Saturday, May 30, 2015

While the cat's away, the mice will play

It's been a crazy, busy, fun week. I'm a member of the Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators and the Gold Coast rep of the Queensland team. Last Sunday, with our Assistant Regional Advisor, Sheryl Gwyther, burrowed away within the leafy Adelaide suburb of Norwood for four weeks during her May Gibbs Children's Literature Trust CTR Fellowship, twenty-five SCBWI members gathered in the lush Gold Coast hinterland (my place) for an afternoon of sweet tea, home-made cakes, and enthusiastic conversation.

Our special guest and SCBWI Regional Advisor, Susanne Gervay AM, regaled us with her up-to-the-minute industry news and insider tips – priceless!

SCBWI members' books
Susanne was in Gold Coast city for the children's theatre show, I Am Jack – based on her book of the same name – at the Arts Centre Gold Coast.

Following sold-out shows all week, a devoted number of SCBWI members and teacher-librarians attended Susanne's inspiring pre-show talk on Thursday evening.

Families fill the theatre

Whoops, illustrator Lucia Masciullo and I are caught in the act of munching on popcorn during the I Am Jack theatre show.
photo: Dimity Powell

The set

Susanne Gervay is swarmed by mini fans after the show.

And now Lucia and I think we can fly...

Photo: Susanne Gervay

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Choosing Character Names

Are you having trouble naming your characters?

At the moment I'm in the process of changing the names of the main characters in my work in progress. What started out as a sequel to my first two novels, has evolved into a time-slip adventure mystery of epic proportions. And while my earlier novels were comedies, this one is filled with danger and drama.

But where do you look for character names? How do you find a name which speaks to you – a name which brings your character to life?

photo: Jeff Licence

I had a lot of fun with the name of the main character in my first novel, Pond Magic. Lily Padd was the obvious choice for a girl who was turning into a frog; it opened up opportunities for humorous gags and a solid reasoning behind the teasing she received from the story's villain, bad boy Rick Bastek.

But Rick's name was more difficult. He needed a surname with harsh edges and a mean sound. In the end, the telephone directory helped me find the perfect fit. Meanwhile, the story's French exchange student asked for a touch of royalty, and while Monaco is not a part of France, Rainier le Dauphin was hatched as a name that sounded noble enough to be authentic. And I liked the play on the meaning of le Dauphin.

In my novel, Snap Magic, two new characters were introduced: the mean girl, Ellen Middleton; and Lily's love interest, Storm Chaseur. Ellen was based on a covert bully I went to school with, whose name was not Ellen, but my old school friends guessed it was her all the same. It felt good when the character Ellen received her comeuppance at the end of the story. (Don't mess with a writer.)

Storm's name came from a real person, a friend's adult son. And I was thrilled when he came along to the book launch of Snap Magic and I signed his book for him. Was he a storm chaser? No, but hey!

Names, like stories, can pop up anywhere. The newspaper is a terrific resource and I recently found a wonderful name generator that gives you similar-sounding names to one you may like but are unsure of. It's called Name Hunter on the baby name site Name Berry. Behind the Name is also a fun site, while some of the super villain names generated on Fantasy Name Generator would be ideal for a grunge band – Necrotic Ninja was my favourite. The Fantasy Name Generator site is worth checking out fully however, as it also includes 'real' names with surnames in a multitude of languages. That's gold!

While you're having fun generating names, pop the possible contenders into a notebook or note page on your phone. When I find a particularly funny name I then do a search on Facebook to see if there are any actual people out there with that name. Yes, I found a Lily Padd – in fact more than one.

Now I'll leave you with this cute video, which is actually an advert for a New Zealand hardware store. See if you can make out the names of each kid in the class. Their parents obviously do too much DIY.

How do you choose your characters' names?

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Standing Up to Write

When I visited the house of German writer and artist, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (the oft-called 'last universal genius') in Weimar many years ago, I was taken by his original writing desk. To stand before the great writer's creative space thrilled me. I was quite literally standing in the spot he wrote his great works; you see, he wrote while standing up. His desk was tall, five feet high and on a slant like a podium.

Goethe's writing desk in his garden house

Since then I've discovered other genii who also wrote whilst on their feet. Sir Isaac Newton wrote his entire 'Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy' standing up. Ernest Hemingway also wrote standing at a chest height desk on which he'd placed his typewriter. He once said, 

"Writing and travel broaden your ass, if not your mind,
 and I like to write standing up."

German philospher Friedrich Nietsche, and American electrochemical engineer Libb Thims also wrote standing up.

Even Aristotle is credited with walking about while talking and thinking.

So, with so many great thinkers to vouch for the benefits of standing up to write, a while ago I purchased a standing desk for myself. (You can see in the photo I'm writing at it now.)

My standing desk
It's actually a 'bar' table that I found in an ordinary furniture shop and was designed for dining at with 'bar' stools. Luckily for me this was the trend at the time. The shop assistant couldn't fathom why I didn't want any stools as well.

I also have a wooden wedge I place at my feet and stand on to stretch my calf muscles while I work. It's on a 45 degree angle as recommended by my physiotherapist. He also recommends standing on one foot and on tip toes for short periods of time to improve balance and strength. I can do all that at my standing desk. 

A friend of mine recently bought a Varidesk which can be raised to varying standing heights and just sits atop your ordinary desk. This is a great space saver and worth checking out.

Of course, I do still write at my sit-down desk, which is a slanted art desk, and also in my favourite reading chair, mixing it up and changing rooms according to the time of day, weather and my mood.

Where's your favourite place to write?

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

On my walks around Pinerolo, Blackheath

Taking a daily walk at around lunchtime helps to clear my head, rest my eyes and refresh my creative mind. Having a completely new neighbourhood to explore while down in the Blue Mts of New South Wales, filled my walk with unexpected surprises and treasured moments. 

For example, I did not know that the State Flower of New South Wales, the Waratah, would be in full bloom at this time of year. And there it was, popping up proudly and sporadically, surprisingly bright,  red and vibrant against the muted eucalypt greens of the Australian bush. Wow, just wow!
The area around Pinerolo children's book cottage in Blackheath was breathtaking.

The road I walked along was often shaded, always lush right to the edges, and reminiscent of my childhood home in New Zealand. Emotions rose to the surface as I kept up a steady pace.

A country gate stood open, inviting. I could almost smell the tea and scones.

A single waratah fought for room within a cottage garden.

And then my heart stopped. 
I saw an orchard. An old orchard with mature apple trees that had been structurally well-shaped, but that now needed pruning and treatment for canker – a fungal disease which damages tree bark and can make the tree particularly vulnerable to insects and bacteria, and can affect the fruit. 

I could just hear my father's voice in my ear, telling me this. And strangely, I felt close to him then and missed him even more. He would've knocked on the door of that orchardist's farmhouse and spent a happy hour or so touring the farm and discussing horticultural methodology with the owner. 
It was his bliss.
As a child, no holiday would've been complete without a bit of drive-by 'orchard spying' and the obligatory visit to the tractor sales yard.

Apparently the entire area around Pinerolo was well known for its apple orchards, though most now had been turned into acreage lots and hobby farms. It reminded me so much of our old orchard farm in Oratia, New Zealand. Only the sign on the picket fence spelled out Australia.

Heady scents filled my head as I kept walking.

And came upon another gate slightly ajar, beckoning. It lead into a beautifully manicured, park-like garden. I could live here, I thought. And it snowed in winter, which was a bonus.

An Italian farmhouse looked completely at home

with the cottage gardens

and waratahs...

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Illustrator in Residence at Pinerolo

The sign beside the front door was a clue. Many magical owls would keep me company during my week's stay as Illustrator in Residence at Pinerolo.
And I would be sharing my bedroom with a bear and thousands of Australia's best picture books. How was I to sleep with so much reading to do?
In the evening I might watch some TV in the lounge, but who could concentrate when the walls were hung with original artworks by some of Australia's leading children's book illustrators? And what's more there were even more picture books to read in there, including the latest releases. I was kept very busy and up late at night.
And I could always pick up a book and find the original painting hanging on the wall in front of me. Here is Where Does Thursday Go? by Janeen Brian beside the artwork of Stephen Michael King. I was particularly impressed with how true to the original colour the print production was (photo does not show this.) Publisher Margaret Hamilton's fine eye for detail was evident.
Another nook in the lounge had books and artworks for sale. Pinerolo's owner Margaret Hamilton is the rep for Stephen Michael King's illustration sales.
Inspired by all that was around me I set to work with my pencil on character sketches and storyboarding for my picture book about a little girl and her grandmother. A common link binds them to one another and the grandmother to her past.
No internet, no distraction, no writing.
While above me hung the many awards of a successful career in publishing and championing children's books in Australia. Margaret Hamilton AM is a national treasure, a true lady and such a sweet soul. I feel so honoured and privileged to have had Margaret's mentorship during my week as Illustrator in Residence. You'll enjoy reading her interview on Kids Book Review here.
Margaret captured me hard at work. I found the late afternoon light the best. The longer daylight saving evenings were put to good use and my storyboard was very close to finished by the end of the week. Read the Pinerolo newsletter about my stay here
The colour and vibrancy of illustrator Julie Vivas' watercolours – one of my favourites.

I was very tempted to buy this grayscale watercolour by Stephen Michael King.
By reading through Stephen's notes it amazed me that he sometimes threw together a storyboard in  little more than a day!
Besides picture books, Pinerolo also has a wealth of reference books on children's books and illustration – perfect for anyone researching or studying.

With the clear eye and kind feedback of Margaret Hamilton, my picture book manuscript is ready to go, the storyboard is almost there and very close to being what I had imagined.

Thank you most sincerely to Margaret and Max Hamilton of Pinerolo Children's Book Cottage for your hospitality, support and care during my busy week in Blackheath. 
I loved spending time with you!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Pinerolo Children's Book Cottage

At the very end of a super busy month, which included a full weekend of launching my new release Snap Magic and two weeks visiting blogs for a promotional tour, I was tired and definitely in need of some 'me time' – time to reflect,  recharge, and revisit my picture book in progress. It was time for my visit to Pinerolo Children's Book Cottage.
Nestled on the edge of the historic township of Blackheath in the Blue Mts, Pinerolo was a sanctuary of creative bliss just waiting for me to explore its secrets. I was thrilled, overwhelmed with joy and very proud to have been chosen as one of the Illustrators in Residence this year.  
Pinerolo is owned and operated by Margaret Hamilton AM, a former award-winning publisher of children's books and now a picture book author herself – B is for Bedtime. I was excited to have the opportunity of being mentored by Margaret during my week's stay in the cottage. There's a lovely interview with Margaret Hamilton on the Reading Time blog of the CBCA here
My first afternoon in the cottage was spent settling in after seven hours travelling. Then I went for a walk around the extensive grounds, enjoying the mature trees and large flowering shrubs of azaleas and rhododendrons. Blackheath was holding its annual Rhododendron Festival that coming weekend – another reason I was pleased to have chosen springtime for my week's stay.
Beside the cottage a large Italian farmhouse transported me to a holiday in Tuscany and treasured memories of our time spent there with my young family.
But from the corners of my imagination Banksia men intruded, reminding me that I was in fact in Australia.
After a very comfortable sleep I had my breakfast on the little back veranda of the cottage.
And enjoyed the view.
While more children's stories and a reference to my first book Pond Magic entered my thoughts.
At the bottom of the garden a large pine (Pinerolo means Place of Pines) held counsel with a circle of magical pine stools. The perfect place for storytelling and listening.

Or perhaps just reading...