Panning for Gold: 2013 365 Challenge #112

Panning for Gold in New Zealand

Panning for Gold in New Zealand

We’ve had a great family Sunday today, taking the kids for a proper pub meal out in the sunshine before going to buy play sand at a DIY store. That’s what Sunday’s are all about.

I also spent a chunk of time in bed reading The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett because I’m still wiped. When I wasn’t reading I was sifting through my brain to locate ideas for my new novel.

I tried to explain the process to my husband and I decided it’s a bit like panning for gold. I throw a load of ideas, some mine, some influenced by books I’ve read or movies I’ve seen, into a big pan in my mind. Then I sift and sift until something sparkles. I know it’s a nugget because my heart starts to beat a bit quicker and I feel super awake, no matter how tired I am.

The thing I find hardest, however, is sifting out the real gold from the stuff that has been planted there. When we did Gold Panning in New Zealand on our honeymoon there was a vague chance of real gold, but the tour guides also put a tiny nugget in for us to find too. When I’m tilting and tipping for ideas sometimes the nuggets I find have come from another author.

There's gold in them there hills

There’s gold in them there hills

I never plagiarise deliberately, but I read a lot and I read within the genres I like to write. So ideas come that I think are mine, and as I look at them from all sides I realise they seem familiar. My question then is always, how much can you borrow before it becomes plagiarism? There are no new ideas in writing: there’s only so much you can do with 26 letters after all.

Today’s nugget involved my protagonist using books written by his father to investigate a strange place (I don’t want to give too much away as I haven’t actually written anything down yet!). Seemed like a new idea until I remembered Shadow Forest, where the children use a book to negotiate the monsters hidden in the forest. Now, is that close enough that I’ve stolen the idea from Matt Haig? Or is it far enough away that I can use it in my story?

When I wrote academic papers during my degrees I would cite references for everything because I was terrified of plagiarism. If only you could do that for novels: I didn’t mean to steal this idea but it was just SO good it sunk into my subconscious and came out as I wrote. Worst still is what happened to me in my dissertation: you write the whole thing and then you read a paper that has all the same arguments. I read a novel after writing Baby Blues & Wedding Shoes that had a very similar beginning. It looks like I’ve stolen my entire first chapter, even though I wrote mine first.

Does anyone else ever worry about inadvertently stealing stuff from other authors? How do you tackle it?


Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog:


“Hey Claire, how’s tricks?”

“Kim! You read my mind. I’ve been meaning to call.” Claire tucked her feet under the duvet and curled up round the phone, prepared to enjoy a good gossip with her best friend.

“I should think so, you old trout. I haven’t heard from you in a month. I have to read your blog to find out more about your Aussie fella and getting mugged. What happened to ringing your mate?”

Claire flushed hot and glanced down to where Sky lay sleeping next to her on the bed, glad her niece couldn’t witness her embarrassment. “I’m so sorry. I feel like I’m living in a bubble. It’s easy to forget there’s a real world going on away from these infernal hostels.”

“So, you’re not really enjoying your challenge? The blog’s great. I’d love to meet your Aussie friend. He sounds yummy.”

“You’d have to go a long way to do that. He’s flying home with his wife and kids any day now.” Claire swallowed hard and hoped Kim wouldn’t detect the wobble in her voice.

“Oh dear. You fell for a married man, didn’t you?” Kim’s voice was a perfect blend of sympathy and censure.

“I didn’t know he was married when I met him.” Claire spoke without thinking, before realising her hot words amounted to an admission of guilt. Not wanting to analyse the emotions pumping through her chest, Claire sought to change the subject.

“I’ve got my niece with me at the minute.” Sky stirred beneath the covers and Claire lowered her voice, not wanting to wake her. “I’m looking after her for the Easter holidays.”

“Oh.” There was silence.

“What is it Kim?” Silence was not a normal state of affairs when Kim was on the phone. Normally the challenge was squeezing a word in sideways.

“Jeff and I were thinking of coming to see you, that’s all. From the blog we gather you’re in East Anglia still. Be nice to have a day or two away. The rehearsals are fun, but a girl can only be Puck for so long.”

Her voice was light, but Claire could tell her friend was unhappy. “When’s opening night? I hope I’ll be able to come and see you perform.”

“Oh, not for a few weeks. Yes, do come.” There was still a chill. Part of Claire felt irritated. It’s not like Kim and I are the kind of friends who call every week. She wondered if there was another reason for her friend’s call, but a day spent with Sky had left her drained of all energy and emotion and she didn’t have the strength to delve behind Kim’s words.

“So, when are you and Jeff thinking of coming? We’re in Wells at the moment but we’ll be in Hunstanton for the weekend.”

“Sunny Hunny. Lovely. Why don’t we come and stay there? If we can’t get into the hostel we’ll book a B&B.”

“Are you sure you and Jeff are up to socialising with a six-year-old?” Claire realised how ungrateful that sounded. “Not that I won’t be delighted to see you both. It’s just she’s, well, quite full on.”

Another silence drenched the line. Claire’s tired brain tried to pick through the possibilities; for once her radar concerning her friend felt way off beam.

“That’s fine. Jeff likes kids.” Kim’s voice sounded strained. Claire wondered if her friend had guessed the cause of her own break up with Michael. That must be it. She doesn’t want to talk about kids and relationships because she knows it broke mine.

“Okay then, hun. Send me an email or text once you know what your plans are. If Jeff loves kids he can entertain Sky while we have a proper natter.”

“Thanks. I’d like that.”

As she hung up the phone Claire couldn’t shake the feeling that Kim was holding back. I’m probably imagining it. I’m so tired nothing makes sense anymore and I’m jumping at shadows. Nothing bothers Kim; she’s indestructible. She tried to think it through but her eyes refused to stay open. Even though the iPad cheerfully informed her it was only 9pm she ignored it, glad none of her erstwhile colleagues could see her hitting the sack when they were probably only just leaving the office and heading for the bar.

I’d take twelve hours of Boardroom bullying and office shenanigans over keeping up with a six-year-old any day.


Introducing George: 2013 365 Challenge #111

Planting Sunflower Seeds at Sacrewell Farm

Planting Sunflower Seeds at Sacrewell Farm

While lying in bed cursing the sore throat and stiff neck that have besieged me this afternoon, a germ of an idea planted in my mind and squirmed into the soil, like the sunflower seeds my kids planted at the Farm today.

I recently finished another great kid’s book and saw that, as with many of my other new finds, it was published by Chicken House. The name rang a bell and I realised it was the name of the publishers that were part of the competition I didn’t enter with Dragon Wraiths because the manuscript was too long.

I visited their website to see if they accept submissions and they’ve just launched the competition again, with a deadline of 1st November.

Ooh went my brain. It’s a long time to 1st November. There’s time to write something new. After all, I started Dragon Wraiths this time last year and had that finished by last November. And that was over 100k words. The maximum for The Chicken House / Times competition is 80k words. If I plan it out this time (at least a bit, I am a pantser after all) I could stay within word count.

On the Tractor Ride

On the Tractor Ride

Now of course this breaks all the rules of being a writer. You’re not meant to write for gain or fame but only for the love of writing. Thing is, I love writing but I need a goal and a deadline, at least to get me going. I’m proud of Dragon Wraiths and that was written for a competition (and ultimately prize money).

But I didn’t get up every nursery day and write 5,000 words just for profit (which would be a foolish aim anyway: everyone knows writers don’t make money). I wrote it to find out what happened to Leah, to find out how the story ended. But on dark days the thought of maybe winning £5000 did help keep me motivated.

So I lay in bed earlier this evening, feeling foggy and sore, and searched through my mind for a new idea. It felt a bit wrong, looking for an idea rather than waiting for one to arrive. But people who write hundreds of books must have to do that. I knew what genre at least: I’ve been aching to try my hand at a fantasy middle grade fiction since enjoying The Divide, The Extincts, Stone Heart, Shadow Forest, The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents, and now Ravenwood. And, after some throwing around of ideas, I tapped out the opening scene to a new novel. One I hope might generate characters that will survive to a sequel, since my favourite books are the ones with lots of volumes around the same central characters. I like characters to become my friends. My only dilemma right now is it might involve Time Travel. Again. According to some agents I follow on Twitter, Time Travel has been done to death already. Oh dear.

Penny the Chicken eating Lunch

Penny the Chicken eating Lunch

Is it bad, that I’m motivated by entering a competition? I hope not. I read Sally Jenkins lovely collection of short stories, One Day For Me, this morning because I couldn’t get the sequel to Ravenwood as an ebook. All of Sally’s stories were written for competitions. They’re still great. It’s accepted practice for short story writers to write for specific markets and hopefully financial gain. Why not novels? If it’s rubbish it won’t win so no one’s hurt.

Matt Haig, author of Shadow Forest, says otherwise and I respect his opinion but I hope there are grades of love versus money. Writing for love is a given or I wouldn’t have survived to episode #111 of Claire, through insomnia and flu and dearth of ideas. But bills need to be paid and everyone wants to think their novels might be read one day. Therefore, alongside trying to find new adventures for Claire, I’ll be creating George and his new world. Hopefully Claire won’t suffer (I’m actually hoping a new project will kickstart my imagination as I’ve been really struggling with Claire recently).


Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog:


“Auntie Claire, I don’t feel very well.”

Claire looked down at her niece and recoiled slightly at the green tinge of her skin.

“Are you going to be sick? Lean over the side for heaven’s sake. But not too close! I don’t want you falling in.” She looked around at the other passengers and prayed Sky didn’t vomit on any of them. Something of her reaction must have come through her voice, because a clammy little hand sought out hers. “Sorry, Claire. I don’t mean to feel poorly. I’ve never been on the sea before.”

Patting the frozen hand, Claire tried to remain calm. The white tips of the choppy waves weren’t helping. It hadn’t seemed that windy on the shore, but here in the harbour the small craft was rocked by gusting blasts that whipped the waves to froth. Perhaps this wasn’t such a good idea. I might have known Sky would get sea sick, especially as she’s still recovering from her fever. When she remembered Sky’s amazement as they first arrived at the coast, Claire couldn’t feel it was a bad move. Her mouth had dropped into a perfect ‘o’ of wonder at the grey sea spreading out before them to the horizon.

“It’s so big,” she had said quietly, her eyes wide and staring.

The tour guide called out, interrupting Claire’s thoughts. “You can see grey seals now, if you look towards the shore. There are still some youngsters playing if you look closely. We’ll get in as near as we can.”

“Look, Sky,” Claire said brightly, “baby seals.” Sea spray soaked her skin and she knew it was frizzing her hair to an impossible mess. Snuggling deeper into her jacket, she felt Sky’s hands and face to ensure she wasn’t getting too cold.

Sky raised her head to look at the slick grey animals frolicking in the sea near the boat. Her complexion was still green and Claire hoped the distraction would help her keep breakfast on the inside. I wonder if I dare get out my phone and take some pictures for the blog. If Sky is going to throw up I might not get another opportunity. The boat pitched suddenly and she felt her own stomach lurch. I might even be joining her.

“If you look closely you can see common seals as well as grey seals. The common seals are actually rarer than the grey seals so we’re fortunate to see both today.”

The Guide’s words rolled over Claire like the sea as she focussed on getting a few snaps before another gust of wind sent her or her phone overboard. Feeling a tug at her sleeve, Claire could sense Sky trembling beside her. Tucking the phone back in the safety of a pocket, she pulled her niece onto her lap and hugged her close.

“Alright, sweetie. Just keep breathing through your nose and concentrate on the seals.”

“Here, love, give her one of these.”

Claire looked up to see a kindly face peering out through a fur-lined hood. Glancing down, she saw a pack of polo mints nestled in the woollen glove reaching out towards her.

“Thank you,” she said with real gratitude. Pulling off her gloves, she retrieved a mint and handed it to Sky. She was rewarded by seeing the distress on Sky’s face ebb slightly, like the outgoing tide.

Flashing a smile at the stranger, Claire hugged Sky close again. “That’s it, poppet. You’re being very brave. Well done.”

After a few more days with me, the poor girl isn’t going to want to see her Auntie Claire again. Somehow the thought made her sad.


Sleepy day and Stone Heart: 2013 365 Challenge #95

A gripping tale after a slow start

A gripping tale after a slow start

I spent today – my first day without the kids in a week – stuck in bed with a poorly tummy. I think it was caused by dehydration from the wind and lack of water during my day out with the kids yesterday. I can be prone to dehydration, especially when I’m writing – forgetting to eat and drink because I’m so engrossed – and I end up with a twisted gut and a sore head. Or I might just have girl flu.

Whatever it was, it floored me. I slept until 2pm, after cobbling together yesterday’s rather rubbish Claire installment, then spent the afternoon engrossed in Stone Heart by Charlie Fletcher.

I initially stopped reading the book after the first couple of chapters, as I found the writing style opaque and overly-cryptic and the main protagonist unlikeable. But when I finished Shadow Forest I ran out of things to read and picked it up again. I’m glad I persisted. It is hard to read – especially for a children’s book – but the characters are endearing and develop beautifully. It’s always a challenge when a character starts out annoying and then grows throughout the book. They have to be annoying in order to have room to grow, but it’s hard to read through the early part when you just want to give them a slap.

It turns out there’s a sequel so I shall be looking for that next time I go to the library. So far it’s two out of two for my random charity shop purchases. Just the Wendy Holden to go.

I’m still feeling ropy so my Claire installment today is likely to be a bit shaky. I’m taking her to Hamerton Zoo – it’s near where she and Sky stayed last night and I should be able to write it without any research. Hopefully normal service will resume tomorrow, although I have an obscenely early kids party so will have to get the post written before bedtime!


Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog:


Claire stared at the tiger. The massive white head faced away from her, as if ignoring her scrutiny. Then it swung round and seemed to acknowledge her gaze, before its flat eyes slid away and his attention moved on to the other side of the enclosure.

You poor old brute. What a life, sitting on a platform being watched by things you’d rather eat. Like sitting in a cake shop while the Belgium Buns take photographs. She shivered as the timeless eyes swung round to face her again. The tiger looked down his proud nose at Claire and stood, stretching like a domestic cat, before jumping silently off the platform to walk outside. On the far side of the enclosure Claire could see the orange tiger dozing in the sun. Between them was a giant red football. The sign said they spent hours knocking the ball to each other, but clearly not today. I’d give something to see that. I bet you do it when the zoo is closed right? Why perform for these strangers? You’d like us all to sod off, I bet.

“Auntie Claire?” A hand tugged at her jacket, reminding Claire she wasn’t at the zoo alone. Bugger. That’s going to take some getting used to. What if she’d wandered off, or been snatched, while I was communing with tigers? She turned and squatted down so her face was nearer Sky’s. “Yes poppet?”

“Can we go through the Tiger Tunnel? Can we, please?” She pointed through some pampas grass to a man-made tunnel that looked like it had been constructed from shipping containers.

“Sure, sweetheart. Although the tigers are here, darling.” She gestured to the specks of white and orange; all that could be seen of Blizzard and Lady-Belle.

“The map says there are sheep and goats through there though. And camels.”

Sheep and goats? We could have gone to a farm to see them, instead of this wind-swept, freezing zoo. Not camels, though, don’t remember seeing camels at any farm nearby. Claire stood up, ignoring the protesting creak in her knees and back. The hotel bed had done enough damage; she didn’t want to think about it anymore. Bad enough waking in a different bed to the one she’d gone to sleep in. As far as she could work out, Sky must have crawled in with her in the night and she’d crawled out the other side to sleep in the child’s bed.

I hope Musical Beds isn’t going to be a nightly occurrence. It’s hard enough dealing with all that chatter, without a head full of cotton wool and a broken and bruised body.

Claire let the girl drag her into the tunnel, which had been painted a vile sort of green with pictures to alleviate the metal expanse. They stopped at glass windows to search for Maned Wolves and more tigers but saw only scrubby grass and grey skies.

At the end of the tunnel, wooden gates opened into a small grassed area surrounded by animal enclosures: from reindeer on their right, past rheas, alpacas, sheep and goats, to camels far away to their left. They stood for a moment to get their bearings, when a flash of white and a bleating noise announced the arrival of a mob of miniature sheep, which flocked around their feet.

“Look, Claire, we can feed them. Can we, please?” Sky turned her sweetest smile on Claire and she nodded, pushing through the sheep to reach the food dispenser. As she inserted a twenty-pence piece and turned the dial, another flash of colour alerted her to new arrivals. Four short, fat, black goats came leaping across the grass and, before the food was even cupped in her hand, started jumping and head-butting her legs.

Sky shrieked, as the goats shoved her so hard she fell backwards into a muddy puddle. Oh great, Claire groaned. I hope there is somewhere here we can change. Though I don’t know what I’m going to change her into. What was Mum thinking, packing dresses and tights? Did she think we were only going to do little girl things, or did she hope rich Claire would take poor little Sky shopping? Claire swallowed the bitter taste in her mouth before reaching over to scoop her niece out of the gloop and onto a bench. She worried that Sky would shirk from the boisterous goats butting at her hands, demanding food. Instead the girl giggled with glee, seized the tiny horns and pushed the heads away.

Standing there, mud dripping from her pink dress and leggings, with her once-pink coat flapping in the arctic wind and her hair flying behind her in a stream of gold, she looked like a superhero, saving the world from vicious horned beasties. Claire felt a strange sensation in the pit of her tummy as she stood watching her niece. Something warm and almost maternal; something she didn’t remember feeling for another human being before. It felt like pride.