The Beast From the East…and other stories

I’ve been thinking about the weather. Ok, so I’ve been procrastinating by thinking about the weather (we won’t talk about the plot outline I’m supposed to be putting together…I’ll blame the snow…it has caused a lot of trouble this past week).

More specifically, I’ve been thinking about The Beast From The East.

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Very beastly weather Image: itv.com

My initial reaction when the media comes up with a name for a “weather event” is to recoil in anger and horror. “Why is this necessary?” I want to shout. Actually, I do shout; it’s just that no-one can hear me, apart from my husband, but he’s probably shouting too, so that’s both of us shouting at the radio/TV. Why do they have to give weather events a name? Why give them a character? It’s Disney-fying the weather. It’s as if they don’t trust regular people to understand the concept of a weather front moving in from the Arctic. When I see “Beast from the East” pasted on the front pages of the right-wing press, it all feels a bit Brexit. There’s no excuse for it in the more moderate media.

Plus, there’s the underlying suggestion that anything from the east is, you know, beastly….a big, hairy, snarling, drooling bear, swiping at poor, defenceless Brits, shivering in our tumbledown thatched cottages, trying to boil our kettles on fires that won’t stay alight.

Of course, this naming of the weather isn’t a new phenomenon: they began naming storms a few years ago – badly, in my opinion. I mean, storms shouldn’t be called Amy or Barbara or Clive. They should be called Adolf or Barbarossa or Clytemnestra. If they have to be called something at all…which they don’t.  I’m surprised they didn’t just go for it and call this one “Vladimir”. It’s what everyone was thinking.

As I was fuming over the naming of what is just some weather, I wondered how long it would take for someone to use The Beast from the East as the basis for a novel. There’s probably a writer scribbling away already, setting a story in or near or under…or inside…(now there’s an idea) a snowdrift.

And THEN I got to thinking how often weather events crop up in literature. I don’t mean when the weather gets a mention in a story; a novel which never refers to the climate or the rain or the heat or clouds would feel a bit empty. Weather details are the sort of details which add depth and realism without the reader realising they’re there. They’re the sort of details which, if absent from the writing, would leave the reader feeling short-changed, without them necessarily working out why.

No, I mean big weather events; or significant weather events; weather events which change the course of a story. Or maybe they ARE the story; without them, there is no story.

I suppose the biggest weather event to feature in a story would be the flood to end all floods. Every kid in the West, and a lot in the East (not THAT East…the Orient East) grow up with the story of Noah and his ark and the animals going in two by two – including those terrifying bears from the East, no doubt.

Noah's ark...actually, it's Playmobil's ark...but you get the idea

Where’s the beasts from the east?

This is a great story idea – yes, I said “story idea”…what do you expect? I’m a lefty, atheist, gay, children’s writer – disaster flood threatens life on earth, leaving one man to save said life by building monumental vessel to ride out the storm. I wish I’d thought of that.

Another major climatological event which acts as a catalyst for an entire series of books is that cyclone in Kansas. Without it, Dorothy would never have made it to Oz. 15203561487141665449114246597058.jpg

Without it, her house would never have crushed the Wicked Witch of the East (why is always the East? See what they’re doing? It’s a conspiracy), and our Dorothy would never have skipped her way along the yellow brick road in those Ruby…actually, they were silver in the books… slippers.

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If you’re going to be crushed by a farmhouse in a tornado, you might as well be wearing a GREAT pair of shoes.

A quick browse through the children’s books on my own shelves turns up several stories which rely on the weather for the main event:

Where would Raymond Briggs’ Snowman be without the, er, snow? Nowhere.152035541937717070412601273304913.jpg

Without an eternal winter being cast over Narnia by the White Witch, there would be no battle to be fought in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.152036598641720189739021905078738.jpg

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is totally about a weather event. An unusual one, I give you, but it’s based on a meteorological happening.15203643471284916558219293652.jpg

Then there’s the wonderful Last Wild trilogy from Piers Torday. This dystopian future is set in the disastrous aftermath of catastrophic climate change. 15203563119011316076789228213252.jpg

In the strange and inventive Heap House – book one in the Iremonger series by Edward Carey – a storm rages outside on the heaps of trash and curios, almost drowning the young hero Clod Iremonger. 15203564286376998940341270004858.jpg

And in Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach, our hero and his insect friends discover the weather is actually controlled by the Cloud-Men, who then nearly destroy the peach by producing a hail storm. 15203643845261527510696953651610.jpg

In my own writing, I’ve included a storm – which is definitely not being given a name – through which I send my protagonist and friends. It isn’t essential to the plot, but it adds drama and tension and excitement; it’s a hurdle they have to get over…or never make it to the main event.

The Beast from the East produced stories of its own last week: folk stuck in trains, in cars, in snowdrifts. Babies delivered by the side of the road. Flights cancelled; weddings cancelled; school cancelled (yay…more time for sledging!). Lives were changed forever; lives were lost forever. People everywhere were forced to stop and stay still and do not much at all. Who knows…in that time, stories will have been thought up, written down and maybe told to children warming up by the fire after the snowball fight of the century. I hope so.

Look on your shelves – I bet you’ve got some favourite books which are about the weather, or which feature the weather, or which only exist because of the weather. I’d love to hear about them.

And now, a new idea just occurred to me. It’s about a storm…what shall I call it? How about…The Pest from the West?

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Conference concentrated

Having just arrived home from the annual SCBWI – Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators conference, I thought I’d break my almost pathological blog silence with a post-conference piece. Unfortunately writing and flying commitments are currently syphoning off almost all my free time, so I am left with a one hour window whilst sitting on a flight between Edinburgh and London to share my thoughts. 

A distilled 60 minutes means I’m going to distill my thoughts…. and so, in no particular (read: undrafted, unorganised, probably unreadable) order, things I learned/discovered/didn’t expect to learn or discover from my weekend in Winchester….

*SCBWI conferences are great.

*It’s always worth getting up early to make the keynote sessions. And to take Instagram worthy photos of early morning cemeteries.

*Alex T Smith partly based his wonderful comic dog creation, Claude, on Larry Grayson. The joy of knowing this could keep me happy forever.

*When you’re dressed as your favourite cartoon dog at the Saturday night conference party, people are more likely to talk to you. Or pull your tail. Or both.

*A children’s writers and illustrators conference isn’t the best place to try and keep a top secret publishing deal to yourself. These people can smell good news a mile off.

*The lunch queue is as good a place as any to chat to award winning YA writers and whisper that you’re joining the same publisher as them. (See what I mean…just couldn’t help myself).

*There’s always time to discuss the calamity of Brexit…even 1.30am after a bucket of wine.  Especially at 1.30am after a bucket of wine.

*Marauding drunks are as noisy at 1.30am in well-heeled Hampshire as they are anywhere. (The last two points are not entirely unconnected).

*British provincial hotels are every bit as disappointing as they always were. A selection of tea bags, a creased city guide, and a wall-mounted fan heater, do not a luxury hotel experience make.

*Writers are the best people on earth to rely on for: support, words of wisdom, congratulation, consolation, encouragement, sharing a joke, advice….helping you attach a dog tail…anything.

*Friends made at conference are for life, not just for conference.

*There’s always time, even at a writer’s conference, to discuss vegetarian haggis recipes.

*You can never have enough conference badges and pens.

And now my top 5 things I learned from Scbwicon17:

1. Never travel without my pillow. A breeze block in linen is not a substitute, are you hearing me Mercure hotels?

2. Children’s writers and illustrators are the best people. 

3. A day without tea and cake, is a day not worth living.

4. Get in the queue early for tea and cake.

5. Finding the funny and giving kids something to laugh at is more important now than ever. It’s also what I love to do more than almost anything.

That’s it. One hour of flying combined with an hour writing. I don’t call myself the flyingscribbler for nothing.

A Moving (Re)Discovery

Manuscript Status: On Submission

Writer Status: Impatient, nervous and a little bit stressed. Pretending not to be all of the above.

So, being on submission doesn’t mean the writing stops. Of course not. I’m ploughing on with a first draft of a new (if by ‘new’ I mean nearly a year old already…I had edits to work on for my agent, plus, like, loads of other things…) project. The aim is to get the whole draft completed as soon as I can. I’m hoping to get the call saying “drop whatever you’re working on, you have more edits to do!”. And I’d quite like to have punched in the final full stop on draft one by then; you know…for the sake of tidiness.

But of course, this writer still needs a break from the… er… stress of writing. I’m always on the lookout for a break (and I heard that, whoever just shouted “procrastinator”!). Yesterday’s procrastination, I mean break, came in the most unexpected and delightful form.

My husband is currently assisting his parents with a house move from the family home of thirty-five years. Naturally, this means some artefacts from the dig have found their way into our house, and how we’ve laughed at his year six story-writing workbook, (be warned, husband, there’s material there for a whole new blog).

Along with his childhood scribblings and doodlings have come some gems of children’s literature that he read as a child, including this wonderful book:

IMG_20170719_180906525This charming – and somewhat defiant – story (a Philippe Fix creation, with story for pictures by Janine Ast and Alain Grée…I assume it to be French) features three characters: the eponymous Beebo, a chap in his later years; Mop, his friend; and Hector, a hamster. I haven’t worked out who Mop is in relation to Beebo; he seems to live in Beebo’s flat whilst Beebo works on the Paris Metro, walking through the towering streets of Paris every day.

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In our era, I doubt we’d see a story about an older man and a young boy being friends make its way to the book shop shelves. And Mop’s origin is never explained. Nor is the reason why Beebo inherits a run-down old mansion (which they turn into every child’s dream fantasy house). There are inconsistencies aplenty, none of which would jar with a young reader.

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I like to think that Mop is nothing more or less than Beebo’s younger self, or perhaps the childhood friend Beebo never had…because as charming as Hector is, a hamster is a poor substitute for a pal.

But if we fail to work out who Mop really is, there is no mistaking what the story wants to say – at least, not to my adult eyes, (is it even possible for an adult to read a children’s book with a child’s eye? We know too much. We’re tainted by the horrors of life. We can only lament the loss of innocence).

This is a story about friendship – real, or imagined.

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This is a story about the evils of unconstrained capitalism and supposed progress. Yes, even a picture book can deal with the heavy-weight subjects. In this respect The House That Beebo Built is a story for all time; especially poignant right now.

This is also a story about the triumph of hope when all seems lost. And if that’s not a message we want kids to read about, I don’t know what is.

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It is a story about escape. From those that would destroy that which you have worked for. Escape from a world gone mad and bad. Escape from the disappointments and strain of life. Actually, it might be about escaping from life itself.

I think it might be a story about death.

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Our friends end by building an ingenious stairway to the sky, which can only be a metaphor for the final journey. And they don’t forget little Hector: he gets to play in the vast hamster wheel in the clouds. At least, in my mind he does.

Naturally, we can make of this story whatever we will. And it doesn’t really matter, because what charms the most, what grabs the attention, what makes us smile – and it’s what my husband cherishes so much – are the beautiful, joyous illustrations. And it’s those that I really wanted to share.

I hope you enjoy them too.

PS. Amazon have a copy for £185. And no, husband, it’s not yours! Because your House That Beebo Built is now our House That Beebo Built.

Second-hand books; first class words.

Being, as I am, fortunate to travel all over the world in my job-that-pays (writing, as yet, not providing much in the way of financial nourishment), I try to grab opportunities when they come my way. And an opportunity to duck into a second-hand bookshop is never to be missed.

In Boston, this means a pilgrimage to Brattle Book Shop. Despite the cold, visitors are still drawn to the bargain carts of books which sit in the vacant lot next door. Arranged in ascending – or descending, depending on your inclination – price, the carts offer books at $1, $3, or a heady $5. It was on a $5 cart that I found my first scoop of the day:

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At only five dollars, this US first edition seems like a bargain. Just as well Vita isn’t looking down from the writer’s mural on the wall. To be available so cheaply….

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Still, I feel that I have found myself something special. And a quick check on Amazon suggests that ‘The Dark Island’ isn’t in print. A copy in French is available; but even for this francophone, that’s a bit de trop.

Escaping from the biting chill whipping through the carts, I headed directly for the children’s section. (I didn’t dare head to the vintage and rare books floor; last time I did that I found myself shelling out for a Christopher Isherwood first edition). It didn’t take long to bag a couple of gems here. First up is this joyous volume:

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There’s something comforting about knowing kids have been learning the same alphabet for hundreds of years. The examples might have changed, but the letters haven’t.

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Shame they couldn’t think of anything for ‘Q’ or ‘X’.

A topical modern version might begin: ” A’s for America that’s been led astray; B is for Brexit that won’t go away”.

And talking of satire…

My final delight of the day is this intriguing book. It is, of course, a parody of Alice in Wonderland from the late 1920’s. In it, the author satirizes immigration restrictions, censorship and prohibition, amongst other topics.

As Trump takes office later today, I imagine we should expect a tsunami of satire to pour forth from America. As it must.

Heading back to the hotel along Boston’s mall, Commonwealth Avenue, I stopped at one of the many statues which proudly watch over the joggers, lunchers, dog-walkers and book-buyers. William Lloyd Garrison was an abolitionist, suffragist and social reformer. The kind of person I’d gladly sit next to on a plane. His world view – an expansive, anti-isolationist one – that we are all the same, is on the defensive in many parts of the world right now. But it is one I identify with, and on a day which feels like a massively retrograde step for decency and democracy, I’m sharing it with you.

“My country is the world. My countrymen are all mankind.” William Lloyd Garrison.

A morning which began with second-hand books, ended with a first class sentiment.

And an unexpected feeling of hope.

One tale; many stories.

There are many ways to tell one story.

This is something we, as writers, know. It’s something readers are aware of too. A story can be scary, or funny, or touching. It can be entertaining, or moralistic.

A story can be brilliant, or, and this is something I hope to avoid, terrible.

I’m currently working on the first draft of a new story, and as I write, it is taking unexpected turns. My characters decide to react differently to how I’d expected them to, and they’re meeting people I didn’t know existed until we met them for the first time.

My plot expands and contracts like a slowly beating heart and my setting morphs and moulds before my eyes.

In short, my story isn’t quite as I imagined it to be. And that’s ok. It’s bound to look entirely different by the end of the process. But the story I want to tell, the reason I embarked on this project, will still be there. The essence, or kernel, of my idea will be intact. It’s the anchor that keeps me swimming too far away as those new twists turn up and as unfamiliar turns force my characters to twist their words. It will keep me from drifting off into a too-strong current when a sub plot appears, threatening to drown out the important action. Like a salmon returning to a spawning river, the central thrust of my idea will bring me back to where I started; it will stop me from becoming lost in the deep blue sea.

The ability of a story to take unexpected, new and delightful twists and turns, without losing its way to the end game, was made clear to me last night at the ballet, (and if that last phrase doesn’t make me sound all high fallutin’, nothing will).

We went, the husband and I, to see Scottish Ballet’s Hansel and Gretel.

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image: edtheatres.com

A festive feast of fancy footwork; a seasonal splendour of sassy steps and jaunty jumps. Tutus as wide as elephants thighs and thighs as wide as… er…elephants thighs?

The pre-performance blurb hinted that this telling of the classic fairy tale was indeed a RE-telling. The wicked step mother was replaced by materialistic parents, more keen on watching tv than watching the kids. The witch was a glamorous beauty, luring the children away with her lollipops.

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A very un-witch like witch. Image: Scottish Ballet

Too late, the parents discover their loss, and they go in search of their little ones, now imprisoned in the familiar house made of sweets. Here, the ballet stuck to a familiar script of Hansel being fattened up for the pot, and Gretel handing him thin bones to convince the now-uglified witch that his time hadn’t yet come.

Dancing chefs, enchanted rag dolls and a decapitated teddy didn’t feature in Grimm’s original version, but they added to the fun rather than taking away from the tale.

Same story; different journey.

Years ago, I went to Glyndebourne (there he goes again, thinking he’s a cut above…) to see an operatic version of Hansel and Gretel. Same basic story, same music in fact (Humperdink’s score), but another interpretation.

If I remember, Glyndebourne offered up a drag version of the witch, whose house ressembled a supermarket, and where Hansel’s cage was a supermarket trolly.

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photo: telegraph.com

That’ll have got them talking in the long interval.

Again, same story; different journey.

As I continue with my novel, I’ll keep in mind these two wildly different versions of Hansel and Gretel, and, of course, Grimm’s original tale. They all entertain and thrill and satisfy. In all, the witch gets her comeuppance and the children learn a salutary lesson about greed and trust. In all, good wins out over evil. That is the kernel of this story, and it doesn’t change in the different tellings.

As long as I keep my kernel in mind, I can take my story wherever it wants to go. Although, just to safe, I might lay a trail of breadcrumbs in case I become lost.

Just yell if you see any hungry birds looking for a snack. Look what happened to Hansel and Gretel.

Snowballs…in June

Odd, perhaps, to be thinking about snowballs in June, but then, these are odd times.

Two events this week have made me consider the snowball; one utterly depressing and the other distinctly positive.

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Post-Brexit Britain feels like a snowball – a really big one – hurtling downhill towards an unknown oblivion, gathering, as it rolls, untold calamities, complications and catastrophic outcomes. They say a rolling stone gathers no moss; well, a rolling snowball gathers more snow exponentially. Each turn adding piles more of the white stuff, gaining momentum, power and threat of danger.

The image playing in my mind is of sixty million people, caught like pieces of mountain scree in the world’s biggest snowball, bowling down the slope towards a gaping crevasse.

It’s Ice Age IV, ‘Frozen in Fear’.

And so to Saturday and snowball number two; a gentler, friendlier snowball. And in terms of writing, a rather useful one.

I attended a writing workshop in Edinburgh: ‘The Writer and the Agent’, jointly hosted by writer Janis Mackay and her agent Kathryn Ross. Janis is a wonderful author who I was lucky enough to meet at last year’s Kelpies Prize, when I had the thrill of hearing her read an excerpt of my shortlisted children’s novel. She is best known – to me at least – for her Magnus Fin series and her Timetraveller trilogy. Kathryn Ross, her agent, is from Fraser Ross, an Edinburgh-based literary agency.

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Kathryn Ross (agent) & Janis Mackay (author)

One of the exercises we were invited to do involved creating a ‘snowball’ of our novels. Disregarding the fact that I can’t draw a circle that actually resembles a circle (I went with ‘squashed ellipse’ or ‘half-melted snowball’), the exercise turned out to be incredibly useful.

Staring at the centre of the ball, we were asked to write the where and when of our story. Then, in a series of ever-larger concentric circles – or ellipses – we scribbled down the inciting incident (the thing that kicks off the action), followed by whatever it (or who) gets in the way to thwart our hero, then the decisive moment or turning point at which our hero must decide whether to act and how to do it. Finally, the outer circle of our expanding snowball contained the resolution to all this. Effectively, we had drawn a diagrammatic pitch for our work.

In using the snowball analogy, I found I suddenly had a real sense of the growing impetus within my story. I could almost visualise it rolling down that hill, gathering pace as the story developed. The exercise helped to distill my book into its core essence, leaving me with a much better idea of how to describe – i.e. pitch – it to anyone kind enough to ask.

The next exercise had us actually verbally pitching our books. I think I’ll gloss over my rather amateur effort. I’ll be better prepared next time. Promise.

As snowballs go, this one really helped me on my journey with this novel. And it didn’t leave me cold, wet and uncomfortable.

Unlike the other one. Try pitching that story to someone successfully. When it finally stops rolling, it’ll be so huge, it may never defrost.

 

If shoes could talk…

Shoes. They tell stories.

To listen to some of these tales you could do worse than take a trip to the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto.

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Here, shoes from around the world and through the ages recount their histories: who wore them and why they were worn.

Out of many intriguing tales, these three piqued my imagination. All worn by very different people for very different purposes.

Firstly, a shoe with only one aim in life: to crush, smash and pulverise. Seen out of context, this beast of a shoe is the stuff of nightmares; an instrument of torture conceived by a twisted mind.

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It’s actual raison d’être is more prosaic: this is a worker’s clog, worn, yes, to crush, smash and pulverise… the humble chestnut.
If you were born into a nineteenth century chestnut farming family in the Haute Ardeche of France, this would be your footwear of  choice come harvest time. These shoes tell a story of unmechanised hard labouring. As fun as it might be to try them on and wobble around, I’m guessing that chestnut farmer couldn’t wait to get them off their feet at the end of a long day.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a shoe created for quite such a specific purpose.

From another corner of the planet comes example number two. This is a nineteenth century paduka from India.

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Worn by placing the toe knob between your big toe and the next, much like a flip flop, these particular examples had a rather more elaborate function.
The small button on the heel, when pressed, would send a spray of lotus-infused water over the wearer’s foot, thereby cleansing and purifying on-the-go.
Originally, these paduka would have been decorated with a lotus flower             (important in both Hindu and Buddhist religions) on the toe knob; a fancy stepping out indeed for the devout. These shoes tell a tale of the search for enlightenment, the quest for reincarnation.
I wonder if that chestnut farmer had similar thoughts in mind as they stepped out of a morning?

Finally, a story of rank, privilege and power.

Here, in all his splendour and finery is Louis XIV.

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Of note here are his dandyish shoes, and more specifically, those daring, red heels. In the Versailles of this Louis, only the most valued and most important courtier had the right of sporting scarlet heels bestowed on them. One wonders how hard you had to work to reach that point; how low you had to bow. The grovelling, the flattering, the scheming: all for the right to totter along the hall of mirrors in a pair of heels! You couldn’t exactly wear them to pick up your baguette for lunch; which, I suppose, was the point. Still, what fun to have been a mouche on a wall in Versailles…those shoes were made for talking.

Three pairs of shoes; three stories; three very different lives.

If your shoes could talk, what story would they tell.