Words and Pictures

On Tuesday, I had the pleasure of visiting the Oxmarket Centre of Arts in Chichester. It’s well worth a look as there are constantly changing exhibitions. I was interested the work of a local artist David Souter for the seamagic.org website as he paints a fair few sea scenes.

Luckily, he was there (with his delightful little dog) and we got talking. I was struck by how much of his practice as a painter chimed with mine as a writer.

He said his finished works were each a jigsaw, a fitting-together of imagination and observation. That’s what writers do, observe and then fit their understandings into a given shape. It’s the imaginative structure that holds those pieces together.

He felt the real work was in the sketches beforehand and the actual painting didn’t take him long at all. I’m not at that stage, it takes me a fairish while to write a novel, but I certainly find the repeated exercise of my craft is essential. Little notes, pen sketches and the like   drawn from life feed the larger work.

Many of his scenes were recognisable places. Others were creative amalgams. He was honest and unapologetic about re-arranging people and sometimes other elements to suit the composition. That’s what I’m doing right now: I’m editing a first draft to bring out the shape. Some characters will move, some will blend and others may well get painted out. The overall shape, the arrangement of different elements, is what brings pleasure to the reader – or the viewer.

A final aspect that tallied was his desire to create a sense of movement in his work. His images are not static. There is a sense of a before and an after – we are seeing something happening – not just posed. I suggested that this was how writers approach character: we show the person doing something in order to convey them to the reader – we rarely describe them at a standstill.

I found this cross-fertilisation from one art to to another quite a tonic. I wonder what my readers think?

The Next Big Thing

Thanks to Jo Wyton for tagging me!

What is the working title of your book? 

The Selkies of Scoresby Nab.

Where did the idea come from for the book? 

I’m a scuba diver and one of the most magical things I’ve ever done was diving with seals. This rekindled my love for the Selkie legends – although I’d never come across one from Yorkshire. So I decided to create one. I used the viewpoint of a boy whose mother was a seal  – but who did not know.

What genre does your book fall under?

It’s a children’s historical fantasy. (It makes me feel ancient to call the Sixties history – but they are to ten-year-olds!)

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a film version? 

I think it would be have to be animated. I’d love actors with convincing Yorkshire accents to do the voice overs, mind you. Dame Judi Dench would do a fine Grandma and Sir Patrick Stewart, Granddad. But the central younger characters would be better off as complete unknowns.

What is a one-sentence synopsis of your book? 

When troublesome Mattie Henshaw is sent to his grandparents’ house on Scoresby Nab, he doesn’t expect to discover a sea-going family he never knew he had, or to have to save them from slaughter.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency? 

I don’t have an agent – yet. It has been long-listed for the Mslexia Children’s Novel Competition 2012, though.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript? 

I wrote the first draft as the main work in my MA in Creative Writing from West Dean College which I finished in one year ( 2011)

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I think it’s unique. It has a distinct Northern voice – so you might be reminded of David Almond‘ s writing or ‘Kes’, and there are magical parts that might make you think of Katherine Langrish‘s work or Pat Walsh‘s.

Who inspired you to write this book? 

My amazing taskmaster of an MA tutor, Greg Mosse ( yes, he is husband to Kate Mosse) and way back in history, my old English mistress, Miss Grey – who believed in me.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest? 

If they have ever wanted to swim like a seal , or enjoyed the magic of the sea, then this is a book for them.



I haven’t got anyone else to tag – would you like a go? Please?

Storming the Citadel

Last night I went to Chichester’s rather lovely Assembly Rooms to listen to Kate Mosse talk about her intriguing new novel, Citadel. I had downloaded and read the beginning ,quite legitimately, I might add, and thought it might well suit my husband. We had been to Carcassonne,  and seen many of the streets in the Bastide which I knew were significant.

A delightful chap from the local Waterstones gave a preamble mentioning the many Kates – all facets of this inspiring and multi-talented woman. Her mother spoke up for Kate the Daughter – which caused a ripple of laughter. He also mentioned her previous titles but forgot ‘The Winter Ghosts’. A copy fell down shortly after. More amusement.

Through careful questioning by her husband, Greg, she took us through the stages taken to reach the finished work. I was pleased when she said ‘Sometimes the characters are not who you think they are’ and went onto explain how they emerge and assert their own traits. How many other writers have experienced this, I wonder?

It was fascinating, if humbling as a writer, to hear about her punishing work schedule. Up at three – coffee – write – jog – eat a little – write some more and so on… She deserves every success with effort like that. Especially when you consider that her beloved father died during the writing of this book.

The shadow of real life on every page of the draft .

Those who have read any of  Kate’s previous works will know how much the spirit of place informs what she does (another notion I aspire to). She spoke of the ‘shadows that you still feel in Carcassonne’ and how the events of 1942 can decide which cafe a person frequents in 2012. There were some deeply moving anecdotes – and in a strange way, it was good to see that these still affected her, despite all the research. She has not lost the emotional connection with the Languedoc over her 23 years of work.

She clearly knows her stuff, yet self-effacingly prefaces detailed facts with ‘As I am sure many of you will know…’ I also cannot help but warm to a woman who admits that ‘novelists are shockingly nosey and inveterate liars’. She is a great smiler and does not take herself too seriously.

For me, the fact that she wanted to tell the hidden history of women and commemorate the ordinary people who couldn’t turn a blind eye,  was appeal enough – but there had to be more before I would get it for my husband. It came with her enthusiasm for adventure stories: H. Rider Haggard and the like:

I like big juicy novels.

And when she said ‘Really, it’s girls with guns,’ and  ‘It’s all about that action!’ I just knew it would fit the bill. As a Sussex man, he would also appreciate the value for money of 700 pages.

So I coughed up and had it signed by both Kate – and Greg. As one of Greg’s MA graduates, I was privileged to be invited to the after-party at Amelie & friends, which was a lovely mixed, inclusive event ( with rather nice olives too). Kate gave an emotional  thank-you speech stood on a chair. I will not forget the deep affection expressed there for her husband and his support. I will always treasure this book as a symbol of the kindness I get from mine.

Fear and Loathing in West Sussex

Today I am 65k into the first draft of my work-in-progress and finding it bally hard going.  I knew this one wasn’t going to be easy – nothing worth doing is.  It has at its heart a difficult relationship and calls on, somewhat tangentially, areas in my life I’d really rather not confront.

I don’t want to give spoilers, or pre-empt things that might not get in the finished book, but I’d like to comment on a particular aspect in this post. One strand that runs through the book has an ick factor in some people’s minds. It deals with something we don’t talk about – and most certainly don’t write about in fiction for young people. At the back of my mind,  Mrs Sensible says ‘you keep that in and no gatekeeper will ever let you in – never mind the book’.

Yet Ms Creative says ‘it stays – I’ve gone through a lot to put that toe-curling, squirm-able part of my life into a fictional form – and that’s what makes it good, something readers will engage with.’

Who is right?

If I look at the opinions of rational, professional writers who have to pay the bills like Stroppy Author – Mrs Sensible wins hands down. After all, I have the luxury of a patron (Lovely Husband) and not being published yet – so no expectations from the industry. But I want to be professional, to write well and to pay my way. ‘Submitting something a bit dodgy – not wise,’ says Mrs Sensible.

On the other hand, the only method I have for writing original stories which avoid the banal and the obvious, is to use the heartfelt experiences inside me. In this case, it has led to something a great deal of adults are squeamish* about – and may make it unpublishable. But it matters – it’s been hard to write about and although it’s not finished, it’s good. It matters to the central character and makes a difference to her relationships and the plot. Not so easily removed.

Mrs Sensible suggests ‘write it for an older readership then’ – Ms Creative counters ‘they’ll be too old, it’ll be memory, not experience’.

See – I’ve resorted to visual euphemisms.

What to do? All comments very gratefully received – I haven’t had any for a while.

*including me

The naming of places

Like Terry Pratchett, I was blown away on first reading Tolkien:

It’s got maps! And names!*

I am still in love with his entire lexicon and mythology of Middle Earth, and one of my favourite features  was the names he gave places. Now it helps if you are an expert in Anglo-Saxon and all-round-brilliant, but still I aspire to have towns, harbours, moors and rivers that convince. The place is a central character for me.

Map from the Hobbit courtesy of Josh Calvetti (Creative Commons)

As most of my readers will know, I was born and brought up in the West Riding of Yorkshire. Norse words are part of my cultural DNA. Give me tofts and thorpes , skels and scars, and I’m a happy woman. I suppose I could set all my work in the Danelaw – but I might like to branch out.

Now since I write stories with more than a touch of fantasy, I could just make it up. But that  seems like selling the reader short. I have to confess a more-than-reasonable dislike for place names made up out of real words with different meanings ‘because they sound good’. Call me a nerd, but I like a bit of toponymic integrity. If it’s set in the Fenland, I want names like Penny Soakey, Toseland St. Agnes and Green Knowe (thank you, L. M. Boston).

The Manor at Hemingford Grey
or ‘Green Knowe’
Image by Richard White (Creative Commons)

One approach I use is to blend existing names: I took Sel (seal) from Selsey and  –chester (southern variant for ‘Roman settlement’) from Chichester to create Selchester, my City-on-the-Sea. I still like to be careful about origins (no Pictish elements with those from the Jutes  for example –  like mixing Aberdeen with Canterbury) but it works.

Another way is to recycle the names of abandoned or lost settlements – those places deserted after the Black Death, or victim to coastal erosion. There are a great deal of powerful story backgrounds here too.

Wharram Percy by Andy Nunn
(Creative Commons)

You can also look up old maps and use the alternative spellings or earlier forms of places. The Domesday Book is brilliant for that, and zoomable old OS cartography is a wonderful time sink, I have to admit. There are cracking books too: Caroline Taggart’s The Book of English Place Names and the splendidly browseable McKie’s Gazetteer ( which gives any number of odd stories).

And if nothing else, all this research will give you a smile when you come across delights such as Wetwang, Triangle, Great Fryup Dale, Booze (with no pub) and Blubberhouses Moor (all in Yorkshire).

* this may be apocryphal – but it’s too good not to use.


The child who survived

Photo by Savannah Roberts

My dear,

The creative adult is the child who survived.
The creative adult is the child who survived after the world tried killing them, making them “grown up”. The creative adult is the child who survived the blandness of schooling, the unhelpful words of bad teachers, and the nay-saying ways of the world.
The creative adult is in essence simply that, a child.
Falsely yours,
Ursula LeGuin

My experience doesn’t quite agree with Ursula LeGuin: my schooling was not bland. In my various Primary Schools, there was a good deal of violence: of playground bullying and the sneering rejection of the newcomer with the odd accent and ‘posh’ vocabulary. The continuous mockery of anyone who showed talent (other than on the sports field) by my peers didn’t exactly encourage the bright children to offer answers or stick up for each other.

Secondary School brought fewer bruises but more harm to my self-confidence. There was isolation, exclusion and worst of all false friendship. More than once I was stupid enough to believe in my apparent acceptance into a popular group. I would relax, be myself, be the star turn – only to have the set-up gleefully explained to me.

‘We just wind you up and off you go.’

Then came the loneliness again.

Trapped by Timo Waltari

And what of the nay-saying ways of the world? In my case, never mind the world, what about some parts of my family? Water on stone: a steady erosion of my self-belief.

Dolly Daydream.

Lizzy Dripping.

What do you want that for?

Why can’t you do it properly?

That’s not for girls.

Why can’t you be like Mrs Perfect’s daughter?

You’ve spelled that wrong.

Silly waste of time.

That’s not how it’s done.

Join e to d like this.

What’s that supposed to be?

I’m too busy.

Photograph by Kalev Kevad

This piece isn’t intended as a plea for sympathy (though I do appreciate a little support at times, if I’m honest). My point is that many creative writers and other artists I have met have been thorough the mill like me. One way or another they have survived.

As a survivor though, I have scars and flashbacks. There are damaged, healed-over places which are painful to probe. There are memories I don’t want replayed.

But that’s where the best raw material lies.

‘Rapunsell’ by Duygu

Do you know ways to deal with this? To let the child survivor out to play safely?




What’s in a name?

All the Tour De France hoo-ha has thrown up the splendid name of Bradley Wiggins. Now a name like that conjures up the cheekiest boy in 4b to me, a dab hand with conkers and adept at pulling faces when the teacher’s not looking. He’d have sticky-out ears, a tuft of unruly hair he sticks down with spit and a good line in the dog-wrote-my-homework excuses.

What about Tempest Pollard? This wonderful name was found whilst researching a family tree. For me, she is a bold red-headed girl, a fisher lass as strong as many of the lads and quite capable of cutting anyone down to size. She’d help haul the lifeboat through winter snow and pose for Frank Meadow Sutcliffe with her local bonnet on.

But to someone else, Tempest Pollard is a solid ox of a man, a farmer with hands broad as spades and a slow burr of a voice. He’s not given to much speech, but what he says he holds to.

So how do I choose names for my characters? I could go the Dickens route and make them up – you know what you’re getting with Mr Gradgrind and Lady Honoria Dedlock. Yet although my writing has fantasy elements in it, I strive for a certain degree of authenticity.

By that I mean the names should reflect the place and time that I’ve chosen – even if they are alternatives to reality. For example, I have lots of fun researching names and occupations in early 19th Century Sussex to populate Regency Selchester. One of my best sources are old directories which you can search by decade and area here. It’s a fascinating resource/timesink.

Another entertaining, if slightly creepy, approach is to visit graveyards: I guarantee you will find at least one fascinating name. To avoid offending family sensibilities, I do tend to mix and match forenames and surnames. I also cross-check on the internet to see if my character’s name throws up anything inappropriate or offensive. So far, I’ve been fine.

Anyone who has done any ancestor hunting will know how frequently certain names turn up: Elizabeths, Marys and Margarets; Georges, Williams and Thomases run right through many a family tree. This is where accuracy needs sacrificing to art.

  1. You don’t want easily confused names
  2. You want your main characters to be memorable

I have been known to keep an alphabetical list to make sure no initial letter gets repeated – though it gets interesting with C and K, Th and F. I have learnt I have a real penchant for surnames starting with H.

So after all this, I sound terribly organised or weird depending on your point of view. But I will end on a confession: some of my favourites come out of nowhere. Both Mattie Henshaw and Clemency Atwell sprung out of my mind like Pallas Athene from the head of Zeus.

How do you choose? Do you see someone from the sound of their name?

Acts and ideas

‘It is by acts, and not by ideas, that people live.’Anatole France

I asked my youngest son what I should write on my blog today; he said ‘character research – where do they come from, how do you make them seem  real?’

This surprised me – but led to an interesting train of thought.

It has to be said he has always had high E.Q. and was an excellent actor at school, so I should not have been startled at his focus in writing. He made me think about the various ways I could approach creating my characters, and the implications of these.


– the obvious source of behaviour. but it comes with several reservations.


Spy video camera by Emilian Robert Vicol


There is the morality of my ‘using’  family and friends for a start: I could hurt people’s feelings; inadvertently divulge secrets or embarrass them. As for strangers and acquaintances, well, it’s not good to stare and note-making is a bit obvious ( my memory isn’t that good).


I could blend people together; a kind of character pic ‘n’ mix. There are gestures, tics and idioms of different people I could combine. If I make them diverse enough, I might avoid offending any one person.


Gaudi’s trencardis lizard at Parc Guell – by Richard Uzermans


That seems cowardly as a motivation, and the result likely to seem artificial without a great deal of care. Actual behaviour – now that’s another thing. Translating action I have seen from one person to illuminate a single aspect of my character – that appears more honest.


‘Just make it up’ – that feels like a valid way to get on with it and avoid procrastination too. Let the back of my mind do the work; watch what my characters do and say in my imagination and write it down.


Cartoon writer created by Joan M.Mas


I have to acknowledge the inevitable influence of what I’ve read ( not to mention seen in films and heard on the radio). I recognise there’s a danger of resorting to cliché and stereotype too. But it is all the more reason to read widely – and I find non-fiction and biographies have much for me to absorb.


I need to acknowledge that whatever approach I take, it is filtered through my perceptions.No matter how hard I might try to be a disinterested observer, it’s still me on the page in one way or another. This is where multiple personality is not a disorder.

I get to try out different selves, live more lives than one and let rip with my inner actress. The characters that live are those with most authenticity: they are a part of me. So I have to be honest and accept that the bitter, vengeful Celia in The Wedding Ghost is as much ‘me’ as the courageous Lorna in The Seal People of Scoresby Nab.

That’s quite a thought.

Mirror in New Orleans by Scott E.

I’ll finish with a quotation from Beryl Bainbridge:

‘When I write a novel I’m writing about my own life; I’m writing a biography almost always. ‘

The Case of the Invisible Girls

This is a very simple post addressed to fellow writers, illustrators and publishers especially for younger children.

Where are all the girls?

photo by katiek2


I looked in ‘Carousel’ – these are my stats for the Spring 2012 edition.

  • Babies Books: 9 books reviewed , 2 male central characters & 7 neutral.
  • Toddlers: 8 books reviewed, 5 male central characters, 1 female and 2 neutral
  • Picture Books: 15 reviewed, 8 male central characters, 5 female and 2 neutral
  • First Steps: 8 books reviewed, 6 male central characters, 1 female and 1 neutral
  • Reading Alone: 14 reviews, 5 male central characters, 4 female & 5 neutral
  • Reading with Confidence: 13 reviews, 5 male leads, 6 female & 2 neutral
Out of 67 books, 31 had male leads, 19 had either a neutral or an equal balance, and only 17 had female central characters. That gives 46% male (OK) 28% neither/both & 25% female. Take out the books that had an equal ratio or featured neither and this remains:

65% male to 35% female central characters

Now I have no wish to criticise ‘Carousel’ – it reports what there is – and it might be just a statistical blip. So I thought I’d better cross-check with Amazon.

I won’t bore you with the full breakdown but here’s a summary:

  • out of the top 30 best-sellers from 0-8, 14 featured male characters, 11 were neutral or balanced, and 5 had female leads.
  • 47% male, 37 % neutral & 16% female
  • 74% male to 26% female (if you take out the neutral books)
I did the same with ‘The Book People’:
  • out of the 60  Top Ten books promoted in ranges from Babies through to 9+, 32 featured male central characters, 14 were neutral & 14 female
  • 70% versus 30%
What on earth is going on?

Photograph by D Sharon Pruitt

To my shame, this is a rough transcript of a conversation betwen me and an agent for children’s writers.
‘I’m stuck – need to choose between a boy or a girl as my  central character in my 9+ fantasy adventure – which would you suggest?’
‘Well, if you really can’t choose any other way, then the boy commercially speaking.’
‘Oh. Why?’
‘Girls will read books with a boy central character- but boys won’t read it if it’s a girl.‘ ( my emphasis)

by youleah

So all my readers that have anything to do with books – what on earth do we do about this?

Them bones, them bones…

This week I have been working on the underlying structure of my work-in-progress (provisionally called ‘Georgiana and the Municipal Moon’).  I’d be dishonest if I didn’t remark on how much there is to think about.

It’s set in an alternative Regency England – but I want consistency so I’m using the years 1808/9 for days of the week , phases of the moon and tides. Even though I’ve dreamt up the City of Selchester, I do want my Sussex geography to be feasible (magic notwithstanding) and the details of everyday life to be convincingly Georgian. Research into where and when and how can throw up no end of plot possibilities – and problems.

Regency Ladies by O. Benson

Then there’s the question of scenes and chapters. Each one must add something to the plot and the reader’s understanding of the characters as well as having a crescendo. Why would you read on if the scene isn’t going somewhere?

So I’ve been happily imagining what the exit point of each scene might be. Sometimes it’s a steady build-up, in others, a different strand comes to interrupt the flow and forms the climax. All good stuff – it’s taken four rough drafts to get this far.

One thing I’ve tried this time is working backwards. It sounds odd, and it is a brain-strain, but it does make sure everything pays off.

Here’s a ‘frinstance’:

I knew I needed a particular character to successfully forge a signature on a document. By tracing that in reverse, I could put in an earlier moment where they are praised for their handwriting (much to another character’s disgust) and and even earlier incident where someone who might spot the forgery is shown to be unlikely to. The difficult bit is making this none-too-obvious: lots of head-scratching and the use of distraction were needed.

So now ( version 5) I have a dirty great long sequence of discrete episodes grouped into chapters. There are some gaps with notes like Her experience at school will be largely unpleasant – but by-and-large, it is done. My foetus has vertebrae.

Image by Leo Reynolds

How do you tackle the spine of your work?