writing

Story

What do I mean when I say I’m a writer? Aren’t we all writers? Whether it’s composing a ‘to do’ list, thumbing a text, emailing a sick note, we all do a bit of writing in an average day. My writing tends to be a little more creative; as well as reviewing or writing opinion, I also spend a vast amount of my time ‘making stuff up’.

So, in a day, I’m likely to do various types of writing. Writing to communicate direct information with people, writing for publications, and lastly for an artistic purpose – which also has a personal aspect – it’s a way of trying to make sense of the world.

I’m lucky in my artistic pursuit. I don’t (at the moment) have a time or topic constraint, and my first draft can literally be whatever splurge I like. Then I can revise it with a view to shaping and developing my thoughts, and adding knowledge. At the same time I’m going to hone my language, perfecting my ability to express myself.

My children, however, are not so lucky. The majority of their writing happens in school, and at the moment they are constrained by the topic they are being taught, the grammar system they have to learn or put into their work, and time. More often than not, the stimulus for writing is external rather than internal – their piece of writing is a response to another piece of writing or a film clip.

In essence, there is little freedom in their writing. There is little opportunity to empty their heads, to write about what interests them individually. And most of those children do not want to go home and write. Some do – and all are able – but most will not write for pleasure. They are far more likely to read for pleasure – writing is seen as work, associated with school – even more so than reading.

In an ideal world, there would be time in school for both reading for pleasure – quiet reading time to read a book of their choice – and time for writing – to write something of their choice.

Of course with ultimate freedom, comes some panic. Stick me in front of a blank screen and I will succumb to ‘writer’s block’. The same with children. So a walk in the park, a listen to the birds, might do the trick. If you’re stuck inside though, a package from ‘Story’ might help.

Story is a new company that sent me something called a ‘Walk-in Book’. It’s not as fleshed out as a Choose Your Own Adventure Story, and in actual fact doesn’t look anything like a book. It comes in a bag, and contains inspiration for characters, settings, and quests.

It’s like the stimulus mentioned above, except far less restrictive. It’s a walk in the park in a bag. In fact, my young testers and I found the map far more helpful than the plot pointers. Printed out on what looks like square maths paper, the map winds and weaves round leaves, buildings and crude drawings of animals and gives the most delightful nameplaces within which to set your story. We loved ‘Whispering Walk’, Red Rabbit Run’, and ‘Gushing Gully’, and found that picking out a route around the town was a good way to build a plot from scratch.

The story cards were a little pedestrian in their themes, but we did notice that what they had in common was that they asked questions, so we did that to form our story too. What if this happens, why would our character behave this way, who is doing what, and of course where does that happen? The cards are separated into ‘beginning’ cards for those who find it hard to start, and ‘quest’ cards for those who need a little help on the way. A doll and mask are provided for character beginnings.

I think the doll may be intended to look fairly unisex, but we attributed a girl’s name for it, and couldn’t quite see it as a boy.

The package did make us think quite hard about writing our own story though, and I can imagine that it would work well in group environments – discussion pointers for children to then go off and write their own story. I intend to use it in school, and think it will go down well, particularly for those children who just don’t know where to start.

For me though, I find the best stories hit me when I’m not looking for them. I’ve given my own children blank pieces of paper and told them to write from scratch – just to splurge from their own heads. And inside, they found treasure troves.

It must be all that reading they do!

Story can be found online at https://www.wearestory.co.uk/

 

 

Lyn Gardner: An Interview

 

Although my first thought when hearing the name Lyn Gardner is that of Lyn’s role as theatre critic of The Guardian, the children in my library (and home) all know of her as a writer of children’s books, who tells brilliantly dashing adventure/mystery stories linked to the theatre. Firstly, with the hugely popular Olivia series, and now with her Rose Campion Victorian era novels. So, after featuring Rose Campion and the Curse of the Doomstone as my book of the week, I was delighted to be afforded the chance to ask Lyn some questions.

The Rose Campion series marries love for theatre with the Victorian era. Can you explain why you picked this historical period?

It was the golden age of music hall, a period that produced stars such as Marie Lloyd, Vesta Tilley, Dan Leno, Little Tich, people who at the height of their fame would be performing at a network of halls and theatres across the country. Every city, and even big town, had its music halls. London was stuffed with them. The stars were the celebrities of their day and the most successful among them were huge earners. At the height of her fame, Marie Lloyd could command almost £1,000 a week, which was a fortune.

The music hall was a way out of poverty for many. Vesta Tilly was just one who made her family’s fortune by performing as a child. In Rose Campion and the Stolen Secret, the first book in the series, when Campion’s is in desperate straits and failing to attract an audience, Thomas Campion employs Aurora, otherwise known as the Infant Phenomenon. Such child performers were hugely popular.

The story packs so much into one book: foundlings, thievery, Holloway prison, and of course magicians and the bullet trick. What research did you do in order to write the novel?

I’m not a historian, and this is a work of fiction not fact. I’ve taken some liberties, particularly around the justice system and the way it operated. But I did want to write a novel that genuinely gives a sense of the sights and smells of Victorian London, and what it would be like to live there. Also what it would be like to be a working child during that period.

Of course I did some research and read books about the period, but I reckon that it’s easy to get bogged down in research and forget that you are trying to write a really rollicking good mystery story. So I tend to write and then check afterwards. I was fascinated by the bullet trick as a child, and when I was writing Rose Campion and the Curse of the Doomstone I was determined to incorporate it into the action.

A main theme running through the Curse of the Doomstone is what’s seen and unseen – trickery of magicians and thieves, and being observant. Is this something you’ve picked up from years of watching theatre productions as The Guardian’s theatre critic?

I don’t think I am a particularly observant person. What happens in theatre a lot of the time is exactly what happens in a magic show: the audience is directed to look at one thing that is happening so they don’t see something else that is also taking place.

It’s all part of the suspension of disbelief that makes us fall through theatre’s rabbit hole into a new world, even though we know that it is only actors on a stage playing a role. Of course if you go to the theatre as much as I do, you start noticing the way a show works, and its mechanics, but even when you do know, I’m interested in the way you still succumb to the magic.

The theme also allows for lots of exploration of identity and the way people present themselves to the world: how they appear and how they really are, those everyday deceptions that we all practise to some degree.

In Curse of the Doomstone these become magnified as people pretend to be something they are not or—like Rose—are trying to find out who they are. Or in the case of Aurora, trying to adjust to the fact that she is not the person she thought that she was, and if she is going to be happy she needs to learn how to straddle two very different worlds.

The book highlights the class divide that separates theatre goers into different theatres/areas of London. Do you think a class divide still exists in theatre?

Theatre certainly has a problem with diversity. It is easier to become a theatre-maker today if you come from a background where there was enough money for theatre trips, and if you have parents who help you get a good education and can support you in the early stages of your career. So yes, I do think that class is an issue in theatre not just in terms of theatre-goers, but also around who makes theatre.

One of the things that spurred me to set the story in a music hall was that while the late Victorian era was one of rigid class divides, the music hall was a place where rich and poor rubbed shoulders together. That was true for the performers as well as the audience, which lends itself to fluid social situations and some very vivid characters.

I was interested in writing a novel set in a music hall in the late Victorian period because I wanted to write a book that was full of the joy of performance, but which doesn’t shirk the realities of Victorian life. From the pea-soupers, to the fact that the streets were full of horse dung, that thousands of children lived on the streets, that landlords took advantage and charged high rents for appalling housing, and life could be short and brutal for those at the bottom of the pile. In fact very much like life is today in the UK (one of the richest nations in the world), if you are one of the 3.7 million children living in poverty.

But I hope that it’s also a book full of warmth and laughter that reminds us how much the Victorian music hall has influenced popular entertainment today. The annual pantomime in your local theatre, and TV shows such as Britain’s Got Talent, are the direct descendants of the music hall. So while the period I’m writing about may seem very long ago, there may be more connections and parallels than immediately meet the eye.

And more generally, is there a play that you would say is essential viewing for children?

There is so much brilliant work out there from big musicals such as The Lion King or Matilda, to small scale shows made for the very young, including babies. Reading fires the imagination and so does theatre.

What is your favourite children’s book?

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. It’s so psychologically accurate. Whenever I read it, it takes me straight back to the feelings of rage and impotence I had as a small child when I was thwarted by my parents or had behaved badly, and I imagined ways of exerting power. Such a brilliant, brilliant book.

There have been some brilliant stories adapted recently for the London stage – Lord of the Flies, Running Wild, Treasure Island. Is there any children’s book in particular that you would like to see adapted for the stage?

There are so many great books out there. But what I would really be interested in seeing is more original plays for children and young people, rather than page to stage adaptations.

What is your favourite play? Or best production you’ve ever seen?

That changes all the time.

With huge thanks to Lyn Gardner for taking the time to answer my questions. You can buy the latest Rose Campion novel here

My First Novel (age 9) by Lisa Thompson

I’m delighted to welcome onto the blog today a guest post from author Lisa Thompson. The Goldfish Boy was my first book of the week for 2017 – you can catch my review here. Below, Lisa tells us about what inspired her to write her first book, aged nine. 

When I was nine, the one thing I really wanted to do more than anything in the world was learn how to ride a horse. We lived next door to a family whose daughter was also horse-mad. Her bedroom had horse wallpaper, a horse light shade, piles of books about horses and the best thing of all; a beautiful display of colourful rosettes. Yes – she actually had riding lessons whereas I was still tying my skipping rope onto my bike handlebars to make reins. The jealousy factor turned up to 11 when she eventually got her own horse. They kindly took me to the stables to meet him and okay, maybe horses were a bit scary close-up but I still really, really wanted riding lessons.

I grew up in a small terraced house in a suburban town and although we weren’t struggling for money, we certainly didn’t have any to spare for lessons, so my parents said no. I used to watch my neighbour get into their car wearing her boots and jodhpurs and my stomach used to knot with envy and sadness. Not only could I not have riding lessons but I was now losing my friend who was spending every available second at the stables.

So, what did I do to vent this frustration?  I wrote a book.

I didn’t write about a girl wanting to ride, I wrote about a girl who rescued horses and opened a sanctuary – I was thinking BIG. For each chapter my main character would remarkably stumble across an abandoned horse which instantly fell in love with her. She’d somehow persuade her parents to let her keep it (on their conveniently vast farm full of empty stables) and then after that one was safe, she’d somehow find another horse that needed her help. On the occasional page I drew a picture of the girl, and the horses. Chestnut ones, piebald ones, skewbald ones, palomino – I knew all the names and I coloured them in using felt tip pens.

I was utterly engrossed. This was a defining moment for me because this was the first time I felt what I can only describe as ‘writing euphoria’. It’s the moment where you are so absorbed in your writing you forget where you are, the words just flow on and on. It’s wonderful feeling.

Then I got to a difficult part in the book and it dawned on me that all of the rescued horses were found just wandering around the area which was, in fact, a completely ridiculous idea. I put the book in a drawer and forgot all about it.

A few years later my friend next door moved away and although we didn’t keep in touch I heard in later years that she ended up owning her own stables. This makes me really happy. I did get to go on a horse once when I was around twenty-one and it was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life which I wouldn’t want to repeat.

And then of course there was my book about the girl and the rescued horses. Unfortunately, I found it when I was a teenager and thought it was the most embarrassing thing I’d ever seen. I ripped it up into tiny pieces and put it in the bin.

But although the book was gone I didn’t forget that feeling I had when I was writing it. An idea had been planted and it niggled at me for decades afterwards – maybe one day I could be a writer? How I’d love to go back to see my nine-year-old self now and say; “Well done, kid.  You did it.”

Lisa Thompson worked as a radio broadcast assistant first at the BBC and then for an independent production company making plays and comedy programmes. During this time she got to make tea for lots of famous people. She grew up in Essex and now lives in Suffolk with her family. The Goldfish Boy is her debut novel.

The Goldfish Boy is available now, and you can buy it here.