Shakespeare Week and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

This week I’m celebrating the work of Pupil Library Assistants, and also Shakespeare Week.

I am a member of the judging panel for the Pupil Library Assistant of the Year Award. The competition for the prize was very fierce and, sadly, not everyone could make it to the final seven. However, these pupils clearly all had a great passion for books and reading and took this beyond the walls of their schools. Almost all of the pupils not only worked in their school libraries, but they had also had the opportunity to take part in other schemes connected to books and literacy. One of the longlist nominees, Miranda, described a little about her volunteer work at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

I was so intrigued by this that I invited her to write a blog post in more detail so that she could explain what Shakespeare and the Birthplace Trust means to her and other pupils.  This is published here to take a closer look at the Birthplace Trust, and to encourage schools to sign up for Shakespeare Week. This runs from 16 -22 March 2015 and encourages everyone to take another look at the world’s most famous writer. So from a writer of the past…to a writer of the future!

My guest blogger is…..Miranda K. Gleaves – Alcester Grammar School

Shakespeare Week: the wonderful world of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

I’m lucky that I’m at a school where being a Pupil Librarian isn’t regarded as a bit bizarre.  Everyone accepts my love of books (I was the first ever Year 7 to get the school’s Gold Reading Challenge Award) and, definitely, my admiration of the playwright, William Shakespeare.

I was seven when I saw my first Shakespeare play (The Comedy of Errors) at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. My mum explained that I wouldn’t understand every word of it, but that it wouldn’t matter.  She was right – and had to shush me as I was laughing so loudly at the almost-pantomime on stage. No-one should think Shakespeare is incomprehensible, scary or “not for them”.

Thanks to our School Librarian, Mrs Beeson, I was invited, with the other Pupil Library Assistants, on a behind-the-scenes tour of the Shakespeare Birthplace archives and instantly felt that it was the most amazing place.

Since then, I have completed a week of formal Work Experience with the SBT and two weeks with them as a volunteer.  I’ve already arranged to go back!

I’ve helped with conservation work in the archives and at the Shakespeare Houses (having also volunteered with the National Trust for four years, my conservation cleaning experience came in very handy).  I learned how to use the SBT’s unique library system to carry out research, and this enabled me to create a display for the Public Reading Room.  I should also say that the SBT archives are vast – and aren’t just about Shakespeare.  They have masses of information on the local area and my display was on the arrival of Belgian refugees in Stratford at the start of WWI.

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My display.

I’m looking very carefully at the Wolf Hall adaptation on television at the moment, having spent time as a costumed interpreter at Mary Arden’s Farm, one of the Shakespeare Houses. Here, I dressed and behaved as a Tudor, helping to prepare authentic meals to eat in front of the public and discovering the customs of the time (for example, napkins are draped over the left shoulder, those wearing red are ranked more highly than those in blue, and all meals are eaten only with your personal spoon). So far, it looks as though Mark Rylance and his colleagues have got it about right.

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While immersed in Tudor life and language it was fascinating to see at first hand just how engaged visiting school children – also in SBT Tudor costumes – were by the whole experience and how much they learned from it.

I think that Shakespeare Week is a fantastic initiative, and I only wish that I could have participated back when I was at primary school. If I could say one thing to all the pupils and teachers involved, it would have to be “don’t be scared of Shakespeare – he tells great stories”!

With thanks to Miranda Gleaves and her librarian – Louise Beeson – from Alcester Grammar School

You can find out a lot more about the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust using this link.

Take part in Shakespeare Week too! Follow the link for more information and how to join in.

The winner of the 2015 Pupil Library Assistant Award will be announced by 4pm on Thursday 12th March.

Tardis Destinations – Companion’s post by author Helen Grant

Helen Grant

Helen Grant

For this post we welcome aboard our Tardis YA author Helen Grant. Helen writes the most wonderfully scary and atmospheric books and her latest (Demons of Ghent) is due out today. It is the second book in her Forbidden Spaces trilogy, the first being Silent Saturday, and the latest in a rake of fabulously scary books. I am a great fan of Helen’s work and so am thrilled to read her choice for a Tardis Destination, and a tale of a delicious mystery…. over to Helen!

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Tardis Destinations from Helen Grant

 If I had a Tardis, I know exactly when and where I would go: the city of Ghent in Flanders (the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium), 1426.

 Although I spent every summer in Belgium as a teenager, I never visited Ghent until 2011, when we were living in Flanders. I fell in love with the city instantly. It has such a strong sense of times past: there are many beautiful old guild houses, magnificent churches and even castles. If you stand at the top of the keep of the Gravensteen castle, you can see the three famous towers of Sint-Baafs cathedral, the Sint-Niklaaskerk and the Belfort (city belfry).

Sint-Baafs from the Belfort

Sint-Baafs from the Belfort


It’s amazing to think that if you had stood there five centuries ago, you would have been able to see that same view.

 Ghent is also intersected with canals. There is one particularly beautiful waterfront area called the Graslei where the gorgeous old buildings are reflected in the glossy water.

Graslei, Ghent

Graslei, Ghent


Altogether, it is an enchanting city.

 When we visited it in 2011 I was working on the first of three books set in Flanders, and I decided there and then to set the second one in Ghent. It is hard to write convincingly about a place when you have only spent four hours there, so I went back for a week in December 2012, and spent days walking about, taking photographs, writing notes and asking questions.

 I loved everything I visited in Ghent, but the place that spoke to me most of all was Sint-Baafs Cathedral. Built in the 14th-16th centuries, it is a massive Gothic church with a huge square tower, a vaulted crypt and lots of interesting side chapels. Best of it, it houses the Ghent Altarpiece, the enormous panelled painting sometimes called ˝The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb.“ It was largely this painting that convinced me that I wanted to set a book in Ghent, and indeed it features in my new thriller Demons of Ghent.

 
Demons of Ghent
I’d like to go back to Ghent in 1426 because I would love to satisfy my absolutely raging curiosity about the Ghent Altarpiece! There are so many unanswered questions about it. It is described as being by ˝Van Eyck“ but there were two Van Eyck brothers, Hubert and Jan, and nobody seems to know for certain who contributed what to its creation.

 Hubert Van Eyck was the elder brother and he is thought to have been commissioned to create the Altarpiece around 1420. However, he died in 1426 and the work was apparently taken over by his younger brother, Jan. It was evidently completed by 1432 because that year it was installed in the Vijdt chapel in Sint-Baafs.

 Over the years there have been many theories about who was responsible for what part of the painting. It has been made much harder by the fact that there is virtually no other surviving work by Hubert for comparison. He is thought to have started a painting called The Three Marys at the Tomb but someone else finished it – perhaps Jan. There is  a latin verse on the painting’s frame that praises Hubert and describes Jan as ˝second in art“, but this might be a piece of brotherly generosity. In the past, Hubert’s very existence has actually been questioned, because of the lack of evidence of his work.

 There is also a weird story that Hubert Van Eyck’s right arm – presumably his painting arm – was cut off after his death and preserved in a casket over the cathedral door. The rest of him is buried somewhere else in the cathedral. How strange is that?!

 I think writers, with our overactive imaginations, make great conspiracy theorists. I heard all of these disparate details – the confusion over who painted what, the death of Hubert before the painting was finished, the severed arm thing – and some truly wild explanations suggested themselves to me. Some of those ideas became the backdrop to Demons of Ghent.

 I’d love to travel back to 1426, just before Hubert Van Eyck died, and see what was happening. Did Hubert hand over the brushes and the pots of oil paint to Jan when 95% of the painting was finished, or did he leave his younger brother with little more than sketches? If I could ask Hubert about the rest of his now vanished oeuvre, what would he tell me – perhaps even show me? Did his contemporaries really think that Hubert was the greatest and Jan was second best – or was that a piece of humblebragging from Jan? Did they really cut Hubert’s arm off his cooling corpse and stick it in a box over the door, like a particularly grotesque bit of interior decor?

 Maybe Jan stood there watching while they sawed the arm off, thinking, “Ha, that will serve you right for leaving me with a handful of sketches and six years’ work on your blimmin’ design.”

 That’s the main reason I’d go back, to find out what really happened. But there’s one other thing about the Ghent Altarpiece that fascinates me.

 The central focus of the painting is the Mystic Lamb on its red-and-gold altar. On either side of it are crowds of saints, prophets, pilgrims, hermits and so on. In total the painting has 170 figures gazing into the central panel at the Lamb, or casting their eyes down, sometimes to read holy books. Amongst the red-robed clerics at on the right, a single bishop stares out of the painting at the viewer, his head inclined, a challenging expression in his eyes.

 When I first noticed this figure, I found him distinctly creepy. Are we, the viewers, meant to notice him? Why does he, alone, attempt to connect with us? Is there some significance to his challenging gaze? I’ve often wondered – all the figures must have had models, so was there something special about that one? Did Hubert, for example, put himself into the painting? Since the only portrait of Hubert I’ve been able to find was a woodcut made long after his death, there is no way to know now. Unless….I had a Tardis.

Useful links:

 http://closertovaneyck.kikirpa.be   A website showing the Ghent Altarpiece, with the ability to zoom in on any part of it.

 http://www.randomhouse.co.uk/editions/the-demons-of-ghent-forbidden-spaces-trilogy-book-two/9780552566766   Random House website entry for Demons of Ghent, including click function to read a sample of the book.

 http://www.helengrantbooks.com   My author website.

All aboard the Blog Tour!

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So, it’s all aboard the Blog Tour as part of #mywritingprocess!

We have chugged along the line and stopped at some fantastic places and have now arrived at my little station in the woods thanks to an invite from the ever charming Sally Poyton and you pop over to visit her wonderful blog about books, reading, writing and dyslexia here!

Ok, on platform one we have the ever popular question – What are you working on at the moment?

At the moment I’m currently working on a YA project about a serial killer, as well as the sequel to my book Brotherhood of Shades. I’m usually working on two or three projects at a time, and a few other side projects as well. I like to keep busy but I think I could do with a holiday at the moment.

My favourite project at the moment is not one of my own. I am Author in Residence at a school in Hertfordshire and there is a ten year old girl there who is currently working on an amazing novel and we spend time every week sitting in the school library sounding out her ideas. She is quite remarkable and it is great fun working with her and one day I expect her to say thanks to me by sending her private jet out to fly me to her private island when she is rich and famous.

Over to platform two and it’s – How does your work differ from others of its genre?

Errr, ummm, it’s written by me?

Ok, that’s a bit of a cop out, so let me think…. Ah, I have been told that it is unusual to have your main character die in the opening chapters. He does come back as a ghost so obviously he does need to die first. I’ve always loved ghost stories and really wanted to write a classic ghost story but in a modern setting. Mine is unusual because it does move from the past to the present day, and has a modern feel but touches on historical events like the Great Fire of London.

The locations in my book are all real and can be found in London, and there is soon to be a map of the locations so that readers can see if they can find all the places mentioned.

Platform three is ready to leave with – Why do you write what you do?

Although I write contemporary fantasy, I feel that what I’m actually writing is all about real life (and death!) experiences. When I was a small person I wanted so much to believe that there was more to the world than that which you can see. I wanted to believe that there was another world that operated just outside our reach and that has heavily influenced my writing. I always say that it’s all about the world out of the corner of your eye.

I’m sure it’s there, we just need to find a way to see it.

 Standing room only on platform four as the Blog Tour is almost ready to leave with – How does your writing process work?

Well, nothing like ending on a biggie!

I know that there is this whole Planner vs Pantster thing, but I’m honestly a bit of both. I don’t have a strict plan but I do rough a lot of the story out and know where it’s going. I often rough out dialogue and even pace out some of the scenes to be sure that they will work. I keep a timeline of events, and a whole mass of post-its with ideas that have popped into my head.

A writing day tends to start with me doing my emails and clearing the mental clutter that might rattle around in my head and stop me from concentrating. I do a bit of social networking and read the papers online in this time too, and drink tea. All of this is often done from bed with a biscuit accompaniment as I find this is a good time for consume something for energy (that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.) I get to my desk by ten (which is not tricky as it’s only on the other side of the bedroom) and I get on with my work.

My desk is in a funny little wardrobe so that I can a) shut it all away at night without having to tidy it up and b)not stare out of the window. I live overlooking a street where something is always happening so it’s not wise to be facing it. When I’m stuck on something I’ll go for a walk, or I’ll get a good long chunk of vital Staring Into Space time in. I do think that a good amount of daydreaming is essential to plot development and so I feel no guilt about sitting in front of a nice breeze watching clouds and trees.

I try not to write past eight in the evening, but that’s not always possible if my characters (or deadlines) decide otherwise. I’m just a puppet in their hands and so if they are really nagging me then it is just easier to give them the attention they require rather than fight them.

I do write seven days a week, 365 a year. I’m quite bad at taking days off but I’m working on it!

Ok, as the last train of the Blog Tour chuffs out of the station with a lonesome whistle and an enigmatic whirl of steam we jump quickly on board and look forward to the next destination.

I’m passing my Blog Tour ticket on to one of my favourite writers and illustrators – the completely fantastic Thomas Taylor. Visit his blog and he’ll tell you all about himself, and his latest projects, including (and I’m so excited about this that I can hardly say it…) a collaboration with Marcus Sedgwick. Click on the Scarlett Hart link to find out more.

A brilliant bundle of questions from Burlington Danes.

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Every year during the week of World Book Day we authors get out and about doing all sorts of book related things. One of my visits during this week was to Burlington Danes Academy in North London. I’d read a lot about the school before I went and was greatly looking forward to visiting an “Outstanding” school.
I had lots of contact with school librarian Elizabeth Gardner before the visit, and so I was confident that I would be visiting a well run library and some keen and eager pupils – and I was not wrong. It was easily one of my favourite school visits and I felt very welcomed. I had two sessions with year seven, and in the middle a brilliant picnic lunch in the library with the pupils who make up the school’s Literacy Squad. I must say, I love the idea of the Literacy Squad. They help out in the library, go on buys for library stock, and work hard to keep up the profile of books and reading in the school. The Squad are a mix of all sorts of people and they were superb fun to spend lunch with. As we ate and chatted they wrote down their questions for me and I was handed a bowl full of slips of paper. The questions were brilliant, but sadly we ran out of time before I could answer them all and so I’m putting them all here on my blog with my thanks to the dazzling pupils of Burlington Danes Academy, and their wonderful library staff.
Thank you so much!
A few people asked what influenced or inspired me and where I get my ideas.  (Felix, Aishni, Polinu, Maisie, Jai, Christian, Mariam, Zahra, Beth, Kareem)
I love stories and my whole life has been spent either hearing them or telling them. To me the best stories are the ones that lift you from your world and place you somewhere else. I’ve always written stories, right from when I was small, and writing them is one step better than reading them! To read a story is to be Somewhere Else, to write a story is the be the master of the Somewhere Else. 
I find my inspiration everywhere, but the best inspiration comes from the world around you. I think it’s important to keep your eyes open and your head up and spend as much time as you can in the real world. The world is strange and amazing and in it you’ll find all the inspiration you’ll ever need.

What are your favourite things to write about and what’s your favourite genre? (Felix)
Even though Brotherhood is fantasy, I feel that I’m still writing about real people and their varied life (and death!) experiences. I like to write about real life, but with a twist. I like to think of it as the world out of the corner of your eye – the world that might possibly exist if only you could see it. I write in my favourite genre and so the books that I read are along these lines too.

When you write and read scary stories does it scare you at night? (Polinu)
Fear is a strange thing, and we are often most scared of things that can do us no harm whatsoever. Human beings are incredibly brave and can overcome the most extraordinary things. I am sometimes scared at night, just like everyone, but it is possible to take those fears of things that are unreal and turn them into a thrill and enjoy it. It’s a bit like that fear that you feel at the peak of a rollercoaster just before it plunges down. I think it’s important to understand that fear is part of our lives and can make us stronger.

What would you tell a pupil who wants to be an author? (Jai)
Oh that’s easy- write down all the things! Writers write, all the time. When you see something interesting, funny, intriguing – write it down. When you get an idea – write it down. When you have a flash of inspiration – write it down. You need to have a big store cupboard of ideas so that you have the ingredients to write a story when you need it. It seems like a big task when you start but writing and reading are habit forming and if you let them into your life it all becomes a habit and no longer seems like work.

What influenced you to write about ghosts? (Christian)
I’ve always loved ghost stories and love any story about the unknown and the unexplained. The world is full of the most amazing mysteries and I’d love to write about lots more. I think that we all secretly want to believe that there is more to the world than what we can see, and that makes for great stories.

What do you like about horror? (Moo ha ha ha! Evil laugh from Mariam)
To be honest I’m not a huge fan of what people think of as horror because I’m a total wet blanket and easily scared. I find that the horror genre is full of blood and gore and I’m not a splatter fan. I do like creepy suspense that makes me jump and makes me wonder what that movement was in the shadows…. I’d like to read a lot more horror that wasn’t just about slaughtering teenagers and was more about spooky situations and creepy mysteries. There is a lot about, and most of the best stuff is written for young adults so it’s a great time to be a fan of that kind of book.
Oh-and I don’t do zombies (*shudders*) because there is just no reasoning with them, and now they can run!! Ghastly.

What is your objective with your books? Do you want to entertain or change things in the world? (Reece)
Hmmm, that’s a tricky one. I think that every writer wants to do a little of both, but if pressed for an answer to that question they would really just want to tell a good story. The other details come in later when we are refining the story and thinking about the mechanics of it. At the heart of it we get an idea for a story and grows and grows until it’s all we can think about, and then we want to tell it. I think that maybe if you started off trying to tell a story that was designed to change the world it could end up preachy and patronising.

How do you publish your stories and where do you go for this? (Johnley)
First of all, finish your book. That’s the best advice I can give you, actually finish it properly. Then give it to other people to read. Make sure that these are people who you can trust to give you an honest opinion and not just say nice things about it!
There is a wonderful book called the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook and you can find it in every good library. It will give you all the advice you’ll ever need to get your book out to publishers and it has lots of great contacts.

How do you feel when you finally complete a book? (Tamara)
Relieved! Honestly, it’s hard work writing a book. It’s not hard work like digging holes or building houses, but it’s hard work on the head and eyes, and you don’t get much time for socialising and fresh air. The first thing I do when I’ve finished a book is take a day or two off and catch up on some sleep and seeing friends. Then I start with the editing process and so it’s a deep sigh and back to the beginning!

What has growing up been like? (Tamara)
Not always easy, not always hard. It’s been a challenge at times but challenge in your life makes you a better person. If everything was easy in your life you would be a dull and boring person. We need lots of different things to happen to us in our lives to make us interesting people.
I’m not sure I’m qualified to answer this question as I’m not sure I’m quite grown up yet!

How long does it take from a publisher agreeing to print your book, to it reaching the store shelves? (Aaron)
Well, that’s a question with many answers! It can take a few months, it can take a couple of years. Publishers try to think of the best time of year to publish books and so that might mean that you have to wait for several months for them to get your book out. There is a long process before a book is published too – all the editing and design stuff – and that can take a very long time. One of the first things you learn when you start working in this area is that you need to be very very patient.

What do your parents think about your book? (Jamal)
Honestly, they could not be more proud. I think that my dad’s friends are probably sick of hearing about me as he talks about me all the time. My parents have both been incredibly supportive and they love my book – but then they would say that, they are my mum and dad!
I’m very close to my sister, Angie, and she’s great at making me get out of the house and away from my computer. She keeps my feet on the ground and is great fun to be with. She is proud of me too, but never let’s me get too big headed and I love that.

What do you have to do to get in “the zone” with your writing? (Maisie)
One of the most important things to writing a good story is to spend a good deal of time just thinking about it. I’m a great believer in the importance of daydreaming and staring into space. I often find music that ties into the work that I’m doing, and I sit and stare into space listening to music. When I’m clear on my ideas then I have a splurge of writing lots of things down. When I’m doing my writing I have to make sure that I’m not facing the window. Human beings are fascinating, and if I am facing a window I will end up sitting watching the world go by instead of paying attention to what’s going on in my head!

Do you have a favourite book? (Jordan, Juliana)
I have thousands! I have books for every mood and every season, and what is my favourite one day might not be my favourite on another. I do love classic Gothic novels, so books like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula are pretty high up on my list of favourites.
As a child I loved Edgar Allan Poe, but that’s a bit on the creepy side. I really enjoyed writers like Ray Bradbury and John Christopher as they wrote about these amazing worlds that were completely different to my life, and for the longest time I wanted to go and live on another planet.
Generally speaking my favourite book is usually the book I’ve just finished reading. If I don’t like a book then I don’t usually stick with it to the end, that means that if I’ve finished a book I must love it.

What tips would you give when trying to create suspense in writing? (Alice)
Firstly, don’t give your reader all the details. Hold back some of the key details so that your reader can speculate and guess at some of the things going on. Give them some spooky suggestions that things are going on behind their back, and then let their imagination fill in the details. Generally speaking people are very good at scaring themselves!
Secondly, make your villain just human enough to believe in, and then take away their humanity. It is our humanity that makes us good people with a sense of right and wrong. If you take away a character’s humanity, their ability to judge what’s right and wrong, then the normal rules of society don’t apply to them and that’s very scary.

If you could have a super power (that is not invisibility) what would it be? (Jamal)
Gaahhh!! I was going to choose invisibility! I’d love that. Hmmm, let’s think… I love to travel and have been lucky enough to visit some amazing places around the world, but getting to places is incredibly tiring and expensive so I think I’d like to be able to travel by just clicking my fingers.
I was going to think of something noble and world improving, but I’ve opted for something thrilling and fun instead!

Thomas Taylor Interview – Getting to the Hart of the matter.

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It was hard to know where to start with this interview as there is so much I want to ask! I think I’ll start at the beginning with a question that is one of my favourites.

What (or who) did you want to be when you were seven? What sort of kid were you, what entertained you as a small person?

 Hi, Dawn, and thanks for interviewing me. This is a fun question to start with.

Do you remember Joe90? I looked a bit like that, only scrawnier and with NHS specs. I was a loner, who secretly wanted to be either Doctor Who or Luke Skywalker, or – if possible – both. Lego and small metal figurines were everything to me. Girls were a long way off.

 ·I always find that question fun, but I can’t quite picture you as Joe90! So you were very imaginative as a child, good start! You illustrate your own books and covers, and your background is in illustration, but your books are wonderfully written – which discipline do you prefer; illustrating or writing?

Thanks for the compliment. As for which I prefer, it has to be the one that’s going the best at any given moment. That sounds like a cop-out, I know, but they are so different that it’s hard to compare. In general, I think I find writing comes slightly more easily, but only once the ideas are flowing. These days I think of myself as a writer who also draws.

 ·I am glad to see that you are still creating picture books (my daughter loved George and Sophie’s Museum Adventures when she was little!) A lot of your books you have written and illustrated yourself, but when you are working with an author on a picture book, how does that process work?

 It’s nice to hear someone remembers George and Sophie!

There isn’t much to the process, beyond being sent roughs and invited to comment at various stages. It’s rare to meet the illustrator these days. Choosing the right illustrator is a vital part of an editors’ job, and I’ve learnt to trust them, however long it takes. My next picture book, Too Many Tickles (out in Feb next year with Macmillan), was written over four years ago – it took that long to match up an illustrator with the text. Penny Dann was definitely worth waiting for though.

 ·I suppose that there will always be people connected to books that the creators don’t get to meet, but it must have been a strange (and wonderful) experience having David “The Hoff” Hasselhoff reading yours and John Kelly’s picture book, Jack’s Tractor, aloud on CBeebies. How on earth did that come about?

 It was strange and amusing all at once. I remember as a child watching David Hasselhoff as Nightrider (in my breaks from being a timelord or a Jedi knight). As for how it happened, I didn’t even know it was happening at all until someone on twitter said they’d just watched it. At least, I knew the BBC had bought the broadcast rights for Jack’s Tractor, because I’d signed a contract six months earlier, but I’d since forgotten all about it.

 ·Let’s get out and about, I know that you do brilliant school visits, and most authors have a hell story and a heaven story about their school visits – can you share any of yours with us?

 My worst school visit was one of my first. I turned up at the school having verbally agreed to ‘visit a few classes’ over the course of the day, only to be given a schedule that had me spend half an hour with each of EIGHT classes of all key stages, with no time allowed to dash between them. When I finally reached the end of the day, a complete wreck, I was handed paintbrushes and some pots of unsuitable emulsion and asked to paint part of the school mural! I was young and stupid enough to say yes. I didn’t get home till after dark, having been kicked out by the school caretaker. Moral of the story: agree in advance, in detail, what you will and will NOT be prepared to do.

 ·Oh my word! Wise advice for all of us doing school visits! In the last few years you have been concentrating more on books for older children, kicking off with Dan and the Dead in 2012. Dan can see ghosts and speak to them, and in this very witty and entertaining story he helps ghosts sort out their problems. I am greatly drawn to your work because we share a fascination for ghosts. So what fascinates you about ghosts?

 I’ve never been attracted to the scary side of ghosts, partly because as a small child I got a bit freaked out by the idea of them. It was only later that I realised the link between ghosts and time travel – that ghosts were a possible point of contact between the present and the past. I’ve come to find that idea deeply fascinating. After all, if Hampton Court Palace really is haunted by Catherine Howard, being freaked out by her seems a terrible waste of a perfectly good spook to me. I’d rather hear what she has to say. Or scream… 

 ·I love that, and share that thought, imagine what you could ask her! I’d be too busy taking notes to be scared (unless it was particularly gory, or was trying to kill me – I’m a bit of a wuss when it comes down to it)
Your book for older readers – Haunters – is a thrilling adventure with wonderfully original concepts like dream-terrorism and the ability to time travel through dreams, more ghost-like episodes…. How different was it writing something so much darker? Is there another Haunters in the pipeline?

 Dan and the Dead was written using conventional ghost story material left over from writing early drafts of Haunters, which is in many ways an inverted ghost story. I found Haunters very difficult to write, not least because I wrote the first draft without doing any plotting at all! You don’t panster your way through a story that involves two changing interconnected time-lines, you just don’t. It took me years to straighten that tangle out and turn Haunters into the fast-paced thriller it is today. I’m very proud of the book now, but it nearly blew a fuse somewhere in my brain. I learnt a hell of a lot in the process though. As for a sequel, I have plotted out a second book called ‘Dreamers’, but I had another unrelated story by then, one that was calling much more loudly. I’ve written that now, but I don’t want to talk about it until I hear back from my editor. All I’ll say is, it has drawings in it. Oh, and only one timeline. 

 ·Speaking of drawings, I’m very excited to see that you are collaborating on a graphic novel project with Marcus Sedgwick. Scarlett Hart looks brilliant, and I’m really enjoying your blog where you share sneak peeks at the work in progress, the sketches so far are fantastic! Are you enjoying the process, and how different is it working on a graphic novel?

 This project is terrifying and exhilarating all at once. In many ways I’m coming home, since graphic story-telling is where I started as a teenager, and the world of comic books has always beckoned. I often think I should have gone into comics after art school instead of illustrating picture books. Either way, it’s taken me along time to find my way back there.

 As for the process, it feels like the classic ‘you write it, I’ll draw it’ relationship on one level, but Marcus and I are very much co-creators of Scarlett Hart. We just have our own domains, that’s all. He often suggests changes to the look of the book, and I feed through to him any narrative ideas I may have. Actually, it’s an especially fruitful relationship because I know about writing process myself, whilst Marcus draws very well, and understands the project visually. Anyway, we haven’t killed each other yet!

 ·OK, I’m afraid we can’t have an interview without asking you about THAT cover (in case you have been living in a cave, Thomas was the illustrator of the iconic first cover for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.) That must have been an exciting time for you, but what are your feelings on it all now the dust has settled?

 Harry Potter has cast a long and sometimes chilly shadow over my career. I try to keep my distance from it now. You can read more about my uneasy relationship with HP on my blog.

 ·Good response, and the post about it on your blog offers up a lot to think about for young illustrators. What advice would you give to young writers/illustrators starting out now? What should they look out for when starting out on this long creative road?

 Both writers and Illustrators need to practice their art all time. Writers should also be reading insatiably, while illustrators should be constantly looking at what’s new in their field. Neither should worry about style (as I did, endlessly). Your own personal style will develop out of practice and will be as unavoidable as growing up.

 ·So true, I think that finding your voice only happens when you stop straining to hear it.
So what next? When can we expect to see Scarlett, and is there more Dan in the pipeline?

 I’ll need most of 2014 to produce the art for Scarlett (gulp!). The publication date is some time off yet (and I’ve been told to keep it secret).

I’m writing the third Dan adventure right now, and will blog about it soon. I’m a bit coy about works in progress, I’m afraid, but I can tell you that in contrast to his subterranean brush with death in the catacombs of Paris (Dan and the Caverns of Bone), Dan will need a good head for heights in Dan and the Shard of Ice.   

 That sounds thrilling, and I’m trying not to speculate (spoilers!) Thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed, I’m massively looking forward to Scarlett Hart and will be keeping an eye on your blog for more sneak peeks.

 Thank you, Dawn! And good luck with your own excellent writing and projects.

 Stop press….The new website for Scarlett Hart is under construction and you can follow the whole process for yourself here. It is up and running and added to all the time, so bookmark it for news along the way.

If you are looking for the definitive answer to the question of who is the mysterious wizard on the back cover of Philosopher’s Stone – easy, it’s here! Mystery solved.

 

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Fantasy In Motion interview.

Recently I was interviewed by Fantasy In Motion and thought I’d share it over here too. It’s a great site, go and have a look at his beautiful fantasy maps! He takes commissions too if you are looking for one.

Dawn, welcome to Fantasy In Motion. Thanks for joining us.
Thank you very much for inviting me, I’ve enjoyed reading your blog a great deal and I’m a huge fan of fantasy maps. I have a designer working on a map of Brotherhood locations at the moment so I’m looking forward to sharing that before the end of the year.

Could you start by telling us a little about your novel, Brotherhood of Shades?
Brotherhood is a contemporary ghost story with roots in the sixteenth century. Adam, a streetwise homeless teenager, dies of cold and starvation on the streets of London and after death is recruited into a clandestine organisation called the Brotherhood of Shades. The Brotherhood is an organisation of ghosts set up after the Dissolution of the Monasteries to oversee the passage of the living through the World Between.
The book details Adam’s transition into the Brotherhood, and their battles with demonic forces as they attempt to retrieve a coded manuscript, and protect the world of the living, from the world of the dead.

How did the idea/inspiration for the story come to you?
One of my first jobs was at the education office of a Cathedral and I used to dress as a monk to take children on guided tours. I was aware that young children worked in monasteries and had a brutal and harsh life there, and I felt that it was an untold story. Brotherhood started off as a short story but I liked the central character and knew that he had more to say and it grew from there. I’ve always loved ghost stories and felt that I wanted to bring classic ghost stories to a modern audience.

I was interested to see that you've previously worked in publishing and in libraries. Do you think that working with books has helped you as a writer?
I have always worked with books, but my first job in publishing was hardly what I’d call “in” publishing. I worked in the post room and one of my jobs was sorting the slush pile and making sure the unsolicited manuscripts reached the right desk – or not! Some of the manuscripts were, well, shall we say, odd! I certainly learned how not to submit a manuscript after wading through manuscripts that were sometimes barely legible. I think my favourite was one written on serviettes that had clearly been written whilst very drunk and made no sense whatsoever but became increasingly angry as the pile of tissue went on. The writer ended up ranting about how the publisher would be insane to reject them, but never actually got the point about the subject matter.
I have worked for over twenty five years in libraries and I am the current vice-chair of the London and South East School Libraries Group. I campaign hard for all schools to have a library and a librarian as I see this as essential to the literacy of our children, and our adults. Working in libraries has taught me so very much about books, and I read constantly. I always say to young people that if you want to write, first you must read!

Who would you say are your favourite authors/books?
That’s an impossible question! My favourite author is always the author of the book that I’m currently hooked on. When I find a book that I really enjoy my immediate response is to buy the entire back catalogue and read everything. I have so many favourites so it wouldn’t be fair to pick one out.

What was your first encounter with fantasy fiction? Have you always wanted to write in the genre?
I’ve always loved fantasy. I grew up in a hard-up area and the future did not seem promising for any of us kids. For me fantasy was the perfect escape and it remained that way and so when I came to write myself it was fantasy that drew me. I was never really interested in reading about the real world, and was far more interested in the world out of the corner of your eye.
I read Ray Bradbury, Susan Cooper, Ursula K LeGuin, Alan Garner, Brian Aldiss, Joan Aiken, the list is very long, shelves full of doorways to different worlds. I wanted to be somewhere else, I wanted to be chased across moorland by ancient spirits, battling my way out of dark houses in whirling snowstorms, fleeing scarlet-eyed wolves across wild moorland, conjuring spells to hold back demons, escaping dark forces hell bent on destroying me… basically anywhere other than a tatty and cold school heading for a job in a factory.
When I came to write myself it was not as if I had a choice. I think that all writers need to find their voice and the story will roll out. I didn’t really choose my genre, it chose me.

What was your route towards publishing your first novel like? Any advice you would give to any of our readers who are looking to publish their first book?
Oh dear, my route was very long and complicated! This book was almost published a number of years ago and then the imprint went under and I was left without a publisher. I was lucky in that I did have an agent and he supported me and encouraged me to keep going. My book still didn’t sell (the public seemed to have moved on to an obsessive desire for sparkly vampires and ghosts were not deemed fashionable) and so I focussed on my other work in school libraries.
Writing is a very isolating business and a friend encouraged me to upload my work to the writer’s site – authonomy. I wanted some feedback and it was nice to have the opinion of other writers. My book was very quickly spotted on there by the man who almost took it to print the previous time! He remembered Brotherhood and recommended it to the rest of the team and they enjoyed it so much that they took it to print. These days it’s not about pleasing one person of course, your work has to be enjoyed by a team of people including the marketing team.

My advice would be to be prepared and get some professional editing if you can afford it. I’d buy the Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook and try to get an agent first. There are a few writer’s conferences throughout the year where you can meet agents and publishers and those are a sensible investment. Work on your pitch though! If you can nail your plot down to a sharp thirty second pitch, and then hand over a card with your details on, that can do it. I know a good number of people who have secured agents on a “could I ask for thirty seconds to pitch my work to you?” Agents are used to this approach, and a good one won’t mind. If they do mind and react badly, you wouldn’t want to be stuck with them anyway!

Where do you stand in the print vs. e-book debate? Do you think paper novels have had their day or is there room for both formats?
Video did not kill the radio star! I think there is more than enough room for both formats, and we need both. I love my e-reader as I travel a lot and can’t possibly carry hundreds of books around with me in any other format, but I also love print books. A recent survey suggested that people often read the book first on e-reader, and then buy the print copy to keep if they enjoy it – I know I’ve done this! There will always be books that simply do not work in e format, academic and study books for example. Students need to be able to annotate several texts and compare them all at once using several indices, that’s just not possible in e-book form. You simply can’t lay six kindles out in front of you and jot down notes on the pages!
I think that print publishers need to start to be more creative and to offer more for the print version to encourage people to buy it. Maps work so well in printed books, and extra material only available in the print version, or beautiful binding and covers, and maybe offering a free e-version if you buy the print version?
There is a good reason that books will last, they are the best at doing what they do – carrying words. The main thing is that they do not become unreadable. Twenty years ago I remember working with floppy discs and microfiche but now these formats are virtually unreadable, whilst books hundreds of years older are still perfectly accessible.
I think there is space in the market for all formats and we need to remember that it’s the story that counts, not the object that carries it.

Do you have any tips for aspiring authors out there?
Don’t give up, and don’t be precious – get advice and share and grow a very thick skin! I know so many people who say they want to write a book and seem to think it is easy, and that’s why people quit. The first time they get a knock-back, or hear something negative, or actually can’t stick at it to get those words on paper, people quit. If you really want to write a book you need to first accept that it is incredibly hard and time consuming work. It is not something to take lightly and dip into now and again, it takes time and dedication to get over a hundred thousand words down! Once you’ve accepted that it is hard work, and that you will have to make sacrifices to achieve it, then you can do it.
Young people ask me all the time how to become a writer and I always say – write down all the things, and then write down some more!

Are you able to share with us what you are working on at the moment?
I am currently working on the sequel to Brotherhood which is set in some stunning locations from nineteenth century Paris, to London and on to a remote Scottish island. The sequel is very Steampunk as I have a bit of an obsession for automata and machines. I’ve had this idea churning away for some time and am hugely enjoying writing my machines, and avoiding all jokes about the ghost in the machine!

Dawn, thank you very much for your time!
Thanks again for inviting me on board, and I very much look forward to reading more!

On writing fantasy – interview by Mary Vensel White

This interview first appeared on the website of top US author Mary Vensel White. Find out more about Mary from her website here

This week, a third book was published under HarperCollins’ new Authonomy imprint. I am rarely tempted by the fantasy genre, but this one looks fantastic. It’s called Brotherhood of Shades and the author, Dawn Finch, has agreed to field a few questions from a fantasy novice such as myself. The book is also classified as YA but like much YA, it will appeal to adults as well. Here’s the book’s description:

From the chaos of Dissolution rose a secret order, a Brotherhood formed to protect the world of the living from the world of the dead.

Adam, a streetwise homeless boy in modern London, knows nothing of the fantastic and precarious world that exists just beyond his reality until he dies cold and alone on the streets of London, aged 14. But he is important and the Brotherhood needs him. His recruitment to their Order takes him on an adventure that spans the worlds of both the living and the dead, traversing time itself as he and a living girl (14 year old witch Edie Freedom) battle to solve a prophetic riddle and save the world. This thrilling and macabre fantasy is set in London, from Tudor times through the Great Fire of London and up to today.

And Dawn’s bio from her website:

Dawn grew up on a London overspill council estate and spent much of her time in libraries. Books were important in her family and she used them as a means of escape and became an obsessive reader. The careers officer asked her, aged twelve, what future she would like. Dawn she said that she wanted to work as a writer and a librarian. She was told to “stop pointless dreaming or you’ll only live to regret it.” A typing course was recommended together with a future in a typing pool.

In an academic publishers in central London, while sorting the unsolicited submissions, Dawn learnt something about how not to prepare a manuscript. Later she worked at St Albans Cathedral as a Research Assistant for the Education Office. This essentially involved taking school children for tours of the Abbey whilst dressed as a Benedictine monk. Dawn later began working in public libraries and helped to establish a large library at her daughter’s school…soon the head teacher convinced her to leave public libraries to run the school library. Since 2003 Dawn has been School Librarian for a large and buzzy primary school taking care of 10,000 books and the children who love them. She also works as a library and reader development consultant and is a member of the London and South Eastern committee of the School Libraries Group and the Society of Authors.

Dawn, congratulations on your first published novel! You seem to have worked a variety of jobs, many of them book-related. Have your employment experiences affected your writing? Will writing become your main job now?
Thank you, it’s all very exciting and still doesn’t feel quite real yet! I suppose when you’ve dreamt of something for so long it is a bit hard to take it in when it finally happens. My past jobs have indeed affected my writing a lot, especially my time working at St Albans Cathedral. A good proportion of Brotherhood of Shades is set there during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the sixteenth century, and so I have drawn on my personal experience of the building. I always knew that I wanted to be a writer and so have aimed to stay employed in related occupations. One of my first jobs was as an office go-fer in an academic publishers and this taught me a lot about how not to submit a manuscript as I was the one passing them on to readers and editors.

I love working in libraries and have worked in them for almost twenty-four years. Just under a decade ago I moved from public libraries to school and never looked back. I love working with children and it is very rewarding working with an age group that is just finding its feet in the world of books and reading. Spending time with a reluctant or less able reader, and helping them to jump the hurdles to become a happy and enthusiastic reader is the most magical thing.

It would be wonderful to just be a writer and to be able to spend all of my time doing that, but I feel that I would probably miss being around the joyful and enthusiastic kids that I work for.

Who are some of the authors who have influenced you? What are you reading now?

When I was a child I was a huge fan of authors like Alan Garner, Susan Cooper, Joan Aiken…and I still am! I read a lot of gothic authors like Poe and Stoker and they have influenced me a great deal as I do love a good spooky story. I am a total fraidy-cat with what most people would call “real” horror and I don’t read (or watch) anything along those lines, but I do love a ghost story with plenty of suspense and jumpy moments. As a children’s librarian I tend to primarily read children’s authors as I’m not comfortable recommending books that I have not read… that and they are generally better (no offence!). My current favourites are Marcus Sedgwick, Chris Priestley and Joseph Delaney, and I do enjoy Rick Riordan too for the historical thrill-ride! I read grown-up books in the holidays and was recently bowled over by Alice Hoffman’s Red Garden (I’ve read all of her books and can’t fault her, she’s just amazing) and Mal Peet’s Life: An Exploded Diagram (which is stunning).

As a writer who deals mostly in “realistic” settings, I’m intrigued with the nuts and bolts of the writing process when you create a completely new world with different rules. What were some of the challenges and benefits of working outside an entirely realistic setting?

Ah, working outside reality, now there’s a question! Well, the main thing is to set rules for your world and keep them. I have a style sheet that tells me exactly what my Shades can and can’t do, and that is my bible. This means that no one suddenly ups and does something that will make the reader say “hold on, in chapter four they couldn’t do that!” The beauty is that they are my rules, I can bend them, never break them, but I did set them in the first place! For example if I have a good reason why my character can’t travel over water, then I’d better not put them on a boat in chapter seven unless I’ve invented a solution in chapter six.
The benefits are that if I want to conjure something dramatic up that is beyond the bounds of reality, I can, however I also work in an historical setting and so I have to weave this into a realistic fantasy world without actually changing history!

Brotherhood of Shades seems to have an historical fiction aspect to it as well. How did you research the book?

I have a great passion for history and have grown up in an area rich with history stemming all the way back to the Roman occupation of Britain. I was taken to castles and ancient sites right from babyhood and it has stuck with me.

My job title at St Albans Cathedral was research assistant and I helped to write and research educational material for children (as well as running workshops dressed as a Benedictine monk!) and so I honed research skills there. It is part of a successful librarian’s job to know how to conduct research and to know how effective research is carried out and to impart that knowledge to others, and so I’ve had a lot of practice.

What do you think attracts readers to fantasy, to other-worldly scenarios, to super-human elements in stories?

I’m not a huge fan of sword and sorcery type fantasy and so that does baffle me a bit (I always forget who everyone is with all the mad names!). Personally I prefer to read and write about the world out of the corner of your eye – the secret world that might exist without us knowing about it.

I think that younger readers are drawn to these stories because they still believe in a world where anything is possible. Even when they feel quite grown-up they still have a glimmering little part of their mind where something magical could happen. I think a lot of us grown-ups have that too.

What’s next for you? What are you working on now?

I’m currently working on a dystopian teen book with a co-author, but I can’t say much about that at the moment as our agent has us under a strict shush-code! I’m also working on the last bit of the sequel to Brotherhood. It is set on a remote Scottish island and has a distinctly Steampunk feel to it. I have always wanted to write something featuring glorious Victorian engineering but with a macabre twist, and so that is at the core of Brotherhood 2.

I’m hoping to be doing a lot of lovely festivals and school visits in the coming year and am currently in the process of confirming the first of those.