the writer is a lonely hunter

writing by Gail Aldwin and other Dorset writers

Pan de mo nium: cover reveal

I love the stage in the writing process when all that hard work comes to fruition. There are steps along the way that cause angst or excitement but there’s nothing to replace that sense of ‘it really is going to happen’ when I see the final cover design for my publication. Here it is, ta-dah:

Welcome to the world of Pan de mo nium my children’s picture book. You can read more about the inspiration for the story here. I absolutely love this image as it captures the characteristics of giant pandas:

They’re fun: see that cheeky expression!

They’re shy: those eyes!

They’re a symbol of vulnerability: imagine it!

They’re peaceful: well, not so peaceful in the case of Pan de mo nium. That’s the point of the story!

The final draft has gone to the printers and I’ll receive proofs within the next week. A last read through and then these copies will be sent into the world headed for readers and book bloggers who have kindly agreed to offer early reviews.

Be sure to get a copy for young children in time for Christmas by placing a pre-order now at the Victorina Press website.

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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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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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Milking an idea

I posted information last week about Covid19 writing opportunities and since then I’ve had two Coronavirus stories accepted for publication. Out of the Box is about cutlery trapped in a canteen during lockdown and it was shortlisted in the Staying Home competition run by Hammond House Publishing. You can read the story here.

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Once I get an idea for a story, I figure it’s worth milking, so I wrote another Covid19 lockdown story this time related to the experience of a wedding ring confined to a jewellery box. This was published by Pandemic Magazine and you can read the story here. There’s a great illustration to accompany my story, so it’s worth popping over for a look.

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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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sneak preview: pan de mo nium

I’ve been working on a children’s picture book for a very long time indeed. The idea for pan de mo nium came when I was teaching a module of writing for children to undergraduates at the University of South Wales in 2015. We were looking at some features of anthropomorphism, where animals have human characteristics, and I shared examples where this technique was used to explore danger vicariously and therefore safely. Students joined the discussion before going slightly off task and started chatting about cute red pandas.

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Red pandas are found in the mountains of Nepal, northern Myanmar and central China. These animals spend most of their lives in trees.

I spent a long time wondering what the relationship would be like between a giant panda and a red panda living in central China. I started thinking about what it would be like to be part of the same family but look totally different. (Although in fact red pandas are not related to giant pandas). Could these thoughts be explored through anthropomorphism? Would it be possible for a cute and cuddly character to experience tensions around not fitting in?  I began to wonder if the issue of identity could be explored through children’s fiction by creating a purple panda.

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In Pan de mo nium Peta lives in a department store where her purple colour offers camouflage. She gets up to all sorts of mischief but when she’s spotted, the shop assistant puts an end to her tricks.  What can Peta do to become a cheeky panda once again?

Here’s a sneak preview of a scene from inside the book.  I love the colour palate that Fiona Zechmeister has cleverly used here.

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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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Woman on the Golden Hind

I’m reading a fascinating novel just now. It’s On Wilder Seas by Nikki Marmery. What an absolutely fabulous cover!

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The narrator is Maria, an enslaved woman who shares her experiences of living on the Golden Hind for nine months.  Meticulously researched, Nikki Marmery allows Maria to live and breathe where nothing is noted about her in the records besides the dates she boarded and left the ship. The action takes place in 1579 during Francis Drake’s circumnavigation voyage.  Maria is a lone woman amongst eighty sailors. Determined to become free, Maria uses tenacity and quick thinking to her advantage.

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Many of you will know there is a reconstruction of the English galleon that has been  berthed at St Mary Overie Dock in Southwark since 1996. Whenever I walk past this full-size reconstruction of Golden Hind I am reminded of how compact the ship appears. Goodness knows how Maria coped! Since the launch of the  reconstruction in 1973, the galleon has sailed  more than 140,000 miles to San Francisco, Japan, the Caribbean and other destinations.  Impressive!

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I will be interested to meet Nikki Marmery online when we appear alongside Karen Havelin on the Debutants panel at the Stockholm Writers’ Festival on Friday 22 May 2020. We are all previous attendees of the festival and have had our debut novels published in the last year. Join us at what is now known as the #StuckHomeWritersFestival here.

 

 

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A wish for South Sudan: enduring peace

Before I left the UK to begin my placement at Bidibidi in Uganda (a settlement where refugees from South Sudan are offered a chance to rebuild their lives) a friend recommended I read Emma’s War by Deborah Scroggins. It tells the story of a young, glamorous aid worker, Emma McClune, who went to Sudan in 1987 with an ambition to do good. She embraced her role at Street Kids International and passionately worked towards improving access to education for children. Emma was also impulsive and headstrong: she married Riek Machar, a warlord, and became embroiled in politics. By the time of her death in 1993 in a car accident in Nairobi, Scroggins suggests that for all her courage and commitment, Emma did little to change anything.

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The backdrop to Emma’s story is the complex historic, social, cultural and political situation in Sudan. Following years of civil war, South Sudan became the world’s newest nation when it gained independence from Sudan in 2011. Peace was short lived and civil war erupted in 2013 when President Kiir sacked his entire cabinet and accused Vice President Riek Machar of supporting a failed coup. An agreement to halt the conflict collapsed in 2015 and fighting continued, primarily in Yei River state. This is the area from which many of the refugees in Bidibidi fled in 2016. In Yei, the National Salvation Front (NAS), continued to fight government forces. By 2018, a power sharing agreement was signed between Salva Kiir and Riek Machar which led to the signing of a Unity Government agreement on 20 February 2020. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres called upon members of the Transitional Government of National Unity to “fully adhere to the letter and spirit of the Agreement”, so that the people of South Sudan can finally realise the benefits of durable peace and stability they deserve.

Following the announcement of a peace agreement, the South Sudanese refugees I knew in Bidibidi remained cautious. None were ready to rush back to their homeland but instead adopted a ‘let’s wait and see’ approach. One of the caregivers (a teacher of young children) I worked with, Beatrice, talked about her life before becoming a refugee. She married young, had two children then was widowed when her husband was killed in a motorbike accident. Her father owned some land where she was able to develop skills of cultivation. She grew cassava, maize and beans. Then she married a second time (had two further children) and she continued to cultivate the land of her husband’s family. ‘My life at that time was very nice. I made money and paid for my children to go to school, paid for them when they were sick. I bought clothing for myself and my children. I had a very happy life in South Sudan. Then the time of war started and I had to save my life and my children. I lost everything: my land, my house, my garden. We were afraid as any person could attack you, rebels were everywhere. They would grab anything you have. They took things from my garden saying it belonged to them. If you don’t have luck they kill you, if you have luck they just let you go.’

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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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