Thursday, 27 August 2015

September Stirrings by Lynn Huggins-Cooper

It's that time of year again...the shops are full of delicious 'back to school' offers of pens, notebooks, coloured pencils and other stationery delights. I haven't been a teacher (in school at least) for many years - and it's been even longer since I was a student! I still feel a strange delight though in the sense of a new year starting. Once you have been part of the rhythms of school or university life it is hard not to!

Like most of my writer friends (there are many, and they are various) I take the opportunity to hoard new, fresh-smelling notebooks. I am particularly fond of the sub-Moleskine variety produced by one of the large supermarkets, in case you were wondering, and it's the sense that anything could happen this year that thrills me. The possibilities.

Every time I get a new idea, I start a new notebook. I don't necessarily write them immediately, but I do keep them together on a shelf in the study so that I can revisit them. I have enough notebook-story-starters to last me for years!

Anyway - I can't write any more here as I have a notebook buying trip planned. Care to join me? We can even buy some pens while we are there, and stop for a coffee on the way back. Who knows - we may have to make notes for a new book as we sip our drinks...

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Adventures with a Birthday Present

Julie Sykes

Last birthday I was given a whole year of National Trust membership. It’s one of the nicest presents I’ve ever had. I love the countryside and the National Trust owns and maintains some of the best. The houses are fun, too. What’s not to like about nosing around other people’s properties, especially when you’re a writer!

Here are some of my favourite National Trust properties and places to date.

St Michael's Mount

 Cape Cornwall


The place I visited most was Mottisfont, near Romsey in Hampshire. The grounds are spectacular as is the chalk bed river running through the property. The house is pretty special too, crafted from a medieval priory it has the sort of hallway that makes you want to roller skate down it. There’s an impressive 3D room, where pictures literally spring from the walls. Another brilliant thing about Mottisfont is that it regularly hosts events.

Last summer there was an exhibition by Quentin Blake and an exciting story trail through the gardens.

This year it’s the turn of Lauren Child. Lauren has generously lent over 50 original pieces of her own artwork to Mottisfont, including a sneaky preview of the illustrations from her new book. She’s also helped to create a fun adventure trail through the house and grounds. Keep a sharp eye out for that Pesky Rat. Bed you won’t guess where he’s hiding!

The Art of Lauren Child: Adventures with Charlie and Lola and Friends exhibition runs until 6th September. It’s DEFINITELY worth a visit.

I wonder how the National Trust will top that next year.

I’d like to nominate Chris Riddell. Mottisfont, can you hear me…

Which author/illustrator would you pick?

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Two Months of Writing Full-time by Tamsyn Murray

As you'll probably know if you've read previous blog posts, I finally gave up my day job at the start of July to write full-time. It took seven years to get to that point, from the moment I decided to take writing seriously (rather than shilly-shallying around) to the point of earning a living from writing and it was a pretty terrifying leap to make. But I went with it, hoping that it would work out.

Here I am almost two months on, and I thought I'd report back on how it's been. Quite a few people have told me I'm living the dream and it's certainly true that writing full-time was a dream of mine for years - if you only knew how many hours I spent at my day job wishing I was writing (maybe you do - maybe you're doing the same thing right now). So what have I been doing with all that time?

I joked with day job colleagues that I was buying a sunlounger for the long summer days. Apart from that being a little optimistic given the Great British Summer, it turns out it was a pipe dream in terms of time, too. The thing about writing for a living is that it suddenly becomes a job and all those emails and admin jobs I squeezed into spare moments at the day job had to be done in my writing time. I had two books to write in a very short period of time so the plans I'd had of writing during the day and spending time with my family, or reading, in the evenings hasn't happened yet - I am still up until gone midnight working most nights. I've delivered two books, rewritten three and have a fourth edit plus a copyedit awaiting my attention. People joke that writers work all the time and I think that's true - I'm writing this blog post on holiday and that copyedit needs to be delivered tomorrow, so it has to be squeezed in between sightseeing and relaxing. Writing has become a job very quickly for me.

This isn't a complaint - far from it: I still love writing and I hope that never changes. I know I am lucky to be able to do it for a living. But it is a cautionary tale for anyone who dreams of writing full-time - for me, it's hard work and pretty relentless. I still worry about being able to pay the bills and so any time I slack off, I have a little voice nagging at me to get back to it. I'm sure people think writers spend their days wafting about in kaftans (or is that artists?) waiting for inspiration to strike. I've had to pull on a jumper (ah, summer) and go after it with a rope. I've had to sit at my table every single day. I've had to be determined and business-like and professional and disciplined. And I've worked much harder than I ever did in my 9-5 job.

Do I regret giving up my day job? Maybe a little on payday. But I couldn't possibly have done what I've done these last two months if I'd still been working 9-5 too. For me, giving up that job was a necessity. I definitely haven't given up work, though. Quite the opposite.

Monday, 24 August 2015

A Difficult Girl: Frances Thomas

The first two volumes in my Girls of Troy trilogy tell the stories of young women caught up in the events of the Trojan War. They were people whom I found sympathetic – in the first, Helen’s Daughter, Hermione wrestles with the problems of having a famous mother and feeling deserted by her; in the second, The Burning Towers,  Eirene, slave to the princess Cassandra, observes the terrible war in Troy at first hand.  I knew that the last story, now called The Silver-Handled Knife, would have to deal with later  events in Mycenae; when Agamemnon returns from the war, his wife Clytemnestra murders him, and his daughter Electra and her brother Orestes plan their  revenge.

The story would have to be told, as the other two were, in the first person, and for a long time I determined that I couldn’t tell the story through Electra’s voice.  A girl who is implicated in the killing of her mother; what  sort of a story for young people is that? So I was going to use her younger sister ,Chrysosthemis , as the narrator  – Chrysosthemis would observe what was going on, and report on it.  The only problem, I began to realise as I embarked on this, was that Chysosthemis didn’t really have a story of her own. It was boring. I was bored.
And something else was tugging at my writer’s conscience. If I was finding the story of Electra a difficult one to come to terms with, then that was the story I should be writing, and the story that my readers would want to know about.  Electra makes an appearance as a rather strait-laced teenager in Helen’s Daughter – Hermione doesn’t like her very much.  How does this young girl change into the person who hates her mother so much that she hands her brother the knife used to murder her?  It’s this transformation that’s interesting, and only Electra herself can tell this story – it’s not something that can be observed by a third person.
So I gave Electra a voice and let her explain herself to my readers.
Personally, I feel some sympathy for Clytemnestra. As well as being an unfaithful boor, Agamemnon had ordered the sacrifice of  their eldest daughter Iphigenia  just so the goddess would grant him a favourable wind. I reckoned if anyone killed my daughter I’d want to take terrible revenge too. And her lover Aegisthus, although he wanted to take over the kingdom, was nicer to her than her own husband had been. But Electra had to feel none of this sympathy; the hatred she developed for her mother must override all other feelings.

There are softening elements– her relationship with her brother Orestes, and her cousin Hermione. Electra and Hermione find themselves drawn together by the difficult events in their pasts, and end up almost  good friends. And there’s a romance in the air for Electra too – I didn’t make this up; it’s to be found in the mythological sources from which I take my story. (one of the nice surprises when you write historical fantasy is if you’re ever a bit stuck for a plot development, you can often find a solution in mythology, rather than inventing something from scratch)  Electra finds it hard to be in love after the experiences she’s had at the hands of her mother and Aegisthus, but she learns to allow this strange new feeling into her heart.  The story ends at this point, but I hope she’ll be happy.

So, does it work? Will my readers find some sympathy with Electra, in spite of what she does?  I hope so; but what I’ve found out over the last months, is that there are benefits as well as problems in writing about a difficult girl.

The Silver-Handled Knife will be published by SilverWood Books on September 1st.  Helen’s Daughter and The Burning Towers are available on Amazon. For more details about them and my other books, please see my website at

Saturday, 22 August 2015

Retreating - by Nicola Morgan

I recently went on my first writing retreat. It was to Retreats For You, in deepest Devon, with Lucy Coats, Mary Hoffman and Anne Rooney. For some inexplicable reason, this quickly became referred to as the Naughty Retreat. *cough*

I'd put myself under pressure for this trip. I knew I had to break through some writing barriers. Or what? Or I was going to feel really bad about myself and my (fiction) writing. As you may remember, I've explained that I've been writing so much non-fiction for the last few years that my fiction brain has ossified.

This retreat was to sort that out. I didn't have a word target (though I did want at least 5000 words out of it - which isn't much but would be more made up stuff than I'd managed in the previous few months) but I wanted to "get into" the novel I had just started and get to know my fictional character. I wanted to get some kind of "flow" going in my writing. I wanted to feel like a writer again.

My agent, eternal supporter as she is, had inadvertently almost scuppered this before I started, by telling me that I should not for one moment think that only my fiction made me a writer. She told me to be proud of my non-fiction success and not beat myself up if that was "all" I was doing at the moment. Not so easy. Hearts and heads don't do the same things.

ANYway, should you ever want to give your writing brain or heart a boost with a retreat, Retreats For You is the place!

I walked for hours. And found mysterious and rural settings, objects and inspirations for my novel, which is not now going to be set in Scotland...

Once, I walked so far into the wilderness that my imagination started to get the better of me and I had to return hurriedly to human civilisation before I met the axe-murderer who was cracking those twigs over there.

I wrote, in my thatched cottage bedroom, fuelled by coffee.

I wandered in the village and loved its library telephone box. 

I found a dragonfly


And every evening at about 6pm, THIS was brought to my room! Yes, it is Prosecco! Which may go some way towards explaining why was this called the Naughty Retreat.  

We were delightfully cared for by Deborah and Bob, with their home-baking, their willingness to do or provide anything and their general laidbackness. And the roaring log fire every evening. Well, it was apparently July.

But, did it work? Well, I did write 5000 words and, reading them back a couple of weeks later, I like the words. My character did start speaking to me and I do love her and want to know more about her. I did spend a lot of time writing (more than the 5000 words suggest) and I did feel like a writer. 

On the negative side, I didn't achieve that "flow" I'd been wanting. I think this novel is too early, too fragile yet. And I think the ossification I mentioned is too, well, ossish. But I did get the sense that one day I could get flow back again, if only I would allow myself more time like this. 

More time like this? You mean I could go back to Retreats For You with the Naughty Retreaters? Bring it on!

Nicola Morgan writes fiction (really!) and non-fiction and still spends too much time doing speaking engagements about adolescence or the reading brain and readaxation. Information and contact at

Friday, 21 August 2015

Out of my head, into a boat, and back on the page.

I'm late - a bit like the white rabbit - and I'm so sorry. I thought the 21st was ages away - and now it is 9.00 and I haven't posted.

Part of the reason why I'm out of kilter is that is the summer and my four children and my teacher husband are all off school. This is both wonderful and a bit disconcerting re scheduling. On the negative side I have so many more distractions - but on the positive side I am so lucky to live with the other five people in my family - they're great - each interesting and funny individuals and a lovely community. We read, go for dog walks,  listen to and play music, watch films and chat, and have a great time. I also try to work, but it is hard!

However, even though we get on well as a family, even 6 of us can get stuck in a rut , and so it was very good for us to go on holiday with another family this year. We went to France for two weeks, and because the other  family tend to do more sporty things than us, we broadened our experience and did lots of things we never normally do much as a family -swam, played cricket, went canoeing together.

I cannot over emphasise how scary and wonderful this sporty holiday was for me. I tend to live in my head too much. Like Jessie in my book 'Girl with a White Dog' I have always been scared of sport and felt I was rubbish. I admired the characters in books who were sporty, I longed to be sporty, but I never was. And that was fine. But this holiday with friends has shown me that sometimes (not always - I don't subscribe to notion of writer as an action hero!)  a writer needs to do, not only imagine. And if your internal voice telling you you are going to miss the ball is quietened down by other people's encouragement , then you actually may enjoy cricket and EVEN HIT THE BALL. A REAL ball. Not just a daydream. Yay!

Also - if you aren't alone with your imagination conjuring up worrying scenarios about drowning in a canoe accident - and if you go with other people who tell you your swimming is fine, point out you have a life jacket, and if you actually get out of your head and into a materially real wooden structure with seats, then canoeing down a beautiful river in France with friends and family is actually FUN.

Yes - I am actually smiling. And hitting a ball. And running.  I am so, so proud!

 I don't have a photo of me in a canoe - but I have gone back to my work in process and written a scene where my heroine is a canoe. Except that she isn't on a  calm river in France, but in an enchanted forest and in terrible danger of being swept over a waterfall, and has to be rescued by dragons.

As after all, I am a writer.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Quickening the Words' Sludgy Pulse

Sometimes, like everyone, I stall.  The words don't come.  I'm stuck - they're stuck - in stodge mode.  And the things that help to unstick me and them are often non-words.

Views - 

Sleeping cats -

Dancers -

How about you?  What non-word things help stir up the sludge and quicken your writing pulse again?

Joan Lennon's website.
Joan Lennon's blog.
Joan Lennon's YA novel Silver Skin website.