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The Rules of Magic

Creative WritingPosted by Barbara Sat, April 28, 2018 20:17:22
* This post was originally published on the Author Allsorts blog on 23rd April 2018.*

I blame Bewitched.

It was my must-see TV series when I was growing up and I still love it, even though I now watch through my fingers because of the rather repetitive plots and the reactionary attitudes to women.

Not surprisingly I adored Samantha, the pretty, well-meaning witch trying to keep her magic to a minimum (to please her dullard husband). These days I see the real role model is Endora, the archly wise and glamorous ‘baddie’. But I think it instilled in me a longing for magic that never quite went away.


When I think back to the books that I loved best as a child, they were always the ones with magic in them. Much as I enjoyed the adventure stories of the likes of the Famous Five or the school stories of St Clare’s and Malory Towers, deep down I knew they would never happen to me. I wasn’t smart enough to solve a crime and I wasn’t cool, rich or sporty enough to be one of midnight-feasters at boarding school.

But magic – well, that could happen to anyone, couldn’t it?

When I think back to the books that disappointed me as a child, they were the ones that promised magic but didn’t deliver. I vaguely remember one that boasted a witch in the title, for instance, but she turned out to be a kindly old lady and it was all about not judging people by appearances. Pah – a morality tale in disguise. And there were the books that weren’t quite magic-y enough – where the magic was so small and underwhelming that it wasn’t worth the trouble.

Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that magic keeps creeping into my own writing.

What may be surprising is that magic – in all its chaos and weirdness – almost always comes with rules.

Even those whacky Bewitched episodes had rules. If one witch casts a spell, another can’t remove it, for instance. But they can sometimes cast another spell to mitigate it – which of course takes us right back to Sleeping Beauty and the good fairies at the christening.


In my first children’s novel, The Serpent House (Curious Fox, 2014) the magic was time travel. And it turned out, as I was doing my research, that you can’t just bob back and forward through time, willy-nilly. There are all sorts of conventions and these date back to the first ever children’s time travel story, which was arguably Edith Nesbit’s The Story of the Amulet (1906).


For example, time travel can’t happen anywhere – there has to be a portal that enables the transportation, whether it’s a door or a piece of jewellery or a machine. Time moves differently in your ‘primary’ world when you’re travelling to the past (or future) – you can be away for months but find that only minutes have passed in your present day. And no matter how hard you try, you can’t (usually) change things in the past because it has too severe an effect on the future. You can mess with these rules – writers always like to try - but you’re asking for trouble.


The Misper (Conrad Press, 2018) wasn’t meant to be at all magical. Aimed at ages thirteen-plus, it’s primarily about friendships and it’s set in present-day Normal Town. But then my characters started trying magic out and it was hard to stop them (teenagers, you know). And things began to happen. I leave it up to the reader to decide whether the magic’s real or whether it’s all in Anna and Zoe’s heads.

Something I have noticed in my writing is that magic rarely ends well. If this is another rule, then I’m not sure why it is - I feel so sure that if someone gave me a wand for a day I’d do all sorts of good with it. But maybe it’s the subliminal message I picked up from Bewitched at an impressionable age: that really, you shouldn’t meddle with what is normal and natural. It’s high time I ditched that notion and let more magic in – wouldn’t you agree?



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The book I'd like to see reprinted

Creative WritingPosted by Barbara Sun, April 15, 2018 15:10:56

*This post was originally published on the Author Allsorts blog under the theme of the book I would like to see reprinted.*

Satchkin Patchkin, will you lift the latchkin? Satchkin Patchkin, will you lift the latch?

When I read stories to my eldest daughter, one of her absolute favourites was this book: Satchkin Patchkin, by Helen Morgan. Written in 1966, it’s the story of a little green magic man who lives ‘like a leaf’ in an apple tree.

It was the most comforting of bedtime stories. The apple tree in question belongs to a poor old lady who’s always being bullied and exploited by her landlord, who is ‘a lean man, a mean man, a man without a smile’.

In true fairy story fashion, in spite of her dire straits, the old lady shows kindness to the little hobgoblin Satchkin Patchkin. And in return, over a series of short and satisfying tales, Satchkin Patchkin pays her back, by thwarting and foiling the rotten old landlord until, in the end, the lovely old lady is well-off and comfortable.

(OK, I admit it: it’s the sort of story that has political appeal too, in the same way as Martin Waddell's Farmer Duck. I love it when a mean old capitalist gets taught a lesson by a hardworking commoner. You can’t start ’em too young and we need the moral of the story today more than ever).

As blogger Nick Campbell points out on the A Pile of Puffins site, the book was written at a time when there was a renewed interest in ‘earth magic’ and the hobgoblin character featured in a few children’s stories at the time. Perhaps another reason why it feels very evocative to anyone from the the ‘Watch with Mother’ generation.

One of the other real charms about the book is the way it lends itself so well to being read aloud to a young child. The author uses language like a song: some favourite lines are repeated, so the reader and listener know what’s coming.

Not too long ago, my daughter (now all grown up) was reminiscing about it, so I went to fetch it from the bookshelf, only to discover it had somehow disappeared. (Is there a book hobgoblin that pinches stories, I wonder? I never throw books away, and yet they somehow are often missing when I go to look for them).

And then I was heartbroken to discover it had gone out of print. A certain international online bookstore had a couple of buying options – one of them cost £10,000, so I had to pass, but in the end I did manage to find a pre-loved copy online that wasn’t in too poor a condition. So Satchkin Patchkin graces my library once more.

It made me wonder too about the author. Helen Morgan wrote some stories that are apparently more famous – the Mary Kate series (1960s) and The Witch Doll (1991, I think). Because Helen Morgan is not an unusual name, there are several authors who share it and I am struggling to find any verifiable biographical details for her.

But I’d campaign for a reprint of this old favourite any day. And I’d like her to know that those sing-song lines from Satchkin Patchkin still make me and my daughter smile.





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What's going on?

Creative WritingPosted by Barbara Sun, February 04, 2018 13:34:22
Gosh - it's proving hard to keep up with the blogging these days!

The Misper is to be published on 1st March and I'm now involved in organising a little publicity for it.

I'm pleased to say that some prominent book bloggers and reading sites have accepted it for review.

It should be available for pre-order within the next week or so.


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MERRY CHRISTMAS!

Creative WritingPosted by Barbara Fri, December 22, 2017 14:33:11
It's been a long, busy year.

Work (and travelling to work) has really got in the way of my ability to do much of my own writing. Ah, all those good intentions...!

As a result, I can still only claim to be part-way through my two current novels-in-progress.

But I can end the year by celebrating the fact the The Misper will be published (after a long struggle and a phenomenal number of delays!) on March 1st 2018 by The Conrad Press. So I am still a practising author as well as a lecturer and writing tutor.

Thanks to everyone who's been kind enough to follow my blog and my posts on social media. Wishing you all a very merry Christmas and a hopeful, creative 2018.

Bea



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COVER REVEAL!

Creative WritingPosted by Barbara Sat, October 14, 2017 20:34:41

At last! Here’s one of the best moments in the book publishing process – the cover reveal.

The process of choosing a cover has been very different with all of my novels.

For example, with the two crime novels In Too Deep and This Little Piggy, both for Legend Press, I was shown a few different designs and asked for my thoughts. Some of my opinions were taken into account, but not all. I didn’t mind: a book cover is a marketing tool and there are people in the publishing company who can do a much better job of choosing the right one than I can, in terms of making it attractive and helping it stand out on the shelves.

With the two children’s novels – The Serpent House and My Cousin Faustina – I had no input at all. I was presented with fait accomplis. So it’s just as well that I really liked these too!

With The Misper, a teen/YA novel, the process fell somewhere in the middle. I had a choice of two covers, both created by the very talented Charlotte Mouncey at Bookstyle for The Conrad Press. The covers were actually very similar in terms of the figures in the main image. The choice really came down to colours and mood.

I’m really thrilled with the look of this cover. Hope you like it too!

The Misper is published on 1st March 2018.



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TRAVELLING WRITES

Creative WritingPosted by Barbara Tue, August 01, 2017 02:32:20

I’m out in Canada at the moment: part holiday, part work. I have just presented an academic paper at the IRSCL conference at York University, Toronto and given the carbon imprint this creates, I maximised the time by combining it with a family holiday. (And Toronto is a fantastic place, if anyone’s got the opportunity to go).


One of the other joys of going on holiday, for me, is taking a ‘pile’ of books to read (these days, mostly on an e-reader, to save space in an already burgeoning suitcase). And what I love to do is create a reading list inspired by the place I’m visiting.

It used to be that this involved a trip to a big bookstore in the hope that they had a suitably informed member of staff or a well-stocked and clearly-labelled section of literature inspired by a certain place.

Now, of course, there’s a website that does it for you. TripFiction allows a keen reader to key in their destination and the site will offer you a list of books set there. For me, Canada is a bit of a gift because some of the authors I already love are from there and/or base their fiction there: Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Carol Shields, for example. And I’ve also taken some novels I have never read, such as Anne Michaels’ The Winter Vault and Michael Ondaatje’s The Skin of a Lion. It’s a kind of literary playlist.

As it happens, two of my books set in the north-east UK feature on this site too: In Too Deep in the fictionalised Dowerby (which is very, very like Alnwick) and The Serpent House, inspired by Spittal. (Authors: it’s very easy to register your works if they have a real setting).

Anyone else tailor their holiday reading around their destination? Given that TripFiction even exists, I guess I am not alone!



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NEWS ABOUT THE MISPER

Creative WritingPosted by Barbara Tue, July 18, 2017 14:03:08

I’m very happy to announce that my YA novel, The Misper, is to be published on 1st December with Conrad Press.

Those of you who follow this blog will know that I wrote some months ago about signing a publishing contract – and then it all went mysteriously quiet.

The reason was that I initially signed with another publisher – Accent Press. What happened there is a story for another day – and I promise to blog about it soon.

But for now, I want to say a huge thanks to my patient and hard-working agent, James Essinger, and I am now really excited to the prospect of the book hitting the stores this winter.







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Mapping our Stories

Creative WritingPosted by Barbara Sat, July 01, 2017 18:14:48

This post was originally published on the Author Allsorts site on 30.06.17

When I first saw the suggested blog post idea of using maps in fiction writing, my initial thought was that I wasn’t the one to write it. After all, I don’t write the kind of epic fantasy that requires a map: I am no C.S. Lewis or JRR Tolkein.



In any case, in real life, I’m afraid I let the female side down when it comes to map-reading – I read them backwards, sideways and any which way that doesn’t make sense and gets me hopelessly lost.

But then I thought a bit harder about it. And I think that most writers of fiction do “map” as they write – even if they don’t produce a beautiful and plausible topography of their world.

In my case, I had in my mind a clear picture of the eleventh century leper hospital where my character Annie finds herself in The Serpent House (Curious Fox, 2014). After all, it was based on a real place: the long-lost hospital after which my village, Spittal in Berwick-upon-Tweed, gets its name. So I knew how close to the sea it was, roughly how big it would be and (based on other such places) how it would be laid out.

I was delighted to find this little plan by local historian Jim Walker and to be given permission to use it when I talk to schools about the book.

How does “mapping” help a writer then?

It’s amazing how often new writers forget about setting. They have a great concept for a story and they know (or should know!) the importance of fully rounded characters. But no story happens in a vacuum. I think it was Paul Magrs who said that if anyone wrote an experimental novel that was not set anywhere, readers would find themselves inventing their own setting in their minds. We want to be able to see where the action happens and imagine ourselves there.

And that’s why our story world maps have to somehow leap off the page. It’s not enough to describe things visually. That mountain range: what winds come off it? That patch of farmland: how does it smell? When the character’s in their top floor city centre apartment, what traffic can they hear?

I like to get new writers to know their fictional world really well. It’s always important, even if that world is a fantasy one: they need to know its rules, its language, its culture and any other detail that may or may not creep into the story.

You the writer are the explorer, the pioneer. So draw that map for those who’re following your journey! It doesn’t have to be a work of art. It’s just a start – and then you can add in all the extra information, until you have your own version of a Rough Guide to your own story world.



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