Into the forest and out again

Why is it that so many stories involve forests? In the past they were (and may still be) places of exile and danger, hard work and jeopardy – certainly no leafy playground. In a forest, you cannot see very far ahead and there may be no clear path; it’s easy to get lost. And when darkness falls, those gently rustling ferns can seem more like monsters than friends. Then there’s the question of who – or what – you might meet in the woods. Strange people, hungry animals, magical beings?

But for young heroines and heroes, one huge advantage of forests is that they are much more exciting than the safe confines of home – and so, they offer an enticing landscape for children to explore, testing their own limits and learning about the world. It’s no wonder that forests (especially deep, unfamiliar or forbidden ones) are such a promising setting for stories.

In the first chapter of my work-in-progress for children, young hero Ethon finds himself in scary Viper’s Wood after dark and soon realises why it is out of bounds. It’s fun to draw different types of trees and think of ways to represent safe and not-so safe woodland areas. In these sketches, I’ve experimented with different ways of representing trees, from cosy to creepy!

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The beauty of a writing retreat

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It started with a tweet, mentioning that one place was left on the Arvon Centre’s four day writers’ retreat. No tuition, no structure, no feedback – just time to write. It was exactly what I was looking for.

Spending a few days at the Clockhouse in Shropshire is something I’d recommend to any writer in need of peace, quiet, time and the simple luxury of not being ‘on duty’ in any way. The retreat has been designed by people who really understand writers’ needs: the physical spaces are spacious and restful, with no distractions such as TV or even loud artworks. The setting is beautiful, with a magical woodland walk and a kitchen garden providing lettuce and raspberries. I half expected to bump into Peter Rabbit. The food provided is plentiful and delicious, with veggie and vegan options and the option to bring your own wine (or gin and tonic!) or pop a few quid in the honesty box.

There are just four studios at the Clockhouse and I was lucky enough to have a wonderful view of the countryside from my study window. My fellow writers were a delight – one from London, one from Hong Kong and one from Colorado. We socialised over dinner, sharing tips and describing our various writing projects, whilst respecting each other’s desire for peace and privacy the rest of the time.

Best of all, my first ever writers’ retreat was an intensely and enjoyably productive time: as well as finishing the draft of my novel for 8-12 year olds (which was my objective) ideas surfaced that are now an exciting and essential part of the work. There’s more work to do in two of the middle chapters of The Stone Feather before I can truly say ‘it’s finished’ but I made more progress than I’d ever have believed possible.

I can’t wait to go back.


The magic of maps


At this year’s November NAWE conference in beautiful Stratford-upon-Avon I was lucky enough to take part in a workshop run by writer Jennie Bailey entitled ‘Everyday Magic and Mythical Maps’. We started the workshop by making up spells based on everyday items. I chose a pen (predictably, perhaps) and most of the participants picked ordinary household items like mugs or buckets… all except one who, enchantingly, chose an oar. Here’s my spell:

Pen for writing
Pen for art
Pen for magic
Make it smart!

Next, giving us each a ‘real’ map of the town to play with, Jennie encouraged us to look afresh at the landscape’s features, the roads and buildings and bridges, and create our own ‘mythical’ version, thinking about smells and sounds as well as sights. There were no rules, Jennie explained: our only task was to go right ahead and create a new version of a very old place, just for our selves.

Soon, I’d made up new names for towers, bridges and streets. I turned an innocuous-looking field into a swamp and decided who (or what) might live there. For me, the boundaries offered an especially rich source of inspiration and I soon found I’d conjured up two entire communities, the Stone People and the Swamp People. The A3400 became a vast barrier between them called The High Divide,  with three ways through: the First Door, the Last Door and Terror’s Tunnel. The gentle River Avon took on a more sinister feel, renamed The Washaway. In just a few minutes, a whole new world started to unfold before me.

A space to play – even if just for ten or twenty minutes – is, I discovered, hugely valuable if you’re a writer who is creating a fictional setting, or space, for a story.

If you’d like to find out more about Jennie and her work, you can follow her on Twitter @wildwrites or take a look at

A story inside a story


The novel I’m writing for 8-12 year olds, The Stone Feather, is set in an imaginary world not so very far removed from medieval England. Much of the action happens in the hero’s home village, Greenoak. As well as imagining what the village looks like, I’ve been thinking about the songs, poems and rhymes that Ethon and all the other the characters in the story would know and recognise – everything from lullabies to jokes, riddles to recipes – and it’s great fun sprinkling these ‘cultural treasures’ throughout the chapters. Hopefully, it will also make Ethon’s world feel rich and real.

The Little Birch Boy is a cautionary tale that sits inside the main story. It is intended to stop adventurous children from straying out of bounds (which, of course, is exactly what Ethon does right from page one!):

Every child in Greenoak knew the story of the child who, disobeying his mother, wandered into Viper’s Wood after dark and came face to face with a huge, silver-eyed wolf. The boy died of fright before the creature could open its jaws. The wolf, blind from birth, simply blinked her shining eyes and padded past, leaving the little body to fade, season by season, into the earth. The boy’s mother, bent with grief, found her only comfort beneath the gently rustling leaves of the young silver birch tree that sprang up, forever beautiful amongst the pines. The tree sang to her, she said. But it was a song that only she could hear.