Category Archives: Author’s Notes

The Horses and Ponies in my Stories

Something I’m asked about a lot (and love answering) is whether the horses and ponies in my stories have been inspired by real ones I’ve known.

The short answer is, “Yes!”

Pony book expert and critic Jane Badger asked me to write a blog on the subject for her wonderful website, and if you’d like to find out what I wrote you can read it here .

The cover of Joe and the Lightning Pony
The cover of Joe and the Lightning Pony
Rory Capel and Danny; the inspiration for Joe and Lightning
Rory Capel and Danny; the inspiration for Joe and Lightning

Knitbone Pepper: My First Book Review

I don’t do book reviews – at least, I thought I didn’t.

This is an awful confession for an author to make, but I’ve always found reading difficult and analysing books even more difficult. When I was doing O level English at boarding school, we were under constant pressure to read and analyse books. For me it took all the joy out of reading. In fact,  it put me off reading for pleasure for a long time.

I loved animals, the countryside and farming, and I wanted to be a farmer, but our school careers teacher told me girls didn’t do farming! So I studied biology, geography and chemistry for A levels and biogeography at university, hoping to become a soil scientist. My favourite books at the time were all non-fiction – Small is Beautiful by E F Schumacher, Why Big, Fierce Animals Are Rare by Paul Colinvaux and The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, for instance.

It was only about fourteen years ago, when I began writing stories, that I decided I really ought to start reading some. . . Before long, it became apparent there were lots of brilliant books out there and I had a great deal of catching up to do!

Most of my fellow children’s authors are very well-read and a lot of them studied English or creative writing at university. When authors get together, there seem to be two main topics of conversation: chocolate and books. I can hold my own in any discussion about chocolate, but when the subject turns to books it’s rather like being at a dinner party where everyone’s discussing fine wine. Basically, I know what I like, but it takes a lot of courage to join in the conversation for fear of making a fool of myself.

HOWEVER, I’ve just read this book called Knitbone Pepper by Claire Barker, and I feel compelled to say:

A) I love it.

B) I can’t imagine anyone not loving it.

For a start, the book itself is a lovely thing, which is rare in this era of mass market paperbacks. Usborne has lavished care and attention to detail on every aspect of this stunning hardback, from the feel, size and look of it to the fantastic illustrations by Ross Collins. There’s even a  classy ribbon in case you don’t quite manage to read the whole thing in one sitting and therefore need a book mark. Oh, and for me the finishing touch is the embossed spider in the margin, which will make perfect sense when you read it.

website-fornt1

It’s hard to write about the story without giving things away that are best discovered as you read, so I’ll just say it’s warm, witty, well-written and wonderful.

Here’s a book that’s designed to be a cherished present rather than a stocking filler. Yes, it’s £9.99, but it’s worth every penny.

Claire’s website

Creating Characters

I’m really looking forward to  visiting Georgeham School on World Book Day this year.  The theme of the day is going to be Creating Characters. This has given me an excellent excuse to collect different hats and toys to take with me, and I’ve been writing down some thoughts about creating characters, too: 

I’ve put ‘he’ throughout, but the character could be a ‘she’, of course. 

  1. Names are very important. Take time to choose the name that seems perfect for the character you want to create. Does the name reflect the character’s age, background and personality? Does his name matter to him? Is it something another character may tease him about, or turn into a nickname? Surnames can be important too, especially if they’re unusual or funny.
  2. Make your character believable. Get to know your characters really well so they become real in your mind. If you believe in your character, so will the person reading your story.
  3. Care about your characters. If you care about what happens to your characters, your readers will too, so they’ll want to read the story. Readers needn’t like all the characters, but they must care. For instance, they may hate a horrible ogre and want to see him come to a horrible end! (Have you noticed that a lot of main characters in children’s books are poor, have lost a parent or are orphans? This is a good way of getting the readers’ sympathy so they care about what happens.)
  4. All the characters in your story must be there for a reason. Try not to have too many characters in your story because it could become confusing. If there are more than three or four characters in your story, try to introduce them gradually.
  5. Don’t take someone you know, change their name and make them the character in your story. Why not? Because you could offend that person. Also, you know your imaginary characters better than you know anybody. I get my ideas from a mixture of real-life experiences together with things I’ve read about, seen in films or on the TV, heard about and imagined.
  6. Your main character should influence what happens in the story. If there’s a problem to be solved or a heroic deed to be done, your main character should do it. This makes for a far more satisfying story than if, for example, his parents arrive and sort out the problem or a good fairy appears out of nowhere and makes everything okay.
  7. Your main character should be changed in some way by what happens in the story, or he should learn something. For example, he could discover he’s braver than he thought, or learn that he shouldn’t do something if he knows it’s wrong, even if his friends are doing it.
  8. But is a very useful word when creating characters. Everyone is complicated, and the word ‘but’ can help you to make interesting characters and an interesting story. For example, Indiana Jones is brave and fearless but he hates snakes. We know this early on in most Indiana Jones films, and sure enough – towards the end, as the tension builds – there’s a scene where Indiana Jones’ courage is tested to the limit because he has to confront some snakes.
  9. Appearance often reflects character, but not always. It’s fun to surprise your readers with, for example, a tiny dog who wants to be a guard dog, a speedy snail or an old lady with superpowers.
  10. Writing different characters helps you to understand other people. I really enjoyed writing the Horseshoe Trilogy because I had to see the world from the Joe’s point of view, and Joe is a teenage boy. Through writing Joe’s story, I began to understand what it’s like to be a boy.

joe

Letters and emails gratefully received!

Being an author is sometimes a lonely job, and it’s easy to lose a sense of perspective.

Having got soaked taking the dog for a walk, sorted out some of the most urgent farm bills, waded through loads of spam emails, found one new ‘spam’ follower on Twitter and noticed that my sales ratings on Amazon had fallen since I last looked, I didn’t feel particularly motivated this morning. I knew I’d got to write, but I could hardly summon the courage to get the manuscript for my latest book onto the computer screen.

I’ll just check my emails one more time, I thought, knowing I should be self-disciplined and get on with writing no matter what (advice I’d given to a group of writers at Appledore Book Festival only yesterday!).

There was one new email. It was a private message via my Victoria Eveleigh Author Facebook page from someone called Teresa Dalla Torre Khoury. Hoping it wasn’t a new kind of spam, I opened it. This is what it said:

Hi, Victoria, my daughter Gabriella (7) chose to read your book, Katy’s Wild Foal, for her school book review in two weeks time. We so loved it! Gabriella read it first and then I re-read it to her to remember the outline and details of the story, I even caught myself tearing a few times. Thank you for such a good read. Gabriella especially liked the ‘Rome wasn’t built in one day’ and I really enjoyed the part where Trifle had managed to use her nut bucket as a helmet! This story has so many important messages for young girls and I so enjoyed discussing them with Gabriella through the medium of this lovely book. We googled a map [of Exmoor] and Gabriella was thrilled to see all these places really do exist, and even more thrilled to see that there is a Barton Wood. Thank you for teaching us about Exmoor ponies. We especially love the foals, and will download a few images to show the class. Kind regards, Teresa and Gabriella (South Africa, Ballito)

I’d just finished reading that lovely message when the postman came. With the usual mix of junk mail and bills there was a hand-written card from my favourite author of all time, Kathleen (KM) Peyton.

Spirits soaring, I clicked on my manuscript and started to write…

You Must Be Mad To Like Pony Stories

A few days ago, a book review site called We Sat Down posted a comment on Twitter: ‘A Stallion Called Midnight,’ it said. ‘It’s horsey, but it’s also more than that.’

I took this as the compliment which (I hope!) it was meant to be, but it got me thinking. . .

I’ve never seen Sky Hawk by Gill Lewis described as ideal for osprey-mad children or The White Giraffe by Lauren St John recommended for giraffe-mad children, yet reviews of my books frequently include some sort of reference to pony-mad girls.  Of course, I’m always delighted if my books are recommended for anyone, insanely horsey or otherwise, but why is it assumed that stories about horses or ponies can only be appreciated by people who are besotted by them?

A good story can be enjoyed by all sorts of people, whether it features horses, hippos or vampires, so it’s bizarre that horse and pony stories have been pigeon-holed in this way. After all, Black Beauty is an all-time classic and, more recently, The Horse Whisperer and Warhorse have both had worldwide success. However, they are about horses and have strong male characters, so perhaps it’s the mixture of ponies and girls which is the problem.

By tapping into the ‘pink pony’ culture which has developed recently, pony stories have developed a (mostly unfair) reputation of being of little interest to anyone except pony-mad girls. Pony books are now perceived as being too horsey, girlie and exclusive for general consumption, which is a shame because there are lots of really good pony stories that deserve a wider audience.

Of course, it helps if you’re mad about ponies, but it’s not essential!

"Is being a mad pony the same as being pony-mad?"
“Is being a mad pony the same as being pony-mad?”

 

A Lucky Break

This is the first blog on my brand new website. As some of you know, I was self-publishing my books for more than ten years (under the imprint of Tortoise Publishing) before Orion Children’s Books took me on last year. Several people have asked how I managed to become a ‘proper’ author. The short answer is a great big dollop of luck. A longer answer is this:

A lady called Louise Weir emailed me to say she’d like to make my book Midnight on Lundy a book of the month on the website www.lovereading4kids. Well, as you can imagine, I was thrilled. Apparently Louise had picked up the book because she had happy memories of family holidays on Lundy.

It was hard work doing research on Lundy!
It was hard work doing research on Lundy!

We started exchanging emails every so often, and one day she asked why I self-published my books. The answer was simple – I hadn’t been able to persuade an agent or a publisher to take me on (although I’d been so disheartened by rejections that I hadn’t tried for ages). She suggested that I should send my books and a covering letter to Orion Children’s Books.

I was amazed when Fiona Kennedy from Orion emailed me to say she’d like to come to see our farm and meet me. She visited us on a lovely sunny day in June 2011. I was so anxious not to get my hopes up that I talked non-stop about anything but books. We gave her a tour of the farm and showed her our Exmoor ponies on the moor. At about four o’clock, Fiona said that the tour of the farm had been lovely, but that she really needed to sit down and talk to me about my books, so we did. As you can imagine, I was delighted (actually, I was too

Orion suckling his mum when he was a couple of weeks old. The other foal is Gaia.
Orion suckling his mum when he was a couple of weeks old. The other foal is Gaia.stunned to feel anything much!) when she said that Orion would like me to re-write my existing books for publication in 2012, and they would like some completely new stories for publication in 2013. Wow!

Since then my life has changed quite a bit. I spend much more time writing, which I love (except on bad days when my mind goes blank – but everyone gets those, I’m told). I spend even less time than I used to cleaning the house (I’ve always found housework incredibly boring) and I don’t have to sell and distribute my own books (hurray!). The only downside is I seem to be spending far less time with my family, out on the farm or with the horses and dogs. However, if I get my act together (and spend less time on Twitter and Facebook or staring at my computer screen while sipping coffee) I’m sure I’ll be able to make time for everything, including handling my Exmoor gelding, Orion. He was born on the moor last year. More about him in my Orion the Exmoor blogs.

How to write a story: ten tips

It’s great that so many people want to be writers. At least, that seems to be the case from the amount of times I’m asked how to become an author. Here are some things I’ve found out in the twelve years since I decided I wanted to write stories:

1. There may be a few natural geniuses out there, but most of us have to learn how to write well. Read as much as you can, write as much as you can, accept criticism from people you respect, learn from your mistakes and don’t get too disheartened when things go horribly wrong.

2. Try to work out why you like some stories more than others. Write the kinds of stories you’d like to read. I’ve always loved horse and pony stories, and now I’m writing them.

3. You’re much more likely to be taken seriously as a writer if your spelling, punctuation and grammar are good. (I struggle with all three.)

4. Ideas for stories can come from anywhere, and often when you least expect them: books, conversations, real-life events, TV, film, radio, newspapers and magazines or out of the blue at three o’clock in the morning. It helps to write ideas down in a special notebook so you don’t forget them. Experiences – good and bad – are particularly useful. Try to put your feelings into words and write them down too. It’s important to take care of your notebook; I often put mine down somewhere and then spend ages hunting for it.

5. Good stories follow certain rules of story-telling. The most obvious one is that they should have a beginning, a middle and an end, and that the things which happen should connect with each other in some way. This is where stories often differ from real life, where lots of unconnected things may happen which don’t seem to make any sense at all!

6. Write about something which interests you. If you’re bored while you’re writing, it’ll show.

7. The more you write, the easier it gets because your brain becomes fitter. The trouble is that your body may become less fit, and writing tends to induce cravings for chocolate and cake, so don’t become a writing zombie. I’ve found that a dog who needs a walk every few hours is a great help.

8.  Make sure you choose a husband / wife / partner / friend / pet who’ll understand when meals don’t appear, appointments are missed and you give up talking all together because you’re so wound up in your latest story.

9. I’m easily distracted by emails, Facebook, Twitter and the internet in general. If you have the same problem, try to be strict with the time you set aside for writing every day. I sometimes turn off the internet so I’m not tempted. Write in a place where you feel comfortable and you won’t get interrupted. (Easier said than done.)

10. Become a writer only if you really enjoy writing and you don’t mind spending a lot of time alone. If you decide to become a writer, give it all you’ve got. Learn as much as possible from others, strive to improve your work and keep going even when you feel like giving up. Make the most of every opportunity; you never know where things may lead. For example, I published my own books for ten years, and I found it really hard work. Then one day I replied to an email from Lovereading4kids, and that eventually led to me being taken on by Orion Children’s Books – a very happy ending!