Archive | books

Copying Jane Austen – how other writers help you find your brand voice

Copy of Pride and Prejudice with the opening lines copied into a notebook

Trying to sound like Jane Austen

It is a truth universally acknowledged that, when thinking and writing about novelist Jane Austen, this writer will inevitably adopt aspects of her tone of voice and writing style. What may not be quite so well known is that copying another writer’s words is an excellent way of adopting their tone of voice, that may, in turn, assist you in finding your own voice for your business brand.

In copying those famous opening words from Pride and Prejudice, I was actually demonstrating a top tip that has helped me and other copywriters adopt a new tone of voice for different business clients.

Find a piece of writing that’s a good example of the brand voice you want to adopt.

Copy it out word for word.

It will help you to write in a similar style.

It sounds rather simple doesn’t it? But honestly, it works. And it’s not just me that thinks so. I’ve seen this tip crop up in a number of copywriting resources, most recently in this podcast of 50 copywriting tips from Radix communications.

Why does it work?

I’d love someone to do some proper scientific research on this, but I like to imagine my brain firing off signals as I write. As I  copy a different style, it fires off those neurons in different patterns or intensities and in different directions, helping me to make new connections and discover ‘oh, I do it like this.’

As children we learn to talk through mimicry. Imitating the sounds we hear, we eventually learn to speak. So, it makes sense (to me anyway) that we can and do learn to write in a similar way. We start out copying letters, then words and sentences, and eventually develop the skills to make them say what we want them to.

Copying the words of another writer mimics how we first learned to write and understand language, through imitation. I like to think that it puts my brain into ‘learning’ mode.

How this helps you find a brand voice for a business

If you’re looking to express who you are and what you do in a new and distinctive way, then finding a style of writing that you think sounds right for you and copying it is a good place to start. It could be the style of a publication that you admire, a book, an advert, a letter from another company – but I encourage you to search out things you like to help you get started.

There is a leap from copying and imitating to making a voice your own. It involves more in-depth analysis of what the writing does, how it does it and why. But once you’ve found it, you should be able to work out the rules. If you’ve got the right voice, they’ll feel natural.

It’s also important to test your new style. Do your customers like it? Does it do what it needs to communicate what your business does?  Does it truly reflect your values and ethos? Are you confident you can apply it to all aspects of your verbal brand, from website to tweets, corporate report to customer email?

Why I’m thinking of Jane Austen

Rebecca Vaughan stars as 13 heroines from Jane Austen’s novels.

Rebecca Vaughan stars as 13 heroines from Jane Austen’s novels.

Jane Austen wrote mainly novels and letters, but with her precise turn of phrase, I like to think she’d have been a natural on Twitter.

She’s on my mind at the moment as this month marks 200 years since she died. To have created characters that are so familiar and stories that are still read, enjoyed and endlessly adapted so long after you have gone is a wonderful legacy for a writer.

On Sunday evening, I’m looking forward to seeing some of Jane Austen’s characters brought to life on stage at The Customs House as part of the Write Festival 2017 in South Tyneside.  The critically-acclaimed Austen’s Women sees writer and performer Rebecca Vaughan become Emma Woodhouse, Mrs Norris, Miss Bates and other characters from Austen’s novels.

I shall no doubt smile as I recognise their words, and if, on Monday morning, I’m sounding a bit Lizzie Bennet, I do hope that you’ll forgive me.

For fun, try this quiz:
Which Jane Austen heroine are you?

For more tips to help you improve your writing, sign up to my mailing list.

0

My books of the year 2016

I’ve had a good year for reading, although I’m not always very good about tracking what I’ve read. Between April and October I had a daily weekday commute that gave me 15-20 minutes reading time at both ends of the day, and I relished the time spent with my kindle or paperback.

I do have tsundoko (pile of books waiting to be read), but here are some of the books that made an impression on me in 2016.

The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInenery

Pile of books I read in 2016 - The Wolf Wilder, On Starlit Seas, The OutrunI don’t read books just because they’ve won awards, or have become notable in some way. In fact, that’s often reason enough to keep me away from them. But I read the first couple of pages of this in a bookshop and I was hooked. Raw, bold and starkly original, the characters captured me as much as the writing.

An accidental murder sets up characters to rub up against each other, against the backdrop of a poor-at heel Ireland. The desperate frictions create palpable tensions, even as I hoped characters like Ryan, the teenage protagonist, would find a way out. Gritty, sweary and raucous, this felt like keenly observed fiction that read like non fiction, except for the dazzling sparks of beautiful language. A real surprise and my book of the year.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

I almost missed my stop reading this on the metro. Fable, fantasy and metaphor mixed in a post-Arthurian world of knights, dragons and quests. Unreliable narrators travel a dream like land, forgetting and remembering glimpses of the past, disagreeing and arguing over what was, what wasn’t and what was meant.

This reminded me a lot of the dream-like quality of Piers Plowman, or the Pearl poet. It felt very English in its style, and like the mist that covers and obscures much of the land the characters travel through, it seeped into my thoughts waking and dreaming. Beautifully written, it lingered with me long after I finished reading it.

A Short Ride in the Jungle by Antonia Bolingbroke Kent

This book was recommended to me by Paul Hughes, as a good one to read while I was travelling through Laos and Cambodia. Antonia took on the challenge of riding a Cub motorbike along as much of the notorious Ho Chi Minh trail as possible, through Laos, Cambodia and into Vietnam. The tales of her adventures, staying in decrepit hotels and tackling the mud, monsoons and mechanical failures along the way are interspersed with episodes of the area’s history and culture.

It’s a rollercoaster of a read – at times funny, frightening and enlightening. I smiled widely as I read about Antonia arriving in Don Khong in Laos on the day I’d cycled there. As well as being a great travel adventure, this is an engaging and well written read.

On Starlit Seas by Sara Sheridan

Much of my knowledge of history comes from novels, and in Sara Sheridan’s latest I gained a fascinating insight into the world of chocolate trading and travelling by sea in the 1820s.

From the depths of the Brazilian rainforest, to life onboard the Bittersweet, and then polite London society, I was immersed in the rich detail of another time.

Her main character, Maria Graham, is notable, not least because she is based on a real person, but also because she shows independence, determination and intelligence in a man’s world. The real and fictional characters blend seamlessly in this tale of smuggling and treachery. They live on the pages and transport you to another time and place.

Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami

Touchingly lyrical, at times prickly and awkward, this tells the tale of a seemingly unlikely relationship between a girl and her former English teacher. Two lost souls drifting.

I loved this for the depiction of  Tokyo and the almost torturous slowness of their growing closeness and dependency on each other. The ending is heartbreakingly touching.

The Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell

I’m much older than the target market for Young Adult fiction, but I like to dip into it as I think it’s often some of the best writing and story telling around.

I bought Wolf Wilder, because I’d enjoyed Katherine Rundell’s previous book Rooftoppers and because I liked the cover.

Feodora and her mother live in a cottage in the woods somewhere in Russia. They are Wolf Wilders – people who help wolves to learn to be wild again. When they come to the attention of the Russian Army, Feo has no choice but to run with the pack.

This is a fast-paced adventure, with episodes of delicate stillness, when you can almost feel the snow falling all around. With elements of fairy-tale, this deserves to become a classic.

The Outrun by Amy Liptrot

I’ve only just finished reading this non-fiction account of a girl’s return to Orkney and recovery from alcohol addiction, and I almost didn’t want it to end. The subject matter sounds bleak, but the book is actually joyous and uplifting, while dealing with tough issues including mental illness and relationship breakdowns.

The scenery, wildlife, people and customs are so wild and vivid, I felt as though I was away on an adventure as I was reading it. Another beautifully written book, I enjoyed its scattering of thoughts and themes, and stopped a few times to drink in a particularly evocative phrase. I love books with a real sense of place and the islands are as much a character in this story as the writer as she examines both her outer and inner space.

2

Gift ideas for writers and readers

Are you looking for a gift for someone who is a writer, or someone who loves reading? I love both and I know I’m tricky to buy for. I will always appreciate a book, but the trouble is – which one? My shelves are already overflowing. Here are a few literary themed ideas for the reader or writer in your life:

Literary Listography: My Reading Life in Lists

The perfect gift for anyone who likes to read and remember what they’ve read. This would make a great present for the kind of people who spends hour alphabetising their bookshelves or arranging volumes by colour or size.

This attractively illustrated journal provokes avid readers to think about their reading habits by filling out lists such as favourite authors and special reading spots. I’ve added this to my wish-list.

A beautiful notebook

A beautiful notebook makes a great gift for a writerAs a writer, I always have a notebook handy. Often I have more than one on the go. But there’s something thrilling about opening up a new one and putting pen to paper, particularly if it’s beautiful and luxurious.

Personally, I love a moleskine. These are inspired by the notebooks used by artists and writers such as Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemingway, and now come in a range of colours, sizes and formats.

Yes, they are a bit more expensive than a standard reporters pad, but the paper quality ensures a smooth writing experience, even when you’re struggling to put words down on paper.

For something more striking and dramatic, Paperblanks are sure to inspire the writer in anyone. With their beautifully designed hardback covers, they are just waiting to be filled with magic words.

A fun stocking filler

Literary paper dolls book makes a great gift for a writer I spotted these Literary Paper Dolls when I was in Waterstones recently (I was using their wifi connection for work – honestly!).

Add a touch of fun to your writing desk with paper doll versions of famous authors such as Shakespeare, Poe, Austen or Woolf. With plenty of bookish trivia and lively illustrations, these will bring a smile to any writer or reader.

A writing retreat

What could be more precious than giving the writer in your life the time to write? It could be just a weekend away in a little cottage, maybe in a literary location such as the Lake District or beautiful Northumberland. But beware, they may want to disappear with a notebook and pens… without you.

If your writer could do with some encouragement and like-minded company, then I recommend these writing courses:

Dark Angels

Tagged as creative writing for business writers, these courses are actually so much more. Built around a deep understanding and value for the power of words and writing, Dark Angels offers a safe space for personal reflection and time to discover how profound your writing can be. 

With courses from 1 to 5 days in beautiful locations with experienced and sympathetic tutors, I honestly cannot recommend Dark Angels highly enough.

Arvon

Covering writing as diverse as song writing, drama, and even writing for games, Arvon offers a wide range of writing courses at several different locations around the UK.

With creative exercises and a chance to get feedback and encouragement from published writers, these can be a great way to kick start or re-invigorate your writing.

A classic novel

Penguin classics make a great gift for readersI know I said I wouldn’t include books, but honestly, I don’t know a writer or reader who doesn’t appreciate a book as a gift.

If your reader, or writer is a fan of the classic 18th or 19th Century novel, Penguin Classics have some beautiful hardback editions out now.

The beauty of these is that, even if your reader or writer already has a copy, these cloth or leather bound editions will be ones they will want to cherish.

Accompany a copy with a note, or a quote from the book (but please don’t write in the book itself) for a really thoughtful gift.

 

0

The worlds within books

“A book is a world full of words where you live for a while.” Patrick Ness, More Than This

I was talking to someone recently about my time at university and half-jokingly remarked that during my 3 years studying, I only lived part time in the 20th Century.

Picture of a quote "A book is a world made of words, where you live for a while."I discovered a love of medieval literature and stories even older than that from Beowulf to the Pearl poet. My favourite lectures, tutorials and studies were based on old works – Chaucer, Spenser, Sidney, Milton.

These days I’m more contemporary in my reading but I still love that feeling of walking another landscape, sampling another culture or stepping into another experience that I get through reading both fact and fiction.

Last week’s charity challenge of walking 10,000 steps per day gave me some appreciation of the time and effort it takes women and girls in the developing world to fetch water for their families. But arguably books and stories take me even further.

I’ve been to Botswana with Alexander McCall Smith and Mma Ramotswe; eaten in the best places in San Francisco with Amy Tan and even been into space with Commander Chris Hadfield.

I’ve time travelled to Victorian London with Dickens and to Regency period Bath with Jane Austen. I’ve walked the streets of Ankh Morpork; survived a shipwreck on an alien planet where men can hear each others thoughts, and travelled beyond Wall into Faerie (and made it back again). Books take me places I could never go.

I will never know what it means to be a black woman transplanted from Nigeria to the USA; to have my hair chemically relaxed, or tightly braided in a salon. I’ll never experience racism in all its different shades and colours. But, thanks to the book I’m currently reading, ‘Americanah’ by Chimananda Ngozi Adiche, I know about these experiences. And through reading I’ve seen the world through another person’s eyes.

I am grateful to books for all the worlds they allow me to live in for a while.

0

My reads of 2015

I always think I have too little time for reading, but this year I’ve really made an effort to make time for more books as well as blog posts and articles. I’ve fallen back into the good habit of always carrying a book in my bag, whether digital or paper, and enjoy escaping into some good reads. Here’s a small selection of my favourites from 2015.

Selection of books

The Shepherd’s Crown – Terry Pratchett

I’ve enjoyed reading this author’s work since I was 16 years old, so starting this book was a bittersweet experience, knowing there wouldn’t be another. Although widely known for his Discworld novels for grown ups, Pratchett’s work for younger readers is to my mind, some of his very best, so it was fitting that Tiffany Aching, his young witch should be the protagonist of his last book.

The sense of loss, coloured by the events of the first couple of chapters, is both beautiful and sad. I wanted to know what happened and at the same time never wanted the story to end.

I Let You Go – Claire Macintosh

I met Claire by chance at a BBC Women in Radio event before this book was published, and remember being hugely excited by the idea of this former police officer writing a crime thriller. I was delighted when it became a success, and I saw it at bookshops all over the place from railway stations to airports.

I often find thrillers to be formulaic or and dislike the  modern tendency to focus on something deliberately shocking. Claire’s novel draws on her background, so presents itself as very realistic, drawing you in through some well realised characters. There’s a sense of mystery, and something being just out of joint from the first page, and even when it comes, the twist is a clever surprise that makes you challenge what you’ve already read.

A Monster Calls – Patrick Ness

I’ve actually read two Patrick Ness novels this year, this one, and his most recent publication The Rest of Us Just Live Here. Both books proving that Young Adult fiction at its best is just as suitable for us older adults too.

A Monster Calls, is a gut-wrenching story of a boy coming to terms with loss, framed in the fantasy of a night time monster. The twist being that this boy isn’t afraid of the monster who breaks into his room and turns his world upside down. With an opening chapter that defies you not to read on, Patrick Ness is a master storyteller. Having recently seen him at Seven Stories, he’s just as charming, funny and self-deprecating in person.

An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth – Chris Hadfield

The astronaut who brought us “Space Oddity’ from the International Space Station and who has done perhaps more than any other traveller to take us all with us on his amazing journey tells a series of compelling stories in this book. Not content with just relating the incredible hard work and fair portion of good luck that it took to actually become an astronaut, Chris Hadfield offers observations on life from the perspective of a man who has seen earth from space.

Plenty for the space and science experts to enjoy, without getting bogged down in technical detail – that is what Chris Hadfield does so well. A natural communicator and storyteller with an out of this world story to tell.

Here to Listen – Toni Stuart

My final choice isn’t actually a book, but I hope it could be one day. Here to Listen is a collection of poetry being written and published online by Toni Stuart. I heard Toni perform with Jacob Sam-La Rose at the 2014 Wordstock event and follow her on twitter. For Here to Listen, she invites people to share a story or a question, or whatever they choose to, while she listens in silence, and responds once they’ve left with a poem.

It’s a simple and stunning idea. The poems break through the clutter of instant communication, forcing a stop to the dash of the everyday through a glimpse into another life. As someone coming to appreciate the value of listening and really being listened to, I love this collection of work and hope it finds a wider audience.

I’ve read a more electronic books than physical paper ones this year. The convenience of being able to dip into a story when I have a few minutes spare and the instant availability of something new to read, make it easy. In all I reckon I’ve read 51 books this year, some have been re-reads of old favourites, but most have been new to me and I reckon I can make at least 52 or one a week before the end of the year.

I’m still reading wildly and have a small pile of suggested titles to work through, but I welcome your suggestions for things I should read in 2016.

0

Reading wildly

One of the sessions I attended at Wordstock last week was to hear Andy Miller speak about his year of reading dangerously. Picking up and actually finishing books he’d once claimed to read but hadn’t. Books that people consider difficult to read. Books like Moby Dick and Anna Karenina.

There was lots that struck me in his empassioned presentation, but one that chimed true is what he said about the books we have read recently. How they are limited, and for a large part, chosen for us.

Bookshelf full of classics

If you still have a bookshop, the fiction section is largely dominated by the top ten hardback or paperback titles, pushed forward by the major publishing companies. Unless it’s a very large, independent or particularly quirky place, there’s little space for anything outside the popular in all genres and the well known classics. And so, those of us who read, get a narrowing choice of the new, and we all pick up “We need to talk about Kevin” or “Wolf Hall’.

Ah, and there’s the other thing that Andy spoke about. If you start a book, you should finish it. And I haven’t finished Wolf Hall. It isn’t very often that I fail to finish a book, but Wolf Hall I put aside after giving it a really good try, with that standard excuse of “Life’s too short to read something I’m not enjoying.”

And yet where would I be if I hadn’t persisted with difficult books? As a student, I toughed it out through the Faerie Queene, various medieval texts and far more impenetrable stuff. I stuck with Dickens Our Mutual Friend, which, quite frankly, really takes some time to get going, but does pay off.

The Japanese have a word for a pile of books waiting to be read – it’s Tsundoku.  I’ve managed to keep mine manageable this year, by virtue of not acquiring new books, until I’ve read the ones I already have. I currently have four in waiting, including two non-fiction titles, but I’m prepared to put them to one side a little longer to take up a challenge to read outside my usual range. To finish books I’ve started, to read some older stuff I may have missed.

I am starting with John Buchan’s 39 Steps, which I don’t expect to be a difficult read, but I prepared to be challenged. This is a rich time for my reading list, with a birthday and Christmas approaching. So I’m asking you to recommend some titles and until the end of January, I’ll read a little more dangerously.

 

0

Seeking inspiration

In the world of business writing you’ll find plenty of objectives, measures and rationale. Sometimes they even sit alongside insights, research and objectives. And they always come with deadlines. But I’ve rarely found much creative inspiration.

Little wonder really when you think about how hard it is to measure and quantify. What’s the ROI of a book? How much value did watching that film bring to the project? What’s the cost per idea ratio?

Creative inspiration can’t be easily quantified and defies attempts to render it into the boxes of a spreadsheet.

And yet, it’s that spark, that different way of looking at things, that new metaphor that my marketing customers are searching for and hope that creative teams will supply.

As a writer, its almost as hard for me to quantify its importance in terms of how it makes me feel or inspires me to think and write. Except to say that it is.

Performers at the Edinburgh Fringe festival

And that’s why I make an effort to seek it out, enjoy it and expect nothing from it. Yet it’s proved its worth beyond measure.

My yearly trips to the Edinburgh Book Festival are a liberal dousing of inspiration. The speakers, events and readings a rich seam, along with travelling there to take in the sights, sounds and general hullaballoo of the fringe – a huge outpouring of creative energy.

Art, theatre, cinema, music, travel, nature – these have all supplied inspiration in their time. And when all else fails I’ll read. Stories will never fail me.

On Sunday, I went to hear Simon Armitage at the Durham Book festival. He was talking about and reading from his latest prose work, based on walking part of the South West coast, relying on strangers for food and lodging and giving poetry readings at his stopping points. Themes of journey and return. Of language and experience. Of travelling in the landscape, encountering strangers. Of simultaneously craving company and wanting to be alone.

I filled a page of my notebook with phrases and filled my head with even more thoughts and ideas which may spark and grow. What will become of them, it’s too early to say. Even when I write I may not realise that’s where the idea came from.

But I was able to thank Simon Armitage for helping me find a way in to a piece of personal writing. I first encountered his poem ‘Not the Furniture Game’ http://www.simonarmitage.com/kid.html on a Dark Angels course. It’s a striking, harsh and rich piece in its own right, and when  used as a loose framework for our own creative writing, produced deep, emotional responses. It’s an exercise I’ve repeated on subsequent courses, with different objects, and it’s always bubbled up beautiful, touching and expressive images.

It helped me find a way into a personal piece I was finding impossible to write. When draft after draft nothing fit, everything sounded trite and cliched, I used the structure and exercise to unlock a way in. Sometimes that’s all it takes – a nudge in the right direction.

This weekend I’m off to Wordstock for another dose of inspiration. A journey, the fellowship of fellow writers, and a chance to listen and enjoy a range of different talks and sessions. Last time, it inspired the amazing 26 Under a Northern Sky collection.

Where do you find your creative inspiration?

4

Reading and eating

I always delight in a new book. And although I have embraced the electronic version as an excellent way of carrying a library around with me, there’s nothing quite like the feel of book made of paper.

Today’s is a particular delight, being an extravagant hardback. A hefty tome that sits, spine along the palm of my hand as its glossy pages open, peppered with photographs. For, this is not fiction, but a cookery book.

As I glance through its pages at random, I stop at one headed ‘Breakfast in Japan’. Here’s the first paragraph:

“Kyoto wakes late, which at least gives me time to write. A perfect morning. Grey clouds. Mist hangs low over the hills like woodsmoke. Soft raindrops. An old woman rides her bike, wobbling, a transparent umbrella in her right hand. Breakfast is miso soup in a deep, black, lacquer bowl, and grilled silver mackerel. A plate of pickles, vivid purple cabbage, white radishes, shredded daikon is salty, sour and crisp.”

Fresh sushi

Which is why Nigel Slater is my favourite food writer. You will find recipes in his books. Good ones, creative and useful ones. But he’ll also take you through the whole sensual experience of growing, preparing, cooking and sharing a meal.

In a few words he’s taken me to the other side of the world and offered me a rather strange, but enticing breakfast, and I’m hooked to a cookery book. Maybe it’s because I’ve been to Japan and had fish for breakfast – raw fish in fact in the form of sushi and sashimi just outside Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji fishmarket. But good writing can transport you to new places and give you a sense of sights, sounds and cultures you may never actually experience.

So what does it matter that a cookery book is beautifully written? Surely it’s all about the recipes and the method? The proof’s in the pudding, so to speak.

Well I think it does matter. Because it shows me that Nigel Slater really cares about his work and that he wants to share, not just the end result, but the whole experience. By opening up his memories and thoughts he shares something of himself, as he passes on the pleasures of tastes, flavours and ingredients. If he writes so beautifully, you just know that what he cooks will be served up with as much love and care. To me, Nigel Slater is just as much a writer as he is a cook. And probably the person I’d most like to invite me round for dinner.

Dipping into the third volume of his Kitchen Diaries at that particular page has also brought back memories of my own wonderful time in Japan. The blog posts I wrote then are no longer online, but I still have my notebooks, photographs and poems inspired by my trips there. Maybe it’s time to reflect and republish. Would you like to read more about travelling and eating in Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara and Takayama?

0

Festival inspiration

I spent a couple of days in Edinburgh recently, enjoying the Book and Fringe Festival. It’s become a regular part of my summer to spend a couple of days there, and I always wish I could stay longer and see more.

I picked some wonderful events at the Book Festival this year. There was an event I was interested in just about every day, but I cherry-picked those that would allow me to travel there and back in a day and made the most of the days I was there.

Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh

Phillipa Gregory, who writes historical fiction, and is most well known for The Other Boleyn Girl was an interesting and intelligent speaker. She immerses herself in history, taking around a year to research each novel.

Listening to her made me reflect how much of my own knowledge of history comes from reading fiction, rather than academic works. I reckon Jane Austen taught me as much about Regency England and its manners as Charles Dickens educated me about social inequalities in Victorian London.

These places and time periods become very real to me through the fictions of the time. And that continues into the modern day, with writers like Ian Rankin showing contemporary Scotland through the eyes of Rebus and Malcolm Fox.

Philippa Gregory admitted that she didn’t read historical fiction, saying “I read history, so you don’t have to.” Her work has certainly helped me understand the Wars of the Roses better than any text book ever did. She also revealed how inspiration for her book The Other Boleyn Girl came from reading about Tudor shipbuilding and finding a reference to a ship called the Mary Boleyn. Proving that no research is ever wasted, she finally got to write about those Tudor ships in her latest book.

But my trip wasn’t all history and fiction. I spent a very educational hour in the tent with David Crystal. David is a linguist and well known for his many books on the English language. His text books formed the core of my English Language studies at University.

We would be a much poorer culture had those wayfarers not persisted in going beyond the next horizon.

He was talking about accent and dialect and some of the wonderful lost dialect words in the English language. As with most people who are enthusiastic and really know their subject well, he was amusing, entertaining and taught his audience something new. He was assisted by his son, Ben, an actor, and together, discussing accents, they made a great comic double act.

I left feeling just as excited about their non fiction work as I did about the piles of fictional books I longed to take home from the bookshop. Since I came back, I’ve always had a book on the go, and find myself seeking out time to return to their pages.

As always, I was inspired by my visit to Edinburgh. I think that’s important, to have people and places that encourage me to look beyond my every day experience and to fire up an interest in learning more. Reading provides fuel for the brain and in Edinburgh at the book festival I am surrounded by fellow readers and inspired by writers. It feels like I am with my tribe.

0

Appearing at the Oxford Story Museum

There’s a place in Oxford called The Story Museum. It’s just re-opened after a bit of a break, with an exhibition called 26 characters, which features 26 famous authors dressed as their favourite character from childhood, photographed by Cambridge Jones.

The list of writers is like a who’s who of children’s literature and includes some of my contemporary favourites. There’s Neil Gaiman as Badger from Wind in the Willows, Philip Pullman as Long John Silver, Terry Pratchett as Just William, Malorie Blackman as the Wicked Witch of the West; Julia Donaldson, Holly Smale, Francesca Simon (of Horrid Henry fame), Benjamin Zephaniah, Michael Rosen and many others.

And thanks to my wonderful writing mentor, John Simmons, a piece of my writing features there too. I’m a member of a writing organisation called 26 (after the number of letters of the alphabet) ideally linked to the theme of this exhibition. So, I was invited  to contribute a poem, to accompany one of the portraits.

The 26 writers were matched completely randomly with an author and a letter of the alphabet. We got to see Cambridge Jones’ splendid photographs of our author and were set the task of writing a sestude – a literary form of exactly 62 words (26 in reflection).

I positively squeaked when I discovered that my author, Steven Butler, had chosen The Hatter from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as his favourite character. I love Alice in Wonderland and the characters have continued to inspire some of my creative writing.

Michelle reading The Horse and His Boy

Enjoying one of my favourite books from childhood again. Photo by Mike Tulip

I didn’t know Steven Butler’s work, so I quickly read a couple of his books and found out a bit more about him. He’s written a fabulously funny series called ‘The Wrong Pong’ which tells the story of how Neville Briskett is mistaken for a young troll and sucked down the toilet to Underland.  And more recently, he’s written ‘The Diary of Dennis the Menace’.

I loved ‘ The Wrong Pong’ and think it’s a great series for children to read for themselves. It has the right mix of disgusting, yuckyness to put off most adults as well as being a cracking adventure story that rips along  at a fair pace.

It’s been great to discover a new writer who I wouldn’t normally come across too. I really like the way he creates his characters, especially the troll family who adopt Neville and absolutely love the special language they use. I was delighted to be able to include one of Steven’s brilliant made-up words in my sestude which you can read on the Story Museum’s website.

I’ve also written about one of my favourite childhood characters, Aravis from the Horse and His Boy for the museum’s digital gallery. Thanks to Mike Tulip for taking the accompanying photo.

It would be enough to have a poem in an exhibition alongside some of our most brilliant writers, but to have the chance to pay tribute to one of Lewis Carroll’s most memorable characters in the city where he first created Wonderland is a real honour, and a little daunting.

But Carroll wasn’t just an Oxford man. He has connections with the North East of England, where I live too. He visited members of his family who lived at Whitburn, and according to his letters, wrote the first verse of the poem ‘Jabberwocky’ while he was in the area. So there’s a nod to that in my poem too.

I studied Carroll at university and later researched the influence of the North East landscape on his work for a feature I produced whilst working at the BBC. You can see what I discovered about Lewis Carroll’s connections with the North East on this archived website.

I haven’t seen the exhibition yet, but thanks to stalking the story museum on twitter, I’ve seen a few glimpses. It seems each room becomes the setting for a different character, so I look forward to stepping into Narnia, Neverland and Wonderland when I go to visit in May.

It’s been a brilliant project to work on. The only difficulty has been keeping it secret for so long. And now I can’t wait to see it for myself. The exhibition lasts until December, so if you’re in Oxford and go to see it, I’d love to hear what you think.

0