Tag Archives: characters

Discover your characters with Instagram

Phil: Why was I in London last weekend looking at posh products in St Pancras station?

It’s all down to Candice’s latest marketing wheeze. We’ve set up an Instagram account for our main character, Kate Smith.

On her account, Kate posts pictures of things she sees and likes. Along the way, she comments on the photos, mostly about how much easier life is without children, but there’s also been musing on Jane Fonda and the being able to enjoy chocolate cake after working out.

All this is great fun to do and it’s made me really get inside her head, especially for me as Candice is normally firmly in charge of Kate on the page!

On my trip to London (not just for this, I just had time to kill), I found myself walking around in Kate’s shoes (not literally, I don’t think I could manage high heels) looking at the goodies on offer in the posh shops section of the Eurostar station undercroft. I snapped away with my phone, sending the results to Candice to post on Instagram over time. She will add comments and hashtags to each before it goes up on the site. Or just deleting the picture if I get it wrong.

Hopefully, later in the week, we’ll be meeting up to write and chat and I’ll receive further instruction in “Kate thinking” – it’s all very educational and helps to give Kate an added dimension, at least in my mind. I suppose this is a little like “method acting” where you immerse yourself in a character. It’s certainly not the sort of thing I thought we’d be doing when we started writing our books, but then why not have some fun along the way?

Kate Smith on Instagram (katebooks)

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Taking the train through Pauline Hazelwood’s writing

Phil: I’ve met Pauline Hazelwood a few times at model railway exhibitions with her Saddletank Books stand. She has written and illustrated a series of children’s books using steam locomotives as the main characters, with historically accurate stories. Readers not only enjoy both the words and pictures, along the way they learn a bit too.

Having badgered her to agree to an interview, we’ll be running this over two weeks. Part One covers writing and storytelling. Part Two, promoting yourself as an independent author and actually selling copies.

Your books feature wonderful illustrations as well as a story. Do you write the book first and then produce the illustrations or do they evolve side-by-side?

I’m an artist foremost. I usually create the stories at the beginning in sketch books. I work round the images in my head. They inspire the words. I see everything in pictures and I love drawing people. I sketch a lot, especially when I’m travelling. I have lots of sketch books full of drawings, little studies in watercolours too. They build up a library in my head so that when I go to sketch a scene, it’s there.

Quite a few of the pages come from events that have happened around me, they get mixed into the story line of the engine. Or I get inspired by something, for example the scene from the auction in the second book, is very loosely based on the painting by Norman Rockwell’s.’ Freedom of speech‘, it was such fun to use as a basis because it was the right period and really had all the elements in my mind , to go with the story. Norman Rockwell used the ‘Thinker ‘ sculpture for one of his pictures of an American football player.

Each book is historically accurate. How much research does this entail to find a suitable story?

The choice of each engine story has just naturally evolved as I’ve visited different railways and met owners of engines and railway enthusiasts. There are fantastic engines everywhere, and so much history that I want people to know about. I enjoy the research. I love finding out little incidental things about the people and time, to humanise the whole thing and make it more than a mechanical engineering history. The enthusiasts often have loads of information to pass on and will disregard some elements but if I ask lots of questions I can usually find a lot of things that interest me and hopefully interest the reader. I might have a theme in mind of friendship or including animals or showing how hard the work was , whatever it is, I dig around till I find enough to support the theme or end up finding another exciting path to follow.

How long does it take to write/draw each book?

There isn’t a fixed time. it depends on what other work is on and how busy I am in life generally ( as I run some art classes and paint in oils and watercolours which  I love. I also do painting demos for art societies. )… sometimes I mull over things for quite a while, rehashing the text. I sketch out a vague outline, and carry it around with me all the time and sketch and write bits in cafes, or wherever. Sometimes it flows and is really quick.and at other times, odd ideas and suggestions from other people add to the whole thing too.

The illustrations appear hand drawn. Most writers just use a laptop, but I’m thinking that your “tools” are rather more varied.

My illustrations are very much hand drawn, I start with soft pencil drawings, slightly larger than the finished book. I create a detailed pencil drawing of every page and solve every problem before tracing it onto watercolour paper. The pencil stage is the most creative bit and the pencil drawings to me often seem nicer and more expressive. I’ll make prints of some of them, some time, to sell.  I then do pen and wash paintings of the whole book which then doesn’t take that long. I’m quite particular about which pens, paper and paint I like to use. Teaching watercolour helps a lot. I know my materials well and even though they are cartoons, I’m using the same ideas that I teach in general watercolour work. With a children’s book I have to put as much of the information into the pictures, not the words, which suits me..

The elephant in the room for books about steam engines with faces has to be Thomas the Tank engine. How do your books differ from the Rev Awdry’s?

Awdry’s books were irrelevant for me. My three sons never liked the books but they did watch the videos and loved playing with the toys along with other toy trains. His books were written in a very different way, based on the Isle of Sodor and the facts that were used, were put into a different context. I absolutely love Edward Ardizones’ illustrations, whimsical pen and wash. He illustrated the Graeme Green book about an engine and Colin McNaughton books and style of illustration, I loved reading to my sons. We used to get loads of books from the libraries and buy quite a few too, always full of illustrations and I loved the fantastic writing in some of them, that appealed to adults as well as children. You could tell that the writer had thoroughly enjoyed writing them . And I enjoyed putting on silly voices too, big time, so I had to include those in the books.  I also love alliteration and the sound of certain words. I have favourite letters and I like long words too. I have to stick to the facts at the end of the day though so this provides a nice  framework for me.

Any hints for people aspiring to write children’s books?

After I started doing these books I remembered that when I was a child, I used to tell my older sister bed time stories that I made up each night as we lay in our twin beds.  I wrote quite a few little story books for fun for myself. I lived in a daydreamy fantasy world as a child and when I played with the chess set, I gave each piece a character and voice. If you want to write a children’s book, you probably are already writing, you just haven’t found the right subject or idea to share with the world so far.  I don’t know whether writing a children’s book is something I aspire to do. I wanted to share some amazing things that I had discovered.  I feel as if I’m uncovering a whole load of stuff that is kept hidden because it’s tucked away in boring manuals and boring history books, but if you tell it through pictures, people like me, that are too busy or lazy to read those books, will find out about it.

You can find visit Pauline’s Saddltank Books website here.

I reviewed Polar Bear and Sealion here.

Next week, we look at marketing books and getting out to meet the readers.

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The Lubetkin Legacy – Two Stories. One book.

Phil: You don’t read many books where a block of flats is a central character, but in The Lubetkin Legacy by Marina Lewycka, the building plays a central role in the plot.

Story 1 – Lily Lukashenko dies and her dying words to son Bertie are “Don’t let them get the flat.” He has been living with her since the breakup of his marriage, unable on his actor’s salary, to afford anything else. To be fair, his acting work seems to be mostly “resting” and grumbling about the success of George Clooney. To be fair, George probably can’t quote Shakespeare as well as Berthold, but that’s as good as it gets.

In an effort to avoid eviction, he moves the lady from the next door hospital bed in to impersonate Lily with modestly comic effect, especially if you consider the names of Eastern European meals to be amusing.

Along the way, there is much rage about the problems faced by people relying on the state for an income. Officialdom comes calling many times, although one particular functionary eventually lifts Bertie out of his gloom.

Story 2 – Violet is a young Kenyan-born woman who gets a job in the city working in “wealth preservation”. This turns out to be tax avoidance and plundering African countries funds by overcharging the health services for basic supplies. She quickly grows a conscience and decides that the dream job really isn’t.

The two characters are neighbours and interact sporadically. There is a plot involving building plans that involve grubbing up a patch of cherry trees to be replaced with executive flats.

If I’m honest, Bertie ends up OK, but pretty much nothing else nice happens in the end. Violet is back in Kenya working for an NGO, but her efforts to expose dodgy dealings don’t go well. The trees get cut down. One character dies due to lack of money. If this is what The Times considers “A joy to read”, then I can only assume the reviewer likes seeing poor people get a kicking. Even those officials who went into public service are worn down and cynical. Everyone assumes that bad things are just going to happen and you might as well accept it.

One of the central plot strands, that Lily had an affair with the architect Lubetkin who designed the flats and left her a tenancy, is never tied up. Bertie finds a plan under the sofa but that’s it.

I’d planned for this review to be a bit more upbeat, but after a couple of days mulling the book over since finishing it, I’m just becoming more miserable about the story. I think that’s partly the point. Lewycka has written several other books including the well known A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian and I suspect that these are also full of downtrodden people. You certainly feel for the characters (OK, I certainly do, maybe the Times doesn’t) and the lives they are trapped in.

The contrast between people working in “wealth preservation” and those at the bottom of the pile constantly being ripped off is pretty powerful. Very much a serious message wrapped in pretty paper.

 

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Lessons from Ken Dodd

Image from RuddyMuddy on Twitter

Phil: I can’t claim to have been one of the late Sir Ken Dodd’s showbiz friends, but I did meet him a couple of times while working at a local theatre.

Once, while minding the stage door at some time past midnight, he came off stage and pointed at my shoes.

“Crikey”, he said, “Those are fine feet, are you a policeman?”

I replied that I wasn’t to which he added, “Well, you know what they say about blokes with big feet…” and then swept off to his dressing room with a chuckle.

The amazing thing about Ken (never Mr Dodd) was that he’d arrive at the venue looking every bit of his 80 years. A small, quiet old man.

Yet the moment he got on stage, he came alive. The Ken in my anecdote was buzzing, almost as though there was electricity flying off him. This was after a 6-hour show too.

So, lesson 1 – If you are doing something you really love, you’ll never feel better or more alive.

In all the tributes, it’s been said by many people who you never knew when a Ken Dodd show would finish. The rumour was that every night management would have to haul him off the stage so the staff could go home.

This is a good story, but not strictly accurate.  Yes, the performances would go on a long while. No other act gave a longer show, but the staff knew when he would finish. Usually 1am on the first night, 12:30 on the second. Hidden from the audience in the wings was a clock which Ken kept an eye on.

Lesson 2 – If you want to be good at something, you need a professional attitude.

Ken didn’t just hang around telling jokes until he got bored. He honed his act through the study of comedy. Learning to play an audience, he only kept the jokes that got a laugh. Yes, material stayed in the act for many, many years – but only if the audience enjoyed it. In many ways, this is just like editing a novel. You take out anything that doesn’t add to the reader’s enjoyment. After a while, you are left with pure gold.

Legend is an over-used term, but it’s appropriate here. There will never be another Doddy, but if you aspire to his status, you better put the work in like he did.

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Kate vs the Dirtboffins – Chapter Three

That evening, Kate had had enough.  The day’s events had destroyed her wardrobe.  Her best suit was a disaster. The stains would probably defeat even her trusty dry cleaner.  She’d be claiming the whole lot back on expenses.

Driving back home for fresh clothes seemed like a better bet than sitting in the boring hotel bar and rehashing the day with her colleagues.  Pulling up into the underground car park beneath her apartment block, she sighed with relief.  The car had tested the speed cameras on the A14 to get back here, but all she wanted to do was collapse in her own bath with a glass of sauvignon.

Kate turned off the ignition and stared into space for a moment trying to think positive thoughts.

Great job – tick

Great flat – tick

Great wardrobe – big tick.

But in the back of her mind she felt maybe something was missing. Upstairs in her stylish home, the only welcome would be the faint meow of Olly the cat.

Turning to pick up her take-away from the passenger seat, a smartly printed business card was dislodged from the gap it had been jammed into in the dashboard. On the front it read:

Kate Smith. Chief Executive.

K.O.D. – Change Management. We make the difference.

She looked at the words for a minute and smiled; that was her, MD of her own company, something that gave her a warm feeling that wasn’t attributable to the heated seats in her car.

For Kate, her business was more than just a job, it was her life. Solihull born, educated at an average comprehensive, and the youngest of three children, her two older brothers had made sure she stayed the bottom of the pecking order at all times. Her mother had always shrieked in horror when Kate had appeared from an afternoon playing with the boys. She would be covered in mud, her clothing all torn yet there was always a big smile on her face.  Growing up a tomboy thanks to years of fighting with her older brothers had ensured she developed a tough shell, essential for climbing the corporate ladder in later years.

Hitting the business world running after University, Kate had discovered that she needed more than just a brash attitude and the ability to throw great insults to get on in the world. She had worked her way up by quick thinking and building an armour of designer suits to keep everyone at arm’s length. But behind this tough exterior, Kate’s life didn’t extend very far beyond her work. Obviously, she had acquired the usual disparate collection of Facebook “friends” but these were mainly old workmates and people she half knew from University. Most wouldn’t recognize her on the street, far less cross the road for a chat. It didn’t matter to her, she had crawled her way to the top kicking and screaming and wasn’t about to let a little thing like friendship get in the way of her career goals.

K.O.D. was really Kate’s baby and she had poured all her love and affection into getting the business off the ground.  Opening the door of her apartment, Olly mewed a greeting and curled himself around her legs, purring contently.  She walked across to her SMEG fridge and pulled out a bottle of a good New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.  Grabbing a glass from her cupboard, she made short shrift of the cork and enjoyed the sound of the crisp, clean wine as it glugged into her glass.

Curling up on the sofa in her Juicy tracksuit she stroked a purring Olly.

“Oh puss, what a nightmare day I’ve had.  I’m wet, dirty and knackered. To cap it all I saw Dave. You remember me telling you about him?  The one that got away.  Well Ol, he’s back, looking cute as ever. I just don’t know what to do.”

She buried her face in his warm, furry tummy.  Anyone watching would have thought she was just cuddling the cat but silent tears fell from her eyes as she snuggled him.

Seeing Dave had left her so confused and she really wanted to avoid talking about that in the hotel bar. If they guessed at a connection, her staff would all want to grill her about him, the man who knew ‘Ice Maiden’ Kate before she was so frosty.

A career girl through and through, the brush with Dave all those years ago had left her only interested in one thing, work.  Falling in love with a man, well that was a weakness and Kate didn’t admit to weakness.  As far as she could see it only got in the way of her true goal – to own her own successful company – and she was well on her way to that.

Only sometimes, when sat in the lounge of a friend’s house as toddlers ran round their legs and their husband made the coffee, did she find herself wondering what it would be like to be involved in a more personal kind of partnership.

Walking into her bedroom, Kate pulled a dusty box from the top of the wardrobe.  Opening it she looked down at the piles of curling photographs.  Rifling in the bottom there was a faux leather photo album.  Sitting on the bed she began flicking through the photos, taken from her university days.

Staring out from one page was a photo of her and Dave, in full rock climbing gear, on top of some mountain or other.  Kate had first met him on a trip to the Peak District and they’d bonded over crampons and Kendal Mint cake.  Something seemed to click between the two of them and it quickly became coffees and lunch every day at Uni.  She had a boyfriend, but quickly realised her feelings for Dave were different.

Leafing through the pages there was another memorable photo – her perched on the end of Dave’s hospital bed. They’d taken off climbing for a day for a break from the last minute exam cramming. Bravado and his Ford Escort had taken them to Wild Cat Crags in the Peak District where even hardened climbers had second thoughts about some of its heights.

Dave had saved her life, she’d lost her footing and found herself hanging 100ft in the air with only the rope and Dave between her and certain death.

The memory was still vivid enough to send a chill through her bones. Somehow Dave found enough inner strength to pull her back from the edge.  She’d never been so frightened in her life. It was a turning point, nearly dying sealed a determination that nothing and no one would get in her way.  Her time with the boyfriend was done, she wanted to be with Dave.

Sadly, things hadn’t turned out that way, Dave ended up in hospital after the climbing accident and by the time he came out the job he’d applied for had come through, in Washington DC working for a senator.  In a week he was gone.

Closing the album, she piled all the photos back in the box and returned it to the wardrobe.  Rubbing a tear from her eye, she turned towards the bathroom.

“Enough of this rubbish,” she said, looking down at a purring Olly, “time for a nice hot bath, a few glasses of vino and a good night sleep.  I need all the beauty sleep I can get these days!”


Candice: So, there you go, a taste of the fun that is ‘Kate vs the Dirtboffins’.

We’d love to know what you think, so to encourage you to read the rest we’ve reduced the price of our e-book to 99p

And for the first person to comment on this blog post we’ll send you a signed paper copy (worldwide postage, you will need to supply postage details).

Yes, a copy from Candice and Phil, just think in a few years it might be worth something!

So go on, buy either the  paperback  or e-book from Amazon NOW, have a read and then write us a review on Amazon.

And if you really like it tell all your friends.

Once we’ve got you hooked then ‘Kate vs the Navy’ will be out soon.  It’s got the same core team of Kate, Gareth, Tracey and Kelvin, but with thrills and spills with the team all at sea closing down a naval base.  Of course, things are not as simple as that, with Dave re-appearing Kate’s life and the Navy crew having other ideas about what the Ministry of Defence should do with them.

But hey, life would be boring for KOD if not.

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Look after your anoraks

AnorakPhil: I’ve been enjoying a bit of catch-up TV recently. I missed out on the BBC show The Detectorists when it first aired, but am nearly at the end of series 1 and looking forward to series 2.

The series revolves around Andy and Lance, two metal detector enthusiasts and their group of friends. What I like most about it is that while the main characters could easily have been figures of fun, they aren’t. In many ways the plots are conventional but built around people’s hobby rather than job. In fact, like most people, their jobs are utterly mundane and merit hardly any attention. Life is lived outside working hours.

Better still, they get to show skill and knowledge, such as Andy knowing exactly how long bones survive in the soil when explaining how a recently discovered skeleton couldn’t be Saxon.

Robert Lloyd of the Los Angeles Times summed it up when he wrote, “Like the ordinary lives it magnifies, Detectorists has the air of seeming to be small and immense at once, to be about hardly anything and almost everything. It is full of space and packed with life.”

Now, you might conclude that I like the show because I’m a bit of an anorak myself. While I have no desire to find bits of metal buried in fields, I do get why this might be interesting to do. There’s nothing wrong with it (OK, archeologists, pipe down) and I’m sure that there is a lot more skill required than waiting for your machine to go ping.

I like the idea that people who it would be easy to turn into the butt of jokes get to be the heroes. Heck, they both have attractive partners and Lance drives a TR7 so living the dream!

Bringing this back to our books, one of my character to look after is Kelvin, our man from IT. He’s a bit of a nerd as befits his role in the firm, but that doesn’t mean he is any sort of joke. Yes, there are a couple of (realistically) embarrassing moments along the way but when you read Kate vs the Navy (out soon!) you’ll find that Kelvin is a bit of a star.

Tracey might say, “Yeah. Kelvin. You know. Bad clothes. Can’t talk to girls. Always there when you need something on your computer fixed.”, but it turns out she was wrong. Very wrong.

 

 

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How general elections happen

Downing Street
The scene. Downing Street. The Prime Ministers office.

A telephone rings.

“Hello. Theresa May here.”

“Mornin’ Tezza. ”

“Errr, good morning. Sorry, who is calling?”

“It’s me Tezza. Candice. You don’t know me, but I have a bit of a proposition for you.”

“A proposition? Is it about Brexit? I’m a bit busy at the moment.

“Brexit? Naaaah. This is much more serious.”

“More serious than Brexit? Not Trump? What’s he done now?”

“Don’t be daft. It’s about a book, and that idiot probably hasn’t read any.”

“Well, I errrr.”

“Basically Tezza. I’ve got a book to sell and it would help me enormously if you could do one of those general election things.”

“Sorry. You want me to call a general election to help you sell a book?”

“That’s about the size of it. Don’t worry, there’s a bit of wedge in it for you.

“I’m sorry, I don’t see how that would help. Surely everyone will be too busy reading our election pamflets to bother with fiction?”

“I don’t think so. Besides, if we are talking about fiction and political pamflets…”

“Very funny. I still don’t see how an election helps.”

“Let’s just say that when your book came about ‘cos that muppet Gove sacked the greatest writers wot England has ever produced after an election, then the medja are much more interested in our story, especially when the alternative is some numpty in a suit banging on about policies an’ stuff.”

“Ahh. Good thinking.”

“I knew you’d see sense. Shall we say a score?”

“A score? I’m afraid young lady, and I’m assuming that despite sounding like an effeminate Danny Dyer, you are a young lady, I’d want at least a monkey.”

“Ooo you callin’ and effeminate Danny Dyer? Listen lady, you might hold your little finger up when drinking a cup of the old rosie but I know what’s what. A pony at most.”

“A pony? In cash.”

“Cash. No questions asked.”

“Oh go on then. It’s better than having to look at Corbyn every Wednesday anyway.”

“Good Gell. You know it makes sense.”

*

And that, ladies and gentlemen is why the UK is having a snap general election. It’s all part of our plans for world domination.

Please note: None of the characters in this scene are related to real people. Any resemblance is purely coincidental. I have to say that or Candice will kill me.

 

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