the writer is a lonely hunter

writing by Gail Aldwin and other Dorset writers

Welcome to Catherine Randall and ‘The White Phoenix’

This post celebrates the publication day of The White Phoenix for friend and children’s novelist Catherine Randall. She’s wanted to write since she was a child and now Catherine has fulfilled this ambition with a fabulous middle grade children’s bookI adore the feisty thirteen-year-old protagonist in this novel, Lizzie Hopper, who helps to run the family bookshop near St Paul’s in the year of the Great Fire.

“Catherine Randall brings the streets of 17th century London vividly to life… A heart-warming and skilfully told tale.” Ally Sherrick, Black Powder and The Buried Crown

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Welcome Catherine.

Can you start by telling us where your writing journey began?

My writing journey began when I was a six-year-old living in Lincolnshire and I wrote my first ‘book’, alarmingly entitled, ‘Catherine, Lucy and the Goat’. We moved to Shropshire when I was seven, and I continued to write ‘books’, mostly thinly disguised imitations of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series, with a few Victorian melodramas thrown in. When I grew up I tried my hand at adult short stories, but realised quite quickly that my heart was in children’s books. The books I read as a child remain the ones that resonate most deeply with me, and now I love reading new children’s books, partly as research, and partly just because they’re a great read.

What inspired you to write The White Phoenix?

I’ve been fascinated by the Great Fire of London ever since I was a child. When I visited London from Shropshire at the age of ten, the first thing I wanted to see was the Monument to the Fire. When I moved to London in my early twenties, I loved walking round the City, with its ancient churches and old street names dotted among the modern glass and steel buildings. Much later, at a time when I was looking for a subject for a story, I caught part of a radio programme about the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire, and it reawakened my interest. When I started researching I discovered that London in 1666 was a great setting for a novel, not just because of the Fire but because of all the other things that were going on – war, fear of invasion, the plague, as well as all the prophecies swirling round London about the year 1666. I was initially going to write about St Paul’s, but then I realised it would be more fun to write about the many bookshops that clustered round the cathedral, especially as it was possible for a woman and her daughter to run a bookshop by themselves.

I started writing some time ago, but many of the themes in the book have turned out to have more resonance today than I could ever have imagined.

What are the challenges of publishing your first book during a pandemic?

The first thing to say is that I am absolutely delighted to be having a book published, and the thought of publication has been a beacon of light in what has been a tough year both generally and personally. However, there’s no denying that there are significant challenges. I think the worst thing is that I’ve not been able to do any events with children at bookshops or libraries. I know authors are doing virtual school visits, but it’s quite daunting if you have to start like that. I’m used to going into schools to talk about the Great Fire, but not so used to going into schools to promote a novel as well. But it is something I would very much like to do so I’ll have to get my head round it!

And of course I can’t help being sad that I’m not able to have a proper launch party, because there are so many people who have shared in this journey with me and whom I would like to thank. However, I am having a series of very small parties instead, so that’s going to be fun.

Who is the ideal reader for The White Phoenix?

I really hope that children aged from about 9 to 12 or 13 will enjoy it. I suppose it is a cliché to say so, but I have written the sort of book that I would have liked to read at that age. However, I also know that quite a few adults have read and enjoyed it, so that’s very gratifying.

Is there a message in the novel that you want young readers to grasp?

Lizzie, the main protagonist in the book, refuses to give in to the prejudice of other people around her and makes friends with a Catholic girl at a time when Catholics were very much considered the enemy. I hope that young readers will take away the message that they should never let others tell them what type of people they can or can’t be friends with.

I also hope that young readers grasp the message that you should stand up for what you believe in, which is what Lizzie tries to do, though not always successfully.

Which children’s authors have influenced you?

From my own childhood – Gillian Avery who wrote wonderful, vivid stories about Victorian children such as The Greatest Gresham;  Penelope Farmer who wrote my all-time favourite children’s book, the time-slip story Charlotte Sometimes; and K.M.Peyton, author of the Flambards books among many others. I had the privilege of meeting her once and she was so lovely.

More recent writers who have influenced me include Eva Ibbotson, Hilary McKay (I just love her family stories) and Lydia Syson who has written some terrific historical novels for teenagers.

But I am discovering new children’s authors all the time, and they all have an influence.

What’s next, Cathy?

I’m very excited about my new historical novel set largely in the early nineteenth-century, so once The White Phoenix is well and truly launched, I’m looking forward to getting back to that. However, I have to say that quite a few people have asked about a sequel to The White Phoenix, so I might give that some thought too. I love the characters so much, it would be a pleasure to go back to them.

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The Blurb

London, 1666. After the sudden death of her father, thirteen-year-old Lizzie Hopper and her mother take over The White Phoenix – the family bookshop in the shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral.

But England is at war with France and everywhere there are whispers of dire prophecies. As rumours of invasion and plague spread, Lizzie battles prejudice, blackmail and mob violence to protect the bookshop she loves.

When the Great Fire of London breaks out, Lizzie must rescue more than just the bookshop. Can she now save the friend she wasn’t supposed to have?

Purchase links

Foyles, Waterstones, Book Guild Bookshop, Amazon.

Social media

Twitter: @Crr1Randall

For children’s literature that is emotionally engaging, do give The White Phoenix a read. You won’t be disappointed.

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At the London Book Fair 2019

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Writing plates are spinning

I’m currently in the fortunate position of having a debut novel published, a children’s picture book under contract, a novel on submission and a new work-in-progress. My time is carved up between marketing and promoting The String Games, sending out submission packages for This Much Huxley Knowsfinalising the illustrations for Pan de mo nium and cracking through the first draft of Little Swot. It’s just as well my only other commitment is ten hours a week e-volunteering with VSO. Some days it feels like my feet hardly touch the ground but I’m not complaining.

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Does this girl look like a little swot?

With all of these plates spinning, the real excitement is my new work-in-progress Little Swot which is quite different from my other manuscripts. The idea came from evenings in Ugandawhen I was too tired to read, too hot to sleep and so listened to podcasts. I’m writing one thousand words each day which soon adds up and I’m now over half way through the story and pleased with my progress. I’ve written a synopsis so I know what’s going to happen and I’ve played around with ideas for pitching the novel to publishers when the time comes.Indeed, I’d love to receive some feedback from you. Do you think this novel idea has legs?

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Two in a row

I’m delighted to share the news that my debut novel The String Games has been shortlisted in another literary competition. This one is very close to my heart. As a resident of Dorchester I’m proud to be one of the final three in a competition founded by the Dorchester Literary Festival and sponsored by Hall & Woodhouse.

The aim of the competition is to continue Dorset’s literary tradition by investing in its homegrown talent. A judging panel, including professional writers and a leading literary agent compile the shortlist so this is a real chance to gain wider recognition for my debut novel. The awards ceremony, hosted by a leading writer will be held on 5 October 2020 (Covid-19 permitting).

I attended the previous two ceremonies, the inaugural competition was in 2018 and hosted by Kate Adie when Philip Browne won with his remarkable non-fiction book The Unfortunate Captain Peirce and the Wreck of the Halsewell about a shipwreck off the Dorset coast in 1786.

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Philip Browne receives his prize from Kate Adie.

Last year, my good friend Maria Donovan was on the shortlist and came runner-up with her moving story about loss and grief from a young boy’s perspective in The Chicken Soup Murderwhile Emma Timpany took the prize with Travelling in the Dark.

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Shortlistees from 2019 with Emma on the left, Maria on the right and centre is Minette Walters

I look forward to meeting the other shortlisted writers but the in meantime, I celebrate all those who were on the longlist:

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Although my name is on the cover of The String Games, there are many Dorset people who helped this novel reach its audience. Thank you to all those readers and writers who gave feedback and others who supported with proof reading and editing. Without you, my story may never have found a home with Victorina Press or gained recognition in writing competitions such as this.

 

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Posh frocks, presentations and prizes

Traditionally held at Stationers’ Hall, the eleventh annual awards ceremony for The People’s Book Prize was instead organised via Zoom thanks to Covid19. Finalists from the three categories were there, authors of fiction, non-fiction and children’s literature, plus all the publishers. The evening was hosted by founder Tatiana Wilson and director Tony Humphreys. At one point I found myself virtually rubbing shoulders with prize patron, Frederick Forsyth.

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We wore our finest clothes to make the occasion special. While I drank a cup of tea, others sipped wine. Like all finalists in the fiction category, I was able to say a few words about my novel and then the winner was announced. Author of The Weighing of the Heart gained the the sparkling trophy and I was very pleased to celebrate Paul Tudor Owen‘s success. I’ve been following Paul on Twitter for some time and feel I know him from the podcasts and interviews he’s offered since his novel was launched in March 2019. The Weighing of the Heart is a contemporary novel set in New York where the English protagonist Nick Braeburn becomes fascinated by his landlady’s Egyptian art and a young artist who lives nearby. Paul was very gracious in his acceptance speech and highlighted the importance of small presses in bringing to market stories that are overlooked by the big five publishers.

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Who can you spot in this photo of fiction finalists and others?

Becoming a finalist in The People’s Book Prize has been a wonderful experience. It’s raised the profile of my coming-of-age novel The String Gamesprovided a platform for my publisher Victorina Press and has given me the chance to connect with lots of wonderful authors. And there are many of you reading this post who I have to thank for helping me reach the finals. Without your votes, I would never have come this far. So, let me take this opportunity to thank you very much for your support.

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Writing prize longlist announced

Imagine my delight when I received an email saying The String Games has been longlisted in the Dorchester Literary Festival Local Writing Prize. This is fabulous news as it means my novel is recognised in my home county of Dorset. An announcement on Facebook gives details of the five other longlistees. It’s such fun to find myself in the great company of three writers I know and respect. They are Helen Baggott, author of Posted in the Past, Cathie Hartigan author of Notes from the Lost (Cathie was also shortlisted in 2018 competition with her debut novel) and Brent Shore author of Blessed are the Meek. The two other authors are A K Biggins author of Losing Jane and Vivienne Endecott  author of Exploring Englishness.

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What is it with me?

Just when I gain the skills and confidence to be good at something, I decide to move on and try something new. I can see this pattern in my writing. First I was all enthusiastic about flash fiction, then writing a novel. Poetry got shoe-horned between the two and now I’m into children’s literature. Others like to consolidate their learning and deepen their understanding but I’m more interested in starting the next new project. What is it with me?

 

I came to reflect on the meandering journey of my writing career when I shared with a friend my new passion for cycling. It started with a bad knee. When I came back from Uganda into lockdown UK, I decided to use the full one hour per day of time we were allowed to exercise. Hence my runs lengthen from 6km to 8km and I was out every single day. I knew from half marathon training that running each day is not recommended but I became so focused on running further and faster that I ignored my better judgement until my knee buggered. Then even walking was painful and after a week of elevating my leg and applying frozen peas, my knee was better. So, as lockdown continued and my need to get out every day grew, I took up cycling. I was amazed that my lady shopper bike that had never been used since arriving in Dorset in 2007 still had tyres fit to cycle on.

When I started to become fit in 2017, I so enjoyed swimming. Loved going back to the sport I enjoyed as a child and even re-taught myself how to swim front crawl and regularly completed forty lengths of the pool. The only trouble with swimming is the drag of getting to the pool only to end up wet and cold. So, running was an improvement on that. I could start my exercise on leaving the front door and running in any weather certainly warms you up. Now my passion is cycling. This is good to do in the time of Coronavirus because you have to grip the handlebar and there’s no chance of touching anything untoward while out and about.

So with this background in changing exercise routines, should I think about doing a triathlon? Certainly not. It’s one obsession at a time for me. And so for my writing. It’s all about children’s literature at the moment. This week finds me busy making contact with book bloggers who specialise in children’s picture books and I’ve also attended several sessions at an online children’s literature festival. So with the publication of Pan de mo nium scheduled for December, what is my next project going to be? I’ll let you in on a secret, it’s got something to do with podcasts.

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Happy Birthday to you

My debut novel The String Games is one year old today. It’s been quite a journey from launch to anniversary and here are some of the things I have learnt along the way.

Book launches

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  • invite everyone you know and turn the launch into a party to thank all those who have shown interest in your writing . Make sure there’s plenty of wine and nibbles, and loads of books to sell!

Make the most of opportunities 

  • when I attended a Christmas lunch 2018 with the Society of Authors in Salisbury, I had no idea it would lead to an invitation to deliver a session at the Bridport Literary Festival 2019. Chance meetings are often the best!

Put yourself out there

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  • Press releases have enabled The String Games to feature locally, regionally and nationally in print publications and online features. I’ve also talked on local radio programmes several times. There’s nothing wrong with getting about!

Literary festivals

  • I’ve attended so many festivals as a participant but now I’m a published novelist it’s a delight to feature on programmes as an invited guest. Besides the Bridport Literary Festival, I’ve also delivered input at Sturminster Newton Literary Festival, Blandford Literary Festival and Stockholm Writers Festival. Get me, delivering at international events!

Finge Festivals

  • I write collaboratively as part of 3-She to develop comedy sketches. Last summer we took a show to  Shaftesbury Fringe. There’s such a lot to be learnt from the process of writing with others. Love a good gig!

Curry favour with your publisher

  • I’m delighted that Victorina Press have show confidence and commitment in me as an author and thanks to my publisher, I attended the London Book Fair 2019. My novel is also a finalist in The People’s Book Prize. Covid 19 permitting, there’s a black tie do to celebrate this achievement later this year!
  • The team at Wordsmith_HQ continue to promote my poetry pamphlet adversaries/comrades and share my writing successes across their writing community. Good eggs all round!

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News about my creative writing

In all the time I’ve been busy volunteering in Uganda, there has been activity on the creative writing front at home. I was shortlisted in a poetry competition run by my publisher Victorina Press. My entry has now been translated into Spanish and included in this beautiful bilingual poetry anthology. David sent me a photo and I’m looking forward to reading the book when I get home.

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Other news relates to the The String Games. My debut novel is one of fourteen finalist in The People’s Book Prize and voting is now open to select a winner in the fiction category. Thank you to everyone who has supported me to reach this stage. You are now able to vote again and if you haven’t voted before, this is your chance. Find out all about The String Games here. You don’t need to have read the whole novel as the opening pages are available for you to make a judgement. When you’re ready to vote, scroll down, add your details, tick the box and submit. The String Games is up against some stiff competition but wouldn’t it be great to see a Dorset writer on the stage come presentation day? Congratulations to the other finalists.

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Off again …

I’ve been advised that following publication, there are six months to promote a debut novel to maximum effect. So, I’ve been getting out and about with The String Games by offering input at Dorset literary festivals, including the BridLitFest where I shared a platform with Maria Donovan and Rosanna Ley.

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(I’m also at the forthcoming inaugural Blandford Literary Festival at the end of November.)

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I’ve given talks with Dorset Libraries (love a public library) in Dorchester, Poole, Wareham and Creekmoor. An author event in Wellington Library was a good excuse to spend a weekend in Shropshire and meet up with an old friend. There have been talks for ladies’ groups, workshops with writers, public readings and even performances (one in Loughborough and the other at Scratch & Spit in Bridport). The String Games won an award for its cover design and is a finalist in The People’s Book Prize (voting for the winners commences in March 2020). Phew! I hope I’ve used my six months wisely.

As this period comes to an end, I’ve decided to refocus and use my experience of working with children and families to volunteer with VSO  at the Bidibidi refugee settlement in Yumbe, Uganda. I’m heading off at the beginning of December for four months to support enrolment of girls and children with disabilities in Early Childhood Care and Education as these groups are currently under represented. Uganda has a progressive policy in supporting refugees fleeing the civil war in South Sudan. Families are given a plot of land on which to build a house and grow produce. There is access to health services, adults can work and children are offered places in schools. After several years of working with refugee families in London, I’m excited to have this opportunity. But it doesn’t mean a hiatus in blogging and writing. On the contrary, I hope this experience will generate new and important work.

Indeed, writing plans for later in 2020 are already taking shape. I’ll be at the Stockholm Writers Festival sharing my experiences as a debut novelist in May. This is a wonderful event for new and emerging writers in a great city.  And I’ll be delivering a talk and a workshop at the Mani Lit Fest in October where reading and writing are celebrated at a town near to the home of Patrick Leigh Fermor. My children’s picture book Pan-de-mo-nium is currently with illustrator Fiona Zeichmeister and will be released next year.  The contemporary novel I’ve been working This Much Huxley Knows is nearing completion.

Watch out for post from Uganda in the coming months. David is incredibly supportive and is 100% behind me. I’m very lucky to be married to him!

 

 

 

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Three things …

The clocks have gone back, it’s a misty moisty morning in Dorset, but there’s lots for me to look forward to. Here are my latest bits of news:

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Thanks to your support, The String Games is a finalist in fiction category of The People’s Book Prize 2019. There will be a further vote March–April 2020 to decide the winner and a black tie do in London for all the finalists on 15 April 2020. Great stuff!

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In December 2019, I’m going to Uganda with VSO for four months as a volunteer at the Bidibidi Refugee Settlement. The placement draws upon my experience of working with refugee families in London and the skills I developed to support parental involvement in children’s learning. I’ll be assigned to an early childhood care and education centre in order to aid recruitment to early education for girls and children with disabilities. You can read more about Bidibidi in this article from National Geographic. I’m looking forward to living, learning and contributing in Uganda.

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In May 2020, I’ll be in Sweden at the Stockholm Writers Festival. Last year I enjoyed this wonderfully inspiring event as a participant – next year I return as a faculty member. If you’re interested in attending an innovative writing festival in a fascinating city, you can’t do better than this. Booking opens (with a 15% early bird discount) today, 1 November 2019.

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