Friday, 8 November 2019


Retreat: (noun)
3. The act of retiring or withdrawing into privacy or into some place of saftey.
4. A place of seclusion or privacy.

There is a house in France that feels like home to me. Though it doesn’t belong to me, I have a key and I know that whenever I want to go there I can. My family and I have been going on holiday there since, well, since before we were a family. As time has passed and I have moved house and my parents and friends have moved house, this has been the most constant place in my life.

But things change and now the house is to be sold. It’s taking a while, but a couple of months ago I realised time was running out for me to do something I have always promised myself I would do – to go there alone to write. I’ve written there before, writing time set aside during holidays, and once for a week with a writer friend, but never alone. Two weeks all alone? I’d be lonely, they said. Won’t you be scared? Won’t you be bored?

But I wasn’t lonely. I wasn’t scared or bored. It was the most extraordinary thing to have my brain emptied of all the things I usually have to think about for other people, of having to walk dogs and clean things and cook and make money and pay bills. Because of the time difference all the TV programmes I might have watched were on late so I didn’t watch TV. This is the essence retreating, of course – the putting aside of everyday life. It is utterly relaxing. I thought about my work, I read a little, I daydreamed, I slept, I ran. I wrote. I wrote. I wrote.
The lovely annexe where I worked

I had planned a new book. Three thousand words a day was my aim. In two weeks – let’s call that twelve days to allow for travelling – that would make 36,000 words. That’s a good start on a book that might be around 50,000 words in the end. First drafts just have to be hammered out. They’re always terrible, but once the words are on the page you can start sculpting them into something better. My plan was very precise – divided into scenes on a spreadsheet with only two or three places where I had written ‘[they go from A to B somehow]’. I plot using the snowflake method with some slight variations. I find this allows me to build my plot in an orderly but creative way. What I didn’t know is exactly what the tone of the book would be or what the characters would be like. I find these are the things that come as I write if I know where I’m going with the plot.

So, day 1, I got up and went for a run. Then I showered and had breakfast. I made coffee and carried it round to the little annexe to start work. It was eleven o’clock by this time and I was irritated with myself for not getting started sooner. How was I going to write 3,000 words a day if I didn’t start until eleven? I wrote for two hours. I had some lunch and sat in the sun (oh how the sun shone those first two days!) and then I wrote for another two hours.

I had written 5,000 words.

A fluke. Must be.

But the next day and the next I got 5,000 words on the page. I kept up the same routine. Four hours of writing, sometimes five, a couple of hours of some other type of work a bit later. On day 7, I wrote the final words. The book was 35,000 words long. Obviously, I thought, as I packed up that day, that was just a start. I would need lots of polish and there would be plot holes that needed work. So on day 8, I reread it and made notes. The beginning needed changing. It always does. There were a couple of other places which didn’t quite work. And lots of other notes of course. But it wasn’t bad. Four more days of revising and then another read. I couldn’t quite believe it.
Lovely evening walks - though I ended up covered head to toe in bites!
The sun shone... some of the time

Of course I haven’t read it again yet. Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps there are giant plot holes. Perhaps the plot is derivative or dull. Perhaps the characters are feeble. But I don’t think so. I think this book is nearer to done than any first draft I have done more slowly. In a month or two, when I can read it as though someone else has written it, I will bring it out and work on it again. I’m hopeful.

Retreating is extraordinary. Of course not everyone is lucky enough to get the chance to do this. I know I couldn’t have when my kids were younger and I’m privileged to have access to such a wonderful spot to hide away it. But even without being able to retreat completely, I think this experience demonstrates the necessity of clearing mental and physical space for writing so that when I write I can focus on nothing but my story. Just got to work out how to implement that now…

All locked up and ready to leave

I'm working on making something beautiful with fairy tales.
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Wednesday, 14 August 2019

Frances - the most real small child I've ever read

I remember almost no picture books from my childhood. I suppose this may be because they would have been library books for the most part. At home, I had a handful of Beatrix Potters which I valued more for their satisfying size than for their stories.

The one story I could remember as an adult was Bread and Jam for Frances by Russell Hoban. Why this particular book stuck with me more than all the others I must have had read to me I have no idea. Of course, it is a very fine book, so perhaps my pre-reading self had some literary discrimination. All I know is that this was a book that if I saw it on the library shelves, I would immediately add it to my pile. That copy must have spent more time in our house than it did at the library.

This was the book that I sought out when I had my children. I bought Bread and Jam when my eldest daughter was two and eventually we had most of the Frances books, though the only other one that was familiar to me was A Baby Sister for Frances. We also had a rather delightful tape of Glynis Johns reading the stories. Oh I wish I had that tape still. She was odd and real and just perfect.

Why did Frances appeal so much? What was it about these stories that caught me? Frances, though she is, of course, a badger, is very much an ordinary child. Nothing much happens. In Bread and Jam Frances is fussy about her food so Mother gives her bread and jam for every meal until Frances realises that that’s dull and there are other foods she likes. Put so plainly is sounds almost Victorian – Frances acts up and learns a lesson. But it’s not like that at all. All the characters bounce off the page with life. We know exactly how Frances feels – and she feels so much and so strongly – and we understand it. She is one of the most real small children I’ve ever read. And you can’t help but love her rhymes:

The language of these books has seeped into our family vocabulary. We know what we’re referring to when we talk about things ‘coming out even’. When ever opportunity arises, I will say ‘You can be sure there will always be plenty of chocolate cake around here.’

It’s the detail I love. When Frances watches her friend Albert eat his extensive packed lunch, we get every detail of his ritual as he cracks his hard-boiled egg, peels it, salts it, bites it, then moves on to take a bite of his sandwich and his pickle and a drink of milk. You can feel Frances's envy at every bite. And at the end, her own joy in doing the same with her new non-bread-and-jam lunch, made even more special by the inclusion of a doily and a tiny vase of violets. 

This is very wordy compare to most modern picture books, and I know there are versions out there where the text has been cut, but I believe every word of this is necessary and every word is a great pleasure. For someone who loves children’s books so, I found reading to my kids something of a chore and in particular I disliked wordy picture books. Maybe I could feel the children getting restive and wanting to see the picture on the next page. I never found that with Frances though. I would willingly start again the moment I’d reached the end. Pure quality? Or because it was so embedded in my memory that the book felt like all the very best things about books and childhood and reading aloud.

I'm working on making something beautiful with fairy tales.
Find out about my Snippets project and how you can help on my Patreon page.

Wednesday, 24 July 2019

Telling stories the Naughty Little Sister way

I am certain that I was already familiar with Dorothy Edwards’ My Naughty Little Sister stories when I came across them as an adult, but I have no concrete memory of them from my childhood. I suppose my mother read them to me. Perhaps she knew them from the radio, not when she was a child as they were first broadcast on the BBC’s Listen with Mother in 1950, but possibly from her younger brother’s childhood. Thinking about it, maybe they were also read on the BFBS (British Forces Broadcasting Service) radio programmes I listened to as a child. These seem to have been modelled on the BBC’s early radio programmes for children like Children’s Hour and Listen with Mother.

I wonder if the Naughty Little Sister stories seemed like something from another age to my mother or if that world was still close enough to hers. In so many ways, they seem like a historical document - the clothes and the milkman’s horse and the extraordinariness of the day when the father is left to childmind. But none of this stopped me reading them to my children. The stories are too alive to seem old-fahsioned.

The narrative voice is one I’m pretty sure you couldn’t get away with today. It’s the voice of an adult talking directly to the child listener about her own childhood and her little sister – unnamed – who was always doing silly things. The adult narrator addresses the listening child with comments to make them see how silly and funny her naughty little sister was – ‘wasn’t she silly?” “wasn’t that naughty?” The narrator also references the listener’s own behaviour – “You would never do anything as silly as that” – to make the listener feel cleverer or to be gently instructive, or maybe just to reinforce how funny it was. Even though the narrator’s focus is absolutely on the little sister, there are occasional comments that reveal the narrator herself as a big sister – she is occasionally embarrassed, sometimes affectionate but mostly superior. You can tell that the adult narrator, looking back at herself sees that she was a harsh judge of her younger sister. I know it’s very old-fashioned for a book to talk down to children in this way, but I have huge affection for this narrator. I think these stories perfectly mimic the way adults tell children stories about things that have happened and people they know . It’s certainly pretty near the way I told stories to my own young children, although it’s possible that I was unconsciously aping My Naughty Little Sister.

Although the stories come from a time far away from ours, they still work because the narrow world of small children has changed relatively little. The stories are all about the little things that happen in children’s lives – losing teeth, playing islands on a newly washed floor, posting bread crusts into a drawer, getting bored when you’re told to sit still and be good, making a mess of your smart clothes.

Cherry on the cake are the gorgeous illustrations by the wonderful Shirley Hughes whose naughty little sister is right out of the world of her own Alfie stories. Plus from my point of view the stories are the perfect length for reading aloud – that probably betrays their origin on radio.

I'm working on making something beautiful with fairy tales.
Find out about my Snippets project and how you can help on my Patreon page.