Monday 30 November 2020

Just in case you want some ideas for Christmas writing... Sue Purkiss

(Tamsin Cook usually posts on the 30th, but she's not well this month. So as a feeble substitute, I'm putting this up; it's the latest task for my writing group, which appears on my Let's Write blog. It might just possibly come in useful if you're planning to do a workshop - or if not, just enjoy the poem and the extract!)

I was going to present you with some images of Christmas as a starting point for writing - but when I googled Christmas, none of the images that came up really seemed to represent Christmas for me. Though I did like this one!)

So I decided instead to look for some writing that I hope will inspire you. First, here's a poem by U A Fanthorpe.


This was the moment when Before

Turned into After, and the future's 

Uninvented timekeepers presented Arms.

This was the moment when nothing

Happened. Only dull peace

Sprawled boringly over the earth.

This was the moment when even energetic Romans

Could find nothing better to do

Than counting heads in remote provinces.

And this was the moment

When a few farm workers and three

Members of an obscure Persian sect

Walked haphazard by starlight straight 

Into the kingdom of heaven.


And in a very different mood, this comes from The Country Child, by Alison Uttley. This book is about a year in the life of a little girl living on a Derbyshire farm at the end of the 19th century. There's a whole chapter on Christmas, full of the most delicious things, but this bit is from the beginning.

Christmas Day

Susan awoke in the dark of Christmas morning. A weight lay on her feet, and she moved her toes up and down. She sat up and rubbed her eyes. It was Christmas Day. She stretched out her hands and found the knobby little stocking, which she brought into bed with her and clasped tightly in her arms as she fell asleep again.

She awoke later and lay holding her happiness, enjoying the moment. The light was dim, but the heavy mass of the chest of drawers stood out against the pale walls, all blue like the snow shadows outside. She drew her curtains and looked out at the starry sky. She listened for the bells of the sleigh, but no sound came through the stillness except the screech-owl's call.

Again she hadn't caught Santa Claus. Of course she knew he wasn't real, but also she knew he was. It was the same with everything. People said things were not alive, but you knew in your heart they were: statues which would catch you if you turned your back were made of stone; Santa Claus was your father and mother; the stuffed fox died long ago.*

*(The stuffed fox was something she saw on her way to bed every night, which she was afraid of.)

Some suggestions for getting started:

Get a biggish piece of plain paper and make a spider chart - put down, without thinking too much, all the ideas, memories and things you associate with Chistmas. Circle the ones that stand out. 

  • Consider: would they fit a poem best, or a short story, or a memoir/reflective piece? If you're stuck - how about taking one of the lesser figures in the Bible story, or just an onlooker, and telling the rather unlikely story from their point of view, eiter as a poem or as a story?
  • Or, think back to a Christmas you've experienced, which was memorable in some way, either good or bad: the turkey that wasn't cooked, the storm that caused a power cut, the relations who didn't get on... the first Christmas in a new house or in a foreign country. 
  • Or go for a children's story - make it magical or funny: the elf that fell out with Santa, the new-fangled motorised sleigh that put Rudolph out of business. Or make it darker: the present you wanted so much but didn't get, the Christmas play that went all wrong, the arguments that marred the big day. Or, you could think back to how Christmas was for you as a child.

Illustration by C F Tunnicliffe from 'The Country Child'.

Sunday 29 November 2020

Three jokes and an apology

    I've been writing a lot recently, and am close to finishing a new story. But I seem to have overdone it because all this morning - and as I write this - the joints in my right hand are aching. Since I really do want to finish my story by Christmas, I'm going to beg your indulgence, save my hand, and keep this month's blog VERY short.

    In its place, three laughs I've collected from the internet over the past few months. I hope to resume normal service by the time the next blog rolls round.

Friday 27 November 2020

Things I Have Learned to Love in Lockdown

As we near the end of a year, it's traditional to look back, celebrate the successes and reminisce over the highlights. I'm not sure we'll be doing much of that in 2020. However, in the spirit of the season, here are my list of things that have cheered my writing, warmed my imagination, and kept me going through a difficult year.


Just before we went into lockdown for the first time, I was fortunate to get a contract for a book of Welsh folktales. The deadlines were tight, especially as I had several weeks of events booked in. 

Then, like an evil fairy godmother, lockdown waved her wand and my events vanished. I had a steady, manageable workload which kept me writing through April and May even when I didn't feel like writing. I have never appreciated a deadline so much. 

New Technology

I hate being on camera. But thanks to some funding from Literature Wales, I took the plunge into the world of video editing. I'd made short films before, but this was a steep learning curve, using my house as backdrop, navigating arguments with my cameraman, aka husband, and getting to grips with a new editing package. I use Da Vinci Resolve, which takes a while to learn, but it's the most comprehensive free package available and there are a lot of excellent online tutorials. If you're doing a lot of filming, I recommend it. Now I just need some fancy technology to help me remember my lines.

Noise-Cancelling Headphones

Excellent for when your other half is on his sixth hour of conference calls in the spare bedroom above your office.


I'd never really bothered with them before, but when I wasn't in the right frame of mind for reading, which has happened a lot, it's been great to listen to something instead. Here are some of my favourites.

Writing Excuses - Short discussions on writerly topics.

Death of 1,000 Cuts - I'm up to day 66 of the 100 day writing challenge on this one. The ten minute exercises are perfect to get me started on days when writing is hard.

Something Rhymes with Purple - Words, wordplay, etymology.

The Two Princes Warm and funny with a witty script that plays with many fairytale tropes.

Escape Pod Science fiction short stories, all excellently narrated.

Stretchy M&S Bra Tops

You can ignore this one, gentlemen. But why put up with uncomfortable clothes when it doesn't matter what you look like?

Small Routines

From bacon sandwiches on Fridays to a daily walk. When days blur into one it's good to have a way of making some moments stand out. I have a rule that I must go outside once a day, even if it's just a five minute walk around the block.

Looking Forward

I am very grateful for small things this year, but the lockdown has brought some major changes too. In particular, with my husband working from home, we decided to pursue our 'retirement dream' of moving out of the city. Why wait for retirement, after all, when next year we may all be squashed by a falling asteroid or eaten by zombies. (After this year, I'm not ruling anything out.)

So, in a few weeks time, we'll be packing up over twenty years of belongings and moving north to a village just outside Abergavenny. The fact that it's where I set my last book is not coincidental - I've been drawn to the area for a long time. 

New surroundings. New people to meet. New bookshops to explore. New inspiration. New books to write? I hope so. Here's to a happy 2021!

Wednesday 25 November 2020

UK YA Spotlight: Harrow Lake by Kat Ellis and Good Girls Die First by Kathryn Foxfield - Holly Race

I haven't managed to read much over the last few months, as I rather foolishly decided to take part in NaNoWriMo to write book four, at the same time as editing my second novel. But the books I have read have been stunning. Proper, decide-to-let-the-toddler-sleep-in-dangerously-late-so-I-can-finish-this stunning.

The two books in question are both horrors: Harrow Lake by Kat Ellis and Good Girls Die First by Kathryn Foxfield.


Lola Nox is the daughter of a celebrated horror filmmaker - she thinks nothing can scare her. But when her father is brutally attacked in their New York apartment, she's swiftly packed off to live with a grandmother she's never met in Harrow Lake, the eerie town where her father's most iconic horror movie was shot.

The locals are weirdly obsessed with the film that put their town on the map - and there are strange disappearances, which the police seem determined to explain away.

And there's someone - or something - stalking Lola's every move.

The more she discovers about the town, the more terrifying it becomes. Because Lola's got secrets of her own. And if she can't find a way out of Harrow Lake, they might just be the death of her...

This is the first of Kat's novels that I've read, but it certainly won't be the last. There's more than a little Stephen King in her writing, but the characters are rich with spikes and hidden trauma. I've seen a lot of people compare Harrow Lake to The Babadook, and that film sprang to my mind too. While the supernatural occurrences in Harrow Lake are creepy enough to keep you up at night, wondering if you, too, can hear Mr Jitters sliding into your room, the psychological roots of the story are equally strong. The ending left me sobbing and giving the air a little victory punch in equal measure.

Buy Harrow Lake on

GOOD GIRLS DIE FIRST, Kathryn Foxfield

Blackmail lures sixteen-year-old Ava to the derelict carnival on Portgrave Pier. She is one of ten teenagers, all with secrets they intend to protect whatever the cost. When fog and magic swallow the pier, the group find themselves cut off from the real world and from their morals.

As the teenagers turn on each other, Ava will have to face up to the secret that brought her to the pier and decide how far she's willing to go to survive.

As with Harrow Lake, the atmosphere of the setting is one of the stars of this book. But there's more of an Agatha Christie, And Then there Were None vibe to Kathryn's debut novel. Secrets, and the ramifications of holding on to them, is the glue that holds together Ava and the other teenagers who find themselves on Portgrave Pier. Kathryn does an incredible job of making us feel for so many of the characters, despite some of the things they've done or find themselves doing. The momentum of the book swept me up and by the end I was delaying work meetings so that I could find out what happened!

Buy Good Girls Die First on


Holly Race worked for many years as a script editor in film and television, before becoming a writer.

Her debut novel, Midnight's Twins, is published by Hot Key Books. She also selectively undertakes freelance script editing and story consultant work.

Tuesday 24 November 2020

IMAGINE ALL THE PEOPLE, by Saviour Pirotta

I like to think that all my stories are about people. They may be set at memorable historical moments like the opening of the Parthenon in Athens (Shadow of the Centaurs) or in famous places like the village of Skara Brae in Scotland (The Stolen Spear) and Stonehenge (The Whispering Stones). But the driving force is always the characters. I imagine this is true for most writers. It seems people remember the characters in a much-enjoyed story long after the details of the plot have grown hazy. When I think of The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, the first things that spring to mind are the lovely Mr. Tumnus and his umbrella, and the wicked Jadis in her carriage? 

I love people watching, trying to guess who they are, what they do for a living, what families they have etc. Scarborough where I live is a fantastic place for this kind of activity. I have a special notebook which I've labelled 'the people pot' where I keep notes of characters I've created based on people I've seen. Over time I've developed this into a writing exercise I often use in schools, and it seems to work very well in online sessions too.

Here is a picture I took at the municipal market while on holiday in Malaga last year. 

I call the characters Papa Red Hoodie and Son Blue Hoodie. But are they in fact father and son? Are there any clues in the picture to prove or disprove that fact? Could they be uncle and nephew? Friends? Boss and employee? What names might they have? Where do they live? What kind of abode? Are they alike in their way of thinking or so dissimilar they prefer not to hang out when the stall shutters come down at the end of the day?

Can you think of what they might have had for breakfast this morning, perhaps churros y chocolates at the market, or just a quick coffee and some leftover tortilla from home, eaten on at the wheel as they drive to the fish suppliers? What are they thinking as they serve their customers? Are they happy, sad?

This picture was the starting point for a story I am writing.  Son Blue Hoodie finds something inside the fish he is filleting, something it swallowed before it was caught. And it's something that triggers an adventure, a story that will use all the details I've imagined for the characters.

Here's a second picture, taken in Malta a few years ago. Look at all the band members, the instruments they are playing. Can you think up of a reason why each musician has gone for the instrument he plays? Is there a story there?

(Incidentally, this is the street where I lived as a child. The decrepit house on the left side features in one of my ghost stories but that's another subject, for another post). Meanwhile, I hope you've enjoyed perusing my pictures and you find my hints for creating character helpful. 

Saviour Pirotta's Mark of the Cyclops won the North Somerset Teachers' Book Award in 2018. His online book Pandora's Box has just been voted the Fiction Express Award for best middle grade novel on their platform. Follow Saviour on twitter @spirotta and instagram on @saviour2858.  Preorder his book here

Monday 23 November 2020

Call out for favourite Christmas books! - Sue Purkiss

Hi all. 

A couple of years ago, when we were battling to save our library from closure, I set up a Facebook page on behalf of the library friends group.

It's still there, but I'd like to shift the focus. At the moment we don't need to campaign, so I thought it could be more about encouraging the love of books. As a start, I'd like to open a discussion on the page about favourite books for the Christmas season.

My own go-to book for Christmas reading is The Dark Is Rising, by Susan Cooper. I can't count how many times I've picked it up in December, ready to be entranced by that world of sudden snowfalls and menacing rooks, mysterious signs, sudden danger, and a knock at the door from the magnetic Merriman Lyon. I'm not alone; a couple of years ago Robert Macfarlane, author with Jackie Morris of the wonderful The Lost Words, hosted a Twitterfest with thousands of fans reading the book throughout December.

Well, that would be my pick - but what would be yours? For children or adults - all welcome! Please do share your favourites!

Saturday 21 November 2020

The Child is mother of the woman by Anne Booth

I have recently come across a book I used to write in when I was little. I was 6, and this isn't a school exercise book - I obviously just wanted to write at home. These two entries were a week apart, both on Sundays.

First Entry: Sunday 16th May 1971

I have breakfast in the morning

dinner at night

it is nice too have breakfast in the monning

dinner at night.

Second entry: Sunday 23rd May 1971

Monday is television day it is nice to have television in my school. it is a rainy day to day

The dinner is nice

The desert (dessert!) is nice in my school

The funny thing is that I wrote pretty much about the same things I tweet about now during lockdown.

I also obviously loved television then too. Bear in mind that this was written on a Sunday, looking forward to Monday.

So there we have it. Six year old Anne was keen to write about the food and television she enjoyed, and add in a comment about the weather. And what does fifty five year old @Bridgeanne tweet about in 2020? Well, apart from when she is tweeting in despair at what this government is getting up to, when she is feeling happier, the 55 year old Anne is still interested in the topics of what she has for breakfast and dinner, the weather, and her lockdown retreats invariably reveal that every day she looks forward to watching something good on television in the evening! 

So maybe Wordsworth was right, and the child is father to the (wo) man. I find I don't mind this at all. I am cheered by the fact that little me and not so little me were made happy by the same things.

I know for certain six year old Anne longed for a dog, but knew it was impossible where we lived. I would like to tell her that she did get to have two lovely dogs, and although 55 year old Anne is very sad because she hasn't got them any more, she may one day get another one, and, like 6 year old Anne, would also rather like a donkey or two.

Today, I would like to tell 6 year old Anne, I had rice crispies for breakfast, which made a very nice noise. I think that's the sort of thing she would enjoy too. 

Friday 20 November 2020

Dancing Non-Fiction by Joan Lennon

Happy National Non-Fiction Month! (See Penny Dolan's ABBA post on Writing Fiction; Reading Non-fiction: Two ways of celebrating November.)

Pieter Brueghel the Elder The Wedding Dance (1565) 

(wiki commons)

I'm new to writing non-fiction* and the curve up which I have been learning has been a steep one.  It's been fascinating to find the parts that are the same as writing fiction - things like bringing a character/person to life through the telling detail; whittling away the unnecessary; telling a story that has a strong pulse.  But there have been plenty of differences, and the biggest has been the number of people involved in the process right from the beginning.  It's been quite a crowd!   

Who have been the partners in the dance?

The author - in this case, the authors

The editor - and in this case, as staff shuffles about, another editor to come on board for the final push

The senior editor - who offers another other round of comments and changes and suggestions

The designer - who works on layouts and provides scamps** for the authors and, with the editor, briefs the illustrator.

The illustrator - who, um, illustrates

But a simple list of the dancers didn't prepare me for just how intricate the steps were going to be.  Back and forth; point that toe; tap that heel; slide gracefully round there because until we've heard from X we can't go on with Y; no point adjusting that step sequence until the dance is basically over; proof; proof; proof and hop; let the text lead; let the pictures lead ...

A wise woman told me 'Remember - it's a conversation' and that advice has really helped.  I'm adding to that, especially now as we swirl towards the end, 'Remember - it's a dance'.  Keep moving, mind where you're plonking your feet, and listen to the music.  And when the evening's over, with luck, we'll have ourselves a book we can all be proud of!

* Coming out July 2021 Talking History: 150 Years of Speeches and Speakers by Joan Haig and Joan Lennon, Templar Press, aimed at 8-12 year olds

** It's not just new ways of working - it's new vocabulary as well!  I had no idea that a scamp was not a scallywag, but a sketch.***

*** Don't ask me why.  But if you know, please tell me!

Joan Lennon Instagram  

Wednesday 18 November 2020

Phantom animals to chill the blood - by Lu Hersey

As background research for a new book, I've recently been reading all about animal phantoms, signs and portends. And as dusk deepens (at only 4pm on a November afternoon) I'm about to light the fire in an attempt to convince myself these are mere folktales. But are they?

Let's start with the Beast of Bodmin Moor as a sort of intro. Over the years, there have been numerous accounts of sightings of a great black cat roaming the Cornish countryside - I've seen pictures in local newspapers (always distant and usually blurry), read stories of dog walkers whose poodles have been terrified by something much bigger than a domestic cat, and read a fascinating exercise book full of people's hand written accounts of Bodmin Beast sightings (kept in a cafe in Minions in Cornwall) from cover to cover. Urban myth, I thought. Highly unlikely there's anything out there. Then one night, driving back late across a stretch of empty Cornish countryside, I saw a fleeting shadow, something that took the shape of a giant feline leaping across the narrow road in the headlights. Far too big to be any normal cat - so fast it was there and then gone in the blink of an eye (which I was trying to keep on the road).  Even though my heart was racing as I drove on, I tried to rationalise what I'd just seen. The mind plays tricks on tired people, driving late, and they make shadows into shapes that aren't real. Hopefully. 

Not the Beast of Bodmin Moor - just a neighbour's idea of a gateway ornament. But it is huge (and very alarming at dusk...)

Which brings me on to Black Shuck, the ghost dog of the fens. Seen by many people over the last thousand years or more, Black Shuck gets about too - versions of this beast have been spotted over much of Northern Europe. Folkloric rumour has it that he could be one of Odin's spectral hounds, or even one of Odin's two wolves. (Odin was known to the Anglo-Saxons as Woden - as in Wednesday, originally Woden's Day). Others suggest this ghostly black hound is tied in with the Wild Hunt, when spectral hunters ride out for the souls of the living to drag them back to the underworld. Either way, he's considered an omen of death - and that makes him pretty damn scary. 

Here's an early (translated from Middle English) account of phantom black hounds from the Peterborough Chronicle, one of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, written in about 1127: 

'Let no-one be surprised at the truth of what we are about to relate, for it was common knowledge throughout the whole country that immediately after (Abbot Henry of Poitou's arrival at Peterborough Abbey), the Sunday when they sing Exurge Quare, many men both saw and heard a great number of huntsmen hunting. The huntsmen were black, huge and hideous, and rode on black horses and on black he-goats and the hounds were jet black with eyes like saucers and horrible. This was seen in the very deer park of the town of Peterborough and in all the woods that stretch from that same town to Stamford, and in the night the monks heard them sounding and winding their horns. Reliable witnesses who kept watch that night declared that there might well have been as many as twenty or thirty of them winding their horns as near as they could tell. This was seen and heard from the time of his arrival all through Lent and right up to Easter.'

But the most famous account of Black Shuck (shuck is derived from scucca, OE for demon) comes later, in August 1577, in the church of Bungay and Blythburgh in Suffolk. This is the contemporary account published by Abraham Flemming: 'A strange and terrible wunder wrought very late in the parish of Bongay: a town of no great distance from the citie of Norwich, namely the fourth of this August, in the yeere of our Lord 1577, in a great tempest of violent raige, lightning and thunder, the like wherof hath been seldom seene. With the appearance of an horrible shaped thing, sensibly perceived of the people then and there assembled' (Flemming obligingly drew his version of this horrible shaped thing 'in a plain method according to the written copye'.)

Anyway, he goes on to tell us: 'this black dog, or the divel in such a likenesse (God he knoweth al who worketh all) running all down the body of the church with great swiftnesse, and incredible haste, among the people in visible fourm and shape, passed between two persons, as they were kneeling uppon their knees, and occupied in prayer as it seemed, wrung the necks of them bothe at one instant, clene backward, in so much that even at a moment where they kneeled, they strangley dyed.'

Apparently there was a clap of thunder as the great dog raced into Holy Trinity Church and killed two of the congregation, simultaneously causing the church steeple to fall through the roof. The dog left great scorch marks on the north door as he left, which can still be seen to this day. 

So what actually happened? A whole congregation of people saw something terrifying - but what was it? One explanation might be ball lightning, or some freak weather phenomenon - but the legend of Black Shuck stuck, and he has since been seen by many lone walkers across the Fens. Last century, a midwife in the 1930s recounted being followed by a phantom dog as she cycled home through the lanes near Tolleshunt Darcy. The dog was huge, and silently kept pace with her however hard she pedalled, until it suddenly vanished. Black Shuck was also (reportedly) seen by several people after a man out walking fell into the River Great Ouse and drowned - and as recently as 1953 a sighting of a great black beast was reported by a woman returning from a dance near Cromer. So maybe Black Shuck is out there still? 

Folklorist Christina Hole points out in English Folklore that early humans saw little difference between people and animals, and believed they had spirits of equal importance. To this day, a great many superstitions are based on animal lore, and the appearance of various animals and birds is seen as significant, portends of things to come. Not all are bad - the cuckoo is welcomed as the embodiment of spring, and the wren, robin and swallow are (or were) considered lucky. But there are also many animals of ill omen, depending on where and when you see them - and Black Shuck definitely counts as one. 

Of course it's impossible to say whether the phantom animals of folklore exist or not. Along with Faeries, belief in such things was universal before the Puritans came along - and so people saw ghosts, faeries and otherworldly creatures all the time. There are far fewer reports of them these days, but that could simply be because when we no longer believe something exists, we no longer see it. Or we rationalise what we do see to make it something else, a bin liner flapping in the road, a waving branch, a shadow, optical migraine, freak weather. Or maybe people fear ridicule if they report what they see.

The shadow cat I saw in the headlights might simply have been plastic covering from a silage roll blowing across the road. A deer that my mind made cat-shaped. A monster created in my imagination. Such things our early ancestors made stories about around the camp fires.

Or maybe it was a massive ghost cat....the Beast of Bodmin Moor itself. I rather like the possibility.

Lu Hersey

Twitter: @LuWrites

Tuesday 17 November 2020

Advent calendars and story - one window at a time by Tracy Darnton

Have you got an advent calendar ready for next month? Feeling you need a daily treat to get you through? Or maybe, given all that's going on, you've opted not to bother this year and wait for 2021. Either way, I'd like to talk about my love of advent calendars, how I used one in my latest book and the parallel with slowly revealing a story.  

Getting ready to post some out 

A school librarian review awarded me the 2020 prize for Best Use Of an Advent Calendar in YA. Thank you, Flying Librarian, and thanks to my agent, my family etc, etc. Next best thing to the Booker Prize, obvs. While I chuckled, I was also really pleased that someone had spotted and appreciated the geeky time I spent playing around with the advent calendar and making it work in the book.

So why's there an advent calendar in The Rules? It grew out of a short story in I'll be Home for Christmas, which took place on 1st December in a bowling ally with Spotty Paul on shoe duty dressed as an elf and a sickly smell of stale mulled wine. 

So when I came to write it into a full-length thriller, the run up to Christmas seemed a good idea for a tight timescale for the story. A ticking countdown is always helpful in a thriller to keep a sense of pace so; ta-dah - why not use an advent calendar to tick down the days? And, as I'm a pantser not a planner when I write a book, the advent calendar idea gave me a much needed day-by-day chapter structure to work with.

Girly swot that I am, I loved choosing the image to be revealed each day and working out how to subtly reference that in the chapter. 

My sister made an advent calendar to match the one in THE RULES

Amber receives the advent calendar from her social worker, Julie, who's kind and well-meaning, in the face of being constantly pushed away and insulted by Amber. Julie sees that Amber is vulnerable and alienates anyone who tries to help her or get close so Julie, bless her, perseveres. Amber is not impressed with the gift asking Julie if she's eaten all the chocolates. But deep down (and with Amber you have to go very deep) the gift means something because when she has to bugout and go in a hurry when she thinks her dad might have found her, she packs the advent calendar in her Grab and Go bag.

As the novel grew, I thought more about why it mattered to Amber. She isn't counting down to any idealized Christmas from the TV adverts and glittery advent calendars. She links up with Josh, also drifting about on the margins, and the pair of them don't even know where they'll be at Christmas. If he's lucky, Josh will be dependent on the kindness of semi-strangers again. The calendar is a glimpse of a glittery world and traditions they don't know at all. 

Amber and Josh half-joke that it acts as a fortune teller and, although they don't really believe it, when Amber is at a very low point, she does look to it for help. Maybe there's a nod to the locked doors and windows she encounters in the past and the present. And I liked playing around with time and dates - we're never truly sure of Amber's past timeline and how much time elapsed in her different experiences. By the end of the novel, we see that she always needs to know the time and date and the calendar represents that for her. Finally (*mild spoiler alert*) we know that the biggest door - number 24 is still to be opened. What will it reveal of Amber's future?

So, the advent calendar turned out to be useful in ways I hadn't anticipated. I liked the parallel with the novel and its structure being a gradual reveal of what happened in the past to Amber, and seeing where each of these calendar days is leading her now. We get a little piece each day. And that was very satisfying to write - and hopefully to read.

The calendar in the book, brought to life by my sister during Lockdown, is based on the ones I used to get as a little girl, showing a typical Christmas or snowy scene and shedding non-eco glitter throughout December. I've continued the tradition of advent calendars with my own kids and my goddaughter. And I sent one to my lovely editor when she was doing edits on the book last December. 

We've had the full range of novelty ones across the years - LEGO, Playmobil, stationery and toiletries. And I've done the lovingly curated homemade version too - once! That was a lot of work. 

And, of course, there's always chocolate. My youngest has been known to scoff the lot in the first few days which was completely horrifying for me and my lifetime of delayed gratification. You absolutely cannot open a window early! No! And eat the chocolate!!! No, no no! It's partly superstition on my part growing up with the ultimate superstitious mother who was always saying 'Hello' to magpies and chucking salt over her shoulder. I put a tad of that superstition into the book. 

So what's my advent calendar this year? If money was no object, I'd be going for the full-on feasting Fortnum and Mason version:  

Or maybe the gin one, given the way 2020 has turned out. 

And I'd be up for The White Company mega beauty one:

Maybe there's a book one...And if there isn't, please make it, somebody. 

But alas, all my fantasy advent calendars are rather pricey. And the Scrooge and sentimentalist in me has pulled out of the cupboard a simple cardboard bookish one I bought from the Bodleian Library shop in 2018 - when the world was rather different.  I've squashed down all the windows and it'll do for 2020. 

So I wish you much joy in the opening of your advent calendar, whether it's LEGO, chocolate, teabags or just a picture of a polar bear. Day by day, window by window.  

Tracy Darnton is the author of The Rules, winner of the prestigious "Best Use of an Advent Calendar in YA 2020" award (Yes, it's a thing). You can follow Tracy on Twitter @Tracy Darnton.

*This blog updates one used in my blog tour for THE RULES and kindly hosted by Sarah and Sophie @TLCCBlog which you can read here

Monday 16 November 2020

Writers in their Landscape, Kevin Crossley-Holland by Steve Gladwin

Whiteleaf' by John Nash

The Ghost Beck

Where she rises when she chooses

to break cover is some way below

Chalk Hill Wood though not

down as far

as Barrow Pit Meadow but

exactly where

her source is the dowser

cannot tell

saying she surfaces each

seventh year

is not more than an old wives'


come each spring the pond


the surgery turbaned with

old bulrushes

starts swelling filling and deciding

as often as not to overflow

and making haste for the Hoste

coursing through the Green

flashing or glimmering surprising

drivers on their last leg to the coast

and splashing the windscreens

of those who disrespect her

until tiring no longer diaphanous

faltering fading she becomes

little more than a dark stain

and then

one late afternoon just


a ghost lost to herself again.

Welcome, Kevin and thanks for agreeing to talk to us for the second time.

It's a pleasure!  As people around here say, without particularly expecting an answer, 'You all right, then?'

Just fine and dandy, thanks, Kevin - and good to know that you are too.Now, whereas last time we were focusing on the different aspects of King Arthur, this is the latest in a series of interviews about landscape and how it affects a writer both in their writing and in their life. Now, when I think of you, I immediately think of the Norfolk landscape evoked in collections like ‘Waterslain’ and ‘The Breaking Hour’, but the landscape of your childhood was a very long way away from that, wasn’t it?

True!  Or partly true!  The primary landscape of  my childhood was the Chiltern Hills and their beechwoods; a scape so kind, so accommodating, so full of humps and hollows and secrets.  That's where I was born, and where I lived until my parents moved to West Hampstead in London when I was sixteen.  Well, actually that's not quite right.  Because of my father's work, we lived in Wilmslow and Whaley Bridge during the last two or three years of the war.  Our cottage in the Chilterns was at the top of a village called Whiteleaf - right at the foot of Whiteleaf Hill and its chalk cross, more than 150 foot high.  I spent hours and hours scrambling up and down the cross from the chalk pit at the bottom (superbly painted by John Nash) to the prehistoric barrow at the top.  And from my bedroom window, I could see right out across the Vale of Aylesbury.

Those people who have read your beautifully observed and remembered childhood memoir, ‘The Hidden Roads’, will be aware of your childhood museum, which you returned to in your recent collection of poems and photos, ‘Seahenge.’ Can you imagine we’ve paid admission and take us on a guided tour? 

What a lovely invitation!  The moment I saw it, my heart sang.  Here we go then.  The museum-shed has one window  and looks onto our cottage just below it.  Behind it is our garage, housing our battered Morris 10, and rows of gooseberry bushes.

Immediately inside the wooden door, on the right, is the visitors book standing on a medieval oak lectern, lent to me by my father.

Please sign it.  You'll be in good company.  All my childhood friends, and several of my parents' friends who live round and about, including Rumer Godden and Jacob and Rita Bronowski.

Objects from the Museum

Now then!  Under the window there's a rough table and display of coins.  The showpiece is a collection of Victorian bun pennies and halfpennies.  From time to time I clean these, well knowing they'll be tarnished by the next day, but still delighting in their brief sheen and gleam.  They share this table with several Egyptian antiquities, lent by my father  on condition I write little descriptive labels for each of them, but I give pride of place to the most beautiful Roman perfume bottle dug out of the sand near Alexandria, and presented to me by a retired Classical archaeologist -  I wish I could remember her name -  who has just come to live in the village.  Blue glass, a silvery bud no bigger than a crab apple, a long, slender neck.  It's very beautiful, and I've dropped it twice during the last 70 years without damaging it.

At this rate we'll be in the museum all morning!

On the far wall, my father and I have built shelves out of bricks and planks.  Three levels.  On the top level, leaning against the wall, there's my drawing and a card: 'Whiteleaf Cross, once a Fallic symbol.'  I never asked, and I don't think my father ever thought it necessary to explain.  Christians have always been very good at converting what they can't suppress.

On the lower shelves at the far end are the choice pieces of Iron Age pottery that my father and I have found locally on Kop Hill and Bledlow Ridge and elsewhere.  Lips, parts of handles, bits of base.  Once, I reckoned that over the years, we'd picked up some 30,000 pieces and -  you've guessed it -  I spent hours and hours unsuccessfully trying to fit them together.

Roman Constantine Coin found on Kop Hill and meticulously recorded.

Let me just point to a couple more items, and then we'll get some fresh air.  Here's the Roman coin I found on Kop Hill.  The size of a cartridge its metal cap.  On one side is the head of the Emperor Constantine, the man who in 312AD accepted Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire.  Here's his name.  And on the other side, here are two centurions, their spears planted in the ground, and lettering I can't make out.  It's warm now in the palm of my hand, a palpable link between then and now; Rome and an English outpost; and the person who dropped it and looked for it and couldn't find it -  and me.

And the last item. . . not the fossils, not the ores, not the medieval key or the little leather gunpowder charger.  Not the medieval tiles, now in my possession.  No!  Just a space, a small space, always waiting. . .

Thanks so much for the tour, Kevin, and for making so clear the origins of that early fascination for objects picked up and gifted.

Roman Perfume Bottle
That place was the corner-stone of my interest in the past.  A place where my father encouraged me to be curious, to find out, to record.  A place where my imagination raced.  What I think I think (!) is that my writing quite often begins with the sensory (so, for instance the sight and feel of that magical glass perfume bottle) and then proceeds to idea.

When I first came up with the theme for these interviews, you seemed to be the perfect fit. Would you ever call yourself a poet of landscape, or of anything in particular?

Wherever I am, landscape matters very much to me, and of course this is apparent in my poems and in my children's books as well.  Humans do so much to shape landscape, and landscape does much to shape us.  Landscape is always in flux; and in considering it, we have also to think about time, continuity, dislocation, generations, the 'then and now' of it.  To call myself a poet 'of anything in particular' seems somehow reductive.  But there are themes and matters and threads that recur, of course.  How could it be otherwise?

So, Kevin, you begin your life in Buckinghamshire, but spend a great deal of it in Norfolk. Of all the collections of your poetry, it’s the landscape and characters of ‘Waterslain’, which I find most evocative. Why did you decide to capture a piece of the past in that way, its community and characters?

In 1928, my grandparents bought a pair of fishermen's cottages in Burnham Overy Staithe in north Norfolk, and they retired there during WW2.  Almost  every school holiday, my sister Sally and I stayed with them for a week or two.  The creeks and saltmarshes and the tidal island of Scolt Head became part of the rhythm of my life.

I was sixteen when I began to write poems: poems of fluctuation, you might say, about falling in love, and about the make-and-drag of the tides, and the saltmarshes.  At first my poems were essentially personal and confessional; but during the 1980s, when I was also writing children's books including Storm (my ghost story set in North Norfolk), I began to think about some of the characters whom I had got to know during my childhood visits to my grandparents: the fishermen, the wildfowlers, the shopkeeper, and the indomitable Miss Disney.

Easterlies have sandpapered her larynx.

Webbed fingers, webbed feet:

last child of a seal family.

There is a blue flame at her hearth, blue

mussels at her board.

Her bath is the gannet's bath.

Rents one windy room at the top of a ladder.

Reeks of kelp.

I lightly disguised Overy Staithe by calling it Waterslain, and wrote a sort of child's eye view of these characters.  They figured large in my imagination, and they still do!  And, as you say, I set them and their village in the landscape where they lived  the one where I live now, and love the most.

Seahenge photo by Andrew Rafferty

Your recent collaboration ‘Seahenge – A Journey, take us through both landscape and memory, from your childhood museum in the Chiltern Hills, and then following the Northern Icknield Way and Peddars Way until you reach North Norfolk and the timber circle that became known as Seahenge. The last line of your afterword reads.

‘Whiteleaf – and North Norfolk – my headland, my heartland’

Do you see the book as yourself coming full circle and what made you connect Seahenge with your own journey?

A love and investigation of landscape quickly leads to memory.  Most places are like inverse onions they have many skins.  Or perhaps 'palimpsests' is a better comparison.  They're surfaces that have been written upon many times, and some of the earlier marks have been erased.

When I was growing up in Whiteleaf, I was well aware of the Icknield Way -  the prehistoric track that begins life as the Ridgway near Avebury and Stonehenge, leaps the Thames at the Goring Gap and runs through the Chilterns into Bedfordshire and East Anglia before playing itself out when it reaches the Wash.  In fact, I often imagined traders leading their packhorses from Grimes Graves in Norfolk to Avebury, poor creatures with saddlebags crammed with the best (or most sacred?) flint in the county.  And I think I knew that the track must have been used for centuries, millennia even, for sundry purposes secular and sacred; as much , no doubt by people on their way to some place of pilgrimage as by traders.

But of course I had no sense then that I would come to live in North Norfolk, and that the Icknield Way between Whiteleaf and Holme in North Norfolk would become, as it were, my lifeline.

Whiteleaf Hill and Chalk Cross

In 1989 the photographer Andrew Rafferty and I collaborated on The Stones Remain, a book about Britain's megaliths and stone circles.  While preparing a new edition, Andy asked me whether I would write a poem about Seahenge, first substantially revealed by tides in 1999.

So as well as stepping into the past, and the matter and mystery of Seahenge, I decided to follow my own lifeline, and found myself writing a sequence of poems leading from place to place, childhood to old age, and to some extent from material to spiritual, while at the same time being about changing scape, caught in time yet in its essentials timeless.

Your poems are such that often so subtle that a powerful phrase can take you by surprise. In your 2015 collection, ‘The Breaking Hour’, there are three lines which seem to reinforce the message of the poem ‘Lifelines’, in which you mull over the life that can inhabit a place when thousands of years of habitation have been and gone. At one point you actually say, ‘Look! They have not gone away. Not one of them.’ Is that a statement of belief? What do you feel about the presence of the long-dead in the land they leave behind?

If I write that I am continuously surrounded by presences, it may sound awfully claustrophobic or otherworldly, but it's not like that.  I don't have a seeing eye, for better for worse, but I can't go  anywhere without a very strong sense of 'those who before us weren't the children and women and men who were born and grew up and lived here and died here before me; who shaped and were shaped by this landscape.  I don't think that this continuous awareness is strange or complicated; it has simply grown in step with the way I've become more and more interested in history, and in people!  The dead are my companions.  They have receded into silence, and have proceeded into silence, as I will.  You ask what I feel about being part of this.  I think I feel moved by it; and consoled by it.  For the most part, I just observe, I just eavesdrop, and take it for granted.

The Dead are my Companions. Photo by Andrew Rafferty

Of course, you first became known for your work on Norse Myth. Please feel free to talk about what inspired you about those particular stories, and perhaps especially the landscape?

As a translator of Beowulf -  this in my twenties while most of my peers were gadding around to the Beatles - I grew to love the stubborn cast of the Northwest European mind, and to relish a landscape no less bleak than the Norfolk saltmarshes; the half-light of dark days, all gleam and glimmer.

But I really wasn't familiar with Norse mythology until, at the end of my twenties, W.H. Auden told me I should look north, familiarise myself with the myths, and think about retelling them - something in which I was also encouraged by the great Gwyn Jones, author of The History of the Vikings (OUP 2001)

There and then, if you please, I resigned my enviable job as editorial director of Victor Gollancz, and put myself in the hands of fate.

Looking back, this was the most decisive step in my writing life, but at the time it didn't seem like a difficult choice at all.  Beset as I was by marital financial liabilities and with school fees to pay for years ahead, most of my family and friends thought I'd taken leave of my senses, and maybe I partly had.  That's to say, maybe one partly has to.  'Writers must me mad!' I cheerfully set off for Iceland with my two sons, Kieran and Dominic, and camped there, surrounded by mountains and glaciers, stupendous waterfalls, thermal springs, miles and miles of lava and black grit.

In the myths, we hear about the nine worlds and the world tree, Yggdrasill - and we can imagine how the Norsemen visualised them. But the writers (above all Snorri Sturluson, of course, the great Icelander who was born in 1179 and was drowned in his bath in 1241) treat them as theatres of action; no more, really, than extensions of the landscape with which their readers and audiences were already familiar.

The Always Tree

Because it was obvious how much the gods and giants and dwarfs and the inhabitants of the nine worlds were children of a northern landscape, because some of the deities were indeed  embodiments of aspects of landscape and elements, and because I was writing for an audience relatively few of whom were familiar with it, I seized the opportunity to place these great stories in their physical settings.

You’ve been in a second collaboration for your second book of Norse Tales, with Jeffrey Allen Love, who has a particularly unique style, which is almost a form of shadow puppet art which is not afraid of either empty space, shadow and even total darkness. It’s a very interesting match, accompanied by your sparse but gleaming prose.

Different illustrators have approached the Norse myths in widely different ways.  Amanda Craig (who seems at last to have resigned herself to quite liking my work) wrote about this succinctly:

'Jeffrey Alan Love's pictures add a monumental grandeur.  Chris Riddell's elegant illustrations for Neil Gaiman's version of the myths emphasized the stories' beauty and mischief; the d'Aulaires gave them an appealingly colourful naivety; Brian Wildsmith conveyed character and emotion through a delicate web of pen and ink in the Lancelyn Green version.  By contract, Love's craggy black silhouettes stamp a graphic power, mystery and dynamism on every page.  All the gods are instantly recognizable, from Thor with his crude hammer to Loki, whose curling head-piece seems part jester's cap and part grasshopper's antennae as he crouches, leaps and persuades.'


Image from Norse Myths by Jeffrey Alan Love.

What Jeff has to say about his dramatic and often fearsome roughs is that he works digitally in photoshop, as for him sketches are not about drawing but composition.  What interests him is value, shape and edges.  Then he can increase or diminish the sketch to see what works best; 'and I paint the silhouette with black paint or ink. . . and then I coat various brayers, paint rollers, socks, petrified sticks I've found on the beach, sponges, brushes, old shoes, my fingers etc. - just about anything can leave an interesting mark - with paint, and start distressing the image'.

When the art editor at Walker Books, Ben Norland, first showed me some of Jeff's artwork, I remember thinking that I had never seen anything so compatible with the Norse myths: their drama, their ferocity and absolutism, their darkness and next-to-nihilism, and yet withal their stark beauty.

'Yes,' said Ben, with a smile.  'I've written to him to say I think he was born to illustrate the Norse myths.'

The impact of a piece of art is immediate.  It smacks you in the face, and then one investigates and discovers layers and subtleties.  It's not the same with a piece of writing.  It may be arresting from the start, but it creeps into one's mind and heart, and there it stays.

When I retell Norse myths and tales, I aim for clear, striking, simple, uncrowded, musical prose.  But it's not for me to judge how well Jeff's artwork and my writing work together.

Kevin's sons, Kieran and Dominic, ready for a new adventure.

‘Stories from Across the Rainbow Bridge’ is a quite light volume in comparison to its predecessor. Having only space for five tales, how did you decide which to use and adapt and where did they come from? There’s remarkable contrast in there.

When you began adapting the Norse Tales, what were the things you most wanted to emphasise and re-capture for your audience?

Human beings feature in only a few myths - it's as if the gods are not particularly interested in us!  But they do cross the rainbow bridge to Middle Earth often enough, and there are occasions when they assist or reward men and women.

I thought it would be interesting to bring together a few of these tales.  One was first written down by Snorri Sturluson in the early 13th century; my sources for the others were early collections of Icelandic and other Scandinavian folk tales.

Family is a theme that occurs again and again, not just in your poetry, but in your novels like the Arthur de Caldicot series, ‘Gatty’s Tale’ and more recently your two novels of Solveig, the Viking girl, in ‘Bracelet of Bones’, and ‘Scramasax’. Your own family ties were and clearly are very strong. Was it only natural, do you suppose, that family have featured so much in your writing?

Yes!  I love and support and honour my wife, my children and grandchildren, my sister and my extended family, and when I fail them I fail myself.  But I'm also mindful, always mindful, and never more so than now on the doorstep of my eightieth birthday, with the wretched virus flying around us, of the truth of W.B. Yeats' great lines:

Think where man's glory most begins and ends,

And say my glory was I had such friends.

Early memories - Kevin with his parents and sister Sally.

Thank you again, Kevin, for both the interview and the gift of your wonderful poems. This second poem returns us to the theme you explore in the poem 'Lifelines', from your collection 'The Breaking Hour.'


Birds's Pightie and Bradmere


            Who remembers them?

I do, chirps sparrow. I do

screams swift.

Whin Hill Marsh and far


          Who remembers them?

I do, croaks herring gull. Me

too, twitters swallow.

Dawling Lane. Brittle Breck

            Who remembers them?

Me, squeaks sanderling. I do,

sings little lark.

Ah, these acres  and green


            dawdling and stretching.

The turning years have 

stopped their names.

Yet listen. Look! Isn't it true

            - tear in the fence, tear

in the eye -

that clump or muddy or thick

with dew.

they still belong to me and to


Towards Scolt Head by Gillian Crossley-Holland

Next month and for the month after that, I am delighted to say that I will be interviewing illustrator, writer and co-creator of the magical 'Lost Words' series, Jackie Morris. In the fist of these interviews on 16th December, we will specifically talking about project, its many inspirations and off-shoots. I look forward to seeing you then.

.Steve Gladwin - Stories of Feeling and Being
Writer, Drama Practitioner, Storyteller and Blogger.
Creation and Story Enhancement/Screen writing.
Author of 'The Seven', 'Fragon Tales' and 'The Raven's Call'