Thursday, 13 December 2018

A Wise Choice - by Sheena Wilkinson

‘You always had a book in your hand.’

‘You were always writing away.’

No doubt this what relatives will say to me this Christmas, reminiscing about ye olden dayes when we were all younge and merrye. And I will smile and quip that nothing has changed. 

When I was younge and merrye
Last month I gave a talk about Star By Star in the Tower Museum in Derry. I’d spent the afternoon walking round the city walls and remembering my very first time in Derry, a family weekend in summer 1979, when I was ten, staying with Chris and Irene, friends of my stepfather. That weekend in their tiny terraced house in the Bogside has always shone brightly in my mind. 

I remember going outside to the toilet in the back yard; I remember running down the steep street and walking round the walls, seeing the city beneath me and the river and hills stretching far beyond to Donegal across the border. I could hardly believe it when next day we crossed the border and went to Buncrana to the seaside, the most exotic thing that had ever happened to me.  In Donegal the postboxes were green and there was different money and different sweets. There were Troubles in Derry, as there were in Belfast, but I don’t remember being aware of them. 

When I saw Chris and Irene in the audience, almost forty years later, I was touched, and started to reminisce about what had always been a special weekend for me. And then, out of her bag, Irene took a neatly pinned -- yes, pinned, I mustn't have had a stapler -- wodge of pages. ‘Do you remember writing this for us?’ she asked.

This was a collection of stories, written that very weekend, carefully kept by them for nearly forty years.  I have no memory of writing them, but there they are as proof that in between walking the walls and playing on the beach in Buncrana I must have sat down and written. Their house was tiny; I must have written while the four adults chatted and their small daughter toddled and my sister played. 

Looking at the stories now I am struck by how professional I tried to make them look. At school I was doing cursive script, but the stories are printed to make them look more like real books. They are illustrated, as all my stories were – and reader, I take no offence if you are thinking it’s well I had no ambitions to be an artist. Two things stand out for me.

One is that nobody, reading these stories, would guess they were by a girl from a Belfast council estate in the middle of the Troubles. They are aspirational and escapist, rural and middle-class. They are the stories of a girl who has grown up with Enid Blyton and the Pullein-Thompsons. Jan, the heroine of The Lost Pony lives in Cherry Cottage with lots of animals. She copes very competently when she finds the eponymous lost pony, but is not sad to relinquish him to his owners because she has two ponies of her own already. The only note of the 1970s is when she buys Jackie at the village shop; real me would not give up Bunty for at least two years. (The Lost Pony is in fact entirely devoid of conflict or suspense; a weekend potboiler rather than part of my serious oeuvre.)

But talking of my serious oeuvre, the other thing that strikes me is my supreme confidence. Look at that Author’s Note: You have made a wise choice. I wish I had ten-year-old me doing my PR these days. I do remember, as soon as I got home, starting to write a family story set in Derry. No ponies, no kittens, no country cottages. It was my first foray into gritty urban realism. It has not survived. Maybe just as well. 

Wednesday, 12 December 2018

A Humorous Guide to Getting Through Christmas by Mel Darbon

         A humorous Guide to Getting Through Christmas by Mel Darbon                                                                                                    
Holly Ornament Holiday · Free vector graphic on Pixabay

On the run up to Christmas I thought I would write a simple guide on how to survive the festive season. Hopefully it will put a smile on your face and give you some useful tips…

Coping with Parents:
1: Accept that the instant you step over the threshold of your parent’s house on Christmas Eve that you will become the child again, and that no matter how much it irritates you, it is best to give in to it, so as to avoid self-combustion. After all, it probably won’t be long until your roles are reversed, and you will become the parent to your parents. Then you will yearn for the time your mother drew a pirate face on your boiled egg and asked if you wanted marmite soldiers to dunk in the yolk.

Your parents are going to treat you like you’re five because they will never accept that you’re a grown up holding down a responsible job with a partner and three kids of your own, because you will always be their little girl or boy. They will always ask, ‘Have you been to the loo?” before you go out the house - and then ask if you’ve washed your hands afterwards. Either give in gracefully or pre-empt it all by gleefully telling your mum you’ve been for a wee-wee and waggle your lavender scented hands under her nose.

                                                            DVIDS - Images - Spartan paratroopers jump in Arctic gear ...   
Avoid the next inevitable question, as you prepare to go for the pre-Christmas Day walk, “Are you going to be warm enough in that cagoule?” by wrapping yourself up like a Yeti in Merino wool socks, fleece pants and sweatshirt, winter boots and a thermal parka. If you pass out from heat exhaustion by the time you get home, at least be pleased that you’ll have sweated off half a stone and be ready for the humungous Christmas lunch.
2: Family quirks.
Accept any of your family’s eccentricities or it will drive you insane. Repeat to yourself in the mirror, whilst practising smiling sweetly, “It’s only for three days.” 

If your mother wants to get all the lunch items out straight after breakfast to bring them up to room temperature – let her. A mild stomach upset is always better than listening to her stressing about it for four hours if you suggest she leaves the food in the fridge.

If Aunty Ivy licks all the Quality Street to see which ones she likes best, come prepared with your own labelled tin, so you don’t end up eating the sweets she’s put back. It’s not worth the dysentery that will rip through you if you do.
                                                                                    BIG IMAGE (PNG)


Be prepared for your mother to be full of the spirit of Christmas, in more ways than one, and do her usual Christmas bonhomie, “Help yourself to anything you want – what’s ours is yours.” Resist loading up the car with the family heirlooms and understand that your mother doesn’t mean it literally. On borrowing a cardigan once, as I’d forgotten to bring my own, my mother fixed me with a glassy stare and through thinned lips said, “I hope that’s not something else of mine you’re going to steal...”

And talking of cardigans, make sure you bring clothes for both arctic and tropical temperatures, as your parents will argue incessantly about the house being either too hot or too cold. A battle will ensue to secretly switch the thermostat up or down leaving you either boiling hot and sweating like a pig or freezing cold with an icicle hanging off the end of your nose.    
                                                Clipart - Sad face with sweatdrop
3: Food.
Even if your parents asked you if there were any special food items that you would like – they won’t have got them, putting it down to a fad and something that you will grow out of. If you can’t live without your ancient-seeded sourdough or your fermented vegetables, bring them with you – but expect to be ridiculed. You can always disappear upstairs every so often to thrash your bed with a stick, to let off steam.

If you’re newly vegan – forget it. Your parents simply won’t be able to cope, and you won’t be able to cope with any discussion on why you’ve made this decision. Prepare to be converted back to meat. Your father will simply repeat, like a stuck record, that in a few months’ time you will have come to your senses.  If you bring your own gluten-free, butternut squash nut loaf, be prepared for your father to ask your mother, “Why have you roasted one of Oliver’s logs?’ (Oliver being the ancient, arthritic dog) and then laugh loudly at his own joke. 
                                                                        Firewood Forest Log · Free vector graphic on Pixabay

Go on a detox before you go to your parents as you know your mother is a feeder. She will be offended if you don’t clear your plate every time (remember she survived the war years and rationing) - even if she’s piled your plate up so high it resembles the Shanghai Tower. Just tell yourself that you are going to go in to hibernation afterwards and need the extra layer of fat to survive.

Constantly praise the cook - after all it took ten hours of preparation and only ten minutes for everyone to demolish it. Please your mother too by wearing the Christmas hat from the crackers around the dinner table. What does it matter if you look like a bonehead for a couple of hours? No one is going to see you outside of the room and if your nephew decides to post them up on Instagram, at least you won’t be alone in your humiliation as there will be hundreds of drunken posts.

Keep away from sugar at any age – even adults can get hyper.

4: Presents.
No matter how much care or thought you put into buying presents, you’ll never get it right. That special whiskey you spent hours hunting down for your father and spent a year’s wages on, because it’s the only one he’ll drink, will be met on opening with a big sigh and a, “I haven’t touched this stuff in months, as it gives me terrible wind.” 

Of course, you have to love all the gifts that you receive, even when you know your cousin got the Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer tea-towel from Poundland, as you got the same one for Aunty June. Practise saying, “It’s what I always wanted” until you start to believe it yourself and then put it away to give to another relative the following Christmas. 

Avoid noisy toys for pets or children as they will drive you insane – if you haven’t been carted off in a white van already.

Avoid looking at what your siblings unwrap in case they won the parent jackpot this year and it sets your second-child-syndrome therapy back ten years.

 Don’t be upset when you unwrap that bottle of loo cleaner that your mother put under the tree - it’s not personal. Everyone got one as your mother found a bargain box of ten for two pounds at Aldi - and if she’s anything like my mother she has a padlock on her wallet.

5: Drink.
Avoid downing too many glasses of bubbly. It might seem like a good idea at the time, but it’s bound to end in disaster. Not least, it will stop fisticuffs with your brother when he sneaks one of your mother’s five-hundred-pound notes from her winnings and slips it under the Monopoly board so that he can buy Mayfair. You don’t want to end up not talking to him again for another year. If you drink too much, you’ll also end up spilling all those secrets you don’t want to give away, which will inevitably end up on Twitter or Facebook, so that the whole world now knows them. Stick to tipsy and see Christmas through rose-tinted glasses.

Free Images : celebration, carnival, drink, celebrate ...
6: Television.
You will have to endure the soaps whether you like it or not. Your mother hasn’t missed an episode since time began and she likes to share them with you. Get some earplugs. You know it will only make depressing viewing and that you’ll end up losing the will to live as half the characters are maimed, murdered or burnt by a boiled sprout thrown at them by a disgruntled spouse.

                                                                  Imagem vetorial gratis: Bombeiros, Machado, Brasão De ...

Watch the Queen’s Speech and pay attention because your father will want to analyse it later.

7. Christmas music.
On a loop. Keep calm, even if you do want to pulverise the CD with a hammer after it’s played for the eighth time. It gives your father fond memories of when he was a boy scout and went carol singing. Bide your time, because you can disconnect the power when everyone else has fallen asleep after lunch.

8. Goodwill.
Above all else, remember that it is the season of goodwill. Watch, “It’s a Wonderful Life”, sit back, relax and have a very Happy Christmas! After all, it only comes once a year. Holly Ornament Holiday · Free vector graphic on Pixabay 
 Mel Darbon

@Darbon Mel


Tuesday, 11 December 2018

On Finding 'The One' - Kelly McCaughrain

By which I mean, Critique Group, natch.
I’ve been dipping in and out of writing groups since I was 23 and it’s taken almost 20 years to find one that works for me, so, much like Carrie Bradshaw, I thought I’d share what I’ve learned over the course of 20 years of bad relationships* so you can avoid similar mistakes.

(*Disclaimer – these writing groups were entirely populated by lovely people who I genuinely liked and I know people got a lot out of them. They just didn’t work for me personally, for various reasons.)

So many groups are formed because someone puts a vague ad on Facebook, or because a bunch of writers vaguely know each other or are in a class together etc. It usually starts with ‘Let’s form a writing group! We’ll give feedback! Everyone’s welcome!’ To which I want to narrow my eyes and say, ‘What kind of writing group? What kind of feedback? Everyone?’  

This spirit of openness and inclusivity is all very commendable, but the more groups I’ve been to the more I think this is a terrible way to form a group. In fact, my inner secretary kinda wants there to be interviews and questionnaires and contracts and downright discrimination. This is like but much more important.



1. People have to be in the same place. This doesn’t mean that they all have to be published, or all writing YA or all ready to submit. It just means they have to have a similar level of commitment or interest in writing. I’ve been to several writing groups where the 2 hours was broken up thusly:

  • 0-90 mins – chatting about kids, childcare, the school run, jobs, holidays, kids, the price of cheese, the new restaurant in town, kids again. (I’m not even exaggerating, I timed it.
  • 90-120 mins – people reading their work out, sometimes running out of time for everyone.

I’ve even been in groups where people brought their toddlers along. I totally get that childcare can be a problem, but seriously, no one in the history of the world has ever had a focused conversation with a two-year-old in the room.

Just ask this guy
Worse than that, when a dad brings his toddler along, the women spend the entire meeting cooing, then when the dad gets up to go, leaving a mess of plates, toys and spilled apple juice, the women happily volunteer to clear it up for him. I’d like to see a mum get away with that.

The problem with these groups is not merely time management. It’s that you meet up and say, ‘How’s life?’ and they tell you. And for them, ‘life’ means kids, childcare, the school run… etc. In my new group, when I say, ‘How’s life?’ the answer is usually, ‘Oh God, it’s awful, I’ve only got two chapters done this month and I got four rejections and…’ because for them ‘life’ means ‘writing.’ We have two hours and even if we let ourselves chat for most of that time, we’d be chatting about writing.

In fact, we do this. Every other month we have a ‘social’ where we don’t critique, but somehow we end up spending the whole time talking about writing anyway. No one makes us, no one steers the conversation, we’re just all in the same place.

2. It actually does help if you all write in a similar genre. I’ve been in too many groups dominated by poets who look disgusted when you take up their time with your rambly prose (and their feedback consists entirely of telling you to cut words like ‘of’ and ‘the’).

I’ve also been in groups with crime and sci fi writers. It’s not that you can’t, on some level, usefully critique a genre you don’t read, but you can only go so far with it. In our group we’re all children’s writers. A bit of diversity can be nice, but I’ve found the most useful feedback for me comes from people who write for older kids and teens.

3. Never assume people want the same things out of the group that you do. This is hugely important if you’re going to give feedback.

I’ve been in lots of groups with people for whom writing was a hobby, therapy, a social activity etc. And there is nothing wrong with that. But I need to know what kind of writer you are before I critique your work, because otherwise me telling you that your heartfelt story about the death of your granny is unpublishable mush may be not just hurtful but pointless (I would never actually do this btw).

The different species of writer inhabiting the Critique Group Savannah seem to include the following:
  • There are people who take writing very seriously and it means a lot to them, but they have no ambitions to be ‘good’ at it in the publishable sense, and they really don’t need to be told that their cat poetry is never going to be accepted by Granta. Actually I greatly envy these writers. They seem to be people who have life sussed and they don't crave your approval anyway.
  • There are writers who dash off a paragraph on the way to the meeting, are convinced it’s brilliant and have no interest in editing it.
  • There are writers for whom writing is the only way they can deal with terrible issues in their lives and it’s messy because it has to be.
  • There are writers who are starting out and have zero confidence and very thin skins and the smallest critique will put them off forever.
  • There are writers who will simply not see the twenty compliments you paid their work but get obsessed with the three negatives you mentioned (I think this is most people actually) and run home crying.
  • There are writers who ask you for feedback but what they really mean is ‘I want my work to be read. And I want you to tell me it’s brilliant’.

Nothing wrong with any of this.

But if you find yourself in a group with these people, you still have to sit there and give ‘feedback’, which involves struggling to come up with compliments, eventually giving up and asking how the cat is and then wasting another hour talking about cats. 

So. Find a group where everyone wants the same kind of critique you do. And be upfront about this in your first meeting. ‘Hi, I’m Kelly, I’m in the early stages of a YA novel and I’d like you to point out the crap bits because if you don’t, my editor will, and frankly I’d rather hear it from you.’ 

In my new group, we send pieces round for critique and attach a note to say, ‘I know the timescale is wrong but I’d like to know what you think of the main character/the dialogue/the pace’ etc so people know what to focus their critique on. We are of course always nice but we wouldn’t be doing anyone any favours if we weren’t also honest about the improvements.

4. In most groups that I’ve been to, people read their work aloud at the meeting. There is lots that I hate about this.

  • It’s usually done in a noisy café. 


  • The pieces have to be short. I can’t seem to write a short story that’s less than 4000 words so this doesn’t work for me.
  • I find it easier to process something I’ve read than something I’ve listened to. Asking me for feedback on something I’ve heard once is pointless. You’ll get a superficial first impression and that’s it. ‘I really liked the last sentence’ (because that’s all I can remember). 

In my new group we choose three or four people for each meeting and they send their pieces out by email in advance. Everyone reads them at home and writes feedback which they bring to the meeting to discuss. (I actually think the entire process could be done by email, but I’ve promised my mother I will leave the house sometimes.)

5. Most groups only allow you to read/critique very short pieces. This works on one level – the sentence level. A page is perfectly adequate for you to tell if someone needs to tighten up their sentences, use fewer adverbs, lose the dialogue tags, vary the sentence length, stop repeating words etc. You can tell if someone is capable of producing quality prose. 

But what it will never tell you is if they’re capable of structuring a whole story or novel. Can they make the character’s personality consistent over 60,000 words while still making their internal development believable? Can they maintain a reader’s interest for a whole book? Does the ending answer the questions posed in the beginning? Does the pace of their thriller gradually ramp up? Are the characters’ goals relatable? Are the themes hackneyed? There is so much more to writing a novel than putting good sentences together.

And I suspect that lots of writers go through years of perfectly good critique group membership and yet the first time they ever get feedback like this is when they start sending whole manuscripts out to agents and editors. And probably those agents and editors won’t bother with feedback but if they do, it’s likely to say that the writing is great (that’s why they bothered reading it, that’s why they’re writing to you) but there are problems with the structure/themes/pace/characters etc. *cue writer collapsing in despair because they’ve never before had feedback that involved such big and integral changes*

I think most writers very quickly get beyond the point where they need someone to point out their typos and overuse of adjectives, and yet this is all most groups and classes seem to focus on.

Time is of course the limiting factor, but there are ways round it. In our group, the three people up for critique only send 2000 words out, but we also have a shared Google Drive where you can post longer pieces (whole novels if you want) and people have the option of critiquing those if they have the time. This has been hugely helpful for me.

Feedback is a big deal. I’ve considered signing up as a mentor or editor, offering critiques for fellow YA writers and one of the things that puts me off is the idea that these would be complete strangers who, even if you ask them in advance, ‘How honest do you want me to be?’, might not tell you honestly how honest they want you to be and you could end up really destroying someone. I’ve had major projects just die on me because of one line of criticism that I felt was insurmountable. I don’t want to do that to anyone.

So I don’t take critiquing lightly, I think a lot about any feedback I give. I think a lot of heartache could be avoided if we just chose our critique groups wisely and had actual discussions about how we want them to go and not just how much cake* we should consume.

*There should, of course, be cake.

If you have any other tips for running successful critique groups, or avoiding bad ones, please do share them!

Kelly McCaughrain is the author of the YA novel Flying Tips for Flightless Birds

She blogs about Writing, Gardening and VW Campervanning at 


Monday, 10 December 2018

Six things I’ve learnt this year about being a children’s author. Moira Butterfield

My blogging Xmas present to you is a list of things I’ve learnt this year about being a children’s author. Short and sweet, but hopefully one of these may prove to be useful.

1. It’s become ever more ruinously expensive to get to London for meetings with publishers and agent, but I can save some money by trainsplitting the ticket. Hopefully that might work for you, too.

It would be cheaper to go to London by reindeer, via Lapland....

2. It's important to take opportunities to learn from others, and so I found myself, not once, but twice, at one of the inspiring performance workshops run by Cat Weatherill at the Society of Authors headquarters. Highly recommended. In 2019 I'm going to make sure I keep an eye on the workshops and talks being offered by the SoA, and by our very own wondrous writing guru Jenny Alexander, who luckily ran a workshop in my home town this year. 

Hello! Can I join your workshop?

3. Chatting at a general level to kids, parents and teachers is hugely helpful at the very beginning of developing a new idea. In 2018 it really helped me steer my thinking in the right direction and it helped me get the quickest ‘yes’ from a publisher I’ve ever had.

Talking to kids, parents and teachers is good! (Though once I start writing, I'll probably shut up). 

4. Instagram is creatively helpful if you follow the right folk – illustrators in particular – who put up some absolute jewels that inspire.  I try to limit looking at it to twice a day, however, as it's all addictive, as we know. And, yes, I did a helpful Instagram workshop in 2018 (year of the workshops - they are all tax-deductible by the way). 

5. Mixing with other authors and illustrators, even if only on social media, has upped my game. Their successes and thought processes have helped to spark me up and do better.

You helped me up my game! 

6. Blogs must be short and to the point, or I just won't read them. Well done for getting this far! Have you learnt something this year that you'd like to share with other authors? 

Happy Xmas!

Moira Butterfield 
Author of all sorts of things for ages 4+, such as Welcome To Our World, published by Nosy Crow. 
2019 sees more highly-illustrated non-fiction and picture book publications from me. 
Twitter: @moiraworld
Instagram: @moirabutterfieldauthor

Saturday, 8 December 2018 Keren David

My way of starting writing a book has always been the same. 

I write an outline of the story -  a very short and vague one.  And then I try and find the voice of the narrator. 

Sometimes that voice comes to me easily (Aidan in Salvage, for example, was just there. So was River in The Liar's Handbook). But sometimes the voice is elusive. And there's nothing I can do to hurry up the process, as the story won't come until I find that voice.

Voice and idea are all I need to plunge into the story. I love finding out what happens as I go along. I'm telling myself a story -  episode by episode. 

I think it's because I've always seen the process of writing a book as something like a long piece of journalism. I find the right person or people to interview. And then I ask the right questions. The story flows from that process. The ending may be the one I first sketched out -  or it may be something quite different. (And it's easier than journalism, in that I am in complete control of the shape the answers take) 

The problem is that if you don't know your story until it's written, it can involve a lot of extra work -  writing and rewriting. And I don't have time for that any more. 

So, now I'm about the embark on writing my twelfth book and I want to do things a little differently. I don't think I can ever be one of those writers who has a detailed chapter plan and works through it; but I do want to be more in control of the narrative than I have been before.

 I am going to try two things. First, spending time thinking beforehand -  mapping out the emotional journeys of the main characters, and trying to plot out the story according to that narrative. 

Second, writing a 'skeleton' version of about 20K which establishes voice and plot, and can be expanded into the bigger novel. 

Anyone tried these methods? Any other ideas, or hints for me? 

I'll let you know how I get on...

Friday, 7 December 2018

Festive Favourites to Read Aloud by Dawn Finch

One of my absolute favourites
to read aloud at Christmas 
Yes, it’s that time of year again and my thoughts drift to festive stories. I love a Christmassy or winter book, and I have to admit that I tend to re-read some of my favourites every year. I have a little tradition of my own that when I’ve done all of the gift shopping, and the decorations are up, I treat myself with a bit of quiet time and a re-read of The Dark is Rising.

When I was in a school (and had a small person of my own in the house) I loved to share stories aloud, and still take the opportunity to read-aloud whenever I can. Not all books work well as read-alouds, and anyone who regularly listens to audio books will testify to this. It set me thinking about the best seasonal books to read aloud.

One of the all-time classics for this time of year is, of course, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Dickens really understood what it took to bring a story to life, and this was largely because he read his own work aloud all the time. He went on tour, and gave many public performances of his own work. In many ways Dickens anticipated the future pattern of author visits! He set the scene, and did the voices, and brought his books to life.

I firmly believe in the power of storytelling, and think that a well-told story can be infinitely more atmospheric, and more compelling than any movie. I’ve blogged on here about the sort of books that read aloud well, and how to read things aloud, but the idea here is not to put too much pressure on yourself and instead just read what you enjoy. Pick a book that you love, and you’ll bring it to life.

If you’ve not had storytelling sessions before, it will feel a little strange. Break yourself in easy with a competition. Set your family the challenge of seeing who can find the most captivating excerpt to read aloud. Everyone reads their chosen bit aloud, and you can vote on which one is the best. You don’t all have to be sitting around in adoring silence – my daughter used to read to me when I was cooking. In fact, many people feel more comfortable reading aloud when people are not sitting staring at them. However, if you really want to go full Dickens… draw the curtains, light some candles, and coorie in (as they say in Scotland!)

Here’s my list of books that I feel will read-aloud well. I have opted here for novels instead of picture books because it is easier for you to select picture books for yourself simply because there is less to read in one sitting! If you’ve found other novels that read-aloud well, please add them in the comments.

Aiken, Joan – The Wolves of Willoughby Chase
Boston, Lucy M – The Children of Green Knowe
Carroll, Emma – Frost Hollow Hall
Cooper, Susan – The Dark is Rising
Dale, Anna – Whispering to Witches
Dickens, Charles – A Christmas Carol
Doherty, Berlie – Children of Winter
Elphinstone, Abi – Sky Song
Fisher, Catherine – Snow Walker
Gaarder, Jostein – The Christmas Mystery
Gardner, Sally and David Roberts – Tinder
Gayton, Sam – the Snow Merchant
Gordon, John – The Giant Under The Snow
Hargrave, Kiran Millwood – The Way Past Winter
Hitchcock, Fleur – Murder in Midwinter
Horwood, William – The Willows in Winter
Ivey, Eowyn – Snow Child
Jansson, Tove – Moominland Midwinter
Lewis, CS – The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe
London, Jack – Call of the Wild
Masefield, John – Box of Delights
Morris, Jackie – East of the Sun, West of the Moon
Pratchett, Terry – Wintersmith
Preussler, Otfried – Krabat
Priestley, Chris – The Last of the Spirits
Raby,  Lucy Daniel – Nikolai of the North
Ransome, Arthur – Winter Holiday
Rundell, Katherine – Wolf Wilder
Smith, Dodie – 101 Dalmations
St John, Lauren – The Snow Angel
Streatfeild, Noel – White Boots
Torday, Piers – There May Be A Castle
Wilder, Laura Ingalls Wilder – The Long Winter
Wilson, Amy - Snowglobe
Woodfine, Katherine – The Midnight Peacock

Dawn Finch is a children’s author and librarian

Thursday, 6 December 2018

Jan Mark's Norfolk by Paul May

My daughter's paperback copy of
HANDLES, nicely battered.
It was because of Jan Mark that I became a children’s author. I didn’t realise it at the time but now, looking back thirty years, I can see that it is true.

HANDLES won the Carnegie medal in 1983. Jan had already won the Carnegie in 1977 with THUNDER AND LIGHTNINGS. These two books, along with a third, UNDER THE AUTUMN GARDEN (which was highly commended for the Carnegie) were set in the Norfolk countryside. I had lived in that Norfolk countryside for a dozen years by the time HANDLES was published, and I had known Norwich since childhood. But I had never seen anyone manage to recreate the Norfolk experience so vividly in print. 

Norfolk dialect is notoriously hard for any actor to reproduce on stage or screen if they are not a native, and equally hard to put into words. Jan Mark managed it, and in HANDLES she took it to a new level. 

I knew the people, too. Erica’s aunt, uncle and cousin, Robert, could easily have been our next-door neighbours. Most people who lived near us got their TVs second-hand from Chris in the next village. He got them from the local tip. Jan Mark describes those televisions perfectly:

 ‘. . .old, huge and primitive . . . It was never serviced and now functioned on two colours only, yellow and purple.  People glared out of the screen, their faces a dreadful acid lemon colour, with deep lilac shadows under their eyes and chins . . . while mysterious figures in the background swam and struggled through a thick violet syrup.’

Chris would have shrugged and said, ‘a lot of people don't mind if the colour’s wrong.’  He sold us a VCR once that didn’t record.  We took it back and he swapped it for another one. It recorded but didn’t play back properly.  I took that one back and he said, ‘some people only want them for the clock.’

My daughter and I wrote to Jan Mark to tell her how much we loved HANDLES.  I’d worked out that ‘Polthorpe’ in the book was really Stalham, and I figured out that ‘Calstead’ must be Ingham.  I found a Mark listed in the phone book in Ingham and posted off the letter.  Jan was no longer living there, but the letter was forwarded, by her daughter I think, and we received this lovely reply:

And so the idea entered my head that it was possible to write books for children set in Norfolk and I started work on a story that eventually became my third novel GREEN FINGERS. In the course of writing it I kept realising that I had accidentally stolen ideas from Jan Mark. I thought I had removed all traces, but later realised that Rain, in my book of the same name, is a young girl who is mechanically gifted, just like Erica in HANDLES.

I told Jan all this when I eventually met her, complete with fag and glass of wine, at some party somewhere. She laughed and said that it’s just the way things are. It happens to everybody. It’s a good thing. I told her we’d written to her all those years before. She looked alarmed.  ‘I did write back, didn’t I?’ she asked me.
Original cover by David Parkins
Chapter head illustrations for HANDLES were by David Parkins, who also provided the cover for the hardback first edition. He also illustrated NOTHING TO BE AFRAID OF, Jan Mark's book of short stories which was highly commended for the Carnegie in 1980. David Parkins went on to draw The Three Bears and Billy Whizz for the Beano, and Desperate Dan for the Dandy.  

Chapter heading by David Parkins from HANDLES
I love the wonderful, unsentimental characterisation in those Norfolk books. At a first reading it may seem that the native Norfolk people in HANDLES are harshly treated. Certainly, Erica takes a poor view of her country-dwelling relatives. Here’s a short extract. Erica has tried to recover her uncle’s jump leads from motorcycle mechanic, Elsie:

            Uncle Peter dried his hands. ‘Best we keep going in relays until he do find them. He’ve been promising me them leads since May.’
            ‘Perhaps we should all go together,’ Erica said, ‘so that he’d notice.’
            ‘He’d not notice if we went in with a tank. (. . .) He’ve got that much on his mind that take him a week to see what’s under his nose. I don’t know why someone so slow-thinking as Elsie took to motor bikes in the first place, them being so fast.’
            Erica thought it was a cheek for someone as slow-speaking as Uncle Peter to talk about Elsie being slow. Auntie Joan said, ‘Elsie hent slow, he’s just always thinking about something else. Never what you want him to think about.’
            ‘You want him to think about something,' Robert said, shoving his oar in, ‘you got to give him a week’s notice. Time you get back, he’ve started to think about that.’ He grinned, as if he’d come up with something clever. Erica withered him privately.

Jan Mark’s genius is to let us both sympathise with Erica’s impatience with her country relatives, and at the same time see the humour (and perceptiveness) in their conversation. All is not quite as it seems in the adult world that Erica is keen to join.  Her relatives’ battles with the peacock that ravages their vegetable garden are comical, but the family rely on the money they make from selling the vegetables. Elsie, the affable, absent-minded motorcycle mechanic, has an unhappy wife and an unhappy daughter.  

Behind the nicknames and the jokes, real life is lurking. Erica’s stay a small Norfolk village is as revealing and transformative as any visit to a foreign country. 

HANDLES is a wonderful book, and I wish I had written it.

Jan Mark's obituary in the Guardian
David Parkins website
HANDLES is currently out of print.

Paul May's website
Paul May's own books set in Norfolk are GREEN FINGERS and RAIN (Corgi Yearling)