Showing posts with label Sue Purkiss. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sue Purkiss. Show all posts

Sunday, 23 February 2020

Playing with postcards, by Sue Purkiss

Many apologies, but I've had some unexpected edits to do this week, which have left me with no time to do a fresh post. So here's one I did earlier - two and a half years earlier...

A couple of weeks ago, I read a blog somewhere - maybe even on here - about a new challenge a writer had set herself: she had decided to write a story on a postcard every day for a month. (At least, I think that was it; something along those lines, anyway.) Alongside this, for some time now I've been signed up to a delightful site called Postcards from Pembrokeshire. If you haven't seen this, do take a look. Artist Guy Manning (who I think is the partner of Eloise Williams, of this parish) has undertaken to do a postcard sized painting every day for a year of Pembrokeshire, where he lives. If you subscribe, you receive an email every day with his latest offering, and if you want, you can buy one. They're very lovely, especially, to my mind, the ones of the sea.

Now. I'm going to tell you a secret, which you must keep very, very quiet. All right? Not a word to a soul - not a word. It's this. Some writers - probably most writers - absolutely FIZZ with ideas. The only problem such writers have is deciding which idea to focus on. No sooner have they started one book than they're itching to start the next, and then the one after that.

But sadly, I'm not like that. When I have an idea, it sort of implants itself. It won't leave me alone. If I try to tell the story one way and it doesn't work, I'll prowl around like a bear with a sore head and eventually I'll try it another way. Sometimes I long to root it out and chuck it away, but no, there it is. I'm stuck with it. There's no other idea waiting to sprout - there's just the one.

My card box, with the cards I've 'done' so far.

Well, about a week ago I was, yet again, at the prowling-around-and-growling stage - when several things collided in the most useful way. First, along came the postcards - Guy's lovely pictures, and the idea of writing a story on a postcard. Next came flash fiction. I've never got into this before, but I had just been having a go at it with the writing class I teach. Next is my habit of buying a few postcards when I go somewhere. Sometimes they're landscapes, sometimes, from galleries and museums, they're reproductions of pictures or artefacts. I've amassed quite a lot.

And suddenly there it was - a brilliant way to challenge myself and get some ideas kick-started. Every day, I would aim to write something on the back of a postcard, inspired by the picture on the front. It might be a story, it might be a beginning, it might be a scene from the middle of a longer story - it might not even be a story at all!

And I'm absolutely loving it! Each postcard takes me somewhere utterly different. I've already learnt a lot more about shaping a story, and about knowing where to start it. Each day, I get to meet completely new characters - it's extraordinarily energising! I'm having ideas - lots of them! And it doesn't take very long, so there's still plenty of time to return to the work in progress. It's also rather nice to sit down at my desk and NOT open up my computer: I'm not distracted by Facebook and other goodies, and I'm not encumbered by the weight of my own expectations concerning ongoing work.

Here's one of them - I've typed it out below so that you can actually read it. I get about 250 words onto the back of each card. I allow myself to make one or two notes before I start, and if necessary to do a tiny bit of research, but not to let myself get bogged down.

It's such fun. You can write in a way you normally wouldn't; you can be a tad melodramatic, for instance. It's playing, it's allowed! What do you think?

This postcard came from a museum in Arromanches. It's a still from a film called Le Prix de la Liberte, and it shows a sky full of parachutes - the D-Day landings.

I imagined a woman, a collaborator. I've seen letters from such people, in Resistance museums: people who informed on their neighbours...

Simone Bachelot finished writing the letter and put it in an envelope. She didn't sign it, of course. It was anonymous, like all the others. So much for that silly girl who lived next door, with her noisy children and her constant men friends. She smiled to herself, and took a sip of mint tea. Oh, how she longed for some good coffee! This war had taken away so much.

But it had given a good deal, too. The chance to avenge herself on all those old classmates who had refused to be her friend, the young women who laughed at her shabby clothes, the baker who saved his best bread for others... oh yes, they'd be sorry! Were already, some of them, rotting in Gestapo cells no doubt - and serve them right.

She put on her coat ready to go to the post box. But when she opened the door, she saw an extraordinary sight. The sky was full of black shapes like mushrooms - parachutes! And how had she not heard that relentless drone - masses of Allied planes, like flocks of metal crows?

"No!" she whispered, as others danced and cheered in the street. "No! This wasn't meant to happen!"

An iron hand squeezed her cold heart. As she crumpled to the floor, her young neighbour rushed up to help. "Madame? Madame...?"

Sunday, 16 February 2020

Writers in their Landscape by Steve Gladwin

My Interview with Sue Purkiss

Over the next few months and basically as long as there are people to involve, I will be conducting a series of interviews on the theme of 'Writers on their Landscape', (basically what is says on the tin. Over the next few months you can expect authors as varied as Kit Berry and Stonewylde, Scott Telek and the first few books of his massive new Arthurian saga, Elen Caldecott on her exciting new novel, The Short Knife, and John Dickinson on his own trilogy.

Before we begin our wanderings with Sue Purkiss, however, I'd just like to make clear, as I hope is clear in this interview, that landscape is merely a stepping off point for the authorial musings of many things, and that there are many varieties of landscape to me found, whether it be the created landscape of Stonewylde, Sue's own views on the landscapes of home, birth and fiction, here in this interview, or both the outer and inner landscapes of Arthurian fiction in Scott's work. I hope you enjoy them all. And without more ado, here's my interview with Sue Purkiss.

Now, Sue,  as you know, this is the first in a new ongoing series of interviews with writers which has the loose title ‘Writers in their Landscape’. I’d just like to begin by saying that you’re one of the people I might call the facebook snappers. You have this in common with our March interviewee, Kit Berry, and others in that you seem to take genuine delight in just in taking but also in your sharing photos – and I’m sure it’s not just to show off your photography skills!

Having said that, you clearly have some skill in it, as well as a love for it. So perhaps you could tell us how photography started for you and perhaps what your first picture was, if you can remember it?

My mother had a black photograph album filled with small photos from a box camera, which she’d kept since she was a teenager. I used to love looking through it, and I think that’s probably where my interest in photography began. When I was about twelve, I saved up and bought my first camera. It was from Boots and it was called a Koroll 11. I don’t remember what my first picture was – maybe it was of our dog, Whisky, who was a rather grumpy West Highland White terrier. I’ve been taking pictures ever since.

Now this is something I’m going to ask people to do every month. I know you live in Somerset and indeed we first me in the English office at Kings of Wessex school in Cheddar. However, I have no idea where you were born. So, could you please describe the place of your birth to us as if you were looking at it. You can tell us where you are at the beginning, or after if you prefer.

I’m in Cotmanhay, which is a sort of suburb of Ilkeston, a former mining town in Derbyshire near the Nottinghamshire border. I’m looking at our house, which is on a council estate. The streets are all named after Derbyshire beauty spots – Beauvale Drive, Monsall Avenue, and so on, but it’s not in truth a very beautiful place. Our garden is lovely, though: Mum is an excellent gardener. Round the back she grows chrysants, very carefully. Sometimes she even shows them.

Cotmanhay Farm Estate, with the primary school I went to in the centre.

So, Sue, we’ve established where home was, but is it a place or area that has given you much in the way of inspiration.

So far, I haven’t used the area I’m from in my writing very much – although it does form the background to the first part of a book I’ve been working on for a while. It’s based on my father’s experiences as a prisoner of war, so in that case, it’s fairly incidental – the setting, unusually for me, wasn’t part of the inspiration.

What is clear is that Somerset and all its contrasting landscapes, from the levels and the marshes of Athelney, or the Mendips where you live, has inspired two of your books,  Warrior King and The Willow Man. Does Somerset have a particular magic, do you think, or perhaps several different kinds?

I think Somerset is a very magical county. It has several quite distinct landscapes. I live on the Mendips, and I’ve always thought I preferred hilly countryside. But there’s something very special about the Levels. They can be quite eerie, specially when a blanket of mist settles close to the ground, and the tops of the trees float above it like disembodied wraiths. The Willow Man is set mostly in Bridgwater, but the characters are, in different ways, seeking to be free of the situations they’re in; and I hadn’t thought of it this way before, but maybe the references to the willows on the levels, and the climactic scene on Brean Down, reference my own feelings – that the countryside represents freedom, and cities are places where you feel trapped.

The evocatively named Avalon Marshes, on the Somerset Levels.

Of course, people experience different landscapes throughout their life, whereas others remain forever in love with the place or area they started. Do you think you have a particular favourite type of landscape, Are you more at home in woods than mountains, or whatever?

I like open hillsides, with heather and gorse. And I love the sea – perhaps partly because I was brought up about as far away from it as you can get in this country.

On the Mendips.

Your most recent book, Jack Fortune and the Hidden Valley, which my partner and I thoroughly enjoyed, I would describe as a good old-fashioned yarn. But it also has real heart in it and a central constantly developing relationship. All this however is enhanced by Jack’s actual travels with his uncle, to begin with just in the Himalayas, and later with Jack’s solo venture into the hidden valley in search of the fabled blue rhododendron. Are you a frustrated Himalayan explorer?

Well, kind of. But, like Jack, I’m not good with heights. I’d definitely rather write about mountains than climb them. But I am fascinated by them.

Now it’s time for our next bit of landscape visualisation. Could you describe the hidden valley for us and Jack looking into it? I’m sure no-one will notice if you cheat and use the book!

One of the best things about the valley is the contrast between the approach, which involves snowy precipices and a terrifying ice bridge, and the valley itself, which is sheltered and full of glorious rhododendrons – white, scarlet, lemon, purple – and perhaps even the elusive blue one which Jack and his uncle have come so far, and gone through so much, to find.

And in total contrast we have the eerie, and potentially deadly marshes of Athelney, where King Alfred and the hero of your book, Warrior King, his rather amazing daughter, Aethelflaed go pretty much underground in full knowledge that the next battle might be their last. I have some knowledge of that area, as I used to live on the levels for three years. It’s a very specific area, isn’t it – a bit like the Norfolk Broads have come to Somerset! I can imagine your wanting to write about Aethelflaed as a character, but having the levels as a background must also have been tempting.

On the original Isle of Athelney, reading Warrior King to a group of school children.

 Yes, Warrior King, of course, is about Alfred the Great and his daughter Aethelflaed, and he had close ties to this part of Wessex. I first became interested in him when I went to Athelney one day, where he took refuge in the marshes, and I realised that the landscape I was looking at was not very different to the one he would have seen. There were lots of other atmospheric places associated with him too – an important battle took place near Wayland’s Smithy in Oxfordshire, and another near Eddington – Ethandun – in Wiltshire. Interestingly, there are white horses carved in the hillsides in both those places.

Can you tell us about any other landscapes you have used in your books and what specific qualities they might have? And are there any tricks for writing about or creating a landscape and making it feel real?

I used Axbridge, the next village to Cheddar, as the background to my first book about a school for ghosts. And the classroom was based on one in the first school – a lovely old room with a beamed ceiling. I’ve written short stories set in Brittany and Seville. As for making it real – the easiest way to do that is to describe a place you know, especially if it’s the sort of place that gets under your skin. If I’m writing about a place I don’t know, I use photographs, diaries, books – anything. I need to be able to ‘see’ it.

So will Jack Fortune be exploring again? Can you give us a clue where he’s going and why you picked it?

Well, he might. And if he does, he may well venture across the Atlantic…

Finally, is there anywhere left you’d still like to write about?

Lots of places!

Thanks, Sue, for sharing all your favourite landscapes.

Absolutely my pleasure!

Thursday, 23 January 2020

New year, new cover: by Sue Purkiss

In October, I was invited to a book fair in Corsham, with Sharon Tregenza, Jasbinder Bilal, Chris Vick and others. It was good fun - and it gave me some food for thought.

I had a number of books on display. I'm not a particularly prolific author, and I'm a bit of a butterfly - my books are all quite different. I've always seen this as a disadvantage, but on this occasion, it turned out to be be a good thing, because there was something for (almost) everyone: Spook School and two similar funny fantasy stories for younger children; Emily's Surprising Voyage, which is a story set on Brunel's ship the SS Great Britain in the 19th century, beautifully illustrated by James De La Rue; Jack Fortune, which is a middle grade historical novel about a boy who goes plant-hunting in the Himalayas at the end of the 18th century, in search of the elusive blue rhododendron; and Warrior King, which is a novel about Alfred the Great.

They all attracted attention - except for Warrior King. The reason for this was pretty obvious.

The book was originally published by Walker. I loved researching and writing it, and I had high hopes that it would make out of Alfred a hero of the stature of King Arthur - with whom Alfred is often confused. Arthur is, or was then (this was before Bernard Cornwell's books and the subsequent TV series) much more famous than Alfred, and this struck me as particularly unfair as Arthur isn't even real - or at least, the Arthur of the stories isn't.

They designed a beautiful cover for it - this one. It was blue, and had a hunky, brooding warrior on it. The sales team, I was told, were keen to appeal to boys who were interested in Lord of the Rings, and it had that kind of feel to it. I loved it - though I was a little concerned when a bookseller who had hitherto been very supportive of my books expressed concern, asking how could he sell a book with a cover like that to girls? And there was every reason that girls would like it: two thirds of it is seen from the point of view of Aethelflaed, or Fleda as I called her in the book. She had been a great discovery: I needed a child for a point-of-view character when I came to write about grown-up Alfred (the first bit of the book is about his childhood) - and was delighted to find he had a daughter of just the right age - who as an adult became a ruler in her own right of a neighbouring kingdom, Mercia. So she was obviously a girl of character who learned a good deal from her father. And there's also a charismatic British woman called Cerys - and a brave Frankish princess called Judith Martel.

Anyway, for whatever reason, the book didn't sell in zillions and went out of print. I got the rights back, and decided to reissue it through Amazon Createspace. Lots of adults had read it and enjoyed it, so I thought I would try marketing it as a book for a wider audience, not only for children. And so the cover I made for it is sombre and moody: I used a photograph of floods on the Somerset Levels near Athelney, where much of the story takes place. There is a regular trickle of sales, small but satisfying.

But at the book fair, I watched as children's eyes slid over Warrior King and lighted on Jack Fortune - clearly because it was sending out signals that here was a book for grown-ups. Hm, I thought.

So I decided to bring out a new edition that would a) be clearly for children/young people, and b) would make it obvious that it wasn't just about the king, but also about his daughter. I toyed with various ideas as to how to do this; and then I remembered the work of a friend on Instagram called Norlemann, who posts wonderful pictures of Viking re-enactors in Norway. On impulse, I sent him a message to explain what I was after, and ask if he had anything I could use.

Now, I called him a friend just then, but he was only  a friend in the sense that I followed him and often 'liked' his pictures. It turns out he's an art director and professional photographer - and yet he agreed to do a special shoot, with his daughter as Aethelflaed - just because, he said he and his daughter, Minna, believe that historical fiction is valuable and there should be more of it. Such kindness from a stranger! And when the photographs arrived, I thought they were stunning.

The next hurdle was fitting the photograph I eventually chose - with help from friends - into an Amazon template. That wasn't as easy as it could have been. In the end, I used Canva to add title and text to the front cover - and here it is.

It would be lovely to hear your thoughts - but do forgive me if I'm not able to implement them. There are some changes which would be easy to make, but others would be very fiddly and might possibly result in my brain imploding. (Basically, changes to the front cover would be tricky: changes to the rest of it, less so.)

All I need to do now is add the content of the book. But first I will tweak it; and in a prominent place there will be an acknowledgement of the generosity - and skill - of Lasse and Minna. Oh, yes, and then it would be really very nice if it would sell lots of copies to the children for whom I originally wrote it...

Wednesday, 23 October 2019

CorshamStoryTown event, by Sue Purkiss

I had a lovely day last Saturday at a book event in Corsham, Wiltshire, along with several other authors. Corsham is the home of the renowned Bath Spa creative writing department: many in the Scattered Authors' Society are alumni of the MA in Children's Writing, and I think there are several who teach there.

I imagine it's because of the proximity of the department that Corsham seems to be a very writerish sort of a place. It also has the gloss that comes from being one of the settings for Poldark; yes, Ross first set eyes on Demelza in the picturesque streets of this very town!

But part of what the CorshamStoryTown event was about was finding out the stories of people who live there. As I understand it, there were opportunities for people to go along over the weekend and have their stories, memories and anecdotes recorded - it all sounded really interesting. I didn't see much of this side of things, though, as I was in Corsham's rather splendid library along with Sharon Tregenza, Jasbinder Bilal, Chris Vick, Jak Harrison and Julia Seal, at a mini book fair.

I've never taken part in a book fair before, but I certainly would again. It's a very relaxing way to meet and chat to young (and older) readers, and also to meet other authors. I've long been rather envious of the lovely network which you instantly belong to as a graduate of the Bath Spa courses, as Sharon, Jak, Chris and Jas do, so I'm very grateful to Sharon for inviting me along to this event - it was so nice to actually physically meet up with other writers: something which I realised I very rarely do except at the wonderful Scattered Authors' Society gatherings.

Jak, Chris, Sharon, me, Julia and Jas (l-r)

So off I went, armed with a tablecloth, lots of books, twinkly lights (thanks to Sharon for that suggestion!), book stands, and my trusty (but sadly not blue) rhododendron. (Jack Fortune is all about the search for a blue rhododendron in the Himalayas, but I've not so far managed to get hold of a true blue artificial one.) It was jolly nice and somehow quite surprising to see all my books spread out in one place instead of being tucked away in drawers and cupboards: several people commented on how many there were, and as I chatted to young readers, I realised that there's actually quite a nice spread of titles for different age groups. I've often thought it was a drawback that I've written very different books, rather than producing a recognisable 'brand' of similar books aimed at a specific audience, but I began to realise that in some ways, it's no bad thing - there was pretty much something for everyone.

Sharon and I

There were other interesting things too. My most recent book, Jack Fortune, about plant-hunting adventures in the Himalayas, got a lot of interest, but the book I sold most of was Emily's Surprising Voyage, which is set on the SS Great Britain. Naturally so, as many children 'do' the Victorians and Brunel, and, certainly in this area, go to visit the ship in Bristol: the book is now on sale at the ship and doing well, but I do wish that I, and the publisher, had managed to get the message out to schools about it more successfully.

Another was something I realised as I talked to people about Warrior King, my book about Alfred the Great and his fabulous daughter Aethelfled. This book, like Emily, was originally published by Walker. The cover they designed was beautiful, and it featured Alfred (looking rather as if he'd just escaped from Lord of the Rings) standing in front of a marshy landscape.

When it went out of print, I republished it myself. I was quite keen to appeal to adult readers, so I used a moody black and white photograph I had taken of the land around Athelney, where Alfred took refuge from the Vikings and where much of the book is set.

But talking to people about the book, I realised I had to do a lot of explaining about the story - the cover didn't do much of it for me. Neither cover made the point that most of the story is told from Aethelflaed's point of view; and that's important and unfair to her. Nor would girls looking at either cover realise that it's a book about a girl, as well as about a king. So I'm going to see if I can do something about that.


Another comment came from a great children's book enthusiast with whom I've been in touch on social media, but whom I hadn't actually met before. She said she'd had no idea that I'd written so much. (Please note - I do realise that I've written very little compared to many other members of the SAS!) So how did that happen? Or rather, not happen? How come that with all the blog and social media posts I do, I somehow haven't managed to talk much about my books?

All of this, and the conversations with children, made me think. It's very easy, particularly when you are geographically a bit out on a limb, to brood (just ever so slightly) on the prizes you didn't win, the books that didn't get published, the stories that got away. But in so doing, it's easy to lose sight of the virtues of the books that did see the light of day: a bit like my grandma, who spent much of her life brooding over the son she lost in the war, to the detriment of the daughter who lived.

So apologies in advance, because from now on I'm going to start paying a lot more attention to those neglected children...

Huge thanks to Sharon Tregenza in particular for inviting me, and also to the other writers whose company I so enjoyed, and to the extremely hospitable library and Paper Nations staff. (Our event was under the auspices of Paper Nations.) And the next time I go to a fair, I'll remember to take my toy rat. (A reference to Emily, which I think may go down rather well.) You have been warned.

Monday, 23 September 2019

Nature writing at Ty Newydd, by Sue Purkiss

A version of this post first appeared on my own blog, A Fool on a Hill, a few weeks ago - apologies if you've already seen it! 

In early August, I was on a writing course in North Wales, at Ty Newydd, not far from Criccieth. People in the writing world will have heard of it; it's the Welsh equivalent of the Arvon writing centres in England, and Moniack Mhor in Scotland. The centres all provide courses with a similar structure on a variety of writing forms - script-writing, memoir, fiction, children's writing and so on. 

Ty Newydd, once the home of Lloyd George, now the Welsh Writing Centre.

At Ty Newydd, you arrive on the Monday in time for dinner and introductions, and leave on Saturday after breakfast. There are two tutors, and often a guest speaker on Wednesday evenings: the mornings are taken up by workshops, the afternoons are free for you to write, to have one-to-one sessions with the tutors or to go for a walk down to the sea or the River Dwyfor. All meals are provided by a cook called Tony, who somehow remains completely calm while delivering a clear and entertaining commentary on what he's doing (everyone helps with clearing up and preparation one evening during the week) and producing amazing food. I was lucky enough to have a spacious room in a newly refurbished cottage; through one window trees shifted restlessly in the wind, while through the other, sheep grazed on the other side of a stone wall.

Workshop session with Mark in the garden...

...and with Kathleen inside.

Horatio Clare - a brilliant speaker - and rather a lot of feet.

The course was on nature writing, and the tutors were Scottish poet and prose writer Kathleen Jamie, and naturalist, broadcaster and writer Mark Cocker. The mid-week speaker was Horatio Clare, journalist, writer, lecturer in creative writing, and brilliant speaker. I've probably missed out some of the things they do: they are all fizzing with talent, energy and enthusiasm for the craft of writing in a variety of different forms, and they were generous with their time, their expertise and their encouragement - Mark, incredibly knowledgeable about nature and passionate about how special and unique this planet of ours is: Kathleen, quiet, deeply thoughtful, intensely focused not only on poetry, but on how writers should react to the current climate emergency. This was not about lyrical descriptions of beautiful views - though that certainly came into it. Although everyone really wanted a break from politics, they were inescapable: dark shadows massing around the castle walls.

I write for children, so why, you may ask, was I on a course in nature writing? (To be fair, I think that was something the tutors wondered too, and probably some of the other participants - who were mainly poets, and it seemed to me wonderfully good ones.)

Well, I can only say that when I was browsing through the courses on offer earlier on in the summer, there was something about this one that just sounded right. It was as if a light came on, or a trumpet sounded, or a signpost appeared. I wasn't entirely certain why, but I knew that this was something I really wanted to do.

I do not have a burning desire to become a nature writer - whatever that is - or a poet. I write the occasional poem, when a thought comes to me that won't work any other way, but to be honest, my poems are more like prose that's just been chopped about a bit. But place is very important to me. My books have often been inspired and I think enriched by the landscapes in which they are set. The Willow Man is set in Bridgwater, but suffused by the atmosphere of the nearby Somerset levels; and a climactic scene takes place on - and was shaped by - Brean Down, the spur of the Mendips which juts out into the chocolatey waters of the Bristol Channel. Warrior King, about Alfred the Great, had for its birthplace Athelney, also on the levels, once the island surrounded by marshes where Alfred took shelter from the Danes - and not so very different now, over a thousand years later. I visited the places where Alfred fought - near Wayland's Smithy in Oxfordshire and above Eddington, which used to be Ethandun, in Wiltshire. In all these places, it was so easy to imagine the events that took place there so long ago: they all had in common a powerful sense of the distant past - and of something very close to magic, which also found its way into the book.

And so on. 

The river. Now how, exactly, do you convey in words what you see here?

The sea, looking towards Criccieth.

But there was something else, too. It's always good to hone your craft, whatever that craft is. And listening to the poets and the tutors focusing closely on language, on finding exactly the right word or image, was really humbling. If you get a group of children's writers together, the discussion will be fascinating. But I think it's fair to say that it will in general centre on story, voice and character, rather than on the nuts and bolts of language. Please note: I am NOT AT ALL saying that children's writers are not good writers or stylists - just that they tend to have different priorities. If you're writing for children, you need to make them want to turn the page: too much description will make them scowl, though you certainly need enough to set the scene, to create the world.

Anyway, from the exercises we did, and the way the poets and non-fiction writers talked about their craft, I gradually realised that I have sometimes been coasting: that sometimes I reach for the easy word instead of the right word, even - horrors! - for a seductively available cliché. (Though, resistant to the last, I would still tentatively suggest that sometimes the first thought and the easy word is the right one.)

It became obvious during the week and particularly during my tutorial with Mark that even when I was trying specifically to write about nature, a story or a character would come pushing its way through. Accepting this, and following up on a suggestion of Mark's, I wrote the beginning of a new story. In fact it almost wrote itself, and it's such a joy when that happens.

Hydrangeas in the garden. You can see a tiny bit of sea, if you look very hard!

On top of all that, I had the pleasure of being in a very special place with a very interesting group of writers. 
The garden was filled with bees humming among the lavender, and it was a twenty minute walk down to the sea, or a ten minute walk down to the restless River Dwyfor. And the team who run the centre are efficient, friendly and welcoming.

Thursday, 14 March 2019

Finding a Title by Lynne Benton

It should be easy, shouldn’t it?  You’ve spent weeks/months/years writing your magnum opus, so why haven’t you come up with your title ages ago?

Except it doesn’t necessarily work like that.

This blog was going to be called Choosing a Title.  However, I realised that Choosing implies having half a dozen titles to hand, all equally suitable, from which to choose.  Whereas Finding implies having to dig around in the dark until you find the perfect title, of which there is only one.  

Sometimes I find the title comes to me at the same time as the idea for the book.  But more often I’ve finished the book and still have no idea what to call it.  So I make a list of vaguely appropriate titles.  Some are obviously hopeless, but I write them all down anyway, in the hope that one of them will ignite a spark which will go on to be the ideal one.  Then I may talk to writer friends, especially those in a similar situation, and we brainstorm a few possible titles for both of us.  Somehow it's often easier to come up with good titles for other people's books than it is for your own! 

Of course we all know that titles should be catchy, original, intriguing, relevant to the book and suitable for the genre of book you’re writing.  No pressure then!  There is also a big difference between writing a book for adults, when you can use enigmatic or ambiguous titles, and writing for children, especially younger children, who usually like to have a good idea of what the book is about before they pick it up.  Books called things like James and the Giant Peach or The Hundred-Mile-an-Hour Dog give them a good idea of what to expect in the story. 

Older children and young adults, on the other hand, don’t necessarily need or want such specific information in the title.

Titles also go in fashions: sometimes publishers want punchy one-word titles (Jelly, 

Sorceress)  while at other times they seem to want longer titles (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, How Tom Beat Captain Najork and his Hired Sportsmen).

 Sometimes all you need is the name of the central character (Jack Fortune, Peter Rabbit), 

or their first name together with the name of a place (Anne of Green Gables, Stig of the Dump)

There are also plenty of books in which the title tells us something about the central character, such as The Centurion’s Son, The Warrior King, The Demon Headmaster.

 Sometimes the title describes some object or landmark important to the story, eg. The Willow Man, The Glass-Spinner, The Secret Garden.

For children’s books it often works well to have the character’s name followed by “and the…”, eg Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf, and of course Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.  The idea of featuring the main character's name in every title works particularly well if you are planning to write a series, as with all 7 of the Harry Potter books,  Richmal Crompton’s 10 William books, and Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books (all 21 of them!)  

I read somewhere that there are a few key words which, if part of the title, will always tempt a child to pick up the book.  The words I remember are Secret, Mystery and Treasure.  I’m sure there are many more (probably including Adventure – no matter what you think of her nowadays, Enid Blyton got a lot of things right, didn’t she?)

It all needs a great deal of thought, but unfortunately, even if you have thought long and hard and come up with the perfect title for your book, it’s always possible that your publisher may not like it at all, which is very frustrating.  Even worse is if they wish their own choice on you, which you absolutely hate!  Then all you can do is argue your case, and hope that eventually they will agree with you.  Although you can’t always judge a book by its cover, you really want to have it judged it by its great title. 


Saturday, 2 March 2019

A haiku or two... by Sue Purkiss

My day job, if you like, is writing full-length novels for children. But sometimes, I like to stretch my writing muscles (or perhaps more accurately, procrastinate) and write something much shorter: a short story, perhaps, or - even shorter - a back-of-a-postcard story*, or - a haiku.

The version of the haiku form that I use is very simple. It's a tiny poem, three lines long, consisting of 17 syllables. So the first line is 5, the second is 7, and the third, 5. Naturally, being so short, it focuses on something quite fleeting: a thought, an object, a flower. But that doesn't stop you making some sort of statement - or dropping a stone in the water, and seeing where the ripples spread.

The watery image happens to be appropriate, because the haikus I've been writing recently were composed on board a ship - albeit a stationary one: the SS Great Britain, Isambard Kingdom Brunel's beautiful iron ship, now moored in Bristol harbour, where she was originally built.

I volunteer on the ship once a week. It's a very popular attraction, but there are times, particularly on weekdays in winter, when there aren't many people about. On one of these occasions, I had the ship pretty much to myself. It's an immersive experience: there are soundscapes, so as you walk through steerage, you hear snatches of conversation, a baby crying, someone singing. As you pass the galley, the smell of baking bread wafts out, and in the background, you hear the sound of the engines as the ship - the largest in its day, and the first to be built of iron - makes its way through the sea. It's quite dark down below, though there are cleverly constructed skylights which allow some natural light to percolate down, and there are softly glowing bulkhead lights. It's not difficult to imagine that you're on the ship as she sails to New York or Melbourne, Australia, but late on a winter afternoon, with no-one else around, it can be a little spooky.

I always carry a little notebook around, to jot down anything new that I find out: but on this particular afternoon, as I wandered round, feeling a little like a ghost myself, I used it to make up a few haikus. Here are some of them - the photos are an attempt to illustrate them, but they don't quite do the job - for instance, the first one doesn't really show the lovely curve of the hull. But anyway:

Bright flags fluttering
The restless heave of the sea
Her hull's sweet smooth curve.

The ship's restless ghosts
Whispering, sighing,sleeping.
Lives lived and lives lost.

Metal like torn lace
Eaten by the sea, which once
It sought to master.

I suspect that the original Japanese form is much more complex than the version I use - but I find it a really satisfying thing to do. Unlike writing a novel, it doesn't take months or years - and it does make you focus on the moment you're in. It's so easy not to do that.

* For more about postcard stories, see here

And this is a short novel I wrote some years ago, which is set on the ship.

Saturday, 2 February 2019

'Drawing Europe Together': Sue Purkiss

It's going to be obvious anyway from this post - but I am a staunch Remainer. There. Said it. I think we should stay in the EU for many reasons - think how much time and money we and several other countries would have saved if there had never been a referendum! - but mainly because I love Europe and I really, really want to continue to be a part of it, though I can see now that that's unlikely to happen.

So you can see why a book with this title - Drawing Europe Together - was likely to appeal to me. I came across it in Waterstones a few weeks ago. It's put together by Axel Scheffler, the illustrator of many of Julia Donaldson's books, including the wonderful Gruffalo. He explains in his introduction that "the seed of this book was planted by a German children's book publisher, Marcus Weber at Moritz Verlag, who asked his illustrators to do a 'drawing for Europe'". An exhibition of the drawings eventually came to London, where it was added to by British-based illustrators, many of whom, unsurprisingly, took the opportunity to express their feelings about Brexit. With the creation of this book, the venture was taken a step further.

A lot of the pictures feature Europa, a mythical personage who was kidnapped from what we would now call the Middle East by a god in the shape of a bull, and brought to the place that now bears her name. In Polly Dunbar's image, see the little boy from Britain, who stands apart, looking wistfully back at the other children, one of whom reaches out to him.

It's a sad book in many ways. Axel Scheffler explains his own feelings: "Personally, Britain has been my home for 36 years. I came to study and work here, and that was made possible by the EU. It has enriched my life and I hope that I have enriched the life of this nation in return by creating The Gruffalo and many other popular books together with Julia Donaldson. I've never seen myself as a guest in the UK but it now no longer feels like home to me. The fatal decision of Brexit, which seems to me a tremendous act of national self-harm, fills me with disbelief, pain and anger."

I share his pain and his sadness, and I think it's a dreadful thing that Europeans who have lived here for many years and contributed so much, now feel unwelcome. I too think that we have made a terrible mistake, and I feel angry when I see the posturing and manoeuvering of many of our politicians, who have consistently refused to listen to those derided 'experts' who have tried to warn us. I have often disagreed with government policy, but I have never felt so utterly convinced that the path our country is taking is the wrong one.

Here, Sarah McIntyre presents us with an agitated starling, tied to a stake which keeps him in Britain, while all the other starlings fly free. It's beautifully executed, and its message is clear.

I commend this book to you. There is no anger here, but there is wit, humour, artistry - and considerable sadness. 

Wednesday, 5 September 2018

Fun and Fear in Edinburgh - Sue Purkiss

And so August's gone, and it's September. Thanks to the long hot summer, many trees are already turning copper and gold, and the gentle drift into autumn has begun.

August for me has had a metaphorical red circle round it, ever since way back at the beginning of the year when I received an invitation to take part in the Edinburgh Book Festival. For an author, this is a very big deal. For me, it was the biggest since, some years ago, my editor rang me up to say that one of my books, Emily's Surprising Voyage, had been longlisted for the Carnegie medal. With almost 900 authors taking part, Edinburgh has to be one of the biggest festivals - if not the biggest - in the world.

This is the Book Festival village - sadly, it didn't look quite like this while I was there: it rained!

Now, like many authors, I love being invited to do events. And, once the event is under way - when I'm there in front of the audience, and there's a buzz of excitement, and even, as at Edinburgh, children in the front row holding a copy of my book, Jack Fortune and the Search for the Hidden Valley - why, then, it's wonderful, and I love every minute of it.

But in between - ah, that's another matter. I suppose it's a form of stage fright. As the event creeps closer, a sort of nameless dread envelops you when you wake up in the morning. Startled, you wonder what's wrong - and then you remember. You're another day closer. To what? What are you afraid of? Drying up? Being so boring that everyone walks out? Forgetting the name of the book? Actually, you know none of that is going to happen - it never has. You know once you're there that you'll love it, but still the Fear is there, like the iceberg lying in wait for the Titanic. All you can do is acknowledge its presence, and carry on anyway. (Not good policy with the iceberg, but the only thing that works with the Fear.)

But this time, something else helped too. This is going to sound really twee. It was my character, the eponymous Jack Fortune. Jack is an adventurous, phsically courageous boy who wants to be an explorer. So when he finds that he's going to be heading off to the Himalayas in search of unusual plants with his Uncle Edmund - an unlikely adventurer, who's hitherto spent his life pottering about in a cosy study - he's in the seventh heaven.

However, when he arrives in the mountains, Jack discovers to his horror that he has a crippling fear of heights. And it's gentle Uncle Edmund who helps him through.

"Jack - Jack!" It was Uncle Edmund. His voice was clear and calm. "Come on, old fellow. You're doing very well, not far to go now. Just one step at a time: first your hand - that's it - and now your foot, then your other hand - that's the way, well done. Imagine you're climbing a tree in your aunt's garden - she's coming round the corner any minute, and you need to be up out of the way, so just keep going..."

So - one step at a time, just like Jack.

It worked.

Emma Carroll and myself signing books after our event.

But others also helped enormously to counter the Fear and transform it into fun. First, the organisers, who do everything they can to make authors feel welcome and relaxed, providing the famous yurt, where you can go to relax, to chat, to drink and eat, to meet other authors and book people, and of course to celebrity spot. (I saw Ian Rankin, Chelsea Clinton, Ruby Wax, and Yannis Varoufakis - who, just for the record, looks remarkably like my brother-in-law Mick. Plus, among others, Joanna Nadin, Candy Gourlay, Lari Don, Liz McWhirter, Elizabeth Wein, Jonathan Meres, crime writer Alex Gray, and of course Emma Carroll, with whom my event was shared.) And there was the audience, who were lovely and enthusiastic and asked great questions.

And then there were Linda Strachan and Lindsey Fraser (my agent), who were guides, mentors, and lovely friends - and of course Emma, who was so relaxed about the whole thing and made me feel that way too. Plus all the friends whose ears I'd bent before I got anywhere near Edinburgh, and who made kind soothing noises and didn't once snort, "Stop complaining and think yourself lucky!" - as they would have had every right to do. You're all brilliant.

And so was Edinburgh! I came away buzzing, and so glad I had the chance to go.

Jack on sale in the Edinburgh Festival bookshop, next to a certain Mr Pullman...

Thursday, 31 May 2018

Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights - Sue Purkiss

Mr B’s, in case you haven’t heard of it, is a wonderful independent book shop in Bath. I’m about an hour away from Bath, and my nearest bookshop is a small Waterstones - so Mr B’s isn’t exactly my local.

But a couple of weeks ago, I spent a whole afternoon there. The reason? Last Christmas, one of my children gave me a truly magnificent present: it’s called a Reading Spa - in my view, just so much better than the other kind of spa!

What happens is this. You turn up at the shop - which is a characterful series of little rooms, linked by narrow staircases and with a surprise round every corner - and meet your designated ‘bibliophile’. You will already have given a few details about yourself and your reading habits over the phone when you made your appointment. You go upstairs, and sit in comfortable armchairs with tea or coffee and a delicious cake - and then you talk books, for an hour and a half! First you talk in more detail about the kind of thing you like, then your guide - for me, the delightful and very expert Amy - goes off to choose a selection of books for you to choose from - you have £55 to spend.

A corner of the children's department.
There’s so much that’s good about this. It’s a joy just to talk about books with someone else who loves books just as much as I do. And Amy produced a pile of books that I hadn’t come across. She introduced each one, explaining what it was about and why she thought I might like it - in some cases, she’d enlisted the help of colleagues. It was actually very difficult to choose. Eventually I ended up with a pile of ‘definites’ and another of ‘maybes’, and Amy promised to email me a list of the ‘maybes’. 

I left with my books, a bag, a mug, and a voucher towards my next purchase from Mr B’s. And I’ll certainly use it. I think the Reading Spa is an excellent idea, and Mr B truly is an Emporium of Reading Delights. 

And the books I chose? Here they are. 

With many thanks, to Richard (my son), and Amy, from Mr B’s.

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Terry Pratchett: HisWorld - by Sue Purkiss

A few days ago, I went to see the Terry Pratchett exhibition at Salisbury Museum. (Apologies to my companions, OH and two friends from Salisbury, none of whom have ever read a Terry Pratchett book - and thanks to them for their patience, as I wandered round chortling and sometimes a little misty-eyed, while they were simply mystified. And thanks too to the two guides, who clearly shared my enthusiasm. One of them was also called Susan, and we bonded over the picture of Death's granddaughter, Susan, and Terry's explanation of why he gave her the name. I didn't make a note of it, but it was something to the effect that he felt sorry for Susans, who tend to be the sort of people who make the sandwiches - nice but rather dull - so he decided to give them a boost by calling this very special character Susan. Thanks, Terry.)

The exhibition was largely structured round the illustrations of Josh Kirby and Paul Kidby, though there were other exhibits too - notably a mock-up of Terry's study, with its six computer screens, wall of book shelves, and various memorabilia - such as this lifesize model of The Luggage. (If you're a fan, you'll know what I'm talking about, and if you're not, then there really isn't much point in trying to explain. You just need to read the books. And keep out of the way if you see it heading towards you.)

And there were costumes you could try on. No idea who this manic-looking peron in a pointy hat is. It's in black and white because, trust me, the colour version was far too scary for a family blog.

The labels, or captions, were mostly in Terry's own words. Here he talks about how it all began - incorporating a useful tip for parents trying to help their children to learn to read: 'I didn't enjoy primary school, Mr Tame, my headmaster, thought he could tell how successful we would be in later life by how well we could read or write at the age of six. He told me I would never amount to anything... My mum wasn't having any of that. She taught me to read, with love, care and affection. When that didn't work, bribery, at a penny a page when I read perfectly.' (I noticed, as we went round, that this is how Terry's humour often works: he writes a few apparently serious sentences, and then undercuts them with something sharp, unexpected, and funny.)

Here's a picture of the Discworld by Alan Smith. As many of you will know, it floats through space on the back of a giant turtle. (Sorry about the reflections.) I was intrigued by this from Terry: 'I write about people who live on the Discworld. They worry about the sort of thing we worry about, like death, taxes and not falling off. There are no magic swords or mighty quests. There are just people like us, give or take the odd pointy hat, trying to make sense of it all. Just like us.'

Here's the cover art for Reaper Man, by Josh Kirby. It features Death, one of my favourite characters. Terry gives full credit to the artists who worked with him: 'I didn't know what Discworld trolls actually looked like until Josh drew them. The artwork for the covers are masterpieces, especially Reaper Man. It's a shame they have to be spoiled with the title.'

Here's Susan. Not a bad namesake to have. I may begin to wear black.

I had just re-read Wyrd Sisters, so was intrigued to see this picture of Granny Weatherwax's home in Lancre. (That's not a sun, it's a reflection from my phone camera.) Charming, don't you think?

I've always thought of the Discworld novels as fantasy. So this was interesting. 'I've seen a 16th-century woodcut of something like the Discworld. The idea that the world goes through space on the back of an enormous turtle is something that's common to a large number of this planet's cultures, past and present. I don't know why. It's not an obvious beast to carry the world through space; I mean they go underwater quite a lot. I needed a ridiculous world... I wanted to write, in effect, an antidote to fantasy. I thought let's take a ridiculously, self-evidently foolish world, put the people on it, and make them as real as possible.'

I'll leave you with this ensemble picture of the cast of Discworld characters. The exhibition continues at Salisbury Museum till Sunday, January 14th, 2018.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Jack Fortune, by Sue Purkiss

Well, my new book has just come out, so of COURSE I'm going to write about it. Here it is:

It's about a boy who goes to the Himalayas plant-hunting with his nice but slightly ineffectual uncle at the end of the 18th century. They are searching for a possibly mythical flower - a blue rhododendron - which, if they find it, will have a huge effect on Uncle Edmund's fortunes and future direction and life. Jack's in it for the adventure - well, and there is also the fact that his formidable Aunt Constance, who has looked after him since his parents died, has finally decided that she simply can't cope with him any more, and declares it's Uncle Edmund's turn. But he finds that the adventure is rather more challenging than he'd expected: for a start, he discovers he's afraid of heights, which is less than ideal when travelling in the Himalayas...

I first had the idea for the book when I read about the plant hunters some years ago. (I've written about a couple of them here and here.) They were insanely brave, wandering off, sometimes completely alone, into dangerous terrain unfamiliar and often hostile to westerners. It struck me that here was the perfect setting for an adventure story.

And it is. But I realised as I got into the research that, appealing as their stories are, there is another side to the plant hunters. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Britain's empire was expanding. Uncle Edmund is interested in the pursuit of science for its own sake (albeit also as a means of restoring his fortunes). He seeks to find new, exotic plants for the great - and small - gardens of Britain. But the plant hunters were part of that drive to expansion;if they didn't realise it themselves, those who financed their expeditions certainly did.

It's too big a subject to pursue here. But I was very conscious that I wanted my Jack and his uncle to have respect for the land in northern India which they wish to explore, and for the people to whom the land belongs. Respect for the environment is a strong theme in the book: in exchange for permission to search for the blue rhododendron, Jack and Edmund must promise the Maharaja to 'tread lightly' on the land, and take nothing from it which cannot easily be replaced. And when Edmund, faced with the failure of his expedition, is tempted to break that promise, the consequences are severe.

So, there is a serious side to it. But mostly, I hope it's a roller-coaster ride involving plenty of fun!

(Incidentally, teachers and librarians: there will soon be teachers' notes to accompany the book on the publisher's website, and there's already an activity booklet, here. Hope they'll be useful!)