Chez l'abeille

Culture. Travel. Writing. My world in words and pictures


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In which I go to Crete. Part 1: Chania.

“I was quite all right on this Cretan coast” ― Nikos Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek

Along the northern coast of Crete there are three great places for a short trip; Chania (Hania), Rethymnon (Rethymno) and Heraklion (Iraklio). I last went to Crete in the late 90s, so with a few days leave on offer, I booked a flight and took off. First stop: Chania

I had arranged two nights in Chania, but with the afternoon arrival of my oh-so-early Easy Jet flight from Gatwick, most of the first day was spent in planes, trains and automobiles.

Finally opening a more up to date copy of the guide-book (much of my planning had been done using my original 1998 Rough Guide second edition), I decided that in the intervening decades, not that much had changed apart from the switch to euros. Crete is still a place steeped in its own culture and history. As I discovered, Chania has back streets a-plenty that just cry out for a wander and with the help of locals a bus trip took me out-of-town for a delicious treat.

Day 1:

Chania old town is bordered by the Venetian Harbour and the city walls, which date from the fourteenth century. After escaping from the maze of narrow streets around my hotel, a sunset walk out to the lighthouse was a welcome breath of fresh air. It was still quite early in the season but the restaurants were busy with locals, so the food was guaranteed to be good!

Cretan wine was a particularly pleasant surprise – the dry whites and floral muscat blends were a perfect match for the ultra-fresh seafood and local dishes. Sitting by the harbour front eating a simple dish of fava bean and octopus salad was the best way to end a very loooooong day!

Day 2:

Following a tip from the lovely people who ran my hotel, I was in the mood for a bit of adventure. My first stop of the day, however, was the Agora market hall. The building is organised in a cross shape with four equally sized wings and as with all markets everywhere, it’s a mix of everyday essentials and touristy nick nacks. I spent quite a while at the fish stall, mesmerised by the utter freshness of the produce but also the distinctive way that the fishmongers packaged each purchase in a cone of paper.

Market done – now it was time to find the bus and head out to the Venizelos Grave on the Akrotiri peninsular, with the promise of the best cake – EVER.

After many years of backpacking around India and South America, I have always put my faith in the people who run the buses. They generally know where you want to go/be/get off and get on from. As I discovered Crete has a slightly confusing system of stops, often with no little or no evidence that this is the place to wait! More of that later. Getting out to the graves however was relatively simple and after a short walk I found myself in a quiet garden with stunning views across the bay.

The garden surrounds the graves of Eleftherios Venizelos, seven times Prime Minister of Greece and his equally Prime Ministerial son. The trees buzzed with bees and blossom coloured the pathway with pops of pink as I wandered through to my main destination, Koukouvaya.  According to my hotel host this is THE PLACE FOR CAKE. It was just warm enough to be out on the terrace, so I sat here for a while savouring both the polenta walnut cake with ice cream and the view of Chania in the distance, until it was time to get the bus back.

Ha! Not so simple. With no sign of a bus stop in either direction I headed off down the road in the direction of Chania but after several minutes of walking and no apparent stop I began to think I would be walking all the way home! Some backtracking, general enquiries and close observation of a bunch of students eventually located the stop as a portion of unremarkable pavement just off the main roundabout. A number 11 bus soon appeared and whisked me back to the market and the now familiar streets of the old town for a late afternoon wander around the Kastelli area and into the Orthodox Cathedral of Agios Nikolaos.

 

My last night in Chania was spent at Tamam, a favourably reviewed restaurant right next door to my hotel. I have to say I was a little underwhelmed, although my left over courgette and dill fritters were easy to carry out as a snack for the next day. Time now to prepare for the bus journey to my next stop, Heraklion.

©Chez l’abeille  2017

 

 


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What a character!

“Actions, looks, words and steps form the alphabet by which you may spell character.” Johann Kasper Lavater

Much of my day job is spent tuning into young children and trying to understand their motivations and desires. Following a curious infant, hell bent on discovering where a forbidden object has gone certainly helps you see their investigative ingenuity in full force. A few weeks ago I heard a child development expert describe a typical two year old. “Their job,” she said, “is to find out how everything in the world works.”

This observation came back to me in a different guise as I listened to Natascha Biebow at a recent SCBWI masterclass on developing characters. “Observe the world around you,” she said, “and think about what motivates children to do what they are doing”. The world of children is mostly determined by what is happening to them “in the moment” and if we watch we can often find great starting points for writing a really satisfying story.

Just WHO is your character?

In any story a credible character is the most important element. They are what makes a story intriguing enough for readers to keep turning those pages. If the author knows exactly what drives their character then they are on the right track to making their story come alive. Carefully considering a character’s backstory and the world they live in really helps us understand  what they want, need, love or fear. Knowing this we can start to ask ourselves, “what if?” What if they want to make a surprise birthday cake? What if they need to make friends but don’t know how? What is it, in that moment, that makes them act in a way that is true to them?

One of the magical things about stories is that your characters can live in any world you choose. Yet this doesn’t mean that just anything can happen to them. As Natascha describes it, “we need to write from a place of knowing.” Clarity about the setting they live in will means we can avoid gaps and inconsistencies in the internal logic of the story. We can make decisions about our characters’ behaviour that our readers will believe, leaving no horrid plot gaps. Natascha shared several picture books where the internal logic is so well thought through that the reader simply does not question banana eating crocodiles or  ducks trying to make friends with all the animals in the zoo!

What’s the worst that can happen?

Once your character is thoroughly understood, the next key ingredient is their dilemma; the thing that creates a problem for them. As Mo O’Hara recently commented, “What’s the worst thing that can happen to your characters? Make it happen!”  Natascha took this one step further. Any plot problem is intrinsically linked to the characters motivation. We need to ask ourselves, is our character also going on an emotional journey to solve their problem? A character’s traits can also be used to create conflict, which in turn creates an emotional situation for them to deal with. We need to feel that at the end of any story a character has changed or grown as a result of the journey they have been on.

Masterclass March 2017

Discussing characters and what makes them tick

As part of the workshop we were asked to bring along a favourite character in a book and I had brought along an old classic, Burglar Bill. I’ve probably read this story aloud several hundred times, but as I talked through Bill’s tale of villainy and redemption it became immediately apparent that this was exactly what we had been discussing! Burglar Bill is motivated to steal things and it is this characteristic that compels him to steal a baby by accident. Bill really does go on an emotional journey, learning to be responsible and look after people rather than stealing. As a reader we do care about him and the consequences of his actions are important to us. Bingo! Bill is a character that matters to the reader and by the end of his story we are more than ready to go ahhhh! Deeply satisfying on all counts. No wonder Bill is a classic character!

When characters go wrong!

When you don’t take time to get to know your character well enough this can quickly become evident in your writing in several ways:

  • You end up telling not showing!
  • You lose your characters point of view
  • Your character doesn’t come across as authentic
  • The plot is either too much of a list of events or is not about the character’s motivational problem

I’d already been scratching around with a new idea and the time we had to discuss and apply strategies we had discussed to our own projects was very productive. I discovered that by thinking more about my main character’s motivation, I could actually chuck out huge bits of my imagined story which suddenly became totally unecessary! We were also able to get some written notes on a presubmitted story and my own feedback was a casebook study in the things that can go wrong list. No matter! After this brilliant session I am more than motivated.

©Chez l’abeille  2017


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The streets of London: Ghost Signs #3. Bermondsey and Borough

This post is a bit of a mash-up really. It combines two of my favourite things here at Chez L’abeille: walking around London and spotting ghost signs.

What, I hear you ask, actually IS a ghost sign? Well let me tell you. According to Mr Ghost Signs himself, Sam Roberts, it is a “painted sign, fading on walls.” Should you wish to read Sam’s academic research and argument for this definition look here. I’m happy to accept the word of someone who has done an immense amount of research and what’s more is very happy to walk you round and show you. I’ve followed Sam and his work on ghost signs for quite a while, more recently on twitter and through contributions to an earlier crowd sourced flickr album, where ghost sign hunters around the planet shared their passion. He also leads walks in London so a few weeks ago I signed up to follow him in real life and headed over to Bermondsey Street to meet up outside No 55.

Chadwick Road ghost signI’ve actually got a couple of ghost signs near me. The best one is the marvellous Cutts and Co. Printing Office sign on the corner of Chadwick Road, but there’s also a completely washed out expanse of white paint high up on another wall in Bellenden Road. I’d not given this one much attention but after spending a few hours walking around Borough and Bermondsey with Sam I’d learned a thing or two. This seemingly pointless expanse of whitewash has scalloped corners. This means it was once a sign! There’s nothing left but white paint so I can go no further with it but wherever you look around London those fading painted signs are lurking, sometimes where you least expect them.

It was a pretty grim day with a cold easterly wind so walking was quite a good idea and stopping for a long time was freezing which meant our small band of hunters went a quite a pace. Having spent years working in and around the Borough I thought I knew most of the signs, but it turned out there were some surprises in store. I’m not sure how I ever missed the Bermondsey Wire Works but there it was, as big as a Victorian warehouse facade!

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A brand new look…

“It is easily overlooked that what is now called vintage was once brand new.”

                                                                                 Tony Visconti
The cover of January’s “Which” magazine was asking a rather big question recently: “Which brands stand the test of time?”
I guess we only have to open the kitchen cupboards to answer this. A quick survey of my kitchen reveals Birds custard, Tabasco Sauce and Bournville cocoa powder, all longstanding familiar brands from childhood to today. However the best place for a stroll through your own sensational history is definitely the Museum of Brands.
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Museum of Brands –  Ladbroke Grove

There’s something rather fabulous about stepping back into your own past. To walk through the “Time Tunnel”, where the museum’s extensive collection is displayed, is also a walk down the collective memory lane.
My main reason for going to the museum was to see the collection of jigsaw puzzles, but in fact I was totally absorbed by the retro packaging and designs. As I moved into the sixties and onwards, sensations were continuously triggered. Memories of sweet tastes or vile ones, good times or bad; the objects created a shared cultural experience that got visitors talking and swopping personal stories. I had a hilarious shared moment with some Australian visitors over the Sixties food packets and memorabilia on display.
The museum has two main parts – the Time Tunnel which walks you through design and branding by decades, from the 1800s to the present day and an exhibition of designs which traces the evolution of very well-known packaging.

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“To ignite their interest”: 10 tips for visiting authors in the early years.

What could be better than this?

“Children must be given access to a wide range of reading materials (books, poems, and other written materials) to ignite their interest.”

The statutory framework for the early years foundation stage

Not much! For young children their interest in the world around them often starts with the books we share and read with them. To meet someone who actually writes or illustrates books can be a truly inspirational experience. However, for many adults, authors included, being asked to engage a group of three, four or five year olds for any length of time can be the most daunting experience they could think of.

Having worked with under fives for many years, as a teacher and early years consultant, I have experienced those tumbleweed moments when small children simply vote with their feet! Here then are my top tips for planning and delivering a successful author visit to any early years classroom.

Part one: Telling stories.

#1. Location, location, location. Nursery age children in particular are most comfortable in a space they are used to being in. Take them out of their familiar surroundings and other exciting new things will soon eclipse your attempts to command attention! Try to meet the children in their own classrooms to minimise other attention grabbing goings-on.

#2. Attention spans. There are many rules of thumb for determining children’s attention spans. Most typically it is the child’s age plus 1, or the child’s age x 4. Whichever way you consider it, young children do not have long attention spans so if you are reading your story to them don’t expect to be doing it for more than around 15 minutes for a nursery group or 20 minutes for a reception group. After that they will probably start to fidget.They are also remarkably capable of simply  wandering off, no matter how exciting you think you are being!

#3. Bring your character to life. Young children are immensely skilled at willingly suspending their disbelief and they love a puppet or character to engage with. Where they can be shy of unknown adults, a puppet gives them someone non-threatening to talk and listen to. Puppets can also gain their initial interest and help them understand the themes or emotions within a story. If you can illustrate, then drawing your characters will also be a great starting point. Children see being good at drawing as a highly prized skill.

#4. Keep it interactive. Songs, rhymes, chants, actions, sound effects, using other languages…all these engage young children and keep them involved in the story. There are many song tunes which children will know from an early age to which you can put your own words – try teaching new lyrics to twinkle, twinkle little star and see how easy it is!

#5. Question time! Ask any early years child a question and the responses can range from a detailed description of their new shoes to the more varied random thoughts that enter their heads; “How old are you?” and “Do you have a mum?” would be fairly standard fare. Instead, try asking them open-ended questions about their views on your characters’ behaviour or experiences. Older children may have prepared questions to ask you –  try throwing questions back to them to so it is a more interactive experience.

You’ve made it alive this far! Continue reading


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Love of the common language

It is often commented that America and Britain are two countries separated by a common language. The most recent Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) London Industry Insider event proved that we may have more in common than we think, especially when it comes to children’s publishing. The guests for the evening were Clelia Gore, Head of Children’s and Young Adult books with Martin Literary Management, based in Seattle and Amber Caravéo from Skylark Literary. Clelia was in town for a visit and had very generously enquired if there was any SCBWI activity she could join in with. Her proactive engagement with SCBWI was a recurring theme in the discussions – more of that later!

Having settled down with a very welcome post-work aperitif, I was treated to an in-depth Q and A session. We began with an overview of what Clelia and Amber would be looking for. This is always good to know and both had very specific likes and dislikes. Amber is definitely “looking for the gem” in Children’s or YA to add to the phenomenal talent on her current list, but, she added “if it was an amazing picture book I wouldn’t rule it out.” Clelia helpfully includes a list of all the things she wants on her website. Thus began the tale of the kraken. Having tweeted her desire for a kraken story, an editor tweeted their agreement. Clelia then approached the SCBWI group in Washington to see if anyone had one, resulting in a successful submission! So listen up picture book writers; Clelia says, “Okapis are my favourite animal. I’d love to do a quirky, funny book about an okapi!”

When asked about how an author should submit if they write for a wide range of ages both agents were in complete agreement; always submit your very best work. As Amber commented, if she connects with one piece it’s odds on that she will like your other work too. Equally she talked about a submission where the story didn’t hook her, but the quality of the author’s voice shone through. This resulted in a request for any other work and a second manuscript became the published book. Voice and writing talent will show but plot can always be worked on.

Read the submissions guidelines was the evergreen guidance but both Amber and Clelia work hard to ensure successful submissions are responded to in a timely way – something I’d appreciate as I wait for a response to several submissions going back a few months now. What was surprising was the lead in time in America, where books which will hit the shelves in 2019 and even 2020 are being sold to publishers! Typically in the UK publication can be around a year, but wherever you publish, I’ll assume it’s going to be a slow process.

The difference between American and UK Young Adult writing was another fascinating question. It was felt that current innovation in YA literature is coming from America and maybe UK YA writers are not quite capturing the zeitgeist. however there was complete agreement that there should be, “No more dead or alcoholic parents!” There was also some variation in the age ranges and word counts that might be expected. I was very excited to hear both Amber and Clelia suggest 1000 words for a picture book, being a champion for the longer story but in my later discussions with Clelia, she felt that most books would be much lower than that. Back to the editing for me.

The audience also wondered why a British writer might want an American agent. Clelia felt that for YA, Middle Grade and Picture Book writers (yay!) the market is very strong. She has clients across the globe but even in America much of the work is done remotely anyway. Transatlantic promotion might be a bit tricky, unless you or your publisher can afford long road trips so being a social media savant would be very handy.

The evening ended with mingling and meeting new and known SCBWI members and for some members a little light pitching. Now I hate pitching, so for anyone who shares that feeling, here’s a great piece of advice from Amber. “In the end they want to see the writing. Nothing in your pitch will change the impact of your actual submission. Nothing you say will spoil your chances.”I am going to keep that as my preparing to pitch mantra.

So there we have it – maybe we are separated by our common language, but in the world of writers maybe we are also joined by our common love of language.


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The Balkan Trilogy Part 3: Macedonia

As I navigated Macedonia Square in the Macedonian capital, I couldn’t help but be reminded of old hollywood movies – you know, the ones where someone wanders around a back lot amongst the left over scenery from Ben Hur or Cleopatra. As a result of “Skopje 2014”, a project implemented by the Government, Skopje’s main square and surrounding area is crammed with warriors and marble clad museums. As day fell to night, the main pedestrian zone became a fabulous wonderland of faux history. I loved it!

In the preceding weeks to my visit there had been demonstrations and protests, so many of the main buildings had been paint bombed. Somehow this added to the carnival feel of this rather surreal city.

Outside of Skopje, the other main Macedonian attraction is Lake Orhid, one of Europe’s deepest and oldest lakes. Depending on who you talk to, it is alternately a Macedonian lake with a bit taken away by Alabania or an Albanian Lake which Macedonia has usurped. Either way it is a vast fresh-water ecosystem, littered with monasteries and reed beds.

Heading into the countryside around the lake, something rather eerie lurked in the kitchen gardens and small holdings. Like many cultures the evil eye is feared here and the use of an effigy protects both home and family. These two were the best I saw!

There is so much more to this ancient country than oversized statutes and lakeside tourist attractions but for the casual tourist it felt hard to scratch the surface. The Macedonian leg of the trip was also short and sweet – time was speeding up in the way it does when a holiday is nearly over. Too soon, Tirana was calling. With a last, lingering look across the lake, we crossed the border and said goodbye to this fascinating country.