Tuesday, 8 September 2015


 In a land of myth, and a time of the magic…  brilliant opening words from BBC’s immortal series:MERLIN.

Once upon a time… classic line from every fairy story going…

What better way to start your story than with a time and a place?

Once upon a time, in a land of myth, I set out to find the most inspirational time and place where I could tell a story that would touch every storytelling nerve I’d ever had. I didn’t have to go far. For me, born on the Cotswold hills, the mountains of North Wales are just a Golden Valley away. 
Part of the oolitic limestone Cotswold countryside: The Devil’s Chimney (who’s shadow I grew up in) was first attempted by me at age nine.

 If any of you have ever been to Snowdonia, or have the good fortune to live there, you will know, only too well, that the Mountains of the West - as well as being the most beautiful things on earth - are the birth place of bards and the home of some of the oldest stories ever told.
Breathtaking Snowdonia

HERE BE DRAGONS, my story about Snowdonia, starts on the slopes of Mount Snowdon itself.  One cold winter’s morning, when a serious weather alert has snow locked everybody into their cottages…

 And as I spun the story out from that beginning - like the metaphorical little Welsh lady in her tall black hat at her spinning wheel – spinning out the stuff of fairy story and myth – I thought of other metaphors for the magical, for the mysterious and for the myths of the mountains.

 I imagined the snow perhaps as a symbol for something else - bigger and much more dangerous, but just as intangible.  I imagined the mountains as a symbol too, as the manifestation of the tangible – huge and perilous. 

And I searched wider and deeper to find out just what that something might be… and I found the Dragons.

In Welsh mythology underneath the rocks of Mount Snowdon lie two fighting dragons, interred, entombed and locked away from mankind, because they are so dangerous. These dragons are – perhaps themselves - a huge metaphor in their turn for that deep, dark, dangerous, locked-away subconscious – often at war with itself - that lies in everyone of us.

The Welsh word for ‘Snowdon’ is ‘Yr Wyddfa’ – which some translate as Snowhill - but others, those who know the older, deeper Welsh translate it as The Burial, or the Snow Den. 

When I discovered this a tingle went down my spine, and I knew I had found the heart of my story.

Through peeling back these layers of metaphor, I got to what I wanted to write about. I began to understand the pull and call of mountains: why people put on their hiking boots, go out, climb, buy expensive mountaineering equipment, set out to conquer cliffs, beat mountains, bankrupt themselves, risk death to stand on summits – to be on the roof of the world… and why I tried at age 9 to climb my very own Devil’s Chimney.

Sir Hilary Edmund trained on Clogwyn Du’r Arddu, Snowdon, in preparation for his successful 1953 Expedition to Mount Everest. 

I understood why somebody decided to build a tower of stones right on the very summit of Snowdon, a marker that it would stand forever, a symbol that mankind had conquered the mountain.  

The more I thought about this idea, though, the more I realised how hopeless it was to think that mankind can ever conquer nature, can ever chart it by erecting some kind of flag or marker. And conversely how futile it is for mankind too, to ever hope to map the depths of the human mind. 

The human psyche is much higher than any mountain summit, and much deeper than its valleys  - and I believe quite unconquerable, quite un-map-able –wise men and women have showed us with their storytelling to work with the mind rather than to attempt to fathom it - have devised myths to describe its heights and depths and dangers. 

And mountains are, perhaps, the best symbol of those two extremes. Great writers, poets have always understood that.

No worst, There is None
O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne'er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.
Gerard Manley Hopkins

So it was under Snowdon that I looked for my story not on top of it.
And under Snowdon are the dragons. 

When you walk through the mountains of Snowdonia you can almost feel the presence of these huge subterranean, mighty, majestic creatures and it was about them that I wanted to write.

The retelling of myths surrounding the Dragons of Wales and the exploits of King Arthur and the magic of Martin and the battles of the giants in and around Snowdonia, have, of course, been retold many times, over the ages, right from the 12
th to 13th century Mabinogion, down to the current, popular TV success: MERLIN, and the soon to be released epic fim : KNIGHTS OF THE ROUNDTABLE: KING ARTHUR (2016).  I was writing a great tradition then, with fabulous company! 

Yet, I wanted to bring something new and different to the stories. It seemed to me that nobody yet had quite written a modern love affair based on the mythologies of the mountains of North Wales. In Cornwall, we have the mythologized love affairs of Tristram and Iseult; in Arthurian  legend we have many a gallant knight’s  quest, to bring back trophies to his lady love. We have the doomed love affair of Guinevere and Arthur – of Guinevere and  Lancelot… but specifically in North Wales there are very few love stories set in Snowdonia.  

So I set out to create a love story that was going to be accessible to a teenager living in today's world.  Teenagers today love legendary romance, but expect a little bit more than a rusty sword and a metal overcoat- or for their boyfriend to go gallivanting off on a big swim, across rivers, or trek, across deserts, to prove his love. So I created Ellie, the mountain girl, who has already climbed many of the peaks, and in her own right was victorious over the landscape, but had not, as yet, really plumbed the depths of the human psyche – that deep well of emotion that first love taps straight into.   
So she encounters the dragons, mythical monsters that dwell under the landscape and so begins a heartbreaking romance with the things that live beneath the hills, the buried selves - symbols perhaps of the unconscious desire to become one with the self, the unknown, the other and the magical – things that nevertheless are monsters in their own right.  Symbols too of a very human desire not to just conquer the elements and the geography of a place, but to fall deeply in love with it as well.

My own love affair with North Wales began a very long time ago when I was a small child and went on family holidays to a caravan near Barmouth, for one glorious week every summer. During that week everything was totally magical. We did many things from hill walking to building castles on Barmouth sands - to visiting old mysterious and damp churchyards, poking around little villages with their huge, grey, thick-walled cottages, but the best bits of all were telling tales in the caravan, on windy evenings about the Breath of the Grey King, about the Dragons, about the giants, about all the mysteries of North Wales.

It is hardly surprisingly then, as an adult, when I was looking for a story about the depths beneath and a first powerful love affair - that I should return once again to Snowdonia in North Wales and once again climb Snowdon and sit in the café on its summit and write the opening lines of HERE BE DRAGONS.

IT WAS CHRISTMAS. Although, you’d hardly have known it. I was at home pinging my friends in front of the telly. The telly wasn’t going, of course. Nothing was going, unless you counted the snow. Since 5.00 a.m., my mobile had indicated a serious weather alert.

You need to know what a serious weather alert means when you’re me, Arabella (Ellie) Morgan, living in a remote farmhouse on the slopes of Mount Snowdon with only your mum. It means life comes to a standstill… 

What better way to start a story than with a time and a place…

HERE BE DRAGONS : Published by Vertebrate: Out September 2015

Saturday, 1 August 2015

Settings and Strange Coincidences by Patricia Elliott

Patricia Elliott blogs about the inspiration for her new novel, The House of Eyes: a Connie Carew Mystery, just published by Hodder Children's Books

Whenever I'm mulling over a new novel it's really important to me to find the right setting. The setting must reflect the whole mood and flavour of the novel, so much so that I'm never quite sure which comes first in my mind, the plot or the setting. By setting, I don't merely mean the landscape – countryside or city – but something much more specific and smaller in scale, like a particular house where my protagonist might live, or where vital events occur. If I can, I like to find that house in the real world.
An exciting adventure with plenty of red herrings plays out in a vivd London setting
WRD About Books)
The House of Eyes, my new novel, is a mystery story for 9 – 12s. Constance Clementine Carew is twelve years old and lives in London with her two aunts and step-uncle. It's 1909, the Edwardian age, a time of great confidence and optimism, and in particular, new aspirations for women.
Connie wants to be an anthropologist when she grows up, but for the time being she has to make do with studying her own, somewhat dysfunctional, family. When her long-lost cousin Ida returns unexpectedly - apparently from the dead - only Connie suspects she may be an imposter, out to claim the family inheritance.
            I had decided on the Edwardian period and my plot was more or less worked out, but I needed to find the right area in London in which to set the novel and, more importantly, the right house. The house itself plays its part in the story – 'the House of Eyes', Connie calls it, because the damp patches on the walls look like faces, their eyes watching her. (They aren't the only eyes watching her, as it happens.)  So I wanted to find a house that was dingy and decrepit.

            The area was easy. I chose South Kensington because I associate it with Peter Pan and the Lost Boys (Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens was published in 1906). I imagined stiffly starched nannies pushing their charges up to Kensington Gardens in capacious perambulators and, indeed, as a baby Ida is seized from her pram on one such outing to the park. I also needed a large square for a garden party that takes place in the story, and Thurloe Square, its layout almost unchanged, fitted that perfectly. South Kensington is not far from Harrods, when Ida goes off on a shopping trip, with Connie tagging disconsolately after her. And even then, the number 14 bus ran down the Fulham Road, past the Town Hall, which was to feature in the story.    
            But finding the right house was not so easy. Nowadays the houses in South Kensington look immaculate and sell for undreamed of sums of money. In the Edwardian period it was also a smart area, being so close to Knightsbridge. Connie's step-uncle has once had money, but has since lost it; the household is looked down on by its posh neighbours for being 'in trade' and Connie is not invited to play with their children.
            I could easily have made the house up, and after a while I decided to do just that. Then by chance, one hot day last summer when I'd had enough of peering between the railings of Thurloe Square to work out my characters' movements during the garden party and was making my way back to South Ken Underground Station, I looked around and suddenly thought to myself, 'These houses look as if they were put up in a hurry by a speculator...'

            They were Victorian, with large porches, several storeys and a basement, and a balustrade running along the top – which Connie uses to good advantage in the story. They were all beautifully painted and well kept, but there was something about them that looked crude. It was't difficult to imagine one back then with a cracked and peeling exterior and ill-fitting windows, and a little girl in a straw boater and rather grubby sailor dress skipping down the steps.
            When I got back home I did some research. Sure enough, the houses, built some sixty years before Connie's time, had been constructed too quickly from shoddy materials and four of them had fallen down shortly afterwards. Damp plasterwork was blamed! In my novel I could even use the name that the street would have been called then, as it has since been changed.
            Of course, it was just coincidence, nothing more, that a house I had seen so vividly in my mind's eye should suddenly be there before me and might well have had a history of damp. But sometimes these strange coincidences do occur.    
            It's part of the magic of writing.                    

            Patricia Elliott, is the award-winning author of Gothic fantasies for children and Young Adults, including 'The House of Eyes' and 'The Pale Assassin'.  
You can find out more at www.patriciaelliott.co.uk and follow her on Twitter @PElliottAuthor

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Taking It On The Road by Mo O'Hara

‘What goes on tour, stays on tour,’ my friend said with a grin when she came back from her rugby team trip.  

Somehow, I think my ‘book tour’ was not the kind of tour she was talking about though. 

So, I’ll break the rule and spill the beans about what goes on ‘on tour.’ 

This Spring my publisher sent me on a book tour to promote my series, My Big Fat Zombie Goldfish.   

I think of myself as a fairly realistic person but in my head I pictured lots of this…

But in reality it was lots of this…

I thought the purpose of a book tour was to go to lots of book shops and sign books for the long lines of children who would be waiting to buy them. (Note lack of long lines of kids in photo of bookshop. You can just about see the tumble weed rolling by if you squint just right.)

The actual purpose of the book tour was to meet as many librarians, teachers and booksellers as was humanly possible.  Oh, yeah and meet lots and lots and lots of kids as well.  Those kids don’t tend to come to the bookshops though so we did lots of meet and greets at bookshops (to really meet and greet the booksellers) and then we took the mountain to Mohammed and went to meet the kids where kids spend a most of their time… school. 

This meant going to two , three or four schools a day and logging up lots of miles but it was worth it when I came across schools like this one in Las Vegas who had done a whole wall of zombie goldfish for me!

It also meant doing panels at festivals…

And doing events in the evening, conferences or dinners. 

It was an amazingly exhausting week and a half with long, long days and ups and downs.

What I learned though is that for all the promoting and performing the best connections were made with one on one conversation with people. Readers, booksellers, librarians, teachers or other authors and illustrators- I met some extraordinary people that trip.   Big and small…

And it was definitely worth it! 

At the moment I’m still catching up on everything that I postponed to do the trip and I’m not thinking of going away again… but…. never say never.  Watching the Muppet movie with my kids the other week I was humming ‘Moving right along’ and thinking, hmmmm… 

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Shoutsouth 2015 - An Insider's Report

ShoutSouth is a Creative Writing Festival for schools from South London boroughs. It is run by CWISL - the Children's Writers and Illustrators in South London. The event brings together children and local libraries with local writers and illustrators. It is a time of celebration - of all forms of storytelling - drawing, writing, drama and more. Experienced writers and illustrators run workshops and mentor the children for three days.

Patricia Elliott, long standing member of CWISL gives us an insider's view of the festival.


The first day of our children's festival of story-making, the third CWISL has run at London South Bank University. 100 children aged 9 to 13, from 10 state schools. The schools and age-groups will be mixed together in a melting pot of four 'big cat' groups: Leopards, Tigers, Lions and Panthers. 

It's a warm day. We CWISL authors and illustrators arrive in LSB's cool, airy spaces and take a deep breath. Only half an hour to set up. We rearrange the rooms to make them more child-friendly, stick up posters, lay out the pencils, crayons and exercise books donated so generously by Derwent, put our books out on a display table.

Then the peace is shattered. The children have arrived! Excited but slightly overwhelmed by their new surroundings, they are wonderfully well-behaved under the eagle eyes of their teachers. 

The festival begins, with Margaret Bateson-Hill retelling an Indian folktale. The children are absolutely quiet, enthralled.

Margaret telling a chilling tale filled with sweet milk and snakes,

Now to the first workshop, the 'Spark', about how to find that first inspiration for a story. The children have been divided into their cat groups and are now in their rooms. In my group, Panther's, they investigate their notebooks and pencils. The crayons are called enticing names, like 'Butterscotch' and 'Fudge'. 'Can I eat mine?' a very small boy asks hopefully.

Mo sparking ideas

We have an abundance of admirably literal-minded boys in Panthers. The characters they come up with for Mo O'Hara's story grid are well-known footballers, wrestlers, film stars. It is when Mo plays three musical excerpts that their imaginations are really fired and some vivid story ideas emerge – an apocalyptic battle between the Moon and the Earth, an ex-soldier mourning the dead after a war, a music box fairy who turns evil at night, Christmas clowns. The workshop is interrupted by a fire alarm – definitely not part of the festival, but yet another thrilling experience for the children. We return, rather hungry.

Lunch over, it's time for a plenary with illustrator Bridget Marzo, who shows us all how two rough circles can be transformed into character's faces: a goody, a baddie. The conflict between them will be the story.  

100 students, more than 20 teachers and 20 writers and illustrators draw together.

Back in Panthers, a workshop with illustrator Gillian McClure. She shows the children first the roughs then the finished artwork for her books, and then how to draw their own characters in their story situations as if through the lens of a pair of binoculars. The results are (mostly) impressive. 

Gillian McClure presenting a student's work after her workshop


Acting emotions
The hottest day of the year so far. Mo starts the children off with a drama session in which one child has to 'direct' four others in a scene conveying an emotion to be guessed by the audience. Afterwards I hear one small Panther announce to another, 'I think I'll be a film director when I grow up.' One writer lost for posterity, then. 

Chitra Soundar showing how to plot a Story Mountain
Then Chitra Soundar leads the 'Spot the Plot' workshop. It's time for the children to shape their ideas into stories. We authors are on hand to help with any questions or problems. The children work hard, with the guidance of worksheets. Interestingly, many of them return to their first ideas.

Patricia Elliott leading Mad, Moody and Murky

The last workshop: 'Mad, Moody and Murky' is about how to make stories more vivid for the reader by adding mood and atmosphere and showing the emotions of the protagonist without 'telling'. We imagine a gentle beach scene and then turn it into something more sinister. Afterwards, they write busily. Finally they read out the beginnings of their stories. One, written in the first person, by a little girl, is so good it transfixes the authors.

And Saturday? The last day.

The children bring their parents, guardians, siblings. Teachers come. A morning of writing, with authors on hand to perfect, among them Beverley Birch, Sarah Mussi, Sara Grant, H.L. Dennis. The adults have their own writing workshop with Sam Osman, younger siblings draw with Loretta Schauer.  

A party, with cake generously co-sponsored by Pea Green Boat Books, who are also running the bookshop where the children can have their choices signed by the authors. There's a grand award ceremony, with the handing out of certificates for everyone.  

And Margaret tells a final story. 
It won't be the last, though...

To the schools and students who took part – thank you for coming and we hope you enjoyed it as much as we did!

To LSBU and its staff, a special thank you for letting us use your lovely rooms free of charge, and for your help and tolerance. I hope that many of the children will be encouraged to come to you as undergraduates in years to come.  

BUT THE THING THAT'S MOST IMPORTANT OF ALL to say is that the authors and illustrators of CWISL put on this festival unpaid because we all believe that it's vitally important to stimulate the imaginations of children, to encourage them to read and write and expand their horizons. Schools do this already, of course, but with ShoutSouth! it's a chance for children to interact with 'real live' authors, to receive their help face to face, to see that we're actually quite normal (I think!) and that they, too, can aspire to becoming writers one day.

Watch out for the children's work on ShoutAbout!, CWISL's creative writing magazine, in due course.  

Patricia Elliott's new MG novel, The House of Eyes – A Connie Carew Mystery, is published on  2nd July by Hodder Children's Books

Friday, 1 May 2015

TIME TRAVEL by Lydia Syson

‘Kids like historical fiction for the same reason they like fantasy: world building & high stakes.’  (@halseanderson, March 2015)

The much acclaimed American YA writer Laurie Halse Anderson brought this up recently on Twitter, and I'm borrowing her theory here now because I think she's so very right. The links between history and fantasy are worth shouting about.  

We could all do with a little push to step outside our reading comfort zones.  Some people are more resolute than others about sticking to the genres they think they like best.  Just the word ‘historical’ can be a turn-off.  Maybe it sounds too much like school?  

Publishers don’t always help. They often seem scared to stray from the curriculum.  So readers are left with the idea that novels set in the past are all ‘same old, same old’…you might as well be doing revision.  

Not my publisher, Hot Key Books. I think I can safely say that even most history teachers know nothing about the world of the Paris Commune, the subject of my latest book, Liberty’s Fire. When the people of the city rose up to claim their rights in 1871, the stakes couldn’t have been higher. . . or the conclusion more horrifying.

Imagine Les Mis, nearly forty years on.  Despite another revolution, the Emperor came back.  Developers and speculators have transformed Paris, but while the rich have got richer, the poor are even poorer.  After a disastrous war with the Prussians, and a terrible winter siege – the wealthy ate the elephants in the zoo, but a rat was a treat for most people – the workers decided enough was enough.  The city voted for a new kind of government.  And that’s where Liberty’s Fire begins, in March 1871. 

Four young people are caught up in a revolution that quickly turns into civil war.  There’s ZĂ©phyrine, who used to make artificial flowers for fancy dressmakers, but has been left destitute after the death of her grandmother.  When she encounters Anatole, an innocent (and swoon-worthy) violinist, both are swept into new worlds they never before knew existed. But where does that leave Jules, a rich American photographer who is Anatole’s best friend, and is secretly in love with him?  Or Marie, an ambitious opera singer at Anatole’s theatre?  Desperate for word of her brother, a soldier in the French army that is now massing outside Paris, Marie is horrified by the actions of the Commune.  But what can she do?

The barricades are rising once more.  The call to arms rings through the city.  Can the Commune – and our quartet of characters – possibly survive?

Maybe you’re one of those fantasy-lovers who thinks history’s not for them? I hope this will help change your mind. Liberty’s Fire takes you through palaces and opera houses, soup kitchens and cemeteries, up onto rooftops and down into cellars. You’ll feel you've been fighting on the barricades yourself! Here's an invitation to immerse yourself in an unforgettable new world: revolutionary Paris.

Discover more about the Paris Commune and how I built the world of Liberty’s Fire at www.lydiasyson.com, where you’ll find also find details of my May blog tour and live events.  Publication day is May 7th and if you enter before May 6th, you could win a copy of the book at Goodreads. If you're a history teacher, and I've maligned you, please let me know!