Saturday, 23 August 2014

Gauguin in Panama - Maeve Friel


Paul Gauguin arrived in Panamá in June 1887. He was 37, practically destitute having gone from riches to rags as a broker, and in bad health. (Absinthe didn´t help.) His sister Marie was married to a Peruvian with business interests in Panamá city and Gauguin believed that, with his experience in banking, his brother in law would offer him a job and that he could then send for Mette and their five children. Years earlier a sailor had told him that the island of Taboga in Panama Bay was a true paradise, that land was as good as free and that fish and pineapples and coconuts could be had for nothing.

He wrote to Mette before his departure: "I´m taking my paints and brushes and will, living like a native, immerse myself far from mankind."

Unfortunately, the brother-in-law´s business was no more than a general store and the French canal-building project under the direction of Dr de Lesseps was already in big trouble. Malaria and yellow fever were killing thousands of the workforce every year. Landslides and explosions killed thousands more. (Most of the workers at that time were from the French-speaking islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe.)

Worse, the supposed paradise island of Taboga had been turned into a huge sanatorium run by the French Sisters of Charity and, to add insult to injury, was a day-trip destination for the French officials and their families escaping the oppressive heat of Panamá city.  The price of land had soared and was already out of reach of Gauguin´s limited resources.



Charles Laval, the artist, who had travelled with Gauguin, started doing studio portraits of the wives and daughters of the French officials but Gauguin refused to do so. Instead he worked as a labourer on the canal, with the crews dynamiting through the Continental Divide at the Gaillard Cut.  He wrote again to Mette:  "I have to work from five-thirty in the morning to six in the evening under tropical sun and rain. At night I am devoured by mosquitoes."

A few weeks later, he was arrested (allegedly for urinating in a street, protesting that it was in any case an open sewer,) was imprisoned for a night or two, and fined. To compound his problems, he was then laid off before he had earned enough to get off the isthmus and return to France. On June 8th, with his dream of life in the tropics shattered, he left for Martinique where he promptly came down with amoebic dysentery and nearly died before being repatriated to France.

It would be several years before he could fulfil his dream of paradise when he moved to Tahiti and unleashed a totally new way of painting saturated with tropical colour.

(But what if, in fact, he did paint some as yet undiscovered masterpieces inspired by his stay on Taboga Island? That´s the seed that I´m working on at moment.)

De Lesseps´ dream of building the interoceanic canal also foundered around the same time.  The French abandoned the canal amid financial and political scandals that shook and nearly bankrupted the entire country.

In 1904, the Americans stepped in (after engineering a "revolution" in which Panamá declared its independence from Colombia so that the USA could do a land grab and take control of the canal building). The work was mostly done by harshly treated, poorly paid and  segregated Jamaicans and Barbadians.

I´m recalling this because the canal was finally completed in August 1914, one hundred years ago , an extraordinary achievement that changed the world but that was totally eclipsed by the outbreak of  War in Europe days earlier.

The epic story of its building, the massive death tolls, the engineering and medical advances that the canal builders brought about, the struggle of the Panamanians to regain their autonomy : all these deserve to be remembered in this year of the canal´s centenary. 

Happy 100th Birthday, Panamá Canal. 

PS Will update with more photos... 

www.maevefriel.com
www.maevefriel.com/blog







Friday, 22 August 2014

Why I don't want to self-publish again

(Kate Wilson of the wonderful Nosy Crow asked me to write a guest post for her on my experiences of self-publishing as a published author. For your info, she didn't know what those experiences were, so there was no direction or expectation. I have re-posted it here, with permission. Note that this is personal experience, not advice.)

Many writers, previously published or not, talk excitedly about why they enjoy self-publishing. Let me tell you why I don’t.

I’ve self-published (only as ebooks) three of my previously published YA novels and three adult non-fiction titles which hadn’t been published before. From these books I make a welcome income of around £250 a month – a figure that is remarkably constant. So, why have I not enjoyed it and why won’t I do it again?

It’s damned hard to sell fiction! (Over 90% of that £250 is from the non-fiction titles.) Publishers know this. They also know that high sales are not always about “quality”, which is precisely why very good novels can be rejected over and over. Non-fiction is easier because it’s easy to find your readers and for them to find your book. Take my book about writing a synopsis, for example; anyone looking for a book on writing a synopsis will Google “books on writing a synopsis” and, hey presto, Write a Great Synopsis appears. But if someone wants a novel, the chances of finding mine out of the available eleventy million are slim. This despite the fact that they had fab reviews and a few awards from their former lives.

But some novels do sell well. So why don’t mine? Because I do absolutely nothing to sell them. Why not? Well, this is the point. Several points.

First, time. I am too busy with other writing and public-speaking but, even if I weren’t, the necessary marketing takes far too long (for me) and goes on for too long after publication: the very time when I want to be writing another one. This is precisely why publishers tend only to work on publicity for a short while after publication: they have other books to work on. We may moan but it has to be like that – unless a book does phenomenally well at first, you have to keep working at selling it.

Second, I dislike the stuff I’d have to do to sell more books. Now, this is where you start leaping up and down saying, “But published authors have to do that, too!” Yes, and I do, but it’s different. When a publisher has invested money because they believe in your book, you obviously want to help them sell it. But when the only person who has actually committed any money is you, the selling part feels different. It’s a case of “I love my book so much that I published it – now you need to believe in me enough to buy it.” I can’t do it. Maybe I don’t believe in myself enough. Fine. I think books need more than the author believing in them. The author might be right and the book be fabulous, but I tend to be distrustful of strangers telling me they are wonderful so why should I expect others to believe me if I say I am? And I don’t want to spend time on forums just to sell more books.

Third, I love being part of a team. Yes, I’ve had my share of frustrating experiences in the course of 100 or so published books, but I enjoy the teamwork – even though I’m an introvert who loves working alone in a shed; I love the fact that other people put money and time and passion into selling my book. It gives me confidence and support. They won’t make money if they don’t sell my book and I still like and trust that model.

And I especially love that once I’ve written it and done my bit for the publicity machine and done the best I can for my book, I can let it go and write another.

See, I’m a writer, not a publisher. I may love control – the usual reason given for self-publishing – but I mostly want control over my words, not the rest. (That control, by the way, is never lost to a good editor, and I’ve been lucky with genius editors.) So, yes, I am pleased with the money I’ve earned from self-publishing and I love what I’ve learnt about the whole process, but now I’m going back to where I am happy to do battle for real control: my keyboard.

It’s all I want to do.

Nicola Morgan has written about 100 books, with half a dozen "traditional" publishers of various sizes from tiny to huge. She is a former chair of the Society of Authors in Scotland and advises hard-working writers on becoming and staying published, and on the marketing/publicity/events/behaviour that goes along with that.

She has also just created BRAIN STICKS, an original and huuuuuuge set of teaching resources about the brain and mental health.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Animals in War


I'm busy researching my next book about animals set during WW1 and working out locations and timelines. But back in June I was asked by the Guardian to list my Top 10 animal war heroes, not just from WW1, as part of the promotion for my story set during 1914 about a cat and a dog who get sent to the front called 'A Soldier's Friend'.  Of course animals don't choose to go to war or be heroes but their stories are none the less inspiring and poignant and show us how to be heroes. Researching them was so fascinating and their stories so moving and needing to be told that I share it here: 

Top 10 Animal War Heroes by Megan Rix
There are so many animals that deserve a mention that it’s impossible to list them all here but I’ve tried to shout out for as many as I can. No animal chooses to go to war but their selfless acts of unconscious heroism show us how to be true heroes:

l. The dogs:

Sergeant Stubby was just one of 20,000 dogs serving Britain and her allies in WW1. Messenger dogs, mercy dogs, guard dogs and mascots did their bit for King and Country. Stubby even warned of impending gas attacks. Dogs were the first domesticated animal and have been used in battle throughout history. The Roman Army had whole companies of dogs wearing spiked collars around their neck and ankles.

2. The Pigeons:
Pigeons have been used as message carriers for over 5,000 years. Their vital messages saved the lives of thousands in WWI and WW2. Cher Ami was given the Croix de Guerre for her heroic message delivery that saved many soldiers’ lives, despite being shot at and terribly injured.

3. The Horses:
Humans began to domesticate horses in Central Asia around 4000 BC and they've been used in warfare for most of recorded history. They are prey animals and so their first reaction to threat is to startle and flee. Despite this, against their natural instincts, they’ve raced into countless battles, carrying their riders. Over 8 million died in WW1.

4. The Donkeys:
From Simpson and his donkey at Gallipoli to Jimmy ‘The Sergeant’, born at The Battle of the Somme, donkeys have saved soldiers lives and given their own. More suited to green fields than battlefields, donkeys have been to War for as long as horses have.





5. The Camels:
1915 saw the formation of the Camel Brigade, but camels have been used in battle since the Roman Empire. A bonus was that the smell of the camels spooked the enemies’ horses.

6. The Elephants:
Hannibal was one of the first to use them in battle and they've been used ever since.
WWI saw Lizzie the elephant helping out at Tommy Ward's factory and being a star goalkeeper in a match against a neighbouring team. Some elephants were sent to the battlefields but more took up the heavy lifting slack in towns and in the countryside when the horses were shipped to the Front.

7. Cats:
Morale boosters and rat catchers. Trench life was a little more bearable thanks to the moggies at the Front.

8. Tortoises:
The tortoises that were brought back from Gallipoli, like Ali Pasha and Blake, will be commemorated next year. But tortoises were used as mascots before WW1. Timothy, who turned out to be a female, served as ship's mascot in the Crimean War and Jonathan, a giant tortoise, is pictured with prisoners in the Boer War.

9. Dolphins:
Military trained dolphins are able to find underwater mines and rescue lost naval swimmers. Their training is similar to how military dogs are trained, and for a dog or a dolphin mine detection is simply a game rather than a matter of life and death.

10. Baboons:
Jackie the baboon was the mascot of the 3rd SA Infantry in WW1. The baboon drew rations, marched and drilled, and went to the nightmare of Delville Wood and Passchendaele. He was injured whilst desperately trying to build a wall of stones around himself as protection from the flying shrapnel. Jackie’s leg was amputated but he got to go home at the end of the War. Millions of humans and other animals didn’t.

*****

While I was doing my research I came across the sad fact that poor Anne the circus elephant rescued from cruelty in a circus a few years ago and moved to Longleat is now expected to live out her days alone there as it's been decided it would be better for her to be a solitary elephant despite elephants being one of the most social family orientated species. It makes me feel sick especially when you see the wonderful reunion of elephants that have been rescued, most of them old and having suffered abuse like Anne, at the Tennesse sanctuary on You Tube 

Ruth Symes's website
Megan Rix's website
Megan's book 'The Victory Dogs' is the 2014 Stockton-on-Tees Children's Book of the Year. Her book 'The Bomber Dog' has won the 2014 Shrewsbury Children's Book Award.



Wednesday, 20 August 2014

The Polite Writer - Joan Lennon

                                                                        Artwork by Melva Medina
                                                            found on the blog The Education Labyrinth


In the wake of a conversation about, well, just about everything, a son flagged up an article to me called "How to be Polite".  It was excellent and funny and true.  As I read, I thought "Yes!  This is such good advice!" and then also "Yes!  Politeness is the writer's friend!"

Listen, if you will, to this -

My ability to go to a party and speak to anyone about anything, to natter and ask questions, to turn the conversation relentlessly towards the speaker, meant that I was gathering huge amounts of information about other people.

Here’s a polite person’s trick, one that has never failed me. I will share it with you because I like and respect you, and it is clear to me that you’ll know how to apply it wisely: When you are at a party and are thrust into conversation with someone, see how long you can hold off before talking about what they do for a living. And when that painful lull arrives, be the master of it. I have come to revel in that agonizing first pause, because I know that I can push a conversation through. Just ask the other person what they do, and right after they tell you, say: “Wow. That sounds hard.”

Because nearly everyone in the world believes their job to be difficult. I once went to a party and met a very beautiful woman whose job was to help celebrities wear Harry Winston jewelry. I could tell that she was disappointed to be introduced to this rumpled giant in an off-brand shirt, but when I told her that her job sounded difficult to me she brightened and spoke for 30 straight minutes about sapphires and Jessica Simpson. She kept touching me as she talked. I forgave her for that. I didn’t reveal a single detail about myself, including my name. Eventually someone pulled me back into the party. The celebrity jewelry coordinator smiled and grabbed my hand and said, “I like you!” She seemed so relieved to have unburdened herself. I counted it as a great accomplishment. Maybe a hundred times since I’ve said, “wow, that sounds hard” to a stranger, always to great effect. I stay home with my kids and have no life left to me, so take this party trick, my gift to you.

A friend and I came up with a game called Raconteur. You pair up with another Raconteur at a party and talk to everyone you can. You score points by getting people to disclose something about their lives. If you dominate the conversation, you lose a point. 

And you lose a chance.  As a person and as a writer.

The next time you're asked where you get your ideas, try answering, "By being polite."  

P.S.  Please don't jump on me because you think I'm implying politeness is nothing more than a cynical tool for doing your job.  I'm not.  And really, I'd much rather hear about you ...

Joan Lennon's website.
Joan Lennon's blog.


                                                                                                

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

The Darkness We Need To Make Visible - Lucy Coats




The sad suicide of Robin Williams last week has sparked another 'conversation' in the press and on social media about mental illness - and more particularly about the link between creativity and depression. 

I think this 'conversation' - and the dispelling of ignorance and myths about these conditions by those of us who are sufferers speaking out honestly - is very important indeed. It is, if you like, the inner and unseen darkness we need to make visible, which is why I have written before, both here and elsewhere, about my own battles with the Beast of chronic depression and how, in some of those darker moments, I turn to writing poetry as a way to battle the demons. Externalising them on paper is, for me at least, a way of dispersing some of their power over me. 

Sometimes, though, when the despair becomes a deep physical paralysis, even the act of writing a single word seems impossible, and it at those times that the 'world would be better off without me' thoughts creep in. To the 'well brain' this is inexplicable - but the 'well brain' of a depressive is not always in charge. That is what the people who accuse Williams of 'selfishness' need to understand. Suicide, where mental illness is concerned, is not a choice. It is the last, most desperate act of a despairing brain which just wants the demons to stop eating it.


When I was first officially diagnosed with depression, I had a deep need to find a way to understand it which avoided medical jargon (to which I am deeply allergic). Being a writer, I turned to other writers to see what their experiences were - and how they had coped. The first name which came up was William Styron, whose book, 'Darkness Visible', about his own journey through depression became my manual. The title comes from Milton's 'Paradise Lost'
'No light, but rather darkness visible served only to discover sights of woe'
Writing is, for the most part, a solitary profession. In my case, I mostly sit in a room, on my own, making stuff up and setting the visions that churn around in my head down on a screen. It is hardly surprising that, living as I do in a daily creative world where evil Egyptian crocodile deities demand human sacrifices, immortal beasts battle horrid heroes and skeleton dragons with flaming red eyes menace innocent children, my own mind should sometimes rise up against me.  

Every writer, whether with depression or without, will know that little nagging head voice which tells us that what we do is unutterably useless and pointless. Styron describes his thought processes 'being engulfed by a toxic and unnameable tide that obliterated any enjoyable response to the living world.' Reading those words was, for me, a recognition akin to a light being turned on in a dark room. When I first read Styron's book I did what I never do (being a respecter of the sanctity of the printed page). I underlined and made comments and wrote 'YES!!' in large capitals in many places. I have scribbled a lot more on it since. I felt as if, finally, I had found a fellow wanderer in an empty desert who could describe not only what and how I was feeling, but also do it in words simple and direct enough that others--those 'healthy people' on the outside of this condition--might be able to understand too. When Styron speaks of the 'weather of depression', I understand precisely what he means. For him its light is a 'brownout', for me a greyish fog impossible to see anything in except blurred shapes and outlines.

It's hard for me to describe how strengthening and comforting it felt to read something which made sense of my own experience, and which reminded me gently of how many other writers have been in the depths of the pit too. Shakespeare certainly understood it - how else would he have written Hamlet? Emily Dickinson, John Donne, Camus, Manley Hopkins, Beethoven, Van Gogh - these and so many more were troubled by the Beast, so I am in hallowed company when I travel through Dante's 'dark wood'. 

For now, I am in a stable place, where it is possible to 'riveder le stelle' - to 'behold the stars once more.'. But when the Beast visits again (as it inevitably will, because that is its nature) I will try to remind myself that I am not alone. 

Captain Beastlie's Pirate Party is now out from Nosy Crow!
"What right-minded child could resist his allure?" Books for Keeps
Lucy's brand new Website and blog
Follow Lucy on Facebook 
Follow Lucy on Twitter
Lucy is represented by Sophie Hicks at The Sophie Hicks Agency

Monday, 18 August 2014

A Special Relationship - Linda Strachan

In Anne Cassidy's recent blog It takes a lot more than one person to write a book  she mentioned a lot of different people who contribute is so many ways when you are writing a novel. But if what you are writing is not a novel but a picture book there is one person whose contribution is as important as the author, and that is the illustrator.

Picture book images are not merely drawings that help the story along, they are an integral part of the story, often carrying a storyline of their own. If you drop by picturebookden.blogspot.co.uk  you will find some interesting and amusing blogs about writing/illustrating picture books, including one by Malachy Doyle on how NOT to write a picture book- see especially points 6 & 7 about illustrators!
Sally J. Collins

People are often surprised when they discover that the author and illustrator of picture books frequently do not meet, or even speak to each other during the process.  The publisher will decide to publish a picture book text and then commission an illustrator to work on it.  The editor is then often the go-between during any discussions about the illustrations.

This has been my experience except in one case and that is the Hamish McHaggis series, 10 books that I have written over the last 10 years which were illustrated by my dear friend Sally J. Collins, a talented illustrator. 
Sadly Sally passed away recently as some of you will know, but as well as being friends we had a wonderful working relationship as author and illustrator working closely together from the very start of the project.

When I was approached to write the Hamish McHaggis books, I suggested that Sally would be a great illustrator for them and luckily the publisher agreed.  Once I had outlined the personalities and characteristics of the four main characters, Sally started working up the drawings until we were both happy with the way they looked.
Hamish, a cuddly Haggis, went through various versions before we were happy with him and Sally as had no wish to draw Hamish or the woodland creatures who were his friends, wearing clothes, we compromised with accessories. Sot Hamish had a hat, Jeannie the osprey had pink beads and painted claws, Rupert the English hedgehog sports a bow-tie and often wears  his glasses, and the cheeky wee pine marten, Angus, wears his red cap back to front.
Because we had a very tight deadline for the first 4 books, Sally and I fell into a kind of routine where I would come up with the basic storyline and she would do thumbnail drawings of all 12 double page spreads.  
One of Sally's thumbnail drawings  © Sally J Collins
We would meet up, luckily we lived close to each other, and discuss how it would look and make some changes before I even finalised the text.  This meant that Sally was able to get started on full size rough drawings of the first few pages that we were happy with, while I was writing and editing the text of the story.

One of the things we both enjoyed was the collaboration. I would suggest things that she might want to incorporate in her images and she would come up with ideas for the storyline. This happened more and more the longer we worked together, and made it all the more fun each time we got started on a new book. 

Hamish & the Whirry Bang at the Falkirk Wheel book launch
There was, for a while, a real car made up to look like Hamish's Whirry Bang vehicle and there is also a full size Hamish costume. 
Both of these had a lot of input from Sally and I to make sure they resembled her drawings as closely as possible, and painting up the car was a real labour of love!
Sally and I also went out on the road with Hamish.  
As the books are set in a variety of wonderful locations, Sally and I went on research trips so that we really knew about the places where the books were set.  Sally  would make sketches and take notes so that she could faithfully replicate things like the pattern on the pale blue carpet in Glamis Castle and one of the chairs in the Queen Mother's room, which was incorporated into the story.  She also had to draw so many of the  places in the books, even the front of Edinburgh's parliament building, which was a bit of a challenge!  

The Falkirk Wheel, the world's largest boat-lift, was the setting for another Hamish adventure and when we launched that book we took a boatload of children and parents up on the wheel as we told the story and Sally showed them the pictures from the book. Afterwards they had a drawing class with Sally.  
We had research trips and also book launches in Balmoral, Stirling and Edinburgh Castles and  the most recent was the Kelvingrove and the Transport museum in Glasgow. Sally even managed to sneak in small images of  both of us into one of the pictures at the Transport museum in Hamish McHaggis and the Great Glasgow Treasure Hunt
She had a great sense of fun.

The Hamish books are used  in a lot of schools as the focus for anything from a week to a term's work and although I have always done a lot of school visits on my own, it was fun when Sally and I went to do events together.  I never tired of watching Sally drawing Hamish with a class of children. 
I love writing the stories and it was a joy to watch them come to life on the page with Sally's illustrations.

Hamish McHaggis and his friends have gone out all over the world and he is well loved, as are Sally's humorous and delightful illustrations.


Last year after a lot of fine tuning we were both finally happy with the little cuddly Hamish toy, which is faithful to Sally's drawings of Hamish.


A lovely, talented artist but also a kind and gentle person, Sally will be sadly missed, but wee Hamish and his friends will hopefully delight children for a long time to come as they discover and enjoy his adventures.


It has been a very special relationship that I feel privileged to have been part of and which has left a host of happy memories.




------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Linda Strachan is the author of over 60 books for all ages from picture books to teenage novels and the writing handbook Writing For Children  

She has written 10 Hamish McHaggis books illustrated by Sally J. Collins who also illustrated Linda's retelling of Greyfriars Bobby

Linda's latest YA novel is Don't Judge Me  


Linda  is  Patron of Reading to Liberton High School, Edinburgh 

website:  www.lindastrachan.com
blog:  Bookwords 





 







Sunday, 17 August 2014

Let’s hear it for My Naughty Little Sister! - by Emma Barnes

I’m always surprised when people compare my books to those by other authors. Not because I think I’m so dazzlingly original (in fact, when I go into schools, my answer to that question “But how do you get ideas?” is usually “I get ideas because over the years I’ve read a lot of books!”) but because the comparisons aren’t usually the authors or books I would have thought of. So when somebody mentioned to me that Wild Thing reminded them of Dorothy Hughes’s classic My Naughty Little Sister stories, first I was surprised, then I thought it was time to dig out a copy and see for myself. 




My Naughty Little Sister was first written for BBC Radio’s Children Hour. Perhaps this is why they are such wonderful read-alouds. I’ve heard some adults claim that the strong narrative voice is rather too cosy ("And what do you think My Naughty Little Sister did next...") and therefore annoying. Personally, I think this is what makes the stories so perfect for young children, guiding them through the stories (I’d recommend My Naughty Little Sister as a first read-aloud when moving onto chapter books). But then I do like a strong narrative voice (the Narnia books are another example where some find the narrator intrusive, but I find it confiding, and entertaining). 

There is a lovely nostalgia about My Naughty Little Sister, too. I think this is because not only do the stories now seem very quaint and long-ago, but even when Dorothy Edwards was writing them she was remembering a past time (her own childhood, and her own naughty little sister). So such details as washing day are lovingly portrayed, in a way they maybe wouldn’t be if they were contemporary to the reader, and therefore taken for granted. (In this way they remind me a little of Laura Ingall’s Wilder’s Little House books, in capturing the domestic details of a distant time.) 

I’m also envious, not only of the apparent safety of that long ago time, but also the freedom it gives a writer to give her child character adventures. My Naughty Little Sister is only four, but she can go on a train ride all by herself (with only the guard to keep an occasional eye on her). She can also travel from home under her own steam, and at one point is sent spontaneously to spend a day with her older sister at school. How much harder to construct real-life adventures now that young children always have to be supervised! 

Most all, though, the charm of the stories is in the character of My Naughty Little Sister herself. The stories may feel old fashioned, but they are never preachy or moralistic. My Naughty Little Sister thinks for herself. If the family has to look after a baby for the day, she really doesn’t see why she should pretend to like babies, just because it’s the done thing. And she makes friends with all kinds of unlikely people, grown up or child, because she responds to them honestly and directly. 

Her character, I think, is brilliantly portrayed in the illustrations by Shirley Hughes. 

So, even if I still don’t get the comparison with my own books, I certainly feel the compliment! And if you’re looking to escape into a young child’s world, in a gentler, cosier time, I’d recommend My Naughty Little Sister.
---------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Emma's new series for 8+ Wild Thing about the naughtiest little sister ever (and her bottom-biting ways) is out now from Scholastic. 
"Hilarious and heart-warming" The Scotsman

 Wolfie is published by Strident.   Sometimes a Girl’s Best Friend is…a Wolf. 
"A real cracker of a book" Armadillo 
"Funny, clever and satisfying...thoroughly recommended" Books for Keeps


Emma's Website
Emma’s Facebook Fanpage
Emma on Twitter - @EmmaBarnesWrite