Last post …of 2013

It’s the time of year to review what happened over the previous twelve months. Part of me wants to just put the past behind me and look forward without reflection – but the history-lover in me recoils. How can you know how far you’ve travelled if you don’t know where you’ve been?

Don't look back. You're not going that way.

So here it is – a collection of events and thoughts about this writing year.

  • January – the launch of the Golden Egg Academy in Bath. Such enthusiasm for the world of writing for young people. Inspiring – and smashing to be in at the beginning.
  • February – first Chi-SCBWI event at the Fountain Inn in Chichester. Reminded me what a talented and kind bunch of writing pals I have locally.
  • March – Book Mapping Weekend at the Golden Egg Academy. So wonderful to have someone professional taking me and my work seriously – and some pretty challenging things to think about.

An antique lamp in Chichester

  • April – Major structural revisions to  my Georgian lamp-lit novel. I found the saggy middle the worst – radical surgery left a lot of bagginess.
  • May – Scoobies’ retreat. Inspired by Lucy Christopher to deepen my story. Encouraged by mad and lovely friends to get even more involved in SCBWI (British Isles).
  • June – up to Newcastle for difficult and very worthwhile pitching workshop courtesy of Mslexia.  (I did get to dance with David Almond’s daughter at the Kathryn Tickell gig the night before. though.)Then speed-date-the-agent event in Foyles. Exhilarating, fun and apparently successful: 5 agents and 1 editor interested in my selkie story. No takers though.

Sad-looking seal on a beach.

  • July – a stay in Devon at Deborah Dooley’s Retreats for You. Partly for my writing, partly for industrial espionage as I want writers to come here to Sussex-by-the-sea. Little details and thoughtfulness can make a big difference.
  • August – Arvon, Lumb Bank. Glorious – it felt like coming home, the other writers were great and I gained a great deal of insight from Steve Voake and N. M. Browne doing a brilliant good cop, bad cop routine. Also the Magical Books exhibition at the Bodleian Library – who knew Alan Garner had such distinctive and beautiful handwriting? And Phillip Pullman and Neil Gaiman in conversation at the Oxford Playhouse. Definitely a great deal of wannabe moments there.

black and white photograph of Neil Gaiman

  • September – brief sojourn in Devon again – but this time with Charlie of Urban Writers’ Retreats. Lovely venue – much to enjoy – but also gained the inevitable realisation that cannot escape yourself. Bum on seat, fingers on keyboard and crack on – the only way that works.
  • October Spain – glories of the Alhambra followed by the shooting star of my writers’ retreat dream plunging into a cold ocean. The house we wanted was sold to someone else. Remind me never to share my hopes far and wide. On the other hand, attended thoughtful and stimulating talk with Susan Cooper, Chris Priestley, Geraldine  McCaughrean and Sally Gardner on Halloween. Resulted in my best/most popular blog post yet.
  • November – NaNoWriMo: 55k of a first draft done. I proved to myself I could do 2k or more every day for 21 days non-stop .  I found sometimes I could outrun the inner critic – and I ended up exhausted with a grubby house. Scwbi-con was fun – met brilliant people and somehow found the chutzpah to read short story out in front of the utterly smart  and encouraging Malorie Blackman.
  • December – so disappointed not be long-listed for Undiscovered Voices. Got back in the saddle and sought editorial help from Golden Egg Academy with new funds (thank you Father Christmas for coming early). Full circle, eh?

Christmas decoration with joy written on it.

So there you go – I hope I didn’t bore you too much. It was a useful exercise for me at least. I now know three things;

  1. I will  carry on writing throughout 2014, published, agented or not .
  2. My fellow writers mean so much to me.
  3. I still haven’t given up on the writers’ retreat idea!

Finally, to quote Peter Sinfield:

I wish you a hopeful Christmas
I wish you a brave New Year
All anguish pain and sadness
Leave your heart and let your road be clear


I hope to see you in 2014.


On light and dark in children’s literature

This is a conflicted post – unresolved and written  from the heart. I really don’t know what I think – yet. I feel it is genuinely important – and not just intellectually. There’s an undercurrent of empathy with younger readers and what stories mean to them that runs deep.


In the winter months especially, I crave the dark and the macabre. I revel in ghost stories. I re-read shadowy treasure such as M. R. James  and Joan Aiken’s spookier tales. I listen to haunting  audio (Kate Mosse’s The Mistletoe Bride and Radio 4’s Edinburgh Haunts). I itch to review Frost Hollow Hall for my Wedding Ghost blog.

As far as I can recall, I’ve always loved the dark and frightening. One of my very earliest memories is of my lovely and much-missed Nanna chasing me up the stairs bear-fashion and me begging her to ‘growl me Nanna’. It’s a deep-rooted part of my psyche.


It was therefore a pleasure for me to go to London for an IBBY talk involving Sally Gardner, Chris Priestley, Susan Cooper and Geraldine McCaughrean. (There’s an account of it here with some of the wisdom the four writers kindly shared). En route, I read Tinder -Sally Gardner’s new and extraordinary book so that I could cover it  for Serendipity Reviews.

I like my fairy stories unbowdlerised – and Tinder is certainly that. I don’t want them sanitised and sweetened. The same goes for many other stories – I thought the Hollywood-style ending of The Woman in Black film was a travesty. I can take a dark and tragic ending.


Yet the discussion on ‘happy endings’  left me stimulated but confused. On one hand, Chris Priestley definitely doesn’t feel the need for cheery resolution to a story – a tale doesn’t have to have a point, a function in his view. That resonates – cheap and easy ‘morals’  and  ‘issues fiction’ strike me as patronising and likely to be favoured by the Mr Goves and Mr Gradgrinds of this world.


However, one of the things I dislike most is cynicism. I loathed the end of The Hunger Games trilogy – it seemed to say the world is a bleak mess controlled by vile people and there’s nothing you can do about it. My still-adolescent heart wants to change things and I think defeatist, miserablist attitudes allow greed and all manner of other nasties to triumph. (rant over)

So I rejoiced when Geraldine McCaughrean said ‘Catharsis is good for you’ – that she wanted stories that left children with ‘some kind of hope.’ As she said, ‘all their colours are acid-bright and their feelings burn with adrenaline’. I feel writers do have some sort of responsibility.


As a survivor of depression, I need hope. Happy-clappy, isn’t everything lovely endings don’t work for me – if anything it makes matters worse. But the utterly bleak fills me with despair too. I don’t think younger readers are so much different – or at least, not the ones I’m writing for.

So as I said, I have no definitive opinions on this one – I’m still fumbling around. At present the best I can see as my purpose is:

to comfort the disturbed

and disturb the comfortable


What are your thoughts? What place is there for hope, or unadulterated grim reality. Should we focus on the shadow or the star?

Sunday Special

On Thursday 31st October 2013  I took myself from West Wittering to Swiss Cottage Library. I didn’t get the prize for furthest travelled – my friend and colleague Julie Pike from Dorset earned that – but I did come away with several small and special treasures.

Firstly the most obvious – signatures from the illustrious guests in copies of their books which I had taken especially. The event was organised by IBBY and focused on using myth, legend and history in writing for children and young people. The four wonderful writers were:

Sally kindly signed my review copy of ‘Tinder’ which I had just finished reading on the train. I shall be writing about it on Serendipity Reviews shortly – but what I can say is that the complete book is most beautifully produced – and was perfect reading for Halloween.

I took ‘Mister Creecher’ for Chris to sign . Those who know me well will know I hold this in high regard – but I am also itching to read ‘The Dead Men Stood Together’. I thoroughly enjoy his thing of taking something from an earlier creepy masterpiece and then genetically engineering a whole new organism out of it.

Susan Cooper made me come all over tongue-tied. Not only is she the author of ‘The Dark is Rising’ sequence, but so cool and laid-back and wise I just wanted to breathe the same air in the hopes that something would transfer to me. After all, she inhabited the same Oxford as Tolkien and Lewis, and I think she knows Alan Garner. Phew.

Last but never, ever the least was Geraldine. I took a little paperback copy of the first book I ever read aloud to a class  (Dog Days). Geraldine has written so many smashing books – from Monacello to A Little Lower than than the Angels – that I was spoiled for choice. But I have soft spot for frost fairs and Old London Bridge, and it was a pleasure I shared with the children.

I also took away some less tangible but no less special treasures – in fact I filled the last remaining pages of my Moleskine with them. Here’s a small selection:

Sally Gardner:

  • children can’t be policed in historical fiction – they can have truly great adventures
  • imagination allows you to float your mind out of a situation
  • the pea-soupers she knew as a child around Gray’s Inn were made of ghosts and Charles Dickens

Chris Priestley:

  • historical fiction allows child characters to be master/mistress of their own destiny
  • dystopias are historical fiction – just in another direction
  • he writes for the vestigial 14 year old inside him beguiled by grotesquerie

Susan Cooper:

  • she is obsessed with place, with the layers of time
  • uses the past to illuminate the present but ‘God forbid messages’
  • what a child gets out of a story is not what is put in deliberately to educate – or even to entertain

Geraldine McCaughrean:

  • history was another place where I had often gone as a child
  • after a brilliant rant about bowdlerised folk stories – she said the originals were a a place where we can taste the amoral terrifying darkness, the inchoate beings we all nurse inside
  • research as much as you like – and then around half-way, throw it all away! 

I can only agree with the librarian (whose name sadly I did not catch) who thanked the panel for ‘not dumbing down’. It was an exhilarating evening with far more than these brief highlights – much of which is fermenting in my imagination.


Oh, and one final thing – it’s a really good idea to wear something emblematic such as a silver Peter Pan brooch, a skull close to your neck, a gilded vulture or an interlaced  symbol of Celtic mysticism. I leave you to guess who wore which…

Riches beyond the dreams of Avarice

Wednesday 21st August 2013 found me in Oxford. I had come for an event at Oxford Playhouse – of which more later – and decided to make much more of a trip of it by adding in two museums.

My head and my heart are now stuffed with treasure.

First off, I went to the Magical Books exhibition at the Old Bodleian library. For me this was akin to the veneration of saints’ relics: I found it deeply emotional to be in the same space as work by writers and artists I love.

For example, there was Tolkien’s lovingly created Fragments from the Book of Mazarbul {That’s the burnt bits the Company find in the mines of Moria which tells them of Balin’s fate for those non-Tolkien geeks reading}. You could see the marks his pipe had made.

There were maps by C.S. Lewis and folio sheets of Alan Garner’s beautiful handwriting. I thrilled to see Pauline Baynes’ exquisite artwork, and manuscripts by Susan Cooper and Philip Pullman.

Perhaps I hoped some of their magic would rub off on me?

Whatever the truth of that emotion, it reconfirmed that fantasy and magical realms are my first love, Faerie is where my Muse comes from.

So I was more than happy to see some of the artefacts that had stimulated my literary heroes. Ancient magical texts and arcane objects imbued with mystical power starred in the glass cases. Objects associated with alchemists, witches and magicians always fascinate.

In the evening I had a glorious writerly overload: Neil Gaiman talking to Philip Pullman at Oxford Playhouse. Despite both of them avowing atheism, it was interesting to note a perhaps spiritual element in their discussions about the Narrator. Whether literal or figurative, there was a definite mystical aspect to their talk.

So to today.

The Pitt Rivers Museum.


Pitt Rivers Museum 09

If you ever short of ideas, just go there. The juxtaposition of objects from cultures from all over the world makes a wealth of extraordinary starting points.

Try these:

  • light-bulbs turned into oil lamps – in contemporary city slums
  • the tip of a tongue preserved to make a charm– in  the English countryside
  • a light waterproof cape fashioned from seal innards by Arctic people

Imagine who made these astonishing things and what their life was like.

If nothing else, the Victorian displays create an inspiring ambiance. And there are display cards with information about rituals and practices. Mash-up one with another and you have instant context for a drama.

I managed to spend four hours in there and only touched on the downstairs. There are two more galleries to go at.

I had to stop. My imaginative well was brimming and plashing down its moss- covered sides. Now that’s truly magical, whatever your beliefs.

Witch flask from Sussex

Where do you go for a top-up?

Reading material

This post owes its parentage to Vanessa Harbour on ‘The importance of reading as a writer’ and Maureen Lynas’s writing about an approach to structure. I thank them both for getting me thinking about what I read and how it affects my writing.

One notable feature of the MA at West Dean was the challenge of reading in new genres. Without that I would never have discovered the emotional intensity of ‘A Quiet Belief in Angels’ by  R. J. Ellory  or to be honest ,the complex and satisfying structures used by Agatha Christie & Ngaio Marsh. I didn’t ‘do’ crime fiction before. It’s taught me to be an even wider ranging reader.

Now I enjoy being sent books by Vivienne Da Costa for Serendipity Reviews. There are joys like the sheer delight of seeing a much-liked author Chris Priestley come into his own – really using his deep knowledge  to create ‘Mister Creecher’. Or the pleasure of reviewing a colleague’s debut novel like ‘Slated’ by Teri Terry.

I am sent different age-ranges and genres – this helps me to see what I admire, and also what I don’t want to write.

Greg Mosse insists students understand that it’s not what we like in a Reading-Group-glass-of-wine-and-nibbles way that matters, but what works. To my family’s annoyance during the MA year I couldn’t watch anything without taking it apart to see the gears and cogs. I keep quiet now – but I’m still anatomising in my head.

And yet…

It’s not just that, however useful. It’s about inspiration. The things that make me want to write.

This will sound cringeworthy but it is true: I want to pay it forward.

I want to take readers to new worlds.

I loved Narnia and Earthsea and Pern and Middle Earth ( yes I know -it’s our world millenia ago). How wonderful to transport other people somewhere special.

I want to speak with my own voice.

I can hear writers like David Almond and Robert Westall, and Leon Garfield and Joan Aiken. They taught me I can be myself, Northern vowels and all. That you can use language to give flavour and identity. I want to share that.

I want to revel in reworked tradition.

I think of Alan Garner, George Mackay Brown Lloyd Alexander, Susan Cooper and nowadays Katherine Langrish, Jackie Morris and Pat Walsh. They develop shared folklore, myth and legend and keep it alive. It’s too good not to pass on.

I want to express my delight in transformation.

Books move me far more than cinema or TV, they always have done. I can never forget the change in Mary Lennox in ‘The Secret Garden’, or Eustace Clarence Scrubb in ‘The Voyage of the Dawn Treader’. And I’m still a soppy date about Scrooge & Silas Marner. Who wouldn’t want to show what people can become?

So, in short, I think you have to read and read and read  to be even a halfway decent writer. Or at least I do.

How about you?


Keeping it real

One of the better aspects of insomnia is the chance to listen to Radio 4 on the i-player. This week I have been particularly enjoying the Pilgrim series of radio dramas by Sebastian Baczkiewicz. He places English legends in the present day, where the Greyfolk intervene in our Hotblood world in unsettling ways.

It is notable that the contemporary setting makes the eerieness of the traditional tales all the more believable – a kind of corroborative evidence. As a younger reader, I loved much of the work of Alan Garner and Susan Cooper for that sense of it could be happening right here, right now. I still delight in the Narnia Effect of slipping into other worlds, the intersection of the parallel such as Philip Pullman uses. I believe we all like to think we could be the one who notices such things.

What if all the myths and folktales of these islands were true? And what if they were not only true but present now in our world? All the spirits, existing, as they have always existed, in the gaps between tower blocks, in the shadows under bridges, in the corner of our vision…
(from the Pilgrim programme information)

Some writers take another approach: ‘it could have happened’. I think of Pat Walsh and Katherine Langrish with their beautifully depicted historical worlds which also have magic at their core. Some go for an alternative history: Joan Aiken springs to mind and for adults, Susanna Clarke’s ‘Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell’. Here in particular, the sheer detail and interweaving of stories gives an internal validity which I find engaging.

But for sheer consistency of a created world, J. R. R. Tolkien takes every laurel wreath going.

I am almost certain that he once said he wanted to bring back fear into the leafy lanes of England at twilight, to create a truly English legendarium (1). He clearly didn’t intend something twee and Disneyfied: I think he would approve of Pilgim’s dark fantasy tone.


(In fairness to Disney, I have never forgotten Sleeping Beauty’s  Evil Queen, or the demon in Fantasia -and I think this is due to the confidence with which they are portrayed – true to their legendary European roots.)

It is the conviction that matters. Read this:

Of all the tales told on these islands, few are as strange as that of William Palmer. Cursed, apparently, on the road to Canterbury in the spring of 1185 for denying the presence of the Other World by the King of the Greyfolk  or Faerie himself, and compelled to walk from that day to this between the worlds of magic and man.

Which word sticks out like highlighter on an illuminated manuscript? ‘Apparently.’

For a split second, we step out of the writer’s world and look at it, not gaze round inside with wonder and terror.

Don’t do it.

I am not arguing for the po-faced rigidity of the worst of High Fantasy. A light touch such as in the ‘The Phantom Tollbooth’  or any of the Discworld novels does not distract from the internal consistency of their creations. You go there with the writer as your rather cheery guide.

Indeed, the best writers take the reader by the hand and go side-by-side with them into the terrors and delights of their own universe: think of David Almond. All writers can achieve this credibility – no matter which filter on the spectrum of realistic to speculative fiction they use. The ‘trick’ is to truly be there yourself.


(1) If you can locate the quotation, I would be inordinately grateful to know.

The Song Remains The Same

Hazel and Emily

The afternoon of 3oth June I had the pleasure of seeing The Askew Sisters at St John’s Church as apart of the Chichester Festivities. They were two lively young women  who played spirited dance music and sang moving ballads and the like. Delightful – and if you get the chance, do go see them.

But one thing stood out – they sprang from English tradition – and I love it, whether in music or stories.

Now the minute I mention an English tradition, there will be hackles going up. It seems almost impossible to mention without anxiety. Will people think I am a racist? Will I be bracketed along with the tweeness of Evergreen Magazine, Ye Olde Teashoppes and endless reruns of Miss Marple? Will I be seen as an obscure collector of folklore obsessively slotting stories into the Aarne–Thompson classification system?

I hope not.

But what I am speaking up for is best expressed by this:

And we learn to be ashamed before we walk

Of the way we look and the way we talk.

Without our stories and our songs

How will we know where we’ve come from?

Show of Hands 'Roots'  - a deeply-felt and much loved song.

We need our traditions – how can you  riff on Jack and The Beanstalk if you don’t know the story in the first place? Ms J K Rowling would lose at least half the inhabitants of the Potterverse without our English traditions.

But there’s every need to avoid overzealous exactitude.

The thing I admired about the Askew Sisters was their reinvigoration of the music. Hazel played the melodeon with the heel of her hand at one point to give an otherworldly sound – not textbook, I suspect – but very effective. I loved The Warsaw Village Band’s punky polkas* ( also ChiFest and brilliant live) and what about the Imagined Village’s fantastic ‘Cold Haily Windy Night’  with Sheema Mukherjee on sitar and Johnny Khalsi on drums? The point is that folk music evolves, new elements come in and add life. Having a tradition doesn’t mean it has to be a form of taxidermy.

So where’s the relevance to writing?

Well, it can hardly be shared experience nowadays – not many pirate adventures like Henry Martin now – unless you’re Somali. But shared emotion – that’s where we meet. We may not have a lover on the deck of a sailing ship as in ‘The Turtledove’ or ‘If I were a Blackbird’ – but we know what it is to miss someone.

Writers convey the feelings of characters in situations they have never experienced and readers imagine them. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a ballad or a book – and the English tradition has plenty of passion in it yet.

[*Yes, I know they’re Polish – but the point about reinventing your tradition is still true.]