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Sutton Coldfield BookFest

Sutton Coldfield BookFest took place yesterday, billed as, ‘a new festival for children who love stories’. I was involved as a volunteer and found it a great learning experience.

Winnie the Witch

Korky Paul’s Prize Winning Golden Raffle Tickets

My role was to check people’s tickets as they entered one of the library areas set aside for the performances of the authors and illustrators. This meant, once everyone was inside, I was able to stand at the back and watch fantastic sessions by author/illustrator Steve Smallman, Winnie the Witch illustrator Korky Paul and animal storyteller BB Taylor. They were all a great hit with the children and I took away the following points:

  • It’s harder to face an audience of children than an audience of adults. Even when bored, adults will sit still and quiet and look at you. Children have a habit of interrupting with questions, walking around, touching things and fidgeting.
  • In front of an audience of children a speaker has to exude energy, drama and enthusiasm. Speaking half-heartedly or without animation loses audience attention.
  • Visual aids and fancy dress are a must in front of youngsters. Between them the three performers had a viking helmet with chicken accessories, a wizard’s hat and a purple wig. BB Taylor brought along live animals: an armadillo, tortoise, millipede and a parrot.
  • Audience participation should be encouraged. Ask questions of the audience, get children up to the front and have prizes – children like to take things home!

So how does this help those of us who write for adults? It made me think about what I like to see in a speaker and it’s the unusual which ignites my immediate interest. And it’s the energy and enthusiasm of a performance that maintains that interest beyond the initial few minutes. So, thanks to three great children’s entertainers, those are the points I’ll be working on in my own author talk. Thanks guys and gal!

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When you win the Booker …

When you win the Booker, and the champagne has been drunk, the interviews given and the books signed, how will you spend the £50,000 prize money?

There was an interesting piece in last week’s Sunday Times about how some previous winners have spent the money. In 1986 Kingsley Amis said he was looking forward to spending the money on, “booze, of course, and curtains.” Four years later AS Byatt spent her prize on building a swimming pool at her home. The 2018 winner, Anna Burns, is using her winnings on something far less frivolous but, hopefully, life changing. Her prize money will fund back surgery to stop the chronic pain which stops her writing.

If I was in receipt of that £50,000 cheque, I’d use it to ‘buy’ more writing time. This might mean a combination of reducing my hours at the day job and/or paying for help around the house. However, more time doesn’t always equal more writing productivity. It would be up to me and my self-discipline to use that extra time wisely rather than in procrastination or in madly tidying up the house before the cleaner arrived!

What about you? Would the £50,000 buy something pleasurable or sensible or both?

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Why Write Historical Fiction?

Christine Hancock is my publishing ‘twin’. Her book, Bright Sword, was published by The Book Guild on the same day as The Promise: January 28th 2018. We write in different genres and have followed each other’s journey over the past six and half months. Christine has kindly agreed to guest on my blog today and explain something about historical fiction and why it’s got something for all writers and readers.

Why Write Historical Fiction?
When I started to write it seemed like the obvious thing to do. All my life I have read historical fiction. I don’t know why. To escape? To learn about the past? Perhaps I just thought the stories were better. I have enjoyed other genres: Science Fiction, Horror, Romance (when I was young.) Horses (when I was very young), but I always returned to Historical Fiction.Bright Sword by Christine Hancock
So, what actually is Historical Fiction? The Historical Novel Society defines it as:
To be deemed historical (in our sense), a novel must have been written at least fifty years after the events described, or have been written by someone who was not alive at the time of those events (who therefore approaches them only by research).
For example, if you want to write a book set in the 1960s, it is historical if you were born after that period, or if you were alive at the time, living in rural England but are writing about life in the USA. If you want to write what happened to you, if you remember it, it is something else.
After that, anything is allowed, any period and any place. It can be of any genre: romance, detective, adventure, biographical. Psychological thriller? It also includes sub genres such as time slip, alternate history and fantasy.
Some people aren’t interested in the past. They say only the future is important. But if we recognise that what happens today has happened before – in one form or another, we can learn how to deal with it, or live through it. I suppose that applies more to straight history books, but why not learn and enjoy the experience at the same time?
There is so much in the news to worry us nowadays, people want to escape. This is where historical fiction comes in.
Why concern yourself with the details of Brexit, when you can stand beside King Harold and his warriors at Hastings, defending your country against the Normans? Probably not the best example!
Worried about Trump? Imagine trying to survive in the court of Henry VIII or in Rome under Emperor Nero.
Weather too hot? Acclimatise yourself beside the Nile in Ancient Egypt or cool down at a 17th century Frost Fair.
Fed up with queues to see a doctor? Discover the problems of avoiding the Black Death, or any illness or accident, at almost any time before our own.
If you just want good read, why chose historical fiction?
The basic plot of a romance is boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl. How interesting it can be when the clothing are tight breeches and a beautiful silk gown and when the hero must fight for his lady’s honour with a sword. There is so much space for misunderstanding when your character has to wait for the post instead of texting from his iphone.
People say to me “But don’t you have to do a lot of research?” Yes, but it depends on what you are writing. If it is a novel about the life of someone famous, Ann Boleyn, to take an overused example, you need to know every single fact – get it wrong and someone will notice and tell you!
Christine HancockI’m sure writers of modern fiction have to do a lot of research: What car does my character drive? What clothes does she wear? What is the “in” drink to order? Then in a few years it is all out of date.
I write about the Anglo-Saxons in the mid tenth century. No need to work out which make of car they drove (a horse or they walked) what clothes they wore (tunic, long for women, shorter for men and cloak in cold weather) or which brand of ale or mead they drank. So long as I have the right king on the throne and avoid killing off a real-life character before their time, it’s fine.
Oh, and don’t have them eating roast potatoes with their dinner!
Never tried historical fiction? What do you enjoy reading? There’s sure to be something similar set in the past. You may never return to the present day.

Thank you, Christine. You’ve tempted me to give history a chance!
Christine Hancock lives in Rugby, Warwickshire and is a long term family historian and leader of her local history group. Byrhtnoth, the main protagonist in Bright Sword, is based on a real warrior who died in the 991 Battle of Maldon, made famous by the Anglo-Saxon poem of that name.
Bright Sword is available in bookshops and from all the main online retailers, including Amazon.
Read Christine’s blog or follow her on Twitter.

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The Weird Side of Famous Writers

We all have our idiosyncrasies when we sit down to write. We must have our tea in the right mug, or certain music playing or our lucky four-leaf clover hanging from the laptop screen. Many famous writers had these foibles too. Have a look at the infographic below, supplied by Donna Norton of Custom Writing, – it might make you feel less weird! My favourite is Dan Brown (scroll down to the bottom – apparently he likes hanging upside down!) Do any of you do anything stranger than what’s listed here?!

Writers Habits

Many thanks to Donna Norton for supplying the above infographic. There’s more available on the Custom Writing Website.

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Tips for Reading Aloud

Julia Thorley has published a collection of monologues and first-person stories, Nine Lives. Nine Lives by Julia ThorleyThe tales are meant to be read aloud. Julia recently launched the book with some readings and has very generously agreed to share her experience and some great tips on reading aloud to groups:

In my other life as a yoga teacher I am used to speaking to groups of people, but this didn’t stop me being incredibly nervous. An audience is a different proposition from a class of students.

A couple of years ago, I was asked to read my story ‘Scoring an Own Goal in Tennis’ at the awards evening of the H E Bates short story competition. At the time, I sought the advice of my friend Kezzabelle, who is a performance poet. She gave me some excellent tips, which I applied not just on that occasion, but also at the launch events I held for Nine Lives:

  • Wear the right glasses! Print out your text extra-large, if you think you might struggle to read from the original.
  • Punctuation for reading aloud isn’t necessarily the same as that for reading in your head. Be prepared to tweak, and practise before you perform. Dialogue can be particularly problematic. On paper, the implied ‘he said, she said’ of a conversation is obvious, but unless you plan to use different voices it can be hard to follow out loud.
  • Highlight in colour words that need particular vocal emphasis or provide the chance for a gesture.
  • Turn your pages at the end of a sentence, so you don’t break your rhythm.
  • If you’re reading before and after an interval, pop to the loo just before the end of the first half. That way you’ll be able to avoid the queue and, more importantly, be available to chat to people and, all being well, sell a few books.

Tips for Reading AloudWhile I had a voice in mind as I wrote each story, I said in the introduction to Nine Lives : ‘. . . if you hear a different voice, that’s fine with me.’ I’ve asked other people to read some of the stories for me – I have written some from the male POV, for instance – and it’s very odd hearing another person’s interpretation. I wasn’t prepared for that!

I’m never going to be able to recite my tales from memory, but my confidence is increasing each time I read in public. I’m no Victoria Wood, but I’ve managed to raise a laugh in the right places and make people cry at the sad bits, which is pleasing.

Why not give it a go? If you read aloud anything from your copy of Nine Lives, I’d love to hear how you get on.

Nine Lives: monologues and first-person stories for reading aloud is available as an e-book from Amazon for 99p. Paperbacks are available via www.juliathorley.com for £5 + p&p. Or contact her through her Facebook page: @JuliaThorleyAuthor or her blog: Life, yoga and other adventures.

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Growing Up with Enid Blyton

We can all pinpoint particular books or authors that got us reading as a child. For my daughters it was Harry Potter and Jacqueline Wilson.

For me it was Enid Blyton. Her books offered children a different series for whatever age they were at. My ‘ladder’ of Enid Blyton series was:

Mr Pinkwhistle
Mr Pinkwhistle is half brownie and half person, and he has the ability to make himself invisible at will. He’s always helping people in trouble and this often leads to funny situations. There is a moral to the stories – people who do bad things always get punished. For example a brother and sister have pet rabbits and neglect them. Mr Pinkwhistle sets the rabbits free to enjoy the grass and the children lose their pets (if I remember correctly!).

The Magic Faraway Tree
The Faraway Tree is a huge tree that reaches up to the clouds. Each day there is a different land to be found above the clouds e.g. the land of spells, the land of toys, the rocking land (the land tips up and sideways and you keep falling over). A group of children discover the tree and have various adventures in the different lands.
What really captured my imagination was the the slippery slip – a helter skelter that runs down the middle of the tree.
There are lots of amazing characters who live in the tree, such as Saucepan Man and Dame Washalot (the children have to dodge her water as she empties down the tree).

The Famous Five
Four children and Timmy the dog have amazing adventures which involve camping on deserted islands, tracking down jewel thieves and more. I wanted to belong to this group of children. The eldest, Julian, was like the big brother I would have loved to have had. George (real name Georgina) was the brave tomboy I’d like to have been. Timmy was the pet dog I never had. And I longed to camp out on a bed of springy heather and drink lashings of ginger beer (although I had no idea as a child what ginger beer was!).

In the 1990s potentially offensive language was removed from the Famous Five, with words like ‘queer’ and ‘golliwog’ removed. In 2010 things went a step further. An attempt was made by the publisher Hachette to modernise the Famous Five. Old fashioned words were swapped to their modern day equivalents. For example ‘frocks’ was changed to ‘dresses’, ‘mother and father’ to ‘mum and dad’ and the expression ‘Golly!’ was removed. The children wore jeans instead of shorts. I’m glad to say that the 2010 the changes were deemed a mistake and were reversed in 2016.
Can you imagine if they’d gone further with their ‘modernisation’ and given the children mobile phones and tablets!

Malory Towers
This is a series of six books set in a girls’ boarding school. The books follow Darrell Rivers from the first term in her first year to the last term in her last year. School life is full of midnight feasts and playing tricks on the teachers, with no parents getting in the way. Memorable characters were the unpopular, malicious Gwendoline Mary, little Mary Lou and Darrell’s best friend Sally. French teacher Mam’zelle Dupont was often the butt of the girls’ tricks.
Apparently the school is based on the boarding school, Benenden School, that Blyton’s daughter attended, during its wartime relocation to the Cornish seaside. And Darrell’s name is taken from Enid’s second husband – Kenneth Darrell Waters.
This series’ continued popularity with modern youngsters was recognised in 2009, when Pamela Cox wrote another 6 books in the series, they continued where Blyton had left off but focused on Darrell’s younger sister, Felicity, who joined the school when Darrell was in the 4th form.

Do you have a ‘ladder’ of Enid Blyton books? Or did you grow up with something different?

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Head Count by Judith Cutler

I’ve written before about Judith Cutler, known as Birmingham’s queen of cosy crime. She has a knack of creating feisty female lead characters and also a prolific output. Judith knows her fan base well and how to please them, which she does time and time again. Her books are very readable and so I was pleased to hear about her latest novel, Head Count. This is the second in a series of novels featuring Jane Cowan, a primary school head teacher. 

In Head Count, Jane Cowan gets mixed up in the horrors of people smuggling, in particular children arriving in the UK alone and having to fend for themselves. It is cosy crime with a realistic and very topical sharp edge. As a writer I found the structure of this book very interesting. Generally, crime fiction begins with a body on page one and then the hunt is on to find the killer. In Head Count, Judith Cutler takes a different tack. The story starts with Jane being knocked off her bike and into a hedge. She’s not badly hurt and an elderly couple help her back on her feet – but when Jane later goes to their house to thank them with flowers, the couple have disappeared into thin air. From that point on the mysterious happenings come thick and fast – no local builder will touch the renovations needed to Jane’s house, a village do-gooder constantly interferes with Jane’s school and two small boys with no English keep turning up at the school’s breakfast club.
If you want to find out how to create a layered mystery rather than a traditional whodunnit, Head Count is worth a read.

Head Count is authentic and well-researched. As well as being a head teacher, Jane Cowan is also a cricket umpire and match descriptions and after match socialising events in the novel feel real. Jane Cowan also has friends in the police and I’m guessing that Judith Cutler does as well – the police involvement in the book appears true to life, in particular there’s a clever piece of advice included in the narrative about how to make a 999 on a mobile phone when you are in the process of being kidnapped and can’t speak out loud to the operator. It’s worth reading the book just for this advice – it might save your life one day!

Judith Cutler is not afraid to tackle topical and controversial  issues but she does so in an empathetic and accessible way. If you like your cosy crime to be relevant to today’s society, rather than 1930s golden age, Judith Cutler is an author to watch out for and Head Count is a good place to start.

Now I’m off to catch up with the first book in the Jane Cowan series, Head Start.

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