Inspiration Station

Christopher Edge tells us about the inspiration behind his new book How to Write Your Best Story Ever! 

A bank-robbing banana being chased by a police pigeon, an accident-prone spy with the nickname Double Oh No!, a crime-fighting baby who googles for clues… These are just a few of the fantastic ideas that children have come up with when I’ve visited schools to talk about writing stories.

How to Write Your Best Story Ever

As a writer of children’s fiction, one of the most common questions I get asked is ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’  The answer is, of course, I go into schools and steal them. (Only joking!) But the creativity that children show when I work with them in writing workshops or chat to them after author events is truly an inspiration to me. When I was at school, I thought that books were made in factories and there weren’t any authors popping in to my classroom to reveal the secrets of the writing life. To me the idea of meeting a writer was as strange and exotic as the idea of meeting an astronaut. (Another childhood ambition, as yet sadly unfulfilled!) 274352_BEST_STORY_EVER_95_FINAL_APPROVED

Nowadays children’s authors such as J.K. Rowling and David Walliams are celebrities and with literary festivals popping up every other minute, the power of stories can be seen everywhere. But sometimes in schools, the pressures of tests and exams can squeeze the pleasure out of reading and writing. So when I go into schools as an author, one of my goals is to help banish the fear of the blank page and put the fun back into writing stories. I want to demystify the creative process and help every child realise that they can be a writer too. From inventing unforgettable characters to creating thrilling plots, I share tips and trade secrets, working with children to write their own action-packed adventures, spooky tales and amazing mash-up stories. 274352_BEST_STORY_EVER_26_64_dupe

And so when Oxford University Press got in touch about creating a book called How to Write Your Best Story Ever! I jumped at the chance of getting involved. Working with the brilliant team there and with illustrations from the fabulous Nathan Reed, we’ve tried to create the ultimate creative writing guide. There’s an avalanche of ideas and advice about writing a story from start to finish and hints and tips about how to write different types of story too, from thrillers and mysteries to animal adventures and comic book scripts. There are ‘Word Webs’ to help children find the right words for their story and inspire their own creative vocabulary, ‘Author says’ tips to help conquer any bad cases of writer’s block, and even a ‘Red Alert’ feature that gives the lowdown on any essential spelling, grammar and punctuation help  that the reader might need.


One of my favourite features in the book, is the ‘Inspiration Station’ where children can read fantastic lines from brilliant authors such as Roald Dahl, Philip Reeve and Jacqueline Wilson to name but a few and use these as fuel for their own writing. Every writer is a reader and every reader can be a writer too. All you need is a book…

How to Write Your Best Story Ever!

Christopher EdgeChristopher Edge is the award-winning author of Twelve Minutes to Midnight, The Black Crow Conspiracy and many more books for children. A former English teacher, Christopher now works as a publishing and education consultant and visits primary and secondary schools across the country to inspire children as readers and writers. His books have been included in the Summer Reading Challenge, Bookbuzz and Read for My School programmes. How to Write Your Best Story Ever! is out now. Find out more about Christopher Edge at

Islands and imagination

Julia Green, author of Sylvie and Star and Tilly’s Moonlight Fox gives us an insight into the inspiration behind her brand new book for younger readers, Seal Island.

I’ve loved islands as long as I can remember: I like the smaller, more intimate scale of an island, the way you can get to know it on foot, the sense of community found there, and the relationship with the weather, the sea and the rhythm of the tides. Recently I’ve re-visited the Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland, and this is the setting for my new book for children, Seal Island.

north uist June 10 2014 004

My island is imaginary but based on these real places. I drew a map to show where everything happens in my story (I loved maps in books as a child).


mapThrough Grace’s story, I hope to bring a sense of this beautiful place to my readers, to share the pleasure of beachcombing, spotting seals, making friends and experiencing the freedom to play and explore. I researched real seals, but also read the old tales about Selkies – half seal and half person – and wove these into my story.

deer on allotment and North Uist 031

Grace learns about the island, about life and loss – there are some dramatic events after a storm – but I have tried overall to capture the summery feel of life on an island, the warmth of family and friendship, the rhythm of the sea and the wide starry skies.

Seal Island is out now.

Seal Island

Copyright Kim Green

Copyright Kim Green


Julia Green lives in Bath. She has two sons.  She writes fiction for children and young adults. She is the Course Director for the MA in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University. Julia leads creative writing workshops for children and adults in a variety of settings, including festivals and schools and for the Arvon foundation. She has worked as an English teacher in school, as a lecturer in FE, Higher and Adult Education, as a tutor for young people not in mainstream school; she has also been a publicity officer, a sub editor for a publishing company and a library assistant at a medical school in London.

The Meaning of Life: Joanna Nadin on funny books

Joanna NadinI have always ‘done’ funny. Both as a reader, and a writer. As a child, I snorted through every page of every Dr Seuss, laughed until I cried at Russell Hoban’s inspired creation Aunt Fidget Wonkham-Strong in her iron hat cooking mutton sog, and the mere mention of the East Pagwell Canal from Professor Branestawm was enough to render me insensible.

Laughter is a tonic, it’s therapy. Quite literally, as there is no greater closure than the writer’s revenge of turning the adults who belittled you, or the children who taunted you mercilessly for having hair like Leo Sayer and second-hand skirts, into grim-faced moustachioed ladies, or moronic underachievers called Kylie (yes, both of them, and no I won’t name the inspirational bullies behind the characters, but suffice to say I didn’t bother to change one of the surnames).

A few months ago, I was asked by The Guardian to write a piece on my top ten favourite ‘funny’ books for young children. Of course I said yes, a) because my self-esteem is sufficiently low and my ego sufficiently enormous that I am easily flattered, b) because I like going through my bookshelves and ensuring they are still in excellent alphabetical order, and c) because I like thinking about funny things.

And so I did, think about them I mean, not just the books themselves (though that was a delight), but about the concept of ‘funny’ and its place in fiction. Because I’ve found that funny is, oddly, frowned upon by certain people, and certain schools of thinking. These are the people who would have you believe that ‘issues’ books—books that make you ‘feel’, that make you ‘think’ (usually about grim things)—are somehow more worthy of your time, and of praise, and prizes, than ones with jokes in.

People like my old ‘O’ Level teacher who told me I’d never amount to anything, when he caught me reading one of my own books under the desk instead of the syllabus text sat sullenly on top of it. It wasn’t so much the act of disobedience that riled him, I think, than the subject matter. My chosen book was George’s Marvellous Medicine—so much more interesting than the turgid (or so it seemed to me at the time) Silas Marner.

But what these people—and there are many, from teachers to parents to peers—fail to get is that funny books can be just as worthwhile, and just as potentially life-changing. They make you ‘think’, they make you ‘feel’. But they make you laugh while you’re doing it. And sometimes, that can make the drama all the greater, the truth all the starker.

Funny books are important—from getting reluctant readers engaged in a story, to keeping the attention of those with short attention spans, to simply making us feel clever when we get the joke. Shakespeare did it; Austen did it; Dahl did it, not just in his children’s books, but throughout his tales for grown-ups too.

I’m not claiming to be in their ball park, I’m not claiming that The Meaning of Life is life-changing, but I am convinced that, for at least two hundred-and-something pages, it will make life fun. And that makes life good. And that, surely, is what it’s all about.

(And if you’re interested in just what my top ten funny books for 5-8s were, you can read about them here).

Joanna Nadin

Joanna Nadin grew up in Saffron Walden in Essex, before studying drama and political communication in Hull and London. She is a former broadcast journalist, speechwriter, and Special Adviser to the Prime Minister. Since leaving politics, she has written the bestselling Rachel Riley series for teens, as well as the award-winning Penny Dreadful series for younger readers, and many more books for children and young adults. She has thrice been shortlisted for Queen of Teen as well as the Roald Dahl Funny Prize. She lives in Bath with her daughter.

Follow Joanna Nadin on Twitter

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The third Rachel Riley Diary, The Meaning of Life, is out now with a fabulous new look. Further books in the series publish in  Jul and Oct this year.

Rachel Riley series

Meet the mother and daughter team behind Wendy Quill is a Crocodile’s Bottom: Wendy Meddour and Mina May

Hi! And thank you for asking us to join you on this blog. So here we are: the mother/daughter team behind the Wendy Quill books – working EXTREMELY hard. Mina May is slaving away on her iPad whilst I am doing VERY IMPORTANT writerly work:

Wendy Meddour and Mina May

Wendy Meddour and Mina May working EXTREMELY hard

You see, because Mina May is only eleven, people are always asking us: ‘What was it like doing a book together? Was it really hard?’ I’m tempted to say: ‘Oh yes, of course. What with all the deadlines and having to produce pictures for a professional designer’:

Mina and Karen Stewart

Mina May with our very professional designer

And having to submit manuscripts to an editor who is ever-so strict . . .

Mina and Jasmine Richards

Illustrator and Wendy Quill editor hard at work. Again.

 But then I realise that I have to stop pretending.

Because the truth is, we’re having an absolute blast. Our designer and editor at OUP are AMAZING. And Mina May and I LOVE creating Wendy Quill together – she’s a little bit of both of us, I think. We’ve got the same sense of humour – so are giggling all over the place and having a bit of a ball.

This is how it works:

Mina May: ‘Were you really a crocodile’s bottom, Mum? You know, in actual real life?’

Me: ‘Erm. Well. Sort of, yes. It was for my school play: Peter Pan and Wendy. My head wasn’t big enough to fit under the front bit, so I had to go at the back.’

Mina May: ‘Oh no!’ *giggling* ‘But why weren’t you picked to be “Wendy”?’

Me: ‘I have absolutely no idea. I mean, I should have been Wendy. I am a real Wendy. I even look like a Wendy. And the girl they picked had straight black hair, which everyone knows is completely wrong for Wendy in Peter Pan and . . . ’

Mina May: ‘Aw, never mind Mum. I bet you were a great crocodile’s bottom.’ *Starts drawing on iPad* ‘How about this?’

Wendy Quill as crocodile

Artwork from Wendy Quill is a Crocodile’s Bottom © Mina May

Me: ‘Oh my giddy Aunt! That’s unbelievable!!!! That is just what it was like!’

Or, to take another example . . .

Mina May: ‘So what do “The Girly Gang” actually look like Mum? Have you written that chapter yet?’

Me: ‘No. Not quite yet. But basically, they all have their ears pierced and wear pointy shoes. It’s part of their “Girly Gang” Rules. Oh. And they’re really scared of rats.’

Mina May: ‘So kind of like this?’

Wendy Quill girly girls

Artwork from Wendy Quill is a Crocodile’s Bottom © Mina May

Me: *squeal* ‘Ahhhh! Exactly like that! You’ve done it again! Perfect.’

Then we send it to our designer, the brilliant Professor Karen Stewart – and she puts the images all cleverly on the page. And then my editor, the lovely Jasmine Richards (with the gymnastic abilities, editorial brilliance and completely ‘natural arch’), reads my Wendy Quill chapters and tells me if I’m ‘cooking on gas.’

If I am ‘cooking on gas’ (and being Wendy Quillish to the core), we all get very excited and eat lots of cake! And then we get even more excited when we see the final product, tadaaaa:


And then we say, ‘Can we do another one? Please?’

So no. It’s not hard. It’s a DREAM. And we don’t really want it to stop.

Here’s a little ‘Behind the Scenes’ video so that you can see us in action. We hope you giggle over Wendy Quill is a Crocodile’s Bottom just as much as we giggled over making it.

Wendy Quill is a Crocodile’s Bottom is out now. Also available as an eBook – in full colour!

Fact and fantasy: Ali Sparkes and Unleashed

aliMy stories are a bit like a fairy with bunions. They are fantasy but they have their feet in the real world.

What I really love is making startling, spooky or paranormal things happen in the ‘real’ world that we all know and recognize. When I started out with Dax Jones in the very first Shapeshifter story it was with this thought:

Ordinary boy, one day, out of nowhere, turns into a fox.

What then?

What would happen? Think about it. If it happened to you, today, how would you react? How would your friends react? Your teachers? Your family? Your enemies?

And then I love to do a bit of research in the real world, to work out what might happen for real. For example, for the Shapeshifter series, featuring 100 or so COLAs (Children Of Limitless Ability) who have suddenly developed paranormal powers, I spoke to:

  •  An ex Ministry Of Defence expert
  • A survival/bushlore expert
  • A practising dowser
  • A practising psychic
  • A practising healer
  • A special operative with the police (ex SAS)

And for the follow on series UNLEASHED, I’ve added:

  • Another special operative (ex SAS)
  • A successful stage and up close magician
  • Assorted Irish people

Peter Clifford

…and probably many more. Research is one of my favourite things. I love getting to meet people who are happy to tell me or show me stuff I need to know to make my books make better sense. Bristol illusionist par excellence, Peter Clifford, was a particular treat. In a Bristol café he did proper close up magic just for me! He made coins, clenched in my fist, vanish without trace. He did things with rubber bands that defy all logical explanation. will tell you a bit more – but not that much more.

To be honest, though, I felt a little guilty. For UNLEASHED: Trick Or Truth – a story featuring Spook Williams, one of my favourite but less pleasant characters – the magician I invented was the opposite of Peter. Brash, cheesy, over the top and contemptuous of his audience.

Really good magicians like Peter, and Derren Brown (who happens to be one of Peter’s best friends) are not at all contemptuous of their audience. They hugely enjoy imparting amazement, delight and that child-like sense of wonder we can still find in ourselves even when we’re properly grown up. They want to involve the audience, not make idiots of them.

I wasn’t really into magic much before going out to research for Trick Or Truth but now I love it. I’ve seen Peter’s show a couple of times and Derren Brown’s live Svengali show too. I don’t really waste too much time trying to pick all the tricks and illusions apart. I enjoy them as if they were ‘real’ magic and revel in the brilliance of the person, or often the team, that has made this astonishing theatre happen.

I would love to be able to do it myself but one of those fake nails through my finger is probably as clever as I’ll ever get.

Spook Williams, of course, needs no help at all. He is the REAL deal. A COLA illusionist who can make you see anything he wants you to see, so convincingly that he could bring you to your knees. And just with the blink of an eye.

Couple that with an arrogant and conceited personality and you have all the makings of a monster. But will Spook turn out to be a monster after his adventure in the Mediterranean? Living a life of luxury aboard a millionaire’s yacht and moving among the champagne swilling beautiful people of St Tropez, will Spook’s ego lead him into pulling off a daring heist?

UNLEASHED: Trick Or Truth is out now…so you can find out for yourself!



Ali Sparkes grew up in Southampton and despite some exciting months in London and even more exciting months in Lowestoft (where she really experienced life on the edge), still lives in Southampton today, with her husband and two sons.

She has worked as a singer, journalist, broadcaster, magazine editor and the spangle-clad assistant to a juggling unicyclist (frighteningly, there is photographic proof).

Ali has many children’s fiction titles published by Oxford University Press including her SWITCH series, her award-winning novel Frozen in Time, and her heart-stopping new adventure series about a group of teenagers with special powers, Unleashed.

Visit Ali’s website

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Retelling traditional tales using phonics

­Traditional Tales tagWe all know the power of traditional stories such as The Tortoise and the Hare and The Gingerbread Man to capture the imaginations of children.

This month sees the publication of the first books in our new series of Traditional Tales home learning books, which contain well-loved traditional stories carefully retold using phonics and familiar language, so that children can read them for themselves.

Author Gill Munton joins us to share her experience of retelling these timeless tales.

Gill MuntonOUP: Would you like to write some stories for children who are learning to read?

Me: I’d love to!

OUP: They will need to fit the tight phonic rules that schools follow.

Me: Er – that’s fine. No problem.

OUP: And they will be retellings of traditional tales.

Me: Er…

OUP: Oh, yes, and we’d like you to write for the youngest readers.

Me: Gulp! Not so easy!

Well, it wasn’t easy, but it was certainly do-able, and great fun, too!

Whenever I write stories for children learning to read – and I’ve written a lot – I always make sure that I am supporting the way in which children are taught to read at school, and currently that is by using phonics.

The challenge is to combine the requirements of phonics with fluent, interesting writing. And humour is, of course, always good.

Artwork © Laura Hughes

Artwork © Laura Hughes

Writing for very young readers

OUP asked me to make sure that each story doesn’t contain words that have not yet been taught to children. (The order – or sequence – in which phonics is taught is already reflected in Oxford Reading Tree. For more information – and where I often look – you could take a peek at the Government document called ‘Letters and Sounds’.)

So what problems did I come across, and how did I solve them? Here are a few examples.

  •  We need the story ‘Goldilocks’ but we can only use three-letter words such as ‘sat’, plus a handful of tricky words (words which are not phonically regular but are very common, so that children need to learn them quickly),  such as ‘I’.

Solution: Use the first person: ‘I am in the wood’ instead of ‘Goldilocks is in the wood.’

Artwork © Ilaria Falorsi

Artwork © Ilaria Falorsi


  • We need ‘Daddy Bear’, ‘Mummy Bear’ and ‘Baby Bear’ but I can’t use those words because the children can’t read them yet.

Solution: Let the artwork show us that the characters are three bears, and label their mugs ‘Dad’, ‘Mum’ and ‘Ted’.

Artwork © Ilaria Falorsi

Artwork © Ilaria Falorsi

  • We need ‘Town Mouse’ and ‘Country Mouse’.

Solution: Let the illustration show us that the characters are mice, and give them the simple names ‘Tim’ and ‘Tom’. Ask the artist to make sure the mice show their different characteristics visually – a top hat for the town mouse and a spotted neckerchief for the country mouse!

Artwork © Emma Dodson

Artwork © Emma Dodson

  • We need ‘said Chicken Licken ’.

Solution: Put Chicken Licken’s words in a speech bubble, and so avoid the common but tricky word ‘said’.

  Artwork © Christine Pym

Artwork © Christine Pym


Retelling traditional tales

Folk and fairy tales come from all around the world, and offer a rich and varied resource for adaptation. But there are a few things that we writers need to bear in mind when doing retellings, e.g.

  • The characters and setting are already in place, and must be respected.
Artwork © Sue Mason

Artwork © Sue Mason

  • The storyline is fixed, and we need to plot the story out page by page to make sure we get it all in! Having said that, though, if there is just too much content, details and sometimes episodes can be judiciously cut.
Artwork © Paula Metcalf

Artwork © Paula Metcalf

  • We should capitalise on repeated refrains, which are often a feature of traditional tales and help children to read the words through repetition:

‘This bed is no good … This bed is no good … This is the right bed for me!’

Artwork © Ilaria Falorsi

Artwork © Ilaria Falorsi

So, all in all, a very interesting and enjoyable project and one which I hope will get children learning to read – and love – these timeless stories for themselves.

Gill Munton

With an extensive background in primary publishing for literacy, Gill Munton has written numerous reading scheme titles for major UK publishers – fiction, non-fiction, poetry and plays. For OUP she has written various phonically structured reading books including titles for Project X, Bertie the Lazy Crow for Oxford Literacy Web (as well as being phonically decodable, this is written in humorous rhyming couplets), and all the storybooks and non-fiction titles for Ruth Miskin’s Read, Write, Inc.

Gill lives in London with her husband and Sergei, the (very naughty) Russian Blue cat. She enjoys writing, cooking, going to art exhibitions, and, best of all, reading!

The first two books in the Traditional Tales home learning series are out now. Each book contains 4 phonically decodable traditional stories.

The Gingerbread Man jacket Tortoise and the Hare jacket

Further titles are due for release from September 2013 onwards.

For more information on phonics, visit the Oxford Owl website or read our recent phonics post.

The Life of Riley

Celebrating the publication of The Rachel Riley Diaries: The Life of Riley, Joanna Nadin shares what she wanted to be when she grew up!

Joanna NadinI never wanted to be a writer when I grew up. That is to say, it didn’t occur to me that writing was a “real” job, much less one that I would be capable of, or derive enjoyment from, my talents and skills at that time lying more in maths and singing the books of the Bible off by heart.

And yet I devoured books, I lived in books, I was lost in books. If the weather was bad, I didn’t grumble, just sat in my cushion fort with a batch of Enid Blytons. If it was sunny, I took them into a den in the garden (my idea of the “Great Outdoors” is still limited to somewhere I can read comfortably). Because, while my peers were dreaming of growing up to be a ballerina, or a footballer, or the first female Prime Minister (oh, she’d have been so much better than the one we got), all I wanted was to be IN a book.

Jo Nadin child

I wanted to be Heidi – tending goats all day and sleeping in a hay loft at night. And, of course, nobly helping the crippled Clara to walk again.  I wanted to be George in the Famous Five, solving adventures that no grown-up could possibly fathom, and drinking a lot of lemonade while I did it (banned in our house – my grandfather was a dentist). Then I wanted to be pretty much anyone in the Pony Club series by one of the Pullein-Thompson sisters (kind of like the Brontës of the home counties, only with fewer wild moors and tuberculosis, and rather more plaits and gymkhanas and petty jealousy over who has the best curry comb).

Partly this was aspirational. The lives of these girls were far more exciting than my own small-town Essex upbringing. And partly because I thought I WAS these girls. I could see bits of myself in all of them: moodiness, the feeling of being the outsider, but still the heroine of the piece.

Jo Nadin reading 1

After I outgrew Enid Blyton, I moved on to films. I wanted to be Velvet Brown, winning the Grand National disguised as a boy. Or Andy in Pretty in Pink, falling for the boy on literally the wrong side of the tracks and winning him over with her brilliant vintage dress sense. Or Baby in Dirty Dancing, who got to save the world (or at least join the Peace Corps) AND do the lift with Patrick Swayze sweating in a vest. Note, I didn’t want to be Elizabeth Taylor, or Molly Ringwald, or Jennifer Grey. Well, I wouldn’t have minded. But what I really wanted was to be the characters they were playing.

As I grew up, towards an age where getting a job was becoming a reality, this feeling – this need to live through fiction – grew rather than lessened. When I applied to study drama, it was because I had read and reread The Swish of the Curtain. Somehow I thought this would be my all-access pass to coolness. Only to discover I would spend most of my time pretending to be an unconvincing toaster. And that, as a graduate, I wouldn’t be at the RSC assisting Trevor Nunn, I would be working for a pittance from a back room in Kings Cross sending out press releases to theatres in places like Wolverhampton or Colchester.

Then I worked in television news, imagining, I guess, I would become Kate Adie or even Jeremy Paxman. Only I spent rather too much time making tea for B-listers and not a huge deal of it writing groundbreaking news reports or interviewing despots.

Then I went into politics. Which, for once, was kind of a sensible career choice for a book geek. Having come from a background in TV and radio, I was, for the first time in my life, considered quirky and vaguely cool. I was the go-to girl if any ministers needed briefing on music, or E4.

Yet that wasn’t enough. Because I’m sitting there in the basement of No. 10 – which for a lot of people is an impossibly exciting and glamorous place to be. Only the thing is, it really isn’t. Because I’m supposed to be writing three hundred words on why ID cards are really, no honestly, a great idea. But instead, I’m staring out of the window into the ornamental gardens, imagining that, at any minute, the phone is going to ring and I’m going to get dispatched to the Middle East as an observer for the peace talks. Whereupon fate will intervene and my convoy will be attacked by insurgents, trapping me under a Land Rover. From where I will be airlifted to an army hospital in Germany, and will be languishing in a coma when the gorgeous Deputy Chief of Staff flies across the world to finally profess his dying love for me after years of will they, won’t they intrigue (I had moved on the The West Wing by then).

And I guess that’s when I worked it out. I had spent so long immersed in stories, that, when life turned out not to be exactly like it is in books or films, I was perpetually disappointed. I wanted a Hollywood ending. On a daily basis.

And so I figured, given the huge swathes of time given over to daydreaming, it might just be possible that, instead of waiting for the cliffhanger, or the movie kiss, I could write my own. I’d certainly be happier, because that way I’d get to spend all day in someone else’s head, and in someone else’s world, living in their adventures, and giving them happy endings.

So why write a series based on my own, uneventful childhood? Well, this way I get to give my alter ego – the girl who can’t always tell fact from fiction, who lives in hope of becoming Sylvia Plath – a little more drama, a lot more kissing, and maybe, even, the happy ending I was always holding out for.

Joanna Nadin

Joanna Nadin grew up in Saffron Walden in Essex, before studying drama and political communication in Hull and London. She is a former broadcast journalist, speechwriter, and Special Adviser to the Prime Minister. Since leaving politics, she has written the bestselling Rachel Riley series for teens, as well as the award-winning Penny Dreadful series for younger readers, and many more books for children and young adults. She has thrice been shortlisted for Queen of Teen as well as the Roald Dahl Funny Prize. She lives in Bath with her daughter.

Follow Joanna Nadin on Twitter

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The second Rachel Riley Diary, The Life of Riley, is out now with a fabulous new look. Further books in the series publish in May, Jul, Oct this year.

Rachel Riley series

The Word Tin – where stories come from

Dave Cousins, author of 15 Days Without a Head and Waiting for Gonzo, shares his story making secret.

Dave_Cousins_2One of the most common questions asked of writers is where do you get your ideas from? It’s a question that many will struggle to answer—not me. I know exactly where my stories originate. I’ll let you into the secret, but don’t go spreading it around. This is just between us, OK?

On my desk there’s a metal box, 18cm wide by 9cm deep and 8cm high. I call it the Word Tin, and it contains all the words I need, stamped into small strips of metal, like dog-tags. To build a story, I simply delve into the box, pull out a handful of words and put them in the right order—simple.

The Word Tin

Sadly, I’m joking (but imagine if such a tin existed—now there’s an idea for a story!) The tin is real enough, and I have once or twice tried to conjure a story the way I described. It produced some interesting, if not exactly publishable, results.

So where do ideas for stories come from? For me, Robert Cormier explained it perfectly when he said, ‘to work for me, an idea must be attached to an emotion, something that upsets, dazzles or angers me and sends me to the typewriter’. The spark that sent me to my notebook to scribble the start of the story that became my debut novel 15 Days Without a Head, came from an incident I witnessed in a pub one afternoon. A very drunk woman was arguing with a stranger at the next table—much to the embarrassment of her sons. It made me wonder what life was like for those two boys, what would happen when they got home.


I can’t tell you about the idea that started my new book Waiting for Gonzo because it will spoil the story, but something I had experienced thirty years earlier provided an important element.


In the summer before I was due to start secondary school, my family moved from Birmingham to a small town in Northamptonshire. I arrived for my first day at ‘big school’ in an over-sized blazer, 1970s haircut and impenetrable Brummie accent.

Dave Cousins School Photo

Look, I’m not going to lay a huge sob story on you—by the end of the first year most kids were calling me Dave, rather than Birmingham, but I’ll admit the first few months weren’t easy. So, this was the situation into which I dropped my thirteen year old narrator of Waiting for Gonzo—though for him, I went one better—or worse. I took him from the city to a remote village—an environment so alien, he might as well have been on Mars.

But ideas alone don’t make stories—for that you need characters—real ones, that leap off the page and invade your life. Cue Oz: loud, cocky and selfish—nothing like the sensitive, sympathetic character I had originally imagined. Rather than attempting to blend into his new surroundings and make friends, Oz barged onto the page like he owned the place. I loved him. He made me laugh and did unexpected things. The more Oz came to life, the more he transformed the story—and all I had to do was type.

And then of course, there was Gonzo, but I’m afraid you’ll have to read the book to find out about that. One secret per post is my limit!

Waiting for Gonzo is published on 7th March 2013—there’s even an original soundtrack to go with it, but that’s a story for another time.

Waiting for Gonzo soundtrack

Watch the Waiting for Gonzo trailer!


Dave Cousins grew up in Birmingham, in a house full of books and records. Abandoning childhood plans to be an astronaut, Dave went to art college in Bradford, joined a band and moved to London. He spent the next ten years touring and recording, and was nearly famous.

Dave’s writing career began aged ten, with an attempt to create a script for Fawlty Towers. He has been writing songs, poems and stories ever since.

He now lives in Hertfordshire with his wife and family, in a house full of books and records, and writes in a corner of the attic with an anarchic ginger cat for company.

For more information visit You can also find Dave on Twitter, Facebook and at the Edge – a group of eight authors writing cutting edge fiction for teens.

Margate, a favourite haunt for visitors: Geraldine McCaughrean and the making of The Positively Last Performance

The inimitable Geraldine McCaughrean shares her experience of writing The Positively Last Performance, her wonderful new novel about a seaside town and a theatre full of ghosts, each with their own story to tell.

GeraldineFirst it was Turner, then Tracey Emin.  Even the Rough Guide put it among the world’s ten top resorts.  Karl Marx and T. S. Eliot visited (though Eliot hated it, and I can’t see it made much impact on Marxism).  Now it’s my turn.  I’m the one commending the town of Margate—by way of a novel.


Two years ago I had a phone call from Will, Artistic Director of Theatre Royal Margate.  He asked how to set about finding someone who’d write such a book, then donate some of the proceeds to the Theatre.   Taking this broad hint, I asked if it was likely to become a play afterwards and (taking this equally broad hint) Will said he didn’t see why not.   Game on.

I called the town Seashaw.  Well, the Bong Shop in the book is not quite the one on Margate High Street.  The ‘Royal Theatre’ is not quite the Theatre Royal.  Rockers probably never met the mechanical elephant . . . Better to change the name, than incite irate letters.  Anyone who knows Margate will recognise it.   But, equally, anyone who’s holidayed in any British seaside town will recognise Seashaw.

I benefitted from the best research source of all—the locals.  Two Margate ‘residences’ combined school sessions with information-gathering. The children were better than any guidebook. (Guidebooks don’t mention the autographed photo of Tiger Woods in the Palm Cafe, the tin-can shop, or the man who always wears yellow).  I also visited Dreamland, the Museum, arcades, caves, beaches, graveyards.  And theatres, of course. Because this book’s about theatre, too.


The Positively Last Performance is set in ‘The Royal’.   After a lifetime eschewing ghost stories, I finally succumbed.   All ‘The Royal’s’ ghosts have back-stories they would rather not tell; over the years they have settled into a comfortable, comforting routine, like oysters into a mudbank. But interloper Gracie ruthlessly prises them open one by one, so out spill the stories.

History’s genuine hiccups and absurdities always throw up better storylines than staring into space does, or forking over personal experience.   And astonishing things have happened to Margate:  the sea came half a mile inshore;  Mods and Rockers invaded like Visigoths;  TB patients died under the stars; tens of thousands of Londoners arrived every summer, by steamer, in search of a good time, and then abruptly . . . didn’t.

A cartoon’s caption sums up the town’s social status in Victorian times:

“Good Lord, madam, you must never think of going!  It is so low class and vulgar!”

But naturally, those gaudy, bawdy days are long gone. Modern-day Margate has been blessed with investment and fine art!

Yes, and sea silt, arson, an out-of-town retail park that killed the town centre, love-it-or-hate-it high-rise, and urban seagulls big as dogs.

It was a funny book to write: the children’s recommendations included Primark, Macdonald’s, one-armed bandits, and going to Ramsgate instead.


It was a poignant book to write—got unbelievably more so as it went along.  While T. S. Eliot’s promenade shelter was being repainted a classy green, demolition workers were smashing up the cheap-and-cheerful arcades to make way for a Tesco.  The bucket-and-spade shops were being painted . . . and closed down, for fear their vulgarity detract from the Turner Contemporary.

A year later, arts-funding cuts halted Theatre Royal’s unrivalled community outreach.  Indeed, Will and all his team suddenly became an unaffordable luxury.

So, while I wove my optimistic fiction, real-life Kentish dreams unravelled in hanks.   If only happy endings were as easy to achieve in life as in a novel.

But I’m so glad of the initiative!  Without it I would never have written The Positively Last Performance.  A book’s origins have nothing to do with its worth or how it turns out. The Positively Last Performance will always and obstinately believe in better times ahead.  And readers need to go on believing in those.  So do authors.


Geraldine McCaughrean has written 165 books, from first-readers and picture books to adult novels.  Her awards include the CILIP Carnegie Medal, Whitbread Children’s Fiction Award,  Guardian Children’s Fiction Award, Smarties Prize and America’s prestigious Printz Award.

In addition to fourteen children’s novels, five adult novels and many stories collections and plays for younger children, she has retold myths, legends and inaccessible classics such as Moby Dick and Gilgamesh.  She is the author short plays for schools, plus radio drama and stage plays.

Her best known book is Peter Pan in Scarlet,  official sequel to J M Barrie’s classic, instigated by Great Ormond Street Hospital and published simultaneously around the world in 2006.

The Positively Last Performance is out now.


The Mammoth in the Room: Sally Prue and Song Hunter

Sally Prue on the influence of her childhood on her latest novel, Song Hunter: the story of a girl at the dawn of the Ice Age.

sally prue

‘Hm,’ said my husband Roger. ‘This is a very autobiographical novel, isn’t it.’

Now the startling thing about Roger’s comment is that the book in question was my novel Song Hunter; and Song Hunter is not only a book inhabited almost entirely by Neanderthals, but it’s set 40,000 years ago at the beginning of the last Ice Age.

So, you may ask, were you brought up in a cave? Eating mammoths?

Oh, and just think of the publicity if only I could answer yes. Sadly, however, I was brought up in a 1930s semi-detached house eating mostly, as seem to I recall, custard.

Song Hunter is a very autobiographical novel, though, all the same. Amanda Craig from The Times described the book as a clash between species, and that does describe my childhood brilliantly.

So, were you brought up by wild dogs, then?


Er … hedgehogs?

Well, I think that probably ostriches would be the nearest I could get. The thing is, I turned out to be not at all what my family was expecting.

I suppose I must have seemed all right to start with, when my parents adopted me, but I was only six months old at the time and couldn’t talk. Learning to talk was when the trouble started.

Why? I asked, constantly. Why? Why?

My mother did her best to keep me … what? Respectable? Acceptable? Perhaps merely quiet; but putting a lid on me just sent me shooting frantically in ever crazier directions, like rhubarb.

The basic trouble was that my mother didn’t understand the word why. To be quite frank, she didn’t even get reality in the way most of us understand the word.

Her assumption, as far as I could ever make it out, was that everything in her world was exactly as she wanted it to be.

That meant that I couldn’t trust a word she said. It wasn’t that she told lies, I don’t think she often did that; it was more that for her, reality was nothing to do with, well, facts. For instance, she was always adamant that her hair was fair. It was actually dark brown (she didn’t dye it: as far as she was concerned there was no need). It was just that she liked the idea of having fair hair, and so as far as she was concerned that was what she had.

Yes, it is hard to believe. It was hard to accept, too. Soon, instead of just saying why, I started saying but, as well. Things got extremely frustrating. We were each doggedly defending our own view of the world while at the same time threatening to blow the other’s sky-high.

I grew incensed and fretful, and my mother coped by dismissing more or less everything I valued. Music (nothing like as good as Victor Sylvester (she’d once danced with Victor Sylvester, she said—and, indeed, she may have done)); art (can’t draw) poetry (just words that rhyme) books (keep her quiet).

And how did it all turn out in the end?  Did my poor mother ever win me over to her world-view?

Well, no, of course she didn’t. She inspired me to rebellion. She made me passionate about the importance of both logic and the arts. She made me cling onto books and pictures and music and plays as my greatest treasures. She made me quite evangelical about them, especially as far as poor family-imprisoned children were concerned.

My mother convinced me that the more real and beautiful something was, the more it was worth fighting for.

So, yes, my husband Roger was right. Song Hunter, which is about living in a family which doesn’t even wish to understand its children, and also about art transforming and even saving lives, is a very autobiographical story indeed.

sally prue

Sally Prue is a writer for children of all ages, from picture books up to Young Adult fiction.

Her novel Cold Tom won the Branford Boase prize and the Smarties Silver Award, and The Truth Sayer was shortlisted for the Guardian Children’s Book Prize.

Her day jobs have included being a Time and Motion person, an accompanist, and a piano and recorder teacher.

Sally is married, has two grown up daughters, and lives on the edge of a small but very beautiful wood in Hertfordshire.

Sally can be found at The Word Den blog, Song Hunter blog, and at

Song Hunter is out now.

Visit the Song Hunter blog, where Sally has been sharing fascinating insights into the Ice Age based on her research.


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