its accompanying connection to others, may sound like mystical mumbo-jumbo or pseudo-religion, but if awe is hard-wired by evolution into our brains – if it’s a natural, creative, mind-altering buzz – why not harness its power year-round?
Alternatively, we could max out on credit cards and go find some sunshine anyway.

Monday, 14 August 2017

Yet More Brilliant B's by Lynne Benton

Here are a few more great authors whose surnames begin with B. 

Elizabeth Beresford originally worked as a journalist but is now best-known as the creator of the Wombles.  The first book was published in 1968, and after its success on “Jackanory” the BBC decided to make it into an animated series for television.  With their strong theme of recycling, the Wombles became very popular with children across the world, and they remain her best known creation.

Angela Brazil was one of the first British writers of "modern schoolgirls' stories", written from the characters' point of view and intended primarily as entertainment rather than moral instruction.  In the first half of the 20th century she published nearly 50 books of girls' fiction, the vast majority being boarding school stories.  After WW11 books of this type became less popular, but she was still widely read into the 1960s.

Quentin Blake is perhaps best-known for illustrating books by Roald Dahl, but he has also written and illustrated many of his own books.  In 1999 he was created the first ever Children's Laureate, and in 2013 he was knighted.  One of his most popular books is Mister Magnolia.

Jeff Brown’s name is well-known around the world, but especially in the United States, as the creator of Flat Stanley.  Brown created Flat Stanley in a bedtime story for his sons. One was frightened by the possibility that the noticeboard above his bed would fall on him in the night. Brown dismissed the idea but joked that if it did his son would end up flat. The boys loved the idea, so he came up with more “what if” scenarios and eventually turned the stories into a book.  “Flat Stanley” was published in 1964, and was eventually followed by several more books about Stanley, though in most of these Stanley was not flat.

Anthony Browne is an author/illustrator, whose first, and most famous book is Gorilla.  It is the story of Hannah, who is so obsessed with gorillas that she dreams that her toy one turns into a real one, who becomes her special friend.

Judy Blume is another American writer, this time for teenage girls.  Born in 1938, she is credited as one of the first authors to write YA novels about difficult topics particularly relevant to readers.  Because of their subject matter (puberty, periods, masturbation and so on) they were often banned by schools and libraries, and some still consider them to be taboo.  According to Blume, "I wanted to be honest. And I felt that no adult had been honest with me. We didn't have the information we should have had." Perhaps her best-known book is “Are you there, God?  It’s me, Margaret”.

Antonia Barber wrote her most famous book, “The Mousehole Cat”, with beautiful illustrations by Nicola Bayley, based on a Cornish legend.  It is the story of fisherman Tom and his cat Mowzer, and what happens when a terrific storm prevents the fishermen from going out to sea, which means the village will starve.  However, Mowzer decides to tackle the great Storm Cat in order to save Tom and the village.

Henrietta Branford, who died of cancer in 1999, is best known for her book “Fire, Bed and Bone”, a historical novel set during the English Peasants’ Revolt in 1381.  After her death, the Branford-Boase Award for first-time writers was created in her name.

Robert Browning wrote one of the most famous narrative poems in the English language – The Pied Piper of Hamelin.  In 303 lines he tells the legend of a piper who is hired to rid the town of Hamelin of a plague of rats.  When he succeeds in luring the rats to their deaths in the river, however, the mayor refuses to pay him, so the piper lures the town’s children away, and they are never seen again.  Browning died in 1889.

I know there will be many more authors whom I haven’t mentioned, and I'm sorry if I've left out your favourite, but you’ll just have to forgive me.  Next time I’ll be going on to authors whose surnames begin with C.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Honor Arundel, YA Pioneer by Sheena Wilkinson

There’s a received wisdom that YA didn’t really exist until the last few decades, at least not in the UK. I don’t agree. I was a teenager in the eighties, and while there certainly wasn’t the choice of YA that there is today, nor is it true that we all went straight from the Famous Five to Margaret Drabble (via Jilly Cooper and Virginia Andrews).

In my local library in east Belfast there was a whole section labelled Young Adult. It wasn’t a large section, about five shelves, but it wasn’t all ‘Sweet Dreams’ romances. That’s where I encountered S.E. Hinton, Deborah Hautzig and early Jacqueline Wilson titles such as Waiting For The Sky To Fall. Many of K.M. Peyton’s books were there too – A Midsummer Night’s Death; Prove Yourself A Hero and of course the Pennington books.

my much-loved Honor Arundel books 

 K.M. Peyton was/is my absolute favourite, but there was another author whose books I returned to over and over again, which had a special resonance for me. Their settings – usually Edinburgh and the Scottish islands – felt much more familiar to me than the English or American settings which were more usual. They weren’t exactly contemporary: Honor Arundel died in 1973, aged only 54, and her novels dated from the mid-sixties to the very early seventies. Which means that not only was she writing YA, but doing so, like me, in her forties, not as a bright young thing.

The first time I visited Edinburgh I looked up at the impossibly tall old stone houses in the Old Town, and wondered which of them was the ‘high house’ where Emma lived with her artist aunt Patsy in the Emma series, probably Arundel’s best-known books.  On a recent visit I had exactly the same experience and came home and reread all my Honor Arundels. Hence this post. 

Keren David, another YA author who grew up with Arundel’s books, says, ‘I loved Honor Arundel because she wrote about a world that was outside my experience, but so interesting. In her 'Emma' books, Emma goes from a very conventional middle class home (much like my own) to live with her boho artist Aunt Patsy in Edinburgh. Every detail - food, clothes, art student parties, school - was memorable. And every time I get a well-timed cheque for freelance work I remember Aunt Patsy, and want to buy flowers and sparkling wine and chicken.’

As film critic for the communist Daily Worker, and married to a Scottish actor, the Welsh-born Arundel knew all about the freelance, artistic life, a world she explores most tellingly in A Family Failing.  A Family Failing isn’t an altogether successful book. Its structure is clumsy and it wears its earnestness just a bit too self-consciously (though as it is supposed to be ‘written’ by 18-year-old Joanna, perhaps this is Arundel being extra-clever?) But as the child of divorced parents I loved the way it dissected a family breakup, with the parents as real and vital as the teenagers, and actually, on a reread, much more nuanced.

Likeability is something that’s bandied round a lot in the teen book world. Is your main character likeable enough? Is she (I hate the word) relatable? And if she’s not, what dark trauma is she suppressing that gives her permission to be a bitch – it had better be tragic, and uncovered by a crushworthy love interest.  In 1971, with The Terrible Temptation, Arundel was much less squeamish and a great deal more original. Jan, the narrator, isn’t especially likeable at all: she is selfish, superior, determined to eschew messy personal involvements. And when she does fall in love with a crushworthy fellow student, she loses him because of how she is. And at the end of the book she does not get him back. There is a sequel, The Blanket Word, which is even darker – Jan is called home to her dying mother and is forced to reconnect with her family and her role in it. There are no easy solutions; no character transformations, but as a teen and again as an adult I was struck by the honesty, the bravery in presenting a character so unconventional and refreshing. And so self-aware. Lee Weatherly is another Arundel fan, who says, 'I especially love The Terrible Temptation and The Blanket Word, which show a young woman shifting from self-involvement to compassion. Yet there's nothing the least bit preachy in Arundel's work, and no easy answers are offered. Funny, touching and real, she portrays family relationships in all their messy, complex glory.' 

Jan is a student at Edinburgh University, and Eileen, in The Longest Weekend, a twenty-year-old single mother. Arundel’s books were genuinely young adult. In the last Emma book, Emma In Love, she is still at school but living in a flat with her brother, coping more or less alone with housekeeping and heartbreak. The scene where she sinks into depression, and thinks of ending her life, chilled me as a teen and still strikes a chord now. It was written in 1972.

For me as a teen reader, Arundel's books were profoundly aspirational. I didn’t want to be suicidal, but I did yearn to study in a beautiful old city (I chose Durham rather than Edinburgh), and to sit around philosophizing and to mix with artists and writers. And then to become one. Which I did, of course. I can’t give Honor Arundel all the credit, but she is certainly one of the authors who helped me on my way.  She’s also proof that YA was alive and well over forty years ago.


What other forgotten writers would people champion?