Category Archives: An Interview with…

An Interview with… Paul Anthony Jones

I interviewed Paul Anthony Jones about his research into positive words for his book, The Cabinet of Calm for the #237 Oct 2021 issue of Writers’ Forum.

Paul has been writing about language in some form or another for nearly a decade. His background is in linguistics, and based on that he wrote a book on the origins of words back in 2013. Around this time, he started a Twitter account, @HaggardHawks, to tweet about words and word histories that he had discovered in his research.

The Cabinet of Calm is his seventh language book – eighth book overall. He told me it feels different from other books he has written. The focus isn’t on the meanings and histories of words, but on how they can be interpreted or considered. Paul confessed it was an interesting book to compile but a real challenge to put it together.

“The idea for writing a book to bring together little-known calming and reassuring words began when I sadly, lost my mam at the end of 2018 and my dad a few weeks later at the start of 2019. I and my family were floored by what happened. I explain in the introduction to the book I’d initially resolved to take some time off when my publishers approached me with the idea of The Cabinet of Calm, exploring how language ties into tough times like I’d experienced.”

Paul Anthony Jones

Paul revealed he was in two minds about whether to take them up on their offer, until spring 2019 when he walked into the city centre in Newcastle to clear his head, and was wandering aimlessly around the shops when he spotted a shirt his dad had worn hanging in a clothes shop.

“It all came flooding back—and just as quickly as it had struck me the grief was gone again – I was back to normal. I remember walking out of the shop, going to get a coffee and thinking there’s a word for that.”

Paul Anthony Jones

A few years earlier he had written a blog about a word, stound, he had found in an old dialect dictionary. It’s defined as a wave of grief or emotion when a loss is suddenly remembered. He explained this was precisely what he’d experienced and knowing a word for it somehow made it easier because it meant that someone somewhere at some time had experienced precisely the same feeling, to such an extent they’d coined a word for it. It was at this moment he knew he had to write the book, and set to work brainstorming ideas for how it might come together.

Paul has blogged and written about language for so long now, he has accumulated quite a database to mine—besides an ever-growing collection of old dictionaries and glossaries he has picked up from second-hand stores and online sellers over the years.

One of Paul Anthony Jones’ bookshelves

He explained he raided all these for words to make interesting topics. After a few weeks’ work he had a list of about 300 possible entries. It took another month to cherry-pick the most interesting ones – those with the most intriguing meanings and histories – until he had trimmed the original list down to a shortlist of around fifty.

He divulged whenever he starts work on a new book, there’s three ways it comes together. First, something he already knows gives him the gem of the idea – in this instance the word stound. Secondly, there’s all the other words and etymologies he is already familiar with through his work to fit the same brief. Then there’s everything else: words and etymologies he does not already know, found from researching the new idea. Paul told me this is the best part and makes up the vast majority of material in the final draft. The initial idea forms the foundations, his research builds the rest of the book.

“In The Cabinet of Calm, the first chapter I wrote was actually for a word I found while searching specifically for topics to do with feeling overworked or overwhelmed: cultellation. I’d never spotted this word before; derived from an old surveyor’s tool, it describes the process of cutting a larger task into smaller more manageable jobs. It was the right mix of a brilliant-sounding obscure word, a perfectly appropriate meaning for what I was compiling, and a fascinating and very unexpected etymology.”

Paul Anthony Jones

Paul’s tip to anyone interested in writing about language or words is to track down reliable sources. It makes for much more rewarding research and raises the reliability not only of your work but of this genre of book as a whole. This makes the finished work more robust. You’ll know yourself what constitutes a reliable research source – even then, try to back everything up.

Paul explained The Cabinet of Calm went through quite a difficult draft period, with both himself and his publisher approaching the idea from two different angles. Initially, he wanted to bring together lots of much shorter dictionary-like entries, and divide the book in two halves—the first listing words for worldly problems, and the second for calming, reassuring words to act as their solution. His publisher had a different idea, and pushed him towards writing fewer chapters of more detail and content. It took quite a few attempts to get it right and Paul is happy how the final format works well.

The Cabinet of Calm: Soothing Words for Troubled Times
by Paul Anthony Jones

He advocates, no matter how you find yourself researching, that’s the best way for you. Many writers – especially when they’re first starting out, are overly self-critical, and feel they are not taking their writing or research seriously if they don’t fit the romanticized idea all writers are forever carrying a notepad, jotting down ideas in coffee shops, and pouring over piles of books in libraries. If this is how you work, great! But if it isn’t, it’s fine too.

“Work out what works best for you, and stick with it. By all means take ideas or inspiration from other people, but don’t compare yourself unnecessarily to them. We all have our own ways of doing things, and your writing will be happier and more fruitful if you allow yourself time to figure out what works best for you.”

Paul Anthony Jones

To find out more about Paul Anthony Jones you can follow his personal account on Twitter @PaulAnthJones and his professional account @HaggardHawks. You can also check out his websites: www.haggardhawks.com and www.paulanthonyjones.com.

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #237 Oct 2021 Writers’ Forum by ordering online from Select Magazines.

To read my future Research Secrets or Writing 4 Children interviews you can invest in a subscription from the Writers’ Forum website, or download Writers’ Forum to your iOS or Android device.

Blog Tour – Phyllo Cane and the Magical Menagerie by Sharn W. Hutton

Today is my stop on the Phyllo Cane and the Magical Menagerie by Sharn W. Hutton blog tour.

Phyllo Cane and the Magical Menagerie by Sharn W. Hutton

Sharn W. Hutton is the author of The Adventures of Phyllo Cane series, the first of which, Phyllo Cane and the Circus of Wonder, was hailed by the judging panel of The Booklife Prize to be ‘dizzyingly bewitching, articulate and intoxicating.’ The sequel, Phyllo Cane and the Magical Menagerie, was released on July 31st 2022.

In Magical Menagerie we Join Phyllo on his next apprenticeship with the Circus of Wonder – a brand new adventure with the fantastic beasts of the Magical Menagerie and a race against time to save their lonely dragon from destruction. But what if the fire-breathing dragon won’t come out of its pen to perform? What if the Ringmaster thinks it’s worth more in the apothecary chop-shop than as part of the troupe?

The Beast Whisperer of the Circus of Wonder must bring her beloved dragon back up to its performing peak fast, if she’s to save it, and she thinks she knows what to do. The unhappy creature needs a mate, but the male sand dragon is a rare beast indeed, and she’ll never be able to catch one alone. Time for Phyllo to become the Beast Whisperer’s apprentice…

Before venturing into the realms of upper middle grade/YA magical fantasy, Sharn wrote cosy mystery based around the irrepressible Angel Drake, in Angel Drake is Going Solo and the short story, Nothing Ventured. Her first novel, It’s Killing Jerry, was a standalone mystery.

Sharn W. Hutton

Based in Bushey, Hertfordshire, Sharn works from home in the tiny office at the back of the house, which makes up for what it lacks in size and warmth with a rather nice view of the garden. When she isn’t hitting the keyboard (laptop, not piano) she does enjoy a trip to the theatre or cinema and pretends to use the very expensive exercise machine rusting in the summerhouse. One day she plans to also learn how to play the piano.

I have interviewed Sharn W. Hutton about her Phyllo Cane series for my stop of the blog tour. So let’s take a look at what Sharn had to say:

*****

What inspired you to write a magical adventure series set in the circus?

I’ve always loved magical stories, Charlie N Holmberg, Pratchett, Gaiman and, of course, the Potters and when I decided that I wanted to create my own magical world, I knew I wanted it to be rich with detail. The circus is so full of possibilities. Death defying acts, incredible strength, impossible feats – it’s full of magic before you even get to any kind of wand waving.

I also knew that I wanted the Circus of Wonder to feel like it was from another time, travelling around today’s countryside, playing to charmed and ordinary audiences alike. That opens the stories up for all kinds of possibilities.

We live in such a ‘convenient’ world. Everything is available at the touch of a button. You can buy pretty much anything online and search the internet to find any information you need. The tradition of the circus pushes back against that. If you’re lucky enough to catch it, it comes to town once a year. You might get a ticket, if it’s not already sold out. The acts could be anything and they probably aren’t safe. I love how illusive, mysterious and dangerous it is.

Have you been on any literary pilgrimages and if so what were they?

I’m all about the research at the moment, plotting the next story, and have become a member of the British Library. Real life stories about the circus world are sometimes stranger than fiction and are an excellent source of ideas. I love books, really old ones and spanking new, you never know where what’s inside might lead you.

I bought a book about circus food which led me to discover Giffords Circus, which not only feeds the troupe in its restaurant tent, but a lucky few punters as well, if you can get yourself a seat. When I saw that Gifford’s route was going to come unbelievably close to where I live for the first time, what choice did I have but to book myself in for the show and some dinner?

Visiting Giffords felt a lot like visiting the Circus of Wonder. Small by the grand circus tent size terms we often see, but perfect to get enough people in the crowd for atmosphere in their themed and moodily lit big top. There were traditional acts where acrobats summersaulted on horseback and knife throwers terrified us with a crossbow. Then flyers who walked in the air above the crowd gripping silks, just like Ezio did in the Circus of Wonder. It was an incredible experience that felt totally real in a world of special effects and TV trickery.

The restaurant was a series of long plank tables with the only choice being vegetarian or not. Everyone had the same. People were served in groups, whether they knew each other or not and by the end of the evening we all felt like family. I’d go again in a heartbeat.

Perhaps a pilgrimage should take more effort – that particular one was a joy.

What are the underlying themes of your novel, Magical Menagerie?

In Magical Menagerie Phyllo learns about the impact of his society upon the natural world and about taking responsibility for his actions. I wanted to touch on this in a way that might inspire a reader to consider if the practises around them, considered to be the normal, are really worth their cost.

There are new characters introduced too, one of whom I am particularly enthusiastic about, Schlepper. He is Contraptionist (that’s an inventor of contraptions to you and me!) who, as a wheelchair user, invents leg alternatives for himself. He is a hugely positive and engaging character inspired by my father, who never once allowed his physical challenges to slow him down.

All this along-side a romping good adventure of course!

Do you think it is more difficult or easier to write a sequel?

I think that depends on your plan from the start. Before writing the ‘Adventures of Phyllo Cane’, I wrote a cosy mystery called ‘Angel Drake is Going Solo’. I fully intended for Angel Drake to be the star of a series of mysteries, but that first book was the entire story I had in my head at the time. Getting ready to write book two was difficult because I felt like I had to reinvent her.

With the ‘Adventures of Phyllo Cane’ it’s completely different. When I came up with the idea it formed as a series of stories, seven in total. When I finished book one, I knew that really the story was only just beginning. Don’t misunderstand me, I don’t have every single detail planned out, but I know broadly where we are heading and I’m excited to tell the next part of the story.

Now I’m plotting out the third and I don’t think that’s anywhere near as daunting as it might be otherwise.

What is the first book that made you cry?

I had to really think about this and honestly, I don’t read books that make me cry. I like to escape into my stories and if I think that place is going to be one of tears (or horror) then I’m not going.

Having said that, I did shed a tear when Phyllo completed his task with Tamer Venor and was flying home – it had all been such a struggle!

If you could meet your characters, what would you say to them?

I’d tell Phyllo not to give up or lose heart. He’s got a challenging road ahead.

I’d ask Tamer Venor to teach me how to meld with a dragon.

I’d ask Marvel to make me something in the Confectionary that brought back memories of rolling down grassy hills in the sunshine with my childhood friends.

What writing advice would you give to people aspiring to be a children’s book writer?

Know you audience and how they consume stories. I specifically sought out an editor with lots of experience in the area I wanted to write in. Their advice was invaluable.

Is there anything else you would like to tell readers about your books and writing for children?

Phyllo Cane is an imperfect hero. He’s struggling to meet the expectations of his troupe, but will never give up. He’s got kindness at his core and in the end that will be the making of him. The Adventures of Phyllo Cane are tales of growth, discovery, magic and adventure and I hope that they will resonate with young and older readers alike. They are suitable for children, yes, but I like to think of them as fantasy with a PG rating, rather than being babyish in anyway.

Thank you Sharn for agreeing to be interviewed on my blog today as part of your tour.

Thanks very much for taking an interest in my stories about Phyllo Cane. I really hope you enjoy them. Best, Sharn.

*****

The Adventures of Phyllo Cane are available as ebook for Kindle and are included in Kindle Unlimited. Paperbacks are available for order from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Waterstones. Most book stores will be able to order it in. If you visit the Amazon pages you will be able to see full descriptions and the possibility of downloading a free sample for kindle. The international book link to the series is: mybook.to/PhylloCane

You can find out more about Sharn W Hutton and her book Phyllo Cane and the Magical Menagerie on her website: www.sharnhutton.com, Facebook: @SharnHuttonAuthor and Instagram: @sharnious

I would also like to thank Anne Cater from Random Things Through My Letterbox for organising this blog tour and inviting me to take part. Thank you.

You can visit the rest of the blog tour here:

My book review of Phyllo Cane and the Magical Menagerie by Sharn W. Hutton is scheduled to appear next month, on Wednesday 26th October, so please keep an eye out for it.

An interview with… Emily Ann Davison

I interviewed Emily Ann Davison about how she developed her characters for her picture book, Every Bunny is a Yoga Bunny, for the #246 17 Aug edition of the UK national writing magazine, Writers’ Forum.

Emily told me as a child she enjoyed writing stories and songs, so it wasn’t really a huge surprise that as a grown up she returned to writing. She also worked with young children for many years, and this is where she discovered her enthusiasm for children’s books, in particular picture books. One day, a picture book idea popped into her head and she revealed now the ideas just won’t stop popping.

She explained the inspiration behind her debut picture book, Every Bunny is a Yoga Bunny which is published by Nosy Crow, came from working with children and being a mother. She understands just how wriggly young children can be, and felt there was a place for a book to help wriggly children feel calm. She wrote this story at a time when her daughter was finding it particularly hard to feel calm at bedtime, so Emily had started to try different relaxation techniques to help her. She discovered the main thing that helped was yoga!

“I’d previously written a draft picture book about a family of monsters doing meditation. Doing yoga with my daughter, reminded me about this story, so I dug it out and transformed it into a story about yoga, calm and mindfulness and features an excitable bunny called Yo-Yo!”

Yo-Yo is a fidgety, bouncy, can’t-sit-still-EVER type of bunny. Grandpa suggests the bunnies try yoga, but even that doesn’t stop her wiggling and giggling. Yo-Yo later finds herself lost and all alone in a shadowy forest. She feels panicky, but maybe Grandpa’s yoga will be able to help… At the end of the book, there are simple step-by-step instructions so children can stretch, feel calm and be a yoga bunny too.

Every Bunny is a Yoga Bunny by Emily Ann Davison and Deborah Allwright

Emily said when writing for young children, it’s important the characteristics or experiences of a character are relatable to a young child’s own life experiences. It was important to Emily, that at the end of the story Yo Yo was still wriggly and giggly, and found it tricky to sit still as she didn’t want the character to change her personality, she wanted Yo Yo to learn a method of feeling calm by using yoga.

Some stories are all about the setting. For Every Bunny is a Yoga Bunny, it is the concept that is most important. Emily told me when writing picture books it is often the characters and concept of the book that dictate the plot and theme.

“Young children have a very short attention span, so it is important to keep the pace going. You need to have some type of suspense in the story or some type of escalation throughout the book.”

She also revealed for a picture book, page turns are important. At each page, you want the child to HAVE to know what happens next. her suggestion is to think of page turns as a ‘flap’ in a ‘lift the flap’ book. The page turn can be used as a reveal. 

Emily’s advice to other writers wanting their picture book manuscript published is – do the research. Research picture books. Research publishers and agents before submitting. Know as much about the world of picture books as you can and try to connect with other picture book writers. The journey is much easier when you have a network of writers around you, who you can share the highs and lows with.

Find out more about Emily on her website www.emilyanndavison.com and follow her on Twitter @emilyanndavison and Instagram @emily.a.davison.

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #246 17 Aug 2022 Writers’ Forum by ordering online from Select Magazines.

To read my future Writing 4 Children or Research Secrets interviews you can invest in a subscription from the Writers’ Forum website, or download Writers’ Forum to your iOS or Android device.

An interview with… Katherine MacInnes

For the #246 17 Aug edition of Writers’ Forum, Katherine MacInnes, explained the challenges of writing a biography for a fatal historical event from the viewpoint of the people who were left behind.

Katherine with the figurehead from the Terra Nova ship that took the Scott expedition to Antarctica. The credit is Kate Stuart, figurehead of Terra Nova by permission of National Museum Wales.

Snow Widows: Scott’s Fatal Antarctic Expedition by the Women Left Behind was Katherine’s way of showing the familiar story of these heroic husbands, fathers, sons and brothers who lost their lives on this epic expedition from the point of view of the women whose lives would be changed by it forever. Her aim was not to analyse, but to try to place the stories in their historical context and let the women speak for themselves.

Snow Widows: Scott’s Fatal Antarctic Expedition by the Women Left Behind by Katherine MacInnes

Katherine told me how these women were truly inspiring.

“If I had chosen my subject on the basis of available material I would not have written Snow Widows. When I first started researching the Snow Widows over a decade ago, they were invisible. I was looking for inspiration at the time because my husband was about to climb Everest (our children were nearly five, nearly three and nearly one). He climbed it and came home, but by then I had discovered the treasures that are Oriana, Kathleen, Caroline, Emily and Lois. They have continued to be inspiring companions for me over the years as I hope they can now be for those who read my book.”

Katherine MacInnes

Katherine elaborated how Oriana Wilson, a true partner to the expedition’s doctor, was a scientific mind in her own right. She was a naturalist and partnered her husband on scientific expeditions to New Zealand.  She was a recognised collector for the Natural History Museum and I discovered two species had been named for her. 

Kathleen Scott, the fierce young wife of the expedition leader was also a renowned artist and sculptor She made portraits of most of the great and the good such as, George Bernard Shaw,  Asquith and was a confidant during his time as PM. 

The indomitable Caroline Oates was the very picture of decorum and everything an Edwardian woman aspired to be. She was very wealthy and sent funds to Cpt Oates.  She’d been widowed before this expedition, and ran a large country estate.  Increasingly private and cautioned the family not to talk to outsiders about Cpt Oates.  

‘Empire’ Emily Bowers had travelled the globe as a missionary teacher. had travelled the globe as a missionary teacher. She was ‘Birdie’ Bowers’ mother.  Her father had been a tailor, but she never admitted her lowly origins. Her daughter married co-op movement’s Sir William Maxwell, and became Lady Maxwell.  She lived on the Isle of Bute, Scotland – so quite remote. 

Lois Evans led a harder life than the other women, constantly on the edge of poverty.  She was a talented and popular singer in South Wales. She wasn’t treated equally with the other wives – getting a much lesser amount of the funds raised for the families, (Evans was a rating, the others were officers). Evans was unfairly blamed for the mission’s downfall – he was assumed to have caused a fatal delay. Scott’s posthumously discovered diary says “loss of reason” but now thought to have had a head injury. 

Her starting point was having the famous story as the obvious performance on the stage and the background people as the story in the wings and then she inverted it. Out of choice, she took a seat that gave her a clear view in to the wings of any theatre, the dancers warming up, the actors mastering their nerves. She wanted to see the back of the embroidery, an x-ray of that famous picture, the ‘making of’ at the end of a film.

Katherine told me one of the biggest challenges was researching the expedition from the women’s perspective as most of these women were intentionally invisible, almost self-erasing. Another challenge was giving these women equal balance within the book. Most of them burned their letters before their death (some of them burned their husband’s letters too). The only letters we have from Oriana Wilson are those that she sent out to friends where the friends kept them.

“I wrote articles in magazines and newspapers in the UK and NZ to ask if anyone had some in their attic. Several people did, including one sketch, the only one of hers that survives. It is, appropriately since her husband was Head of the Scientific Staff on the expedition, of two Emperor Pengiuns. Its rather moving. She drew it in April 1912 before she knew her husband was dead. In her sketch one of the penguins is walking away into the distance.”

Katherine MacInnes

She told me original documents have a special power – a link to the past. So she mined numerous sources including Kathleen Scott’s diary, housed at Cambridge University Library, various archives, family papers and books published by surviving expeditioners. She discovered much has been lost, including 50 letters from Taff to Lois, and Wilson’s correspondence, destroyed by Ory, fortunately after an early biographer had read it.

She also bought a book Edward Wilson, Nature Lover on Amazon. Until then everyone had thought that Kathleen and Oriana were not ‘focsle’ friends. But she found an inscription in that book in a hand she recognised as Kathleen’s. So they can’t have fallen out that badly after all. Handwriting gives us not only an indication of character but of emotion. When Kathleen Scott learns of her husband’s death nearly a year earlier, her normally wide rounded script (three words to a line) becomes small and pinched as she tries to master her emotions. It is a direct cipher to a state of mind in a way that carefully stoical, self-curated words may not be.

Her tip to other writers thinking of writing a biography is to buy file dividers and use them, religiously. And be really suspicious of existing photograph captions, especially if your protagonists were as overlooked as hers were. Katherine found so much mis-captioning even with mainstream photo libraries, archives and authorised biographies of the more famous protagonists.

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #246 17 Aug 2022 Writers’ Forum by ordering online from Select Magazines.

To read my future Research Secrets or Writing 4 Children interviews you can invest in a subscription from the Writers’ Forum website, or download Writers’ Forum to your iOS or Android device.

Special Guest: Q & A with John Condon

Today I am excited to welcome to my blog another special guest. This time one of my favourite picture book writers, John Condon.

When John was a child he was always drawing. So much so that his mother and most of his teachers assumed he would one day become an illustrator or a designer; certainly not an author. Okay, technically he did become a designer… but he’s an author too. Which doesn’t surprise John in the least. John was born and raised in London, but he currently lives on its outskirts where it’s a little leafier. Importantly for him though, it’s just a train ride away from the buzz of town. His favourite holidays involve the sea, which inspires many of his story ideas. Although he doesn’t like to swim in it, he finds the sound of the waves calming and life affirming. He hopes one day to live close enough to the sea to hear it always.

I absolutely loved John’s picture book, The Pirates are Coming – a hilarious retelling of The Boy Who Cried Wolf, with not one but TWO twists! I was hooked to the end of The Wondrous Dinosaurium about a boy searching for the perfect pet. So I am thrilled to be able to interview John about his latest picture book, The Best Bear Tracker.

The Best Bear Tracker by John Condon and Julia Christians

The Best Bear Tracker by John Condon is illustrated by Julia Christians and due to be released by Templar Publishing tomorrow on the18th August 2022.

Thank you John for agreeing to be a special guest on my blog today. It is a great honour to have you here. Let’s dive into the first question.

********

Q&A with John Condon

When did you first realize you wanted to write picture books?

Relatively recently. I first conceived the idea of writing a picture book about 11 years ago, when I was still trying to make films. I wanted to create a gift (or perk) for investors in a planned film project and for some reason or other I decided that a picture book was the solution. I then set about converting the screenplay and loved the process. I didn’t manage to turn the script into a successful text, and eventually put it in a drawer, but the spark had been lit and I knew then that I wanted to write picture books. I actually dug that story out not too long ago and have decided to have another go at it. Watch this space.

My favourite bear tracking rule is Rule Number 5: Lure the bear into the open! What is your favourite bear tracking rule and why?

Hmm, I hadn’t considered it but looking at them all now I think it would be RULE 8: Always be brave. Bravery can take many forms, and it doesn’t have to mean wandering alone into a dark cave looking for a bear. To me in means feeling fear or apprehension about something that you want to do and not letting that fear dissuade you. I’ve often found that by being brave I’ve more often than not benefited in some way, whether big or small.

The Best Bear Tracker relies heavily on the illustrations for the humour. Did you have to write extensive illustration notes?

I tend to do that anyway. I know it’s frowned upon by many but I’m quite visual and I can’t help myself. Occasionally they prove to be very useful to editors but if they decide to ignore them, I have no problem with that at all. I just put them in to give an indication of what might happen rather than with any expectation they should be used. In this instance they were necessary, as you know, so there were notes for every spread. They weren’t always extensive, just clear. And, I would still say they were suggestions rather than rules. If the Templar team had other ideas, or Julia Christians my brilliant illustrator had other ideas, I wouldn’t have had an issue with that. Producing a book is without doubt a team effort, and I embrace that process wholeheartedly.

Do you have any rituals or routines that are part of your writing process?

I don’t have any rituals or superstitions and I’m still trying to figure out a routine that works for me. At the moment I tend to bounce between a few ideas, adding little bits to them as I go, until they are in a place where they more or less resemble a coherent story. Once one does, I’ll decide whether I actually like it enough to keep developing it. This is a tricky point in the process because I’ve found that the stories that excite me won’t necessarily appeal to an editor just as the stories that appeal to them don’t necessarily blow my socks off. As a result, I’ve stopped trying to predict which texts will be winners and just submit stories that I feel have value and then let the editors decide. Occasionally I’ll pin my hopes on one but very seldom do those get picked up. The Pirate story was one of those, but the bear story was not. Having said that, Julia Christians and the Templar team have done such an amazing job with it that I have finally fallen in love with the story. I think it looks gorgeous.

What was your favourite book as a child and why?

I honestly don’t remember many books from my childhood. I think I was a bit of a reluctant reader. I was more of a TV and movie person. I absolutely adored the cinema, which was why I eventually began trying to make films of my own. If you had asked me what my favourite film was as a child, I’d have a long list for you. If you asked me what my favourite TV show as a child was, we’d have to debate the multitude of options. Books took a while to capture my heart, but, of course, they eventually did.

Is there anything else you would like to tell readers about the best Bear Tracker and writing for children?

Only a request that anyone who reads and enjoys this book (or either of my other books) please leave a review on Amazon. Even if it’s just some stars, rather than a written review. It’s hard to know how effective any of this is but I know that I look at reviews and check the star ratings of any book I am considering buying. I also leave reviews for books I have enjoyed. It’s so important to authors to know their work has found an audience. I make very little money as an author (and it’s currently my only form of income) so that feedback gives me encouragement to continue writing. That goes for all children’s authors, I’m sure.

********

Thank you John for agreeing to be interviewed on my blog.

You can find out more about John and his picture books on Twitter @John_Condon_OTT, Instagram @john_condon_author, Facebook @john.condon and on his website: www.johncondon.co.uk.

You can read my review of The Pirates are Coming! by John Condon and Matt Hunt here: Book Review: The Pirates are Coming!

You can discover more about John and his writing tips in another interview I did with him, this time for the September 2019 Writing for Children slot in the national writing magazine Writers’ Forum: An interview with… John Condon

Also discover the highlights of John Condon’s book launch for The Pirates are Coming! here: John Condon’s book launch

John’s books are available to buy in any good bookshop and online at uk.bookshop.org, an organisation with a mission to financially support local, independent bookshops.

An Interview with… Rachel Ip

My blog today is a summary of my interview with picture book writer, Rachel Ip, which appeared in Writers’ Forum last year, in the #235 Aug 2021 issue. She talked to me about her picture book, The Forgettery, which has a theme of memory loss. The Forgettery is illustrated by Laura Hughes and published by Farshore Books.

Rachel revealed the inspiration for The Forgettery came from one of her daughters who asked where all the forgotten things go. Rachel loved the idea that we all have a library of forgotten things we can just dive into and explore.

The story gently explores the concept of memory loss and dementia. Amelia and her Granny find themselves inside the magical world of The Forgettery, where they find everything they have ever forgotten. Amelia helps her Granny find her most treasured memories and they make more along the way.

She told me the theme of memory loss came about quite organically when she started writing about memories and the concept of forgetfulness. She explained she didn’t set out to write a story about dementia, but in the (many!) re-writes it became more and more important to the story. 

“I was keen to write a hopeful story and show the close intergenerational bond between Amelia and her Granny, their joy in their time together and the importance of their memories and experiences, even those they may have forgotten.”

Rachel Ip

When Rachel was writing the story, she started researching how memories are made and why we forget things. She gathered together lots of advice and recommendations about how to talk to children about dementia, and how to support loved ones living with dementia from places like the World Health Organisation, and reports from Dementia UK, the Alzheimer’s Society and other organisations. Rachel told me all this research shaped the story – particularly the ending, where Amelia makes the memory book to help Granny remember their many special moments together. The book also includes lots of sensory details as Granny remembers the smell of fresh bread and the crackle of autumn leaves underfoot.

“It was important for me to use the right language to talk about people living with dementia, and those who support them. Although dementia isn’t explicitly mentioned in the story, that became important in the way the book was described in the various marketing materials (catalogues, online and back cover copy).”

Rachel Ip

Rachel explained she wanted to capture some of these light-hearted moments inside The Forgettery, as well as explore the deeper theme of memory loss. She advocates there’s something very relatable about forgetfulness. Children are forgetful. They’re busy living life in the moment. Adults are also forgetful. We forget our keys and our glasses. We’ve all felt that rush of nostalgia when a song on the radio takes us back 10 years, 20 years in a matter of moments.

With regards to her writing process, Rachel said if she is working on a particular story, she always read the latest draft aloud and see how it feels before starting to edit.

“I write in long-hand in my notebook until the story starts to take shape, then I create a dummy or page plan to see how the pacing and page turns feel. Only then do I write it up in Word to share with my critique group. Everything goes through critique at least once, often more, before I share it with my agent.”

Rachel Ip

She revealed she has a running list of story ideas in the back of her notebook. It might be a phrase or a question, possible titles, or themes she wants to explore. Gradually these come together and form a story idea. I was surprised to discover she had The Forgettery title long before she found the essence of the story.

For picture books, making a dummy or page-plan really helps her to see whether the pacing is working, and whether each page turn is exciting for the reader. You can download an editable page plan for a 32 page picture book from Rachel’s website here: www.rachelip.com/forwriters.

“The picture book plan helps me to see whether each spread feels sufficiently different for the illustrator to illustrate. With picture books, although I’m not an illustrator, I try to think visually when I write and I always edit to take out anything from the words that could be shown in the illustrations. I add illustration notes as I write, but then I try to remove them all before sharing with my agent (unless the story wouldn’t make sense without them).”

Rachel Ip

She explained, The Forgettery was originally rhyming, and she shared it with course tutors, Joyce Dunbar and Petr Horácek, on a picture book course at the Arvon Foundation. Joyce told her to “rewrite it in crystal clear prose.” This struck a chord with Rachel.

Rachel said there’s a lot of luck and timing involved in being published but if you have a story you really believe in, persevere. She explained that The Forgettery was rejected many times on submission to agents. Her agent, Clare Wallace at Darley Anderson, rejected it a year before she signed with her for another story. By then she had taken Joyce’s advice and rewritten The Forgettery many times and it was much stronger than her original submission. Perseverance is key.

I have previously reviewed another lovely picture book book written by Rachel, The Last Garden by Rachel Ip and Anneli Bray on my blog. You can read the review here: Book Review: The Last Garden.

You can find out more about Rachel Ip and her writing at www.rachelip.com and follow her on Twitter @RachelCIp and on Instagram @RachelCIp.

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #232 May 2021 Writers’ Forum by ordering online from Select Magazines.

To read my future Writing 4 Children or Research Secrets interviews you can invest in a subscription from the Writers’ Forum website, or download Writers’ Forum to your iOS or Android device.

An Interview with… Rebecca Smith

In another author interview flashback, I recount when Rebecca Smith told me she used photos and family history to write her saga, The Ash Museum, published by Legend Press. The interview appeared in my ‘Research Secrets slot of Writers’ Forum issue #234 Jul 2021.

The Ash Museum, is an intergenerational story of loss, migration and Rebecca’s search for somewhere to feel at home, inspired by people on her father’s side of the family and what happened to them. She follows their story for five generations and over one hundred years. The character, Emmeline Ash, was inspired by Rebecca’s great grandmother, Edith Hubback, who co-wrote Jane Austen’s Sailor Brothers in 1906.

The Ash Museum is based on what happened to Edith Hubback and her children. Edith’s son, Rebecca’s grandfather, went to India as a tea planter in the 1930s. There he fell in love with and had four children with her grandmother who was Indian. Her grandfather was killed at The Battle of Kohima in 1944. After this happened, the English side of the family took over the care of the four children (including Rebecca’s father) and they were sent to a boarding school on the other side of India; they never saw their mother again.

“I have always wished I knew my paternal grandparents and great grandparents and particularly wanted to know more about my Indian grandmother, about whom we know very little. I wondered what it was like to be her, to have this English “husband” and then to lose him and her children.”

Rebecca Smith

Rebecca’s character, Josmi, is based on what she imagined her grandmother to be like and is at the heart of her novel. In The Ash Museum, Emmie Ash (Josmi’s mixed-race granddaughter) wants to know more about Josmi, and this is one of the things that drives the plot. The novel is about the impact of this loss up and down the generations.

The Ash Museum by Rebecca Smith

As part of her research Rebecca has collected hundreds of books that belonged to previous generations and she explained these were useful in creating characters and historical changes over the generations.

“We can tell so much by what people like to read. I have maps, books about rock climbing with my grandfather’s annotations, an atlas from the 1920s, and poetry, history, philosophy and most importantly, novels. There is a wealth of information to tap into.”

Rebecca Smith

When it came to adding historical details to family meals, she used the only cookery book one of her great aunts had –Radiation Cookery Book: A Selection of Proved Recipes for Use with ‘New World’ ‘Regulo’- Controlled Gas Cookers (19th Edition, 1936). REbecca reckoned it must have come free with her stove. She recognised some of the things she used to cook when she visited and Rebecca tried cooking those and other things herself to get an understanding of the process and how they felt.

The cookery book that belonged to Rebecca’s great aunt

Inspired by her family’s history, she was planning to write lots about The Battle of Kohima where her character, James dies, so she read lots about it and watched documentaries, but in the end Rebecca decided to do things more from his ‘wife’ Josmi’s point of view and ended up with just one very short battle scene. She told me that a lot of her notes and links to articles and images were stored on her phone.

Rebecca explained when she started writing a cousin gave her boxes of family papers. The photos, particularly of when her great grandparents were in Canada, and when her grandfather was in India, were extremely useful. She also found her great grandmother’s diaries kept when her children were small invaluable because her grandmother, Edith Hubback, had recorded things that so many mothers do – funny things her children said and the dates of their first steps and other milestones.

“It was so moving reading these observations 100 years on and knowing what had happened to her children when they grew up.”

Rebecca Smith

She elaborated that the photos showed how Edith had changed from being a beautiful young Edwardian in gorgeous dresses to looking quite broken in the 1940s after her son, my grandfather, had been killed. Rebecca wanted to capture that trajectory. Looking at photos of people and places over time to see how they have changed and traditions changed helped her to do this.

Edith Brown nee Hubback c.1907

Another great research resource was when she was the writer in residence at Jane Austen’s House. She saw the way the curator (then Louise West) used objects to tell the story of Jane Austen and how much can be conveyed and evoked in an economical way and the importance of the visual in storytelling.

Rebecca told me as people walk around the museum, they learn Jane Austen’s story by looking at small things – a needle case made for a niece, Cassandra’s teapot, the quilt made by the Austen women, and of course the books and letters. this observation made her realise by using objects she could have strong threads in the novel without having to ‘tell everything’ that happened.

“I ended up using objects to structure the novel too – it is in the form of a visit to a museum. I plan around scenes and key images – that helps make the writing more manageable and the finished work (I hope) pacier and more memorable.”

Rebecca Smith

Her tip to other writers who want to write a saga is to use your libraries. Librarians are a wealth of information and always pleased to help. she urges authors to make the most of their library card as it gives you access to wonderful resources, many of which you can use remotely so it does not matter where you live.

You can follow Rebecca Smith on Twitter @RMSmithAuthor and Instagram @rebeccamarysmith7

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #234 Jul 2021 Writers’ Forum by ordering online from Select Magazines.

To read my future Writing 4 Children or Research Secrets interviews you can invest in a subscription from the Writers’ Forum website, or download Writers’ Forum to your iOS or Android device.

An Interview with… Tania Unsworth

This week’s author interview is a flashback to when I interviewed Tania Unsworth For my Research Secrets slot in Writers’ Forum, issue #233 Jun 2021. Tania talked to me about how in-depth research permeates every aspect of her novel, The Time Traveller and the Tiger, published by Zephyr.

Tania told me that even before she began writing the book, she knew she needed to tell part of the story from the point of view of the tiger. But she didn’t want him to be a creature of whimsy or magic. She wanted him to be real. Or as close to real as she could manage, given the impossibility of knowing exactly what it’s like to be another animal. It was important for her to learn as much as she could about the physical characteristics and behaviour of wild tigers.

To do this she started by revisiting two classic books: My India the memoirs of legendary tiger hunter-turned conservationist Jim Corbett, and Peter Matthiessen’s powerful Tigers in the Snow. Then a quick google search turned up The Tiger by John Vaillant. Tania told me the latter extraordinary, beautifully written book was full of information and imagination-triggering insights. It also had a lengthy bibliography enabling Tania to source less well-known – but vital – texts, such as Richard Perry’s The World of the Tiger and Spell of the Tiger by Sy Montgomery.

The Time Traveller and the Tiger by Tania Unsworth

Tania explained she did far more research for The Time Traveller and the Tiger than ended up in the novel, filling her notebook with pages and pages of unused facts, along with drawings of various jungle creatures, because she approached the research in a broad, almost scattershot way, happy to go down any number of online rabbit holes, or wade through scientific accounts detailing how tigers are able to see in the dark or the life cycle of bamboo trees.

“I wasn’t always sure what I was looking for, but I knew it when I saw it; the spark of something I could use, the sudden reshaping of an idea. Casting a wide net in this way made the research process far more dynamic. It didn’t just provide authenticity for my story, it also helped me discover how to tell that story.”

Tania Unsworth

Along with books, Tania scoured YouTube for clips of tigers roaring, growling and ‘chuffing’, and watched documentaries such as David Attenborough’s Dynasties to get a sense of the physical presence of tigers – the way they move and sound and react to their environment.

Her book is set in the jungles of central India, and initially she thought it would be enough to go through Google Images for pictures of ‘Kipling country’, and do a thorough online search on the flora and fauna of the region to find out what a banyan or a peepal or a sal tree actually looked like. But she soon realized that this wasn’t going to be enough. Tania revealed spending a week in Kanha and Bandhavgarh – two tiger reserves in Madhya Pradesh changed everything.

“Setting is important to me as a writer, particularly in this book, where the beauty and fragility of the natural world is a big part of the story itself. You can’t tell what the jungle smells like (wild basil and warm grass) just from looking at pictures. And no audio recording of birds and animals can compare to standing in the forest and hearing them for yourself. The notes I made during my week in India transformed the second draft of my book and helped to bring my story to life with a hundred details. The way that termite mounds glitter with tiny fragments of mica. The sound of dew dropping from leaf to leaf in the early morning. The shafts of sunlight pouring through the trees like columns in a temple…”

Tania Unsworth

Her trip wasn’t just useful in terms of providing authentic details. It also gave herideas for plot and character development. For example, the villain iis a man called Sowerby who operates out of a remote hunting lodge. She had a lot of fun describing his study – a ghastly collection of knick-knacks and furniture, all made from animal parts. The inspiration for this came from a visit to the Museum of Science in Boston where I’d marvelled at the reconstruction of a gun room belonging to a certain Colonel Colby, crowded with animal skins and trophies.

When Tania googled ‘objects made from animal parts’ she came across hundreds of old photographs of items – from chairs to waste-paper baskets – that had been constructed out of various wild creatures. Discovering this long-ago trend for grisly home décor gave credence to my description of Sowerby’s room.

To find out more about Tania and her novels visit her website: www.taniaunsworth.com and follow her on Twitter: @TaniaUnsworth1.

You can read my review of The Time Traveller and the Tiger on my blog here: Book Review: The Time Traveller and the Tiger.

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #233 Jun 2021 Writers’ Forum by ordering online from Select Magazines.

To read my future Writing 4 Children or Research Secrets interviews you can invest in a subscription from the Writers’ Forum website, or download Writers’ Forum to your iOS or Android device.

An Interview with… Lev Parikian

For my Research Secrets slot in the national writing magazine, Writers’ Forum #235 Aug 2021, I interviewed Lev Parikian about how his research for a previous book helped him to structure his creative non-fiction book, Into the Tangled Bank, published by Elliott & Thompson.

Lev explained, Into The Tangled Bank, grew from his second book, Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear? which is the story of the year he spent trying to see 200 species of British bird. It had occurred to him, while travelling the country researching the previous book that as well as the fascinating birds he encountered, the people watching them were worthy of study, whether they were novices with only a vague interest in what they were looking at or expert ornithologists with deep knowledge. It made him think of how we all experience nature in our own individual ways, so the broad idea of a book about ‘how we are in nature’ was born.

Into The Tangled Web by Lev Parikan

In honing the idea from that initial concept it occurred to Lev that he could weave together three stories: his own journey through nature; the people he met on the way; and some of the great naturalists of the past who devoted their lives to studying the mysteries of the natural world.

Lev told me his initial research included everyone he found who fell under the broad definition ‘naturalist’. He noted their dates, area of interest, where they lived, and how they might fit into the arc of the book. From there he whittled it down. He wanted it to move from the familiar and domestic – the wildlife we encounter in our homes and gardens and on our doorsteps – gradually outwards to take in a wide variety of habitats – not just the wild places like nature reserves and mountains and lakes and clifftops but local parks and zoos and even museums, where the wildlife is laid out for us to survey in close detail and at our leisure.

“I love birds, but the lives of twelve ornithologists might not have offered the range I was looking for.”

Lev Parikian

Lev revealed it was important to him to cover a variety of disciplines. This is why he included Walter Rothschild, founder of what is now the Hertfordshire wing of the Natural History Museum; the great poet John Clare, who wrote with such power about the nature on his local patch near Peterborough; Thomas Bewick, the engraver whose illustrations were many people’s introduction to the appearance of birds and animals they would never encounter in the flesh; Sir Peter Scott, a man of extraordinary breadth and founder of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (among many other achievements); Gavin Maxwell, who by all appearances preferred the company of otters to humans.

Charles Darwin’s English Heritage house in Kent, UK

The places he visited became gradually wilder – from the rather genteel surroundings of Charles Darwin’s English Heritage house in Kent to Skokholm, a small island off Pembrokeshire which was the first bird observatory in Britain, and is home to a couple of hundred thousand seabirds and just a handful of humans.

During his week on Skokholm, he was torn about how best to spend my time. He was writing about his own experience of the birds, so wanted to spend as much time as possible outdoors looking at the birds and picking the brains of Richard and Giselle, the observatory’s wardens; but the island has an extensive library, filled with the works of its founder Ronald Lockley and much more, all of which he wanted to read. It was impossible to do everything.

“At the heart of the book was a desire to reflect the various ways we experience nature, whether actively (yomping across a boggy moor hoping for a glimpse of a disappearing curlew) or passively (slumped on the sofa listening to David Attenborough describing the sex lives of aardvarks). And really all that was required in that department was to observe people (including myself) as keenly as I observed nature. There was a fair amount of eavesdropping, but I also made a point of striking up conversations whenever I had the opportunity (and when appropriate) and listening to what people had to say.”

Lev Parikian

Lev explained he found recording all this information difficult and admits he is not naturally organised. But he does have a notebook, which he carries with him most of the time, and whenever possible he jots things down. He also makes use of technology which he said he finds indispensable.

“I took a lot of photographs with my phone to remind me of particular settings or encounters, and if I overheard something particularly interesting or funny it was generally quicker to jot it down in the Evernote app on my phone.”

Lev Parikian

He described the process of writing Into The Tangled Bank, as absorbing everything like a sponge and then squeezing it out afterwards. The trick, he claims, is knowing which is the good stuff.

You can find out more about Lev Parikian on his website www.levparikian.com and follow him on Twitter @levparikian and Instagram @levparikian and Facebook @levparikianwriter.

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #235 Aug 2021 Writers’ Forum by ordering online from Select Magazines.

To read my future Research Secrets or Writing 4 Children interviews you can invest in a subscription from the Writers’ Forum website, or download Writers’ Forum to your iOS or Android device.

Inspirations from the Bookshelf – Alice Hemming

Check out SCBWI British Isles online magazine, Words & Pictures, to read the interview I did with Alice Hemming about how she is inspired by Hans Christian Andersen.

Alice hemming writes for children of all ages. She has over 50 books published in the UK and internationally, including picture books and chapter books. She has also written for websites, reading schemes and even a talking bear! Two of her books were selected for the National Library Summer Reading Challenge.

Alice Hemming

Alice recalls how The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Andersen captured her attention when she was a child. She revealed that when revisiting the story as an adult, it was difficult for her to imagine what appealed to her four-year-old self, but she believes it had something to do with the comfort that is to be found within the tale in the flashes of warmth provided by the matches as the little girl tries to keep warm in the snow. A ‘polished stove’. A table set with a mouth-watering feast. A Christmas tree ablaze with candles. And, above all, the hug from the grandmother.

The Little Matchgirl

From that moment on Alice was hooked on Hans Christian Andersen. She told me she has even read Andersen’s autobiography, The Fairy Tale of My Life, although she still prefers the 1952 film with Danny Kaye!

Danny Kaye in the Hans Christina Snderson movie

She explained:

“Andresen hasn’t influenced my writing style, in that every Andersen fairytale I’ve read has been in translation, but he’s had a huge impact on my storytelling.”

Alice Hemming quote from Inspirations from the Bookshelf Interview

Her book The Frozen Unicorn (Scholastic 2022), is the first to reference Hans Christian Andersen and her absolute favourite story (or seven stories) of Andersen’s: The Snow Queen.

The Frozen Unicorn by Alice Hemming

Alice Hemming’s protagonist in The Frozen Unicorn, crosses a snowy landscape to confront an antagonist with a frozen heart, to save her lost love. She meets a hostile stranger in a flower garden, magically blooming in the snowy landscape. Alice has taken these ideas and made them her own. She captures the feeling of magical warmth and safety she found in Andersen’s work.

She explained she is sure she will continue to draw on Andersen’s stories for inspiration and the stories of Hans Christian Andersen will always give her a warm glow.

To read the complete feature please take a look at: Inspirations from the Bookshelf Hans Christian Anderson

You can find out more about Alice and her books on her website: https://alicehemming.co.uk