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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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That’s not a printing error, it’s a plot twist

Phil: Time for me to read a bit of unashamed chick-lit. If you are heading for a sun lounger, the sort of book to pack with the suncream.

The One we fell in Love with centres on Phoebe, Eliza and Rose, identical triplets and the man at least two of them fell in love with – Angus, the hunky next door neighbour.

It’s difficult to tell you much about this book without giving away spoilers. Suffice to say that everyone gets paired up as you would hope.

So far, so normal for the genre. Yes, there is a bit of “will they won’t they” and some angst, but by halfway through the book, you know how everything will turn out.

It’s the middle of the book that threw me. All the chapters end and then on the next page, the next one begins.

Except that at the end of chapter 24, the words stop halfway down the page as normal. You turn over and they carry on again for half a page before chapter 25 starts. Someone has dropped the big twist in and fiddled with the layout to make it more of a shock. I actually thought the printing was duff at first until I read it properly.

This annoyed me a bit.

The preceding chapters hadn’t hinted at a twist and yet I felt they could have done it easily enough. As it is, this seems like a bit of a gimmick. Shame really, as there was no need, the story doesn’t need tricks.

Another issue is that there are an awful lot of diaries being read. Is this a girl thing I’m not really aware off to deposit your innermost thoughts and feelings to the page? Thinking back, Candice did mention hers some time ago

Anyway, a pleasant read. Marrion Keyes was uplifted, but I wasn’t. I was entertained though and there’s nothing wrong with that.

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Blood on the Shrine

Phil: With Candice on holiday, I get to do a book review with a steam engine on the cover and not suffer “the look” that says, “What are you doing Parker? I told you, NO TRAINS.”

To be fair, the book isn’t about trains, but the author, Chris O’Donoghue is a railway modeller among his other skills (also award-winning garden designer) and I met him at a model railway show.

Blood on the Shrine is the second Inspector Sonny Russell mystery. Set in the 1950s, the only connection with railways is that the Inspector lives in a converted railway carriage. This wasn’t so common years ago – you could buy a coach for a fiver and have it delivered to your plot of land. Many were then added to to make domestic dwellings and some still exist to this day.

Justifying the cover photo, the story involves a robbery from a train, but that’s incidental. Back then, trains were far more central to life than they are today, it could just as easily have been a van. We have the police charging around in cars, so nothing will be too unfamiliar to a modern audience but the world is very much just post-war and the atmosphere and detail works well.  There’s been a lot of research carried out before any writing started. Chris isn’t old enough to have known the world except as a small child so he’s not just working from memory.

If you’d like to see some of the reasearch – check out Chris’s Blog.

Not so much a whodunnit, more a will they get killed/captured. The book opens with a death, but oddly, not the most important one.  There’s a secondary storyline which follows the first book in the series, Blood on the Tide, and makes me want to read that one too.

I managed to read most of the story on a return trip to London with a couple of hours to finish the last few chapters. I was engrossed enough not to stare out of the window on the journey, something unusual for me. That’s quite a recommendation!

Blood on the Shrine at Amazon

 

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If you want to write, never mind a laptop, get an iPod…

Phil: As Candice mentioned last week, we have made good progress on Book 3.

Working in the library inspired us to crack on and get some words down. Sadly, as libraries are also popular with students, table space is at a premium. We ended up on a balcony – good view, but the stools weren’t comfortable for shorter people like my freind. Her feet didn’t touch the bar, whereas I fitted perfectly.

Anyway, after a delicious tapas lunch, we went our seperate ways. Arriving at the station, I spotted the next train was to Dorridge, one of our regular haunts. With inspiration still upon me, I decided another half hour or so in Costa would be good and headed that way.

Arghhh!

School holidays mean that the coffee shop, popular with the “yummy mummy” crowd, had turned into a crèche. OK, there were only 3 or 4 children in there, but they ran around unconstrained by their parents.

Luckily, I can’t work in silence. Years of sitting in noisy offices mean I can “tune out” noise and if I’m honest, I prefer it this way. Ignoring the spawns of satan though was harder, my iPod did the job though. The best efforts of Arabella and Constance were blocked out and another 1000 words appeared on the screen. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without music, that’s all.

 

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20,000 words

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Candice: So there is often a conversation when we get just past this point in book writing where Phil and I will go “How are we ever going to get to 80,000 words?”

This time around we are motoring along, with over 20,000 words in the bag and, with an overnight in a hotel for me this week and a long flight for Phil coming up, we will easily get to 30,000.

I’ve been busy putting together the random collection of ideas we have already written into one document so we can see how the flow is working and what gaps we can spot.  Though we have already had a few plotting sessions often, even with something written down, we can go off piste as an idea takes us, and then you have to work out if it will fit with everything else. A perfect example is a forgotten chapter, written months ago, that references a character than Phil has brought back, but with them having a different name and the chapter having an end that doesn’t fit with our timeline.

After an hour over tea in Solihull Library the other day we’d pinned down a few more things in my spreadsheet, both plot lines and dates and then spent a pleasant hour and a half drafting up 1500 words each, before the high stools that we had to sit on gave me so much back pain a lunch break had to be called.

At the moment I can see us creeping towards that magic number easily, we’ve two chunky plot threads that need to be fleshed out and then a big finale which always takes at least a third of the book.

So don’t knock the spreadsheet.  Though I have to say I think we’ve hit that point much earlier this book, it just shows how you fine tune your art every time you do a new one.  We’ll have this book out by Christmas…

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I’m looking up bad words in the library

Phil: Progress on our next book hasn’t been rapid recently. Both Candice and I are living very busy lives at the moment and things are getting in the way of writing. We’ve bashed some idea around via e-mail, but it’s not the same as meeting up in person, and it certainly doesn’t get the word count up.

Easter meant that the people in my office were away, leaving me in peace to catch up on some work, and with a day off that I decided would be given over to novel-writing.

Since I work from home, a trip to the local library would be a good break too. iPod on, laptop out, words written.

It’s odd working in the library. I keep looking around and remembering it’s where I learnt to swim.

You see, Leamington Spa is over-supplied with rather useless old buildings that eat council tax but can’t actually be used for anything of benefit. Worse, if you try to do anything with them, you face the wrath of those desperate to pickle the town in aspic in an imaginery verison of 1910.

Still, the conversion of swimming pool to library has worked well. Centrally located, it has enough space for books and a gallery full of reference works and tables for students or itnierant writers. These are popular. So popular that people go out to lunch or shopping leaving all their worldly goods in their space so no-one else grabs the seat. If you want a free laptop, just hang around until one of the students has wandered off…

Anyway, it worked. Almost 5000 words down. A great new plot strand developed and a few changes to our plans made once the characters started to do their thing on the page.

Thanks to the free WiFi, I was able to work out what the sound of someone being sick looks like in letters. I also checked out the plots of several plays that form part of our plot. OK, I did slope off for lunch (taking my stuff with me) and a refreshing half of rhubarb cider to lubricate the creative juices, but then it’s my day off…

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Death of a Bore

Phil: My pile of books to read has been going down and I found myself recently with a selection that while appealing, didn’t grab me. I felt the need for a proper novel with a story that I could fall into.

Dropping into my local library, I spotted Death of a Bore by M.C.Beaton on the shelves. As one of the dullest people you could wish to meet, I wondered if she was writing about me, and there is a picture of a steam train on the cover. Perfect. Out came the library card and the book came home with me.

First up, under the author’s name is “Author of the bestselling Agatha Raisin series”. I’ve heard of these but this book is from the Hamish Macbeth series of mysteries. I remember those, televised by the BBC back in the mid-1990s with Robert Carlyle in the lead role. It seems that this is so long ago, the more recent Raisin series, also televised a couple of years ago (but only on Sky so I haven’t seen it) is considered more of a selling point by the publisher.

Anyway, thanks to snow cancelling an event I was supposed to devote a weekend to, I decided to read the book in a day. The chance to do this rarely occurs but it’s lovely when you can devote the time to it. Proper relaxation.

Is the book any good?

Let me start by saying that Marion Chesney (M.C. Beaton) is a breathtakingly prolific author. There are 33 Macbeth books, 28 Raisin ones and 76 others according to Wikipedia. She is a writing machine!

So it’s no surprise that this isn’t the greatest work of fiction ever. I’ve read books with more depth, less clunky narrative and more polish. Characters are paper-thin much of the time and I didn’t really warm to Hamish much.

Did I enjoy it? Yes, I did. That Hamish on the page bears no resemblance to Robert Carlye is a bit odd, but then Morse on the page isn’t much like John Thaw and people deal with it.

The style really reminds me of Agatha Christie. It’s a bit of a pot-boiler but who cares? I’ve tried to read books that were allegedly much “better” and gave up on them. This rattles along nicely and entertained me for a few hours. If you have a sunbed to lie on or just want to read for pleasure, its all good stuff.

Since the plot revolves around an authors murder and one of the things he does is inspire the local villagers to write, it’s odd that this has done the same for me. I think our books are every bit as well-written as Death of a Bore so there’s no reason that people shouldn’t enjoy them every bit as much as they obviously enjoy these.

Entertainment and inspiration. Not bad for a snowy Saturday afternoon.

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