Friday, 25 November 2011

Conference Celebrations

A weekend at the end of November was the perfect time to take a moment out from writing deadlines and Christmas preparations and head off to the beautiful town of Winchester for the SCBWI  conference. What  a joy to meet so many talented authors and illustrators, all gathered in one place. There was so much going on I can't hope to capture it in a million years, so here are my three highlights:
  • The keynote talk by the wonderful Frank Cottrell Boyce (author of Cosmic, among many other great books) who shared his philosophy of writing for children to 'pass on all the good stuff' and whose talk moved me to laughter and then to tears and then to laughter again within the space of five minutes (usually it's only my kids that can provoke such emotional acrobatics!).
  • The speech by Candy Gourlay (author of the wonderful Tall Story) in acceptance of the Crystal Kite award. Her inspirational words about the journey to the publication of her book had us all laughing and crying once again!
  • The Saturday night party featuring the Mass Book Launch; 28 SCBWI authors (including me! Yippee!) celebrated the launch of our books during 2011. There may have been a few tears here too, but mainly kissing (lots) and laughing (lots and lots). There was a spectacular cake featuring scenes and cover designs from all 28 books (see my very poor attempt at a photo - if you look carefully you can see The Mystery of the Whistling Caves cover - and this is just one little part of the cake!)
walking to the conference through the graveyard on a misty morning

And, just to add to the excitement, both my lovely agent, Jenny Savill, and editor, Amber Caraveo, were there to join the fun. For a much rounder round-up of the conference and lots of photos (including one of my cheesiest grins EVER!) see this Notes from the Slushpile blog post.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Book Signing at Waterstones

I’ll be signing books at Waterstones in Bishops Stortford on Saturday, November 12th, so if you’re anywhere near North Essex that day please come in and say hello!

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Back To School

Over the last few weeks I’ve been lucky enough to visit lots of schools to talk to pupils about my books and run some writing workshops.

Back in September I dropped in to Bar Hill School in Cambridgeshire to talk to Year 3 and 4 - what great listeners they were and full of all kinds of fun questions. That afternoon I was also presenting the awards for the Circus Stars summer reading challenge at Bar Hill library.  I really can’t think of a better way to spend the afternoon than handing out medals to enthusiastic readers. And they even gave me some flowers at the end too! Bar Hill library is a fantastic local library - as soon as you step inside you can tell it’s a real community focal point, buzzing with life (and the post office is in the library too, which just adds to the activity going on). Thank you very much to the lovely librarians who invited me to come along.

Next, I was at King’s College School Cambridge, again talking to a big group of lovely year 3 and 4 pupils. They were so enthusiastic about reading too, and had all kinds of ideas for new investigators for mystery novels (not just dog detectives and hamster detectives, but armadillo detectives too!).  Here is the link to their report of the visit.

Sharing the stage with 
Harvest Festival food donations
Another day I spent the morning at Great Abington Primary School, a lovely village primary school south of Cambridge. I chatted to three classes and was so impressed by their interest in books and writing. The whole school was such a welcoming environment where you could really feel the values of responsibility, respect and caring in action (the picture at the start of this blog is from that visit).

And last week I spent I whole day at Coton Primary School near Cambridge. I did workshops with years 3,4,5 and 6 on developing characters and plots. We looked at why it’s important that even the good guys have weaknesses as well as strength (reading a whole book about Mr Perfect would be sooooo boring!). The pupils came up with some great characters of their own . . . strong warriors who bump into things and are always cooking things - badly, maths whizzes who are afraid of cockroaches and parrots called Roger to name but a few . . .

And I spent a lovely hour with Year 1 and 2 pupils thinking about words with lots of descriptive POWER! I read them a passage from The Whistling Caves with some of the words missing and asked the class to come up with ideas for their own words to fill the holes. Once we had lots of suggestions, the whole class voted on which were best. I think the version of the scene that Class 2 came up with was better than the original. After all, I didn’t think of describing an old Saxon helmet as smelling of Gorgonzola!
A nice photographer even came along from
 The Cambridge News and got us all to pose!

So, thank you to all the schools who’ve invited me to visit, to all the teachers for letting me borrow your classrooms and to all the pupils for your attentiveness and enthusiasm - it’s been great meeting you all!

And a big thank you to Heffers Children’s Book Shop in Cambridge, who have been so helpful in running book stalls to sell books at the school visits - it’s great to have such support from our brilliant local book shop.


Author Interview

I was lucky enough to be invited to do an author interview on Morgen Bailey’s writing blog - a fabulous blog stuffed full of all kinds of writing-related information and interviews. Morgen's blog and website are  full of fascinating advice for writers and interviews with an extraordinarily wide range of authors.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Blog Neglect

Reasons for Serious Blog Neglect
  1. Through a bizarre distortion of the time-space continuum, the deadline for Adventure Island 9, The Mystery of the Smugglers’ Wreck came around much faster than I could possibly have imagined, calling for a total shut-down of all non-life-essential functions (including moving, speaking and shopping)
  2. Which may have had something to do with having blithely agreed to do lots of lovely school visits. I’d somehow conned myself that they took place in some parallel universe and therefore wouldn’t in anyway eat into the same pool of time as available for writing.
  3. As for (2) but substitute ‘school visits’ with ‘guest blog posts’.** 
  4. And then there was the histrionic meltdown.  My laptop, this time, not me. Just because I told it to hurry up when it was in the middle of a three hour upgrade (which I had neither asked for nor agreed to!) the hard disk self-destructed. Not too much work was actually lost but there was a great deal of faffing to get everything re-installed and up and running again (and thank heavens for Mac coming to the rescue as always).
But now the first draft of Book 9 has been despatched, the blog tour is over and the school visits are done and dusted, for a few weeks at least. Phew! Two days off this week to have a potter in town and take the dogs for a really long walk - they’ve been on minimal barely-enough walks for the last few weeks and feeling very put out about it. And I’ve made cakes for the boys too. The cupboards have been noticeably lacking in any home-baked goodies for some time.

They’d better make the most of it. I have to start Book 10 now!

** Blog tour: Here are the links to my guest posts on some really fabulous  book blogs ... all of them full of all kinds of great book review and discussions...

19th September: Book Angel’s Booktopia: Literally Random
20th September: Serendipity Reviews: The Big Break
21st September: Teenage Fiction for All Ages: Don’t forget your lifejacket
22nd September: The Bookbag: Lashings of Ginger Beer
23rd September: Cornflower Books; A den of one’s own
10th October: Girls Heart Books: Girls Heart Adventure

Friday, 16 September 2011

Woman's Hour

As I cycled to the BBC Radio Cambridge studio yesterday morning I had to use all my resolve to keep my nerves under control. And it wasn’t just the traffic on Milton Road that was giving me butterflies in the stomach (those massive great swallowtails from the Amazon rainforest were clog-dancing in there, I’m sure).

Last week I received a call from the lovely publicist at Orion, to say that Woman’s Hour were interested in inviting me to take part in a discussion on tomboys - linking to the fact that Emily Wild in Adventure Island is something of a tomboy, in the grand tradition of George in The Famous Five. There followed a lot of Yikes! and OMG! on my part, two long chats with the producer/researcher for Woman’s Hour (I don’t think I could have done it if she hadn’t been so positive and reassuring) and finally that long cycle ride of doom.

I don’t know what I was expecting when I reached the studio - I’ve never appeared (if 'appear' is the right word) on radio before in any capacity. I wasn’t expecting a red carpet or anything, but was a little surprised at how distinctly low-key it was. I was ushered into a small room with a microphone, a set of headphones lying on a desk and a computer display on the wall and left to get on with it. It reminded me of recording speech materials for experiments in the soundproof booth in my previous life as a psycholinguist - expect there were no checks to make sure the microphone was at the right angle or that the recording system was working. Or even to make sure I didn’t spill coffee everywhere!

When I heard a voice coming over the headphones I didn’t even realise the sound engineer in the main studio was talking to me! Eventually I cottoned on, and from that point it was fine. I had clear instructions to follow. Jenni Murray then came over the headphones to say hello to me and the other guest and flag up a couple of questions she’d be asking. Again, she was so nice and reassuring it made the whole thing much easier. I scribbled more notes and watched the clock click very slowly round to 10.35, heard the link to our item over the headphones and gulped down lungfuls of deep breaths... Then I heard those terrifying words...'I’ll come to you first, Helen...'
I have no idea at all how it sounded on air. I know that the programme is on the website, but I can’t bear to listen to it.

It was a great experience, and I’m so pleased I did it - and delighted to have been given the opportunity.

I had a lovely message from the producer afterwards to say it had gone well and they were really pleased with the discussion. They may even ask me back one day.

The programme is on the Woman’s Hour website if you want to hear what we had to say about tomboys. Just don’t tell me if I sound ridiculous. I’d rather not know!

Monday, 5 September 2011

Fish Tales from Newlyn

Never mind Hay or Edinburgh or even Cannes: Newlyn Fish Festival is where it’s at! OK, so perhaps not the obvious literary venue for my first public reading...but, the Adventure Island series is set in Cornwall, after all...

So I reported for duty to the Fish Tales story-tellers tent, clutching a handful of notes and copies of the books and feeling very nervous. Would anyone turn up? Would the tent be full of adults expecting a stand-up routine or folk singer rather than a children’s author? Would any children yawn, cry or sneak out the back? In the end I needn’t have worried.

The audiences were small - it was a lovely sunny day and there were so many other fun things to do at the festival(*) that not many ventured to the tent at the back of the ice works -  but the families who did come to the two sessions were wonderful. Everyone listened attentively, smiled in the right places, and was kind enough to say nice things and buy some books. One lovely family even bought the full set of all six (including the one copy of Book Six I had with me to read from, complete with my crossings out where I’d abridged a passage slightly for the reading!).
Ooh, an exciting bit!

...the best audience
Thank you very much to George and Tom and to your mum and dad, for being the best first audience I could have wished for.

What an absolute thrill it was to read from my books while real people actually listened!

I read the passage from The Mystery of The Vanishing Skeleton, in which Jack has to escape from a fire in the ice works through the window.

"Look! The very window!“
And by extraordinary good fortune, the story tent was pitched right next door the very ice works - just the one I used as a source for the one in the book. I was able to tell the children. “If you look up as you leave the tent you’ll see the very window that Jack is hanging out of in this picture!

“with thanks for Operation Ice Works...”
When I was writing Book 6, my sister Jane, who lives in Newlyn -  and is my unofficial roving reporter and researcher in Cornwall - sent me lots of photos of the Cornish Ice ice works from all angles, and quizzed local fishermen about its operation. Hence, The Vanishing Skeleton is dedicated to her - ‘with thanks for Operation Ice Works

“It’s next to the ice works!” we exclaimed.
So when we first saw the location of the story tent, we jumped up in down in delight, as if we’d discovered a jewel-encrusted chateau filled with chocolate truffles. ‘It’s next to the ice works!” we exclaimed.  There were puzzled looks all round as we proceeded to photograph a rather ordinary empty tent and the side of the not-terribly-photogenic-ice-works.

Thank you to Angela Stoner for organising the Fish Tales tent and inviting me to take part. Angela has written a beautiful picture book called Once in a Blue Moon: A Mermaid’s Tale. I was delighted to have my copy signed. It’ll be winging its way to our little niece and nephew in Thailand soon.

Thank you again, to Jane, not only for Operation Ice Works, but for Operation Fish Festival and Operation Fun Family Get-together-in-Cornwall. Thank you to Will for being Number One Assistant and to Mac for the very special fish memento, and to Mac and Paul for taking photos.

(*) Lots of other things to do at the festival - apart from amazing displays of fish and cookery demonstrations (how could I complete with The Big Fish Filleting Challenge?) , there were stalls selling fun things like these Cornish pastyche bookmarks. (I just had to buy a set - they’re almost as cool as the Adventure Island bookmarks!)

And then there was Bilbo the lifeguard dog. Who wouldn’t fall in love with this guy - a massive Newfoundland Water dog. He has webbed feet and saves people by swimming out to them with a float on a long lead. I could hardly drag Will away. Two things I know for sure. (1) Will is going to ask for a Newfoundland puppy for Christmas, and (2) Drift would love to recruit Bilbo to the Canine Division!

And finally, I was trying to think of an example of a children’s book with a fishy theme, and I remembered the fabulous A Fish of the World by Terry Jones (yes, the one from Monty Python) beautifully illustrated by Michael Foreman. The herring hero meets a rather unfortunate end which could be a bit upsetting for readers of a sensitive disposition, but my boys (who are not!) loved it. It’s one of the select band of  picture books that has  survived all the bookshelf clearances and now rubs shoulders with Malorie Blackman and George Orwell!

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Feckless, Fed up Falcons

Not many things in life make me happier than unearthing an obscure derivation for an everyday word or phrase.

My well-thumbed copy of the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology* (edited by the gloriously named Professor Onions**) presented to me on my 24th birthday by my Mum and Dad is one of my most treasured possessions.

Last week, I was watching a falconry display at Ludlow Castle with my family, a display in which Toby, the star peregrine falcon, (peregrine, from the same Old French derivation as pilgrim, (via latin, pereger, to journey), because the young were not taken like hawks from the nest, but caught en route from the breeding place: compare with peregrinations) soared off into the distance with absolutely no intention of returning to his perch for a paltry morsel of chicken. He often does this, the demonstrator explained stoically (stoically, from Greek, stoa, meaning the Porch from which Zeno taught at Athens). He disappears for days on end.  Maybe, we all wondered, Toby is trying to tell you something. A career in show business is just not his thing.  Surely there must be hundreds of wannabe peregrines out there who’d give their right wing for a chance to shine, but apparently, the feckless Toby  (feckless, from Scottish feck, meaning effect, or purport) has performed (or not performed) for the Sultan of Oman, (Sultan, from Arabic, meaning power, ruler, king) and at rugby internationals, for goodness’ sake!

But other than Toby’s disappearance, and a Harris hawk landing on Will’s arm, my favourite part was an account of some commonly used English words derived from the world of falconry.

Fed up: the birds are trained to hunt with yummy morsels – but once they’ve eaten enough, they just lurk around with an am-I-bovvered expression on their beaks, no longer interested in performing for treats.

Booze: from 'Bowse' or 'Bouse', describing the birds drinking water (sometimes excessively; although this derivation is not given by Onions.)

Cadge:  the portable perch used to carry falconry birds was called a cadge. The person carrying the cadge was often unpaid and had to beg, or "cadge" tips from the onlookers. This would often be an elderly falconer, or old codger.

I was particularly excited about the derivation of fed up because it’s a phrase I happened to use in the opening scene of The Mystery of the Whistling Caves - spookily enough, in the context of birds loitering around on chimneys looking bored (spookily, from Middle Dutch, spooc, meaning ghost)

“Stone Cottage was quite possibly the most boring place Jack Carter had ever seen. The walls were grey, the roof was grey, grey rain was falling from a grey sky; even the pigeons huddling on the chimney were grey and sort of fed-up looking.”

I’m sure I didn’t know that fed up was derived from bored birds when I wrote this sentence, but somehow along the way, perhaps this knowledge had seeped into my brain by some form of semantic osmosis?

(I know that in Cornwall those disconsolate birds on the chimney would more likely be seagulls than pigeons  – but Jack is a London lad. In his eyes, all large, thuggish, birds are pigeons. (thuggish from Hindi, Marathi, thag meaning cheat, swindle; gull, probably Welsh, gwylan, Cornish, guilan, hypothetically from Old Celtic voilenno)

Of course, these days, we don’t need to carry Professor Onions’ hefty tome around with us. There are some great word origin websites available, including:

And this one from the University of Nottingham has captivating short videos discussion the social and linguistic history of some interesting words in detail:

And this one has a fun blog about different aspects of language and culture. I thought their posts on language and food were especially good:

*Etymology. Not to be confused with entomology: I have only a passing interest in insects, although as a household we do receive a consignment of live locusts through the post each week, to feed Frankie the bearded dragon.

**CT Onions. As I was writing this, it suddenly occurred to me that Professor Onions himself could be the origin of a common phrase; to know one’s onions, so of course, I had to dash to the internet to see whether there was any evidence for this derivation. Sadly it seems not. From, I found the following information:

The English grammarian and lexicographer C. T. (Charles Talbut) Onions was an editor of the Oxford English Dictionary from 1895 and continued to write reference works throughout a long and distinguished career. His last work was The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, 1966, which was published a year after his death. If I knew as much etymology as he did I could certainly claim to 'know my onions', and it is tempting to assume that this is where the phrase originated....
...While it is true that the phrase originated at a time when C. T. Onions had established a reputation, the match between the phrase and his name is just a coincidence. Know your onions is in fact an American phrase. There are many references to it in print there from the 1920s onward, but none in the UK or elsewhere until the middle of the century.

Oh well, it was a nice idea!

Monday, 1 August 2011

Witter Feed

Brevity is not my strong point. I can’t do twitter. The thought of saying anything in less that 140 characters gives me the heebie jeebies. So I’ve invented witter. Think of witter as twitter’s slightly dishevelled and less fashionable older sister. The one holding court in the kitchen with a glass of wine and the plate of chocolate mini-rolls.
I’ll mostly be wittering on about writing, with the occasional side-witter (or should that be side-weet?) on other subjects that take my fancy