Folktales: Giants and Standing Stones

Stones of Callanish - apologies, I couldn't find anyone to credit for this image, or who to contact to see if it was okay to use. Let me know if it is you! :-)
Stones of Callanish

In my book The Spellbinding Secret of Avery Buckle, Avery journeys to a circle of standing stones in Orkney called the Stones of Callanish. She is surprised to find that the stones can come to life, as a band of craggy giants, playing Scottish folk music deep into the night. Giants in European folktales are often cruel and stupid, but in Britain, giants tend to serve other purposes. In some stories, their behaviour is used to explain the presence of certain landmarks, for example Goram and Vincent who are supposed to have formed the Avon Gorge in Somerset. In others, giants represent deep memory, and the old way of doing things, such as in the story of the Welsh giant Gogmagog, who is beaten by Brutus of Troy. And in other stories, giants are associated with ruins of past places, acting as a metaphor for impermanence, and the ravages of time itself. Giants in British folktales challenge our modern ideas of progress and knowledge.

The Stones of Callanish in Orkney are a real set of standing stones, constructed some time in the late Neolithic era. One of the oldest sites like this in Britain, they are believed to be some 5000 years old. Some of the stones weigh ten or more tons! Despite archaeological work and investigation we still don’t really know why they were erected, though there are lots of theories encompassing ideas of meeting places, sites for social rituals, showing off and status, and sacred sites in which the ancestors were honoured. Some researchers theorise that the stones were arranged on an astronomical formula, to show the extreme rising and setting points of the sun and moon, showing that the ancient peoples of Britain understood the world in cycles and opposites, for example, day and night. Other researchers argue that the purpose of the standing stones is to be found in the stones themselves, often beautiful specimens in their own right, full of ripples and patterns. Perhaps their purpose was to celebrate the patterns found in the earth, not the sky?

But I love this idea from Gail Higginbottom of the University of Adelaide in Australia. The “stones represented watchers of this great spectacular sky show and of the seasons.” It reminds me of my giants beside their bonfire, tapping their feet along to the fiddle music underneath the swirling constellations of a Scottish night sky in the deep north. 

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Folktales: Crannogs and The Crannog – Monsters in the Landscape

Crannog islands on the Lake of Menteith by Hannah Foley. All rights reserved (www.hannah-foley.co.uk)
The crannog islands on the Lake of Menteith

In my book, The Spellbinding Secret of Avery Buckle, there is a great monster, kept in an enchanted sleep in a cavern under Edinburgh. The creature is called a Crannog. A crannog is not really a monster at all, but when I heard the word, it leapt into my imagination and was too good to let go.

A crannog is in fact, a man-made island. These sorts of islands are found throughout Wales, Ireland, and Scotland, usually built in estuaries or lochs. Recent evidence shows that some of these crannogs are older even than Stonehenge, some dating back 5,300 years. Crannogs varied in their construction. Some were originally timber-built roundhouses, supported on piles or stilts driven into the loch bed. You can see a reconstruction of one like this at the Scottish Crannog Centre in Perthshire. Take a look at their website here: https://www.crannog.co.uk. In other places, big rocks were piled onto the loch bed to make an island on which a stone house was built. Nowadays crannogs look like tree-covered islands or are stony mounds hidden under the water.

There is still lots that archaeologists don’t fully understand about crannogs, such as, why they were built or what they were used for. They look like they might be dwellings, but divers in Loch Arnish found Neolithic pottery in the water around the crannog there, suggesting that crannogs might have been special places where perhaps, people made offerings, or used sacred vessels that couldn’t be brought back with with them for some particular purpose. It’s all a bit of a mystery and we’ll probably never know for definite. 

When I visited Inchmahome, the crannog island in the middle of the Lake of Menteith in Stirlingshire, I couldn’t get over how odd it looked: a funny rocky outcrop in the middle of the water, with trees poking up all over it. It reminded me of a drawing in a book I’d seen, where a shipwrecked sailor is sitting on a desert island, unaware that he is actually sat on top of a sea monster’s head, the rest of the monster under the water. And then my imagination started to whirr and spin… What if the crannogs weren’t man-made islands, but something else? Perhaps the remains of some long dead creature – a huge and ancient creature? And maybe, gradually, over time, soil had started to gather on the hump of the creature’s rotting back, and then trees and plants began to grow? Perhaps the base of the island wasn’t rocks like the real crannogs, but bones – the monster’s skeleton? And maybe, at the very dawn of time, there were many creatures like this, their remains now dotted in lochs and estuaries all over Scotland, Wales and Ireland??? And slowly, in my imagination, the crannog island became a Crannog monster, the last of its kind, asleep under Edinburgh!

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Folktales: Scottish Faeries and ‘othering’

Faery Mounds by Hannah Foley. All rights reserved (www.hannah-foley.co.uk).
Look out for those faery mounds!

I’ve written in my previous post about the Cat Fae element of Avery’s character in my book, The Spellbinding Secret of Avery Buckle. For those of you who don’t know, one of Avery’s secrets is that she is a Cat Fae. For a quick re-cap: a Cat Fae is a creature I made up – someone who is part cat and part human. Avery has a tail, and many of the special characteristics of a cat, such as being able to see in the dark, and being very agile. This idea was partly inspired by the Scottish folktales of the Cat Sith: supernatural, black, big-as-a-dog, cats from the Scottish Highlands. 

The word Sith conjures up Star Wars images but it is actually the anglicised version of the gaelic word Sidhe. Sidhe forms part of the word Aos Sidhe which means faeries or the fae-folk. Not long after Avery arrives at the witches’ house in the book, she meets her first faery. His name is Ghilli Dhu (inspired by another Scottish folk character if you fancy looking him up!), and later travels to the faery capital at Inchmahome. 

Sidhe means “mound of earth”, so the gaelic word for faery, Aos Sidhe, translates as “People Of The Mounds”. When I was writing Avery Buckle I was absolutely fascinated by this literal meaning, and the origin of the phrase. Did it mean hills, or mountains? Was there an historic idea of faeries coming from particular topographic features like that? It turns out there are plenty of mounds or hillocks, right across the UK, with faery associations – take the Pixie’s Mound at Stogurcey in Somerset for example. The interesting thing about these hills with faery, elfin or pixie associations is that they tend not to be naturally occurring hills, but rather ancient burial sites or barrows.

The late, great children’s author, Alan Garner writes captivatingly about his experience of uncovering a Bronze Age burial site associated with faeries, almost by accident, after following the detective trail of an oral story passed down through his family. His ancestors had lived at Alderley Edge in Cheshire for generations. The story he grew up with ran along the lines of the old Sleeping Hero myth, i.e. a king asleep under the hill who will rise up on a day of great danger and save everyone. There are versions of this story across the UK, and Europe. Alan’s family’s variation of the story particularly referenced features of the landscape around Alderley Edge, including one feature known historically as “Elfgrenhoks”, meaning “the sandy ridge of the elves”. The story told the journey of a farmer taking his white horse to market, being stopped by an old man keen to buy the horse. The farmer wanted to get the best price for his horse so he refused the old man. The old man replied that should he change his mind, the farmer could find him by following a path through various landmarks around Alderley Edge. The farmer was unable to sell his horse at market so on the way home he followed the route to find the old man, and you can probably guess who the horse was for. The Sleeping Hero!

The thing that piqued Alan’s interest about the story is that the route the old man told the farmer made no sense in modern day terms at all. It seemed to wobble about and come back on itself, all over the hill. So Alan started to investigate the landmarks themselves, and discovered, much to his amazement, that beneath each reference, there were Bronze Age sites. From a Bronze Age perspective the route would have made complete sense.

We so easily dismiss stories as made up things, don’t we? Science is, in contrast, about establishing a sufficient body of the correct sort of evidence collected in the correct way, and until then, understandably, the details of a particular phenomena are discussed cautiously, and in qualified terms. Yet, the family story identified Bronze Age finds that no scientist had ever thought to look for. Alan Garner says:

“Archaeologists appear to have become afraid of speculation in this area, and I am not the one to blame them. On all sides, if they listen, they are threatened by Old Straight Tracks, blind springs, New Age mystics, dragon roads, and space suits. But I am not an archaeologist, so it does not matter if I make a fool of myself.”

I am not an archaeologist either, so, perhaps I too may be permitted to speculate, and make a fool of myself…! 

I wonder whether Alan’s family were later migrants creating literal faery/mound stories to try and understand the remains they found, or even descendants of those same Bronze Age peoples passing on a sacred story of commemoration through the generations? The role stories play in helping us understand and make sense of the world can’t be overstated. We all do it, all the time. And so I’m going to speculate some more…

Local to us here in Devon are the remains of several Iron Age hill forts. One of them in particular is thought to have been the site of a decisive battle between the Celtic Devon tribe, the Dumnonii (Roman name), and the incoming Anglo-Saxons. The Anglo-Saxons successfully occupied the fertile valley bottoms, but the Celts remained in the hills, launching marauding attacks on the Anglo-Saxon villages. Nearby Thorverton has a wide, paved, rectangular area in the centre, called the Bury. It was built as a stockade by the Anglo-Saxons, where animals could be penned in by gates at either end, to protect them from the attacking Celts. But as time went on the Celts were pushed further and further into the uplands, and west into Cornwall. Isn’t it interesting that it’s often exactly these sorts of places where stories of magic, faeries, and elves, tend to occur? Think of Dartmoor, the Lake District, and pretty much anywhere in Wales or Scotland. 

And now I really am going into speculation overdrive…! I wonder if many of our folklore and faery tales, might originate in the Celts, and Anglo-Saxon ‘othering’ stories about them, as the Celts were pushed to both the physical and social fringes of the UK. ‘Othering’ is a term used to describe the sociological phenomenon of viewing, and treating a person, or group of people, as intrinsically different from, and alien, to yourself. This happened overtly during the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, when people from the continent of Africa, were explicitly described as property that could be owned, no different from a cow or sheep. But it can also happen in more subtle ways that are less apparent but have the same effect of dehumanising people. We can see it in the way that Muslims have been ‘othered’ in the UK in modern times, signalled any time someone says “Those Muslims”. Another example is Donald Trump saying that Mexicans are “drug dealers”, and “criminals”. I’m sure there are drug dealers and criminals in Mexico, just the same as in every other country. However, when Trump implies that all Mexicans are criminals and drug dealers, as if it is part of the Mexican national identity, he is ‘othering’. Othering creates an “us” and “them” divide, and most often happens, when people don’t really know those they are othering. Donald Trump would be much less likely to make such statements if he actually knew any Mexicans.

Othering is also often a technique used by leaders for political ends. We can see how this might have been the case for the leaders of the Anglo-Saxons. If you believe that the people in the land you are invading are fully human with the same values, rights and responsibilities as you, it’s going to be hard to maintain your integrity while you steal their land. In order for the Anglo-Saxons to retain their own humanity as they forced women and children from their homes, they had to be persuaded that those women and children weren’t human in the way that their own wives and offspring were human. Might their leaders have invented stories about the Celts to support their ideas that the Celts were fundamentally different to themselves, just as Donald Trump did about the Mexicans, or the Nazis did about the Jews? Perhaps those stories might have gone along the lines of: “Now mind you don’t ever cross those hills by yourself. They’re strange up there. I knew a young man who took a short cut that way, but the mist came down, and he got lost. He came across a group of them, brewing potions I shouldn’t wonder, and he was never seen again. Only his hollow laughter can still be heard echoing around the rocks. They kidnapped him, I reckon. There’s something different about them up there, just can’t put my finger on it.” And slowly by slowly, those strange people become ‘other’ altogether, elves in fact. The story I’ve just related is a slimmed down version of a Dartmoor legend from Laughter Tor.

I’d love to say I came up with this speculation totally on my own but I heard a similar theory about the idea of faeries in Scotland originating from stories about nomadic hunter-gatherer peoples. I can’t for the life of me find where I read it now so can’t reference it, but the author speculated that post-Ice Age peoples might not have settled down wholesale to farming in Britain all in one go, and there might have been a period of time when some people were settled in farming, and other peoples were still engaged in a more transient life as hunter-gatherers. The hunter-gatherers might have appeared as strange ‘others’, perhaps only ever seen fleetingly and at a distance between the trees as they came and went. Stories of faeries might have started as a way of making sense of their different way of life. Stories may also have been used to justify ill treatment. A man-made slither of land called Arnmach at the Lake of Menteith in Stirlingshire, is said to have been built by faeries held captive by a local Earl. Might this be a folk remembrance of a real event, in which nomadic peoples were captured and forced to labour as prisoners?

Of course it is all speculation, and wonderful fuel for creating more stories! But it also serves as a reminder of the old adage ‘Words have power, wield them with care.’ When we tell our stories, who do we include or exclude? And why? Do we depict groups of people in ways that emphasise their humanity, or in ways that dehumanise them? How do we educate ourselves so that we can recognise when people in power are telling us stories that ‘other’ particular people. When viewed like that, it’s easy to join my voice to Alan Garner’s when he says, “Coincidence, error, fantasy or folklore: this is a reality. And for this I care.” Glad to be a fool in that case.

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Folktales: The Cat Fae, Girl Power, and the Shapeshifting Motif

Cat image used under Creative Commons license

In my book The Spellbinding Secret of Avery Buckle, one of Avery’s secrets is that she is a Cat Fae. A Cat Fae is a creature I made up – someone who is part cat and part human. Avery has a tail, and many of the special characteristics of a cat, such as being able to see in the dark, and being very agile. Ideas don’t generally appear out of thin air and neither did my idea for the Cat Fae. It was partly inspired by my own life experiences (I talk about this in some of my events and workshops) and partly inspired by the Scottish folklore of the Cat Sith. According to the old stories the Cat Sith were supernatural, black, big-as-a-dog, cats from the Scottish Highlands. Avery was even originally called a Cat Sith, but we had to come up with something different in case the Star Wars ‘Sith’ caused confusion. We didn’t want readers thinking of Darth Vader every time they read the word ‘Sith’! Given that the word Sith is strongly associated with faeries, and Avery is a magical creature with magical abilities, we decided to change Sith to Fae, and so Avery became a Cat Fae.

The moment of inspiration from the Cat Sith mythology came when I read a version of the stories in which the cat begins life as a witch. This witch would turn herself into a cat whenever she saw trouble coming, but on the ninth time she got stuck. For those of you who have already read The Spellbinding Secret of Avery Buckle, you’ll know the number nine is very important, but I don’t want to give anything away if you haven’t read it yet! In one of my early drafts of the book Avery met the first ever Cat Fae, a young witch called Catriona, and learned how the Cat Fae came into being. 

This ability to change into an animal or bird is called Shapeshifting. Folklore and mythology is full of women who shapeshift like the Cat Sith witch, sometimes because they want to and often, even though they don’t! Arachne was a weaver in Greek mythology who was shapeshifted against her will. Her tapestries depicting the gods’ bad behaviour angered the goddess Athena, who turned her into a spider. Another example is the mythical Scottish selkies who can shed their sealskin to become human and live on land. Though both male and female selkies can do this, the stories are usually about a female selkie, trapped by a human man who won’t give her skin back. 

When something occurs many times in lots of different stories but slightly varied, it is called a Motif, and the purpose of motifs is to convey larger meanings. It’s good to watch out for motifs in old stories because they are usually trying to tell you something deeper. A good example of this is the Lady in the Lake. This character occurs repeatedly in different ways within British folklore, and is usually a symbol for mystery and magic. In the selkie stories, the selkie is a symbol for the ‘wild soul’ who can be over-powered for good or ill.

The shapeshifting motif of women in folklore tends to be trying to tell the reader one of two deeper meanings. The first meaning is Punishment, as in the case of Arachne, teaching women that they should know their place or they will be punished. The second purpose is Release, teaching women they can use their talents or take control of their lives, but only if they take a different form. This is usually because the woman’s abilities are not seen as being appropriate for women, and this challenges accepted social structures. I feel there is an element of both meanings in the old story of the witch and the Cat Sith. By turning into a cat the witch escapes persecution or danger, and historically witches were persecuted. Nowadays we know that many of the women who were tried for being witches in the past were actually bright, outspoken women who stood up to the existing authorities when they felt they were wrong, or were simply women with disfigurements or disabilities. In other words they had abilities that were not seen as being appropriate for women. It would have been very handy for a woman like that to be able to escape from unjust treatment by turning into a cat. If you would like to find out more about the persecution of ‘witches’ in the UK, there is a great educational resource from the National Archives here.

The meaning of motifs can change and evolve over time as ideas within human society change. In the past, the selkie story might have been taken as a warning to young men that they shouldn’t marry a wild sort of girl because she wouldn’t make a good wife, but now we might see it differently, and think that perhaps the young man should have tried to adapt to the selkie’s ways instead of trapping her in a human idea of marriage. Perhaps he should have gone to live with her in the sea instead? In the work of modern authors like Sharon Blackie, the motif of the Cat Sith has evolved to take on new meanings. 

Even though we’ve come a long way, there is still a bias against women using their abilities in socially “unacceptable” ways in society. A brilliant study by Moss-Racusin et al., (2012) (which you can read here) found that when an identical job application was submitted by ‘Jennifer’ and then by ‘John’, ‘Jennifer’ was described as less competent than ‘John’ by the people (both men and women) reviewing the application. It is especially difficult for women to speak out and get a fair hearing in the UK if they have strong feminine characteristics, such as a high voice. Margaret Thatcher, the first female prime minister of the UK, famously employed a vocal coach to help her lower her voice so that she would be taken more seriously by the other male politicians. So, when I use the Cat Sith motif in my story for my female character Avery, I’m trying to tell you, the reader, something deeper. I’m drawing on all the history and stories that link into the shapeshifting motif, and I’m encouraging you to ask questions…

How do we treat those whose talents lie outside of the stereotypical roles we assign to women in our society? Do we steal their sealskin and make them fit the model of the ‘good-wife’ like in the selkie story? Or do we just find other models to squash them into? Make them lower their voices to be heard? Or do we throw the models out of the window, and let them be the ‘wild-souls’ they are – not wrong just different? For every child reading Avery or Low, I hope they will be inspired to find their own way of expressing their talents and their voice, without squashing themselves into existing frameworks or stereotypes if they don’t fit. And maybe then we’ll need less shape-shifting stories as time goes on, because all voices will be welcomed and celebrated for who they are. In the mean time, keep an eye out for those motifs! Here’s one to start you off – The Sword of Power – and then think about the character of Cindy in the book 😉

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May Day

Cherry Blossom by Hannah Foley. All rights reserved (www.hannah-foley.co.uk)

Today is May Day or Beltane, the traditional British festival in celebration of the coming of summer. Between now and Midsummer – a time of elves, faeries and magic – I’ll be writing a series of posts celebrating the folktales and magic that underpin my book The Spellbinding Secret of Avery Buckle. I’ll be linking them with modern issues such a feminism, morality, class, and landscape. A pre-warning: some of them are fairly lengthy but they are on subjects that I have thought long and hard about, and care deeply about. So, I intend to trespass on your goodwill and patience! Take a break from the blog if you’re not interested (I won’t be offended) but please do come back again! Otherwise, grab a comfy chair, a hot cuppa, and gather round… The first one will be up this Wednesday!

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Sunstones

Low sat up straight. “Er, Avery. Something’s happening to your back pocket.”

Avery turned around, making Sparrow lean again. Low was right. A bright light was streaming out of the top of her pocket. She reached her hand in and pulled out the piece of sea glass.

A ray of light shot out from it, like the beam of a lighthouse, penetrating the clouds far into the distance.

This is an extract from my children’s novel The Spellbinding Secret of Avery Buckle. At this point in the story, Avery and Low, the main characters in the book, are riding to safety on a flying tandem bicycle called Sparrow, when a beam of light shoots up, out of Avery’s pocket. The light is coming from a piece of sea glass. The idea for this came from something called a Sun Stone, which Vikings are believed to have used to navigate with. Above is a link to a film I made exploring the background of Sun Stones, and doing some science experiments to see if they might really have existed!

If you know any teachers who might be interested in science resources for KS2, please do let them know about this film, which is all about light and refraction. There is also a school’s resource pack which accompanies the book, with worksheets on this topic and many others, available from my website here.

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Happy Birthday blog!

Birthday cake by Hannah Foley. All rights reserved (www.hannah-foley.co.uk)

Can you believe it – it’s ten years to the day that I started writing this blog? What a roller coaster it has been! From the Scottish hills, down to Devon, two more children, changes of career, multiple house moves, exploding beer, sinking boats, wildlife spotting, gardening antics, seasonal musing, ups and downs, twists and turns! Some of you are regular readers who have been so kind and faithful, letting me know I’m not just bleating into the wind! Others of you are newer arrivals and you are most welcome. Thank you to all of you. Happy Birthday little blog. Ten years old today!

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How I Write

Photograph of my notebooks, by Hannah Foley. All rights reserved (www.hannah-foley.co.uk)

Look at this! I don’t talk about writing for months and then I talk about it for two weeks on the trot! You’ll be relieved to hear, this one is more light-hearted. In my last blog post I mentioned how I wrote the first draft of The Spellbinding Secret of Avery Buckle in notebooks on train journeys. I used to work as an illustrator, so the idea of a sketchbook, carried continuously with me, always ready to record anything that caught my eye, is something that is seared into my DNA. To my current self’s amazement, the first draft of Avery Buckle poured out onto the page in long-hand form like one elongated narrative sketch. I didn’t know any other way to do it. I have only once managed to do that again. Back then I typed up Avery Buckle onto my ancient MAC, and as I typed I edited. Then, once typed up, I edited it again. This isn’t the way I work now at all.

The great thing about sketchbooks is how portable they are, but technology is becoming more portable by the moment. My partner bought me a tiny laptop last year (a glorified word processor really) and I haven’t looked back. First drafts go straight onto the laptop, and my notebooks have become the place where I generate my ideas, throwing around plot plans, sticking in newspaper articles containing little nuggets that have captured my imagination, notes, quotes, and links to topics I want to investigate. These days my notebooks feel more like comfy nests, where I want to snuggle down, and dream until the treasures they contain organise themselves into a story-shaped pattern in my mind.

‘Dreaming’ a book is a really important part of my process. I’ve tried sitting down in front of a blank page with a plot aim for a scene, and the writing has always been laboured. And that may well be an understatement. That kind of writing feels like pulling knotted rope down through my nasal passages. I write best when I have had time to imagine a scene, like a Pinterest mood board in my mind – the colour, the smells, the sounds, and to feel the emotions. In my imagination I push the scene to its most sickly sweet or cruelly dark extremes, and somewhere, there in my imaginings, I find the right note. Then, when I sit down to write, I’m brimming with excitement, bursting with all the feelings the scene has given me, and which I want my reader to feel too. 

Unfortunately this kind of writing needs a lot of editing. Writers who have it all planned out avoid significant pain at the editing stage. I tend to run to ten or fifteen drafts. I don’t actually mind editing at all but I do need help with it. I have two writing groups which I am part of. I have a couple of trusted beta readers. I am also incredibly lucky to have a very wonderful agent who is just fabulous. But my notebooks are still very much where my stories begin. And I’m sure that’s more down to the notebook itself than many might like to admit. There is absolutely a kind of magic in unused stationery, those delicious blank pages full of possibility. As Cassandra the witch puts it in The Spellbinding Secret of Avery Buckle,

“Pens. Paper. These things are full of magic; down the spine, inside the nib – full to the brim with some of the strongest magic around.”

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Where I Write

My Middle Room desk by Hannah Foley. All rights reserved (www.hannahcatherinefoley.co.uk)

I hope you had a lovely Easter. I was nursing the full bank holiday but got to see the children do their egg hunt before heading off on my rounds on Sunday morning. There are hundreds of baby bunnies down by the river when I pedal out on my early morning bike rides. It’s a bit of a job avoiding them! Now, onto other matters…

I have written previously about juggling my writing life. For accessibility and diversity reasons, I feel it’s important to be honest about these things. At the time I promised to be braver and write more on this topic. So here I am, being brave… This post gets a bit deep and a little political, so do feel free to move on if you prefer my lighter musings 🙂

I have never had a private space of my own in which to write. The novelist Virginia Woolf famously argued that for a woman to write, she must have £500 a year (a lot of money in those days) and a room of her own. Woolf was part of an upper class group of artists and writers called the Bloomsbury Set who were active in the first part of the 20th century. She decried how working class women were essentially reduced to servitude by poverty and motherhood, with no time to themselves, let alone chance to write. What she was saying was radical at the time. 

While there aren’t the same levels of abject poverty in the UK now, the issues for working class women and girls who have stories in their hearts remain much the same. Working class stories by working class writers do make their way into the published literary mainstream, but they tend to be miserable, urban, and most often, written by men. The deprived son come good is a great story, but what about his single mum? Are we only to hear her story through his? It is as if working class life is, by definition, gritty, and masculine. 

For a long time, I didn’t even realise I was working class. I knew I certainly wasn’t middle class – that was abundantly clear from their confidence, the way their parents weren’t exhausted to the bone after work, and how their mums spoke to them like they were pet dogs. But my life bore no relation to what I saw on soap operas like Eastenders and Coronation Street either. My family weren’t constantly feuding with other families, binge-drinking to oblivion on a Friday night, and engaged in endless extra-marital affairs. From these soap opera portrayals, I assumed all working class people lived in cities and towns. I can’t remember hearing the term rural working class once in the whole of my childhood, but that is what we were, and are. My family came from a proud tradition of working class people who were politically engaged, well-read, and community minded. 

My parents and grandparents benefited from the economic uplift of the working classes in the 50s and 60s, but it came at great social and geographical cost. One cost is the current crisis in social care for the elderly. And for many of my generation, another is the effective rendering of us as placeless and rootless. Was it not ever thus? The Potato Famine? The Enclosures? The Clearances? Intentional projects by those with money and power to push working class people from the lands of their ancestors. But my parents and grandparents weren’t pushed, they left of their own freewill. Didn’t they make the choice? They left. And so there is the guilt. Didn’t we disinherit ourselves from the land of our forebears? Didn’t we?

I know that is not the whole story and the absolute poverty found in parts of the UK in the 50s and 60s was horrific. Of course you would flee from that. But to be working class is not to be poor – working class history which values education, engages politically, and seeks to raise all boats, is a history I have had to teach myself, and proactively reclaim as my own heritage. Still, I have no private space to write, but write a novel I did.

I wrote most of The Spellbinding Secret of Avery Buckle on trains, in notebooks, balancing precariously on piles of luggage. I didn’t know I was writing a novel so the idea of carving out any dedicated time to do it, much less a private space in which to do it, never occurred to me. It was as though, as soon as I stepped away from my caring responsibilities, someone switched a tap on, and all this stuff just came pouring out on the page… page after page after page of it. I hadn’t thought of whether it was any good, but it felt good to write it. 

I won’t go into the details, but there then came a dark moment in my life when I felt my ‘working-classness’ more than I had in a long time. Doors closed and I felt I was being told to know my place. I was metaphorically sent back to the mines. How dare I dream of a creative life? I still didn’t see writing as part of that dream. More out of frustration than anything else, I typed up the story in my notebooks and entered it into a competition. 

And I won. 

And then I wrote another story in the kitchen of a holiday let while my littlest napped of an afternoon, still scribbling away in notebooks. I edited it on the decade-old MAC in my foldaway desk in our “middle room”. The “middle room”: a workhorse room for homework, den-building, model-making, car-track constructing, playdough moulding, colouring in, where my partner works during lockdown, and mealtimes when we have more people around the table than just us. And the only warm room in our house. The children clattered up and down the corridor outside, wondering loudly when on earth Mum would be out of the middle room so they could do X, Y and Z in there. 

Then my littlest got her free childcare hours and suddenly there was a bit more time, not much, because I worked a day job too, but a bit more. I wrote a first draft of another story, this time between notebooks and a cheap laptop (glorified word processor) my partner bought me. The laptop gave me freedom to get out of the house and so I started to experiment with writing locations. I tried writing in cafes but couldn’t get over my squeamishness about it. I had worked too many waitressing jobs in the past to sit there hogging a table, making each coffee stretch out for hours. I discovered a private library in the city and we paid for a subscription. But the upper-middle class volunteers seemed determined to broadcast a running commentary in plummy accents on their activities for the benefit of the whole library. I couldn’t write there either. I considered a co-working space but the cost was prohibitive. At last I settled on splitting my time between a corner of my little boy’s attic bedroom and my foldaway desk when the kids were at school, and the hospital library when everyone was at home. I still don’t have a room of my own or £500. And writing still isn’t part of a dream of a dedicated creative life for me. The truth is, I don’t think such a dream exists for working class women. Not unless you want to starve. I write because the tap comes on as soon as I’m free of my responsibilities. I guess that is my ‘room’, for want of a real one.

Of course, Covid put a spanner in the works of even the writing arrangements I had made. During Covid, my ‘writing time’ was lost to childcare, and when I wasn’t doing that I worked my day job, in a healthcare system in crisis. On social media, men pronounced how lockdown had given them the time and space to finally write that novel. Women replied with raised eyebrows, interested to know who was looking after their children. And meanwhile, working class people of all genders carried on going to work, and kept the hospitals open. I have heard men on social media decry the “over-representation of women” amongst children’s book authors. The truth is that children’s books are shorter. I simply don’t have the time, space or financial backing to write 100,000 words. I do have time to write 40,000 words, sentence by sentence every time the computer system at work goes on the blink (my latest first draft). 

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The Team Behind A Book

Publishers have always been a slightly mysterious entity to me. I don’t suppose it helps that they are often called “Publishing Houses”, from which I imagined somewhere not too different to my own home. Perhaps the person who did the front covers sat at the kitchen table, and the person who packed up the books to go to the bookshops worked in the shed? I imagined the editors typing away on old-fashioned typewriters up in the attic.

It wasn’t until my own book was published that I began to understand a bit more about what publishers do, and all the jobs there are within a publishing house. It wasn’t anything like I imagined!

Editors

In general it is editors who find stories that become books. Once, an editor has shown a story to all the other people who work at the publishers, and they’ve all agreed they like it, it’s the editor who works with an author to get the story shipshape (or bookshape, should I say). I suppose it’s a bit like the job of a coach, working with a runner to get them ready for a big race. While the runner is the one doing the actual running, they need training and advice from the coach. In the same way an editor helps the author find the best ways of telling their story. Thankfully I had two wonderful editors to work with at Kelpies, but I worked most closely with Jennie Skinner. I have been so lucky to have her clear thinking and enthusiasm channelled into my book. 

At the beginning of the process we started off by talking about the magical world my characters live in and some of its history. This helped clarify aspects of my story which had been a bit woolly. I suppose I’d just hoped no one would notice! But let me tell you, editors notice everything.

Once we’d got that straight we moved onto Structural EditsStructural Edits are about plot, pacing, and cutting out the flabby bits of the story. Scenes and characters are examined and if they don’t pull their weight they’re sent packing. 

The next stage is Line Edits. This is all about looking at the words you use to tell the story. During Line Edits your editor wants to make sure that your writing is clear and effective. 

Then on to Copy Edits. This stage is about making sure your writing is consistent and accurate, and often a different editor may be asked to review the text with fresh eyes. It feels like you’re nearly there, but even at this stage your editor may discover a glaring plot hole which will need sorting out before you can go on. 

Finally there’s the Proof Reading stage, and by now, you really are nearly there. This stage is about spotting typos and any sentences that don’t make sense. 

Design Team

The Design team have the job of turning a lump of white paper and black squiggles into something someone is going to actually pick up off a bookshop shelf. They are responsible for page layout, cover design, use of illustrations, and other non-text elements. Leah and the team at Kelpies came up with the brilliant ‘cat’ font for the cover of Avery Buckle. They found and commissioned the very wonderful Xavier Bonet, the illustrator who illustrated the incredible front cover. They’ve also worked on a few little surprises in the story itself, but you’ll have to read it to find out what they are!

Production Team

The production team are all about quality, schedules, and costs. Headed up by Morag at Floris, the production team liaise with printers and distributors to make the book become a real, hold-in-your-hand, object. Wow! 

Marketing Team

I feel exhausted even just thinking about what the marketing team have to do – they wear so many hats. I had a big panic about marketing because I’d read a lot about how a debut author must go out and ‘sell’ their book. I thought the success of Avery Buckle was all on me, and that felt very big, and very scary. Would I literally have to stand on street corners waving my book in people’s faces until they bought it?  Thankfully the marketing team at Floris are fab-u-lous, and once the wonderful Kirsten had told me to calm down because they really did have it all under control, because it is actually their whole job, I stopped panicking (I do still panic occasionally). The marketing team work on branding, publicity, and promotion. They work with editors to produce sales copy (that’s the words you see on websites and in brochures that make books sound so enticing). They work on promotional material, deal with the press, arrange publicity events, and manage and develop promotion for the publisher. See, I told you, time for a lie down.

Office Team

The office team are like the mechanics who keep the bus on the road. They do lots of very important jobs to do with finances, dealing with distributors, contracts (that’s the legal bit), and the buying and selling of rights (for example a publisher might want to sell the right to publish a book in a foreign country). This all sort of happens under the bonnet. You can’t see this machinery going around underneath the bus, but if it doesn’t happen, the wheels fall off, and there are no books. They would probably work between the garage and the kitchen in my idea of a publishing house. 

So, there you are, the team behind a book! They all need a round of applause I think 🙂

Floris Books office sign. Photograph by Hannah Foley. All rights reserved (www.hannahfoley.co.uk)
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