I love the SCBWI-BI Conference because…

  • I get to hug people I mostly ‘see’ on-line
  • I can talk to people who understand what a mad, wonderful thing it is we do
  • I have the chance to read something aloud that I have just written*- and no-one sniggers
  • I have the opportunity to ‘refill my well’ by gazing at the illustrators’ beautiful work
  • I see people I love and admire succeed – and it gives me joy and hope

Malorie Blackman smiling

(*in front of Malorie Blackman this year!) 

Bobbing about

Not me – but just as exhilarating

I’ve just been for a refreshing swim in the Solent. Whilst I was splashing about and enjoying the waves, I thought about The House with No Name and our seaside retreats venture. How do I get it going?

I really don’t want to be a pushy, self-promoting twonk but I do want people to know about it. I had found that no-one knew in the village about my B&B – and even worse, if they had, they would have told visitors. I don’t want that to happen with this enterprise. I can’t afford it to.

And on the other side of the process, I have had such conflicting advice about running a B&B or guesthouse. I’ve also had a variety of experiences. How do I decide what to do for the best?

He looks thoughtful, too.

The only way as far as I can see to combine integrity with our coastal retreat business is a commitment to provide what our guests really want. A commitment to help, to nurture and to find out what truly works for them.

I was thrilled when Lynn Breeze commented:

involving us all in this way makes us feel a part of it too

That’s just what I want.

The same goes for the promotion of our seaside retreats. I can’t be like a barker in Leeds covered-in market bawling out her wares (much as I admire the brash energy of such an approach). To find the energy to keep putting our venture forward, I have to believe in what I’m doing. It has to be honest.

Partly, I am inspired by the lovely and very astute Deborah Dooley.( If you need a sojourn deep in the heart of the Devon countryside, I particularly recommend her ancient house for its welcoming atmosphere and delectable fire.)

Her approach to advertising Retreats for You is straightforward. She simply communicates what she’s been doing. It’s genuine and engaging and gives you a good sense of what’s she’s about. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery – and I hope she won’t mind me doing something similar.


  • I will jabber on enthusiastically about what I’m up to
  • I will ask questions – repeatedly
  • I will value any comments and suggestions from you lovely lot
  • PLEASE tell me what you want
Thank you for reading.
All shares and re-tweets are much appreciated.



Now we’re cooking

I am currently enjoying a sojourn at Retreats for You in deepest Devon where my hostess Deborah cooks lovely food. This goes down well – and unsurprisingly led me to thinking about cookery and creativity.

I think editing can be something like refining a recipe – and I see genres as being cuisines. We can create our own take on a particular type – but we need to acknowledge the traditions associated with it.

So good old fish-and-chips frankly should have very little done to it. The freshness of the fish, the quality of the batter and the accompaniments are pretty much all there is to work on. This might be like a good whodunit. The reader knows what she wants and really expects it to be just so – no-one wants bouillabaisse or a sudden burst of Dickens.

But ‘Chinese’ is a much wider field. There are a markers we like (like a book cover) to entice us in – red lanterns, gilding and a fat and happy little god, perhaps. Yet upmarket restaurants might give the merest hint – just one calligraphy scroll – and perhaps play with these signifiers. There the food maybe less modified for Western tastes and the consumer expected to make more of an effort.

To me, this reflects less commercial fiction – it’s more immersive, less mediated. The reader is trusted to engage and figure out things for themselves. Nonetheless, there will be things the readership expects – comprehensible sentence structure, a plot, some degree of resolution. And the writer must provide.

I have a fundamental distrust of pubs and the like with far too wide a menu. I am almost certain it will be bought in from Brakes and microwaved.  Here, my writing analogy would be laziness, plagiarism and cultural appropriation. Harsh, perhaps, but poor quality on either account is an insult to the person you’re providing for.

I am not against ‘borrowing’.

Look at China Mieville’s splendidly odd ‘Railsea’. He used Herman Melville’s whaling and transformed it into the hunting of giant moles in his world. There’s nothing wrong with making a paella-style dish from local ingredients born out of what you know and where you are now . That’s how we got Jambalaya.

But just sprinkling a teaspoon of Schwartz Italian Herb Mix over a risotto doesn’t not make it authentically Veneziana. You can’t put a few Creole words in, refer to jazz on Bourbon Street and think you’ve recreated New Orleans. It needs depth and research and love.

Editing is the point at which you consider what you are serving up – and to whom. There is much to reflect on: has the stock of your ideas been simmered long enough? Is the story weighed down with blandness? Does it need a bit of pep – or is there too much going off at once?

You have to keep trying and testing. Eventually, the taste buds give up – and that’s where other opinions come in. (More of that in another post, I think.)

What cuisine would reflect your work?



Sniffing it out

This last weekend I was at Dunford House on a writing retreat with many of my fellow SCBWI-BI members. Amongst all the other joyful events, we had a workshop with the lovely, talented and far-too-young Lucy Christopher on Setting.

One aspect she dwelt upon was the role of the senses in engaging the reader – how they can transport the reader to the time and place we want them to experience. I have to say many of my favourite books are crammed full of sensory detail – I am seduced by authors who can handle these well – Joanne Harris immediately springs to mind.

For this post, I’m going to focus on just one – the sense of smell.

Here’s a selection that I find deeply evocative – and what they provoke for me

  • Fortune’s kippers in Whitby – Goths and impossibly dark and  romantic setting
  • coal tar works – it depended on where the wind blew – going homne up the motorway from Uni
  • the mixture of fried onions and candy floss you get at a fair – exciting
  • mildewed books, incense and damp stone in an unheated church – thrill of singing
  • melting tar on a hot August day when stuck in a traffic jam on the way to Scarborough – boredom , impatience
  • WD-40 – my house reeked of it with three motorbiking sons and a husband – irritation, amusement and sometimes fear
  • newly mown grass and white- lining smell on school sports day – anxiety
  • freshly sawn wood at the timber mill – my father was a builder and carpenter – anticipation  of a new building site
  • linseed oil putty – see above – my grandad’s patience – he worked with my dad too
  • coal fires – comfort on a winters’ day
  • post-Bonfire Night fireworks and ashes – often damp and a little sad – but with happy memories, reliving the delight of rockets and catherine wheels
  • flour and cooking margarine and eggs – cooking with my Nanna, happiness

I think it works best when the smell you choose is both specific to a location – and has an emotional resonance. I am terrible cynic – I use vanilla around our bed-and-breakfast to suggest ice-cream and innocent seaside holiday fun.

One extraordinary find from location research  really sticks in my olfactory memory – inside the roofs of Cathedrals, it smells like steam engines. Honestly. Perhaps 19th century air is still trapped in there.

I wonder which scents trigger a response in you, dear reader.



Past and present

Most of my writing thus far could be labelled ‘Historical Fantasy’, I would say. I have had lots of fun and inspiration from visiting the settings of my stories and looking around.  I try to get a sense of how that place came to be that way- the story before mine, how the geography evolved, the way it might have been governed – as much physical, political and social background as I can imagine.

But until relatively recently, I couldn’t really deal with the people. I’d go early morning or wait to catch shots without people in them . I avoided them a bit if I’m honest – be a bit shy or perhaps wary.

I had some idea that people then were different – different in a way I could only access through period images and accounts. And there’s clearly a great deal of validity in reading contemporary voices, and looking at what they saw – especially for ‘true’ historical writers.

But I take liberties.

I don’t think there were any selkie colonies between Scarborough and Robin Hood’s Bay in the 60s nor a girl who could talk to stone on the south coast of Sussex in Jane Austen’s time. Yet there can be in my head – and through the page – in my readers’ heads.

Understanding this, and accepting that we can only imagine people through what we experience now, has made me much happier to move characters about in time. Years ago as a schoolgirl,  I remember seeing some of Holbein the Younger’s drawings. I’ve never been a fan of the Tudors – but those drawings fascinated me. They were  ‘just like real people in Tudor costumes!’ I recall thinking.

Mary, Lady Guildford, by Hans Holbein the Younger

So now, if I’m in Chichester and I see a huge bloke walking with his legs wide apart to accommodate the movement of his belly like draymen used to roll beer barrels to pub cellars – well, I think ‘you’d fit in well in Selchester’s less reputable streets’. Or I see a girl waiting, shifting her weight from one foot to another, making a pattern on the flagstones like choreography – I wonder if she might anticipate the quadrilles at the Solstice Ball if I slide her back to the winter season 1809.

I reckon it could work the other way too.

Could this woman fit in a contemporary drama?

Perhaps not – but how about this one?

(If you like this pair, there are more here on the Telegraph website – I am indebted to Caroline Lawrence and The History Girls for this)

So what do you think – am I right to mash-up people from different eras – or are people so shaped by the period they live in, it’s just plain wrong?

Principal Boys

Now I am something of a feminist in case you didn’t know, Dear Reader – but I do love a Principal Boy. I love a girl in britches. I always fancied the Prince in the Panto, and any story where the girl dresses up as a boy and gets away with it, gives me great pleasure.

What a pirate! ( Jacket from The Dark Angel)

There’s the irrepressible Linnet in The Children of Green Knowe playing at being a choirboy, Jo March acting in Little Women, Celia Rees’ Sovay – a highwaygirl and of course, most of the cast of Terry Pratchett’s Monstrous Regiment.

Sovay, Sovay all on a day
She dressed herself in man’s array

I never knew George out of The Famous Five books – but I would have loved her. Likewise Mulan and Tamora Pierce’s Alanna . I was a bit of a tomboy – having to be forcibly made to wear a frock, turfing my dolls out of their pram and using it to carry bricks, and jousting with the clothes pole.

I have to admit I was easily hoodwinked. I had no idea about the central character in The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tyler ( which I still love) and honestly, it came as a great and glorious surprise to me when Dernhelm took off ‘his’ helmet in The Lord of the Rings. It still moves me every time I read it.

I really don’t want contemporary girls to think they have to be boys in order to have autonomy.(See my previous post and this splendid one by Katherine Langrish). But in historical fiction and fantasy, it’s a way for our heroines to get out of the home – and it’s such great fun. There’s something about the sheer audaciousness of it.

And in my case, I identified more with Robin Hood or The Lone Ranger or Ivanhoe or my Dad than my stay-at-home Mum. That probably speaks volumes about me. I’ll end with Gandalf speaking about Eowyn to her brother Eomer:

but she, being born in the body of a maid, had a spirit and courage at least the match of yours.

I think that’s it – spirit. Girls in britches embody courage for me.

Female Samurai courtesy of Retronaut



Rescuing the Heroine

This post has been partly inspired by the excellent Katherine Langrish and her post Fairytale Princesses: tougher than you think. I can only agree: what I  learned from traditional stories was that kindness and effort brought you more success than vanity and pride. So I don’t want to rescue any of those heroines myself – just the term.

That’s why I winced when I read Kate Mosse refer to ” female action heroes.” In fairness it was in a perfectly reasonable piece asking for more active central characters to be female. I am unlikely to disagree with that. (But oh, the irony – if you read the piece via Mail Online there is article after article defining women by their looks down the side bar.)

There needs to be equality. There needs to be a balance of protagonists who are girls or women. Have a look at picture books. Really look at them. The apparently gender neutral use of animals often masks the presumption that the lead is male.

Out of ten picture books reviewed, only two had female leads.

I think the word ‘hero’ does that – assumes male is the only important way to be.

Not books, I know, but in an idle moment at Budapest airport  I took a look at some toddler toys (British by the way). Lovely primary colours, diggers and dumpers tractors and so forth (some of my favourite things). Out of twenty named characters, three were female.

We seem to have end up back at the Smurfette Principle – if something is marketed at boys, or meant to be unisex, girls will have only a token representation. Girls are ghettoised. In pink.

You’re not supposed to create with this stuff.

And don’t get me started on pink Lego.

1981 Why have we gone backwards?

So it really is important that half our central characters are female – with lots of agency. I would also argue it’s important you make sure your secondary and minor characters are balanced too. I’ve found myself putting too many males.

But our heroines should not just be blokes with breasts.

Lara Croft won’t do. She’s just eye-candy for boys.

Katniss Everdeen is better. Though I wish the trilogy hadn’t dwindled to that defeatist ending – this is the Katniss I wanted:

(It gets me every time)

We will always need more Lyra Belacquas, more Jane Eyres, more Pippi Longstockings, more Tiffany Achings – and my colleagues provide some amazing female central characters. Some full of gusto and yet feminine.

A black belt in Arnis – Philipino Stick & Sword fighting

Just don’t call them ‘heroes’.



Rather wince than die

“Will you tell me my fault, frankly as to yourself, for I had rather wince, than die. Men do not call the surgeon to commend the bone, but to set it, Sir.”

Emily Dickinson to mentor Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Drawers of Fortune at the Senso-ji temple in Asakusa, Tokyo, Japan.

I have been thinking a great deal about editing this last week. My story has had its requisite six weeks in a metaphorical drawer and now I am writing with the door open (see Stephen King’s marvellous ‘On Writing‘).

It makes me anxious.

I am fortunate enough to be working with a well-established editor with a great reputation. As a relative beginner, that both helps and worries me. Honesty makes me admit I am shy of letting anyone see what a hash I’ve made on my own. I’m back at school, covering up my misspellings, crossings-out and rubber smudges.

I’ve been advised to focus on what children will respond to most, to plunge the reader straight into a key event, so they know immediately something that I had held back.. This bothers me: I want to shy away from showing my ‘best bit’ too soon, I want to lead up to that ‘ta-daah’ moment. Perhaps I think I can’t follow the reveal, that I will have spent all my dramatic capital.

Also I worry that the reader won’t have had time to get to know Georgiana. Why should they care about her and her strange powers over stone if they haven’t spent time with her to begin with?

In my more dismal moments, I imagine my romping girl morphing into a Lara Croft form, albeit in Regency costume. She becomes a figure in a game-play, dodging over the rooftops of Selchester, whom the reader inhabits but doesn’t engage with.

Would this be such a bad thing? (Jane Austen’s Emma by Strawberry Singh)

But I fret that I could end up with a story with too much action, too much attention to design detail (I do know the City-on-the-Sea awfully well) and too many special effects – and not enough depth. I see it with layers, like those cut-away drawings of what’s beneath your feet – can I convey those layers and keep the narrative drive?

My more sensible side says listen to the industry professional, go with what is suggested and trust you can do it.  You’re most likely to be imagining half of these concerns. And after all, it’s much better to be published and be read than not.

The upshot of all this wibbling* has been to make me think really hard about my non-negotiables. I made myself jot down which aspects of the original draft were essential from memory – to see what sticks. These are the core DNA of Georgiana’s story, but I have to accept that someone else might know better how to bring it out into the world. After all, midwives know more than first-time mothers about birth.

Does anyone care to share their advice with me on this process?

* I am indebted to Jon Mayhew for this delightful word.


Ravens & Writing Desks

I have no good answer to Lewis Carroll’s riddle ‘Why is a raven like a writing desk?’ – but I’ve always thought there must be some connection with trees.

I love trees. I am an unashamed tree-hugger. I have gazed in wonder at giant redwoods and stroked their strange fire-proof bark, stood enchanted by the mysterious Dragon Tree in Tenerife, ridden amongst the cork forests near Tarifa with delight and I hold an undying affection for the poor old Crouch Oak, Addlestone.

The Crouch Oak marked the boundary of Windsor Great Park and is said to date from the 11th Century

And in books – oh so many to treasure. The apple tree that grew immediately in the brand-new Narnia & made that wardrobe, The Whomping Willow, the Mallorns and all the wondrous Ents. I have wept for the fate of the Entwives.

So it’s not surprising that I can be moved by bonsai. A really well-executed one can take me into another world. The bonsai creator tries to mimic the natural beauty of the  yamadori – a tree shaped by its surroundings into a sculpture reflecting its struggle and survival. The ceation of bonsai is, of course, artifice: a simulation of effects that occur organically into a pleasing, portable form.

Like a book.

All writing is like that: reality shaped into a pleasing form, however minute or contorted. We might have to bend the truth to make it fit, snip and constrain to make the very best work – but our readership still responds to something like the yamadori. 

And I think there’s more to this analogy – it lies with the writers themselves. Writers need to put down roots, spread them out into the humus of our culture : we need to read, watch, listen. Some of us may have a tap-root of deep knowledge in one area, others may go in for a mat of widespread understanding – and every convoluted variant in-between.

J. R. R. Tolkien in his natural habitat?

We have to develop a trunk to support us – the heartwood of experience. In bonsai, the most damaged be can be the most resilient and the most prized. I believe that can be true of writers.

And then comes the crown, a canopy of photosynthesising leaves that nurtures us first before providing shelter and pleasure and food for others. Creativity takes the up-coming sap of ideas and dreams and magically turns it into new, beautiful things. How mysterious is that?

This bonsai was being trained when Charles I had his coronation in 1626

That’s my alternative to the much-used journey metaphor: growth. I think we each have to find the right place to thrive. Sometimes that might be barren and constricted – and what makes us fruitful.

It’s all to do with maturity – and that’s a wide-ranging thing. Trees vary – like us. Willows can be at their prime in their twenties, beeches barely begun at sixty and the yew is still adolescent at one hundred. But whatever their life story, trees never stop growing.

Bristlecone pines can be thousands of years old and still growing.

I am much encouraged that the ‘early ancient to senescent, or Veteran Stage’ :

for trees with a strong defense system such as oaks, … may be the longest life stage.

(Tree Care Primer – Christopher Roddick)

I take heart in that. My time for blossoming could be now. I may only get rooks and ravens hanging about in my branches – or be felled to make someone else’s writing desk – but thus far, I’m still growing.

Spring Clean

When I returned from my wonderfully stimulating and exhausting weekend in Frome at the Golden Egg Academy, I started work immediately – on preparing my house for bed-and-breakfast guests. I had a photo-shoot scheduled for Tuesday morning courtesy of Airbnb.

What, you might well ask, has that got to do with writing?

Mug shot courtesy of The Literary Gift Company

More than I thought at first.

One task was clearing out the clutter. Getting shot of the bits and bobs that got in the way so that the potential guests could see what they were getting easily. It needed to be clear and clean and suited to the people who liked that sort of thing.

Of course, it was hard to wang stuff out. I am temperamentally averse to disposal. Ideologically too – though handing stuff over to charity shops soothed those qualms. I had to get over some of my sentimentality and clingishness. I can’t say I have entirely triumphed – there are cupboards upstairs bursting with that-which-might-come-in-useful-one-day.

But I had to steel myself, to try and look at my rooms with a dispassionate eye. The tired and the sad had to go – because they got in the way of what I was trying to do. Likewise, I arranged things to make it look good in the photographs. There’s an element of the stage set here, the use of props to suggest the atmosphere I wish to convey – a little cynical, perhaps.

Some rather ‘placed’ tulips – for March.

You can see the parallel, I suspect.

The crucial, though not the only, learning point of my time at Imogen Cooper’s lovely house was identifying the core of my novel that would appeal to my intended readership. That is what I have to de-clutter. I need to strip away all the extraneous tat – and even the really lovely writing – that doesn’t make it clear, clean and suited to readers who like that sort of thing. I have to chuck out the verbal chintz.

To use an old Yorkshire expression, my novel needs a ‘good bottoming’ – it needs sorting out – or ‘fettling’ from the bottom up. And it’s no good being half-arsed about it (pun intended). I shall have give it a proper seeing-to.

Perhaps an exaggeration?

On with the metaphorical rubber gloves, then.