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A Room of My Own: Children’s author Claire Barker shares her writing space

 

Most of my mornings start the same way: I march up the big hill with the dogs and fill my pockets with treasures – nuts, leaves, snail shells, pebbles. We crunch through the silent woods as crows watch us and buzzards sail on the thermals overhead. Then I make an eye-poppingly strong pot of coffee and go out to my hut to begin to write.

I love my hut. It’s basically the tree house I never had. On frosty mornings ribbons of smoke rise from its chimney and the windows glow. From my comfy chair I have a long view out of the window, across the field and all the way back to the woods. From here I can see all sorts of wildlife, hares, owls and weasels. On warm summer days little wrens gaze from the doorway and black birds hop about with worms in their beaks.

It’s not all bucolic serenity though – pheasants couldn’t care less about my work and hold duels on the steps, blazing and screeching. Swallows swoop over my head like fighter pilots and lovelorn honeybees stalk my rose-printed curtains. There is always a squabbling mob of sparrows nearby, fighting in the dirt. Recently the Blue Tits have taken to headbanging the window until I produce the ‘right’ sort of snacks. And only this morning mice stole my stash of hazelnuts when my back was turned. Once a buzzard dropped a rabbit on me.

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The truth is, dear reader, I am at the mercy of nature. Even my chickens won’t go in a coop, instead choosing to sleep in a tree. The first time I saw them do this I was annoyed as I had spent money on a perfectly lovely house for them. But then I remembered they were, of course, birds and living in trees was probably their right. Then, working on the basis that if you can’t beat them, join them, I began to wonder what sort of person might live in a tree. It turns out the answer is a witch with a rucksack and a short temper.

The story came to me very quickly, as if it had been there all the time, just waiting to walk out of my laptop, bright and alive. I love writing funny books about relationships, because those are the ones I like to read. Friendship is such an important topic for children and embarrassing friends are a rich vein of comedy, especially when you stir magic into the mix.

Picklewitch is as wild as a blackbird; a fearless joyseeker who lives for the moment. Most of us try to control our day-to-day lives, and Jack is no exception. But Picklewitch takes this idea, smashes it into a thousand pieces and then dances on it. If I were a child today I might feel that the world is full of bad news and feel worried. This makes me sad, because really it is full of possibility. Everyone needs a friend that makes them feel brave.

If I could, I’d invite Picklewitch and Jack to tea in my hut. I would make a massive coffee walnut cake; one as high as your head, probably with silver balls on top. Flocks of birds could come and eat up the crumbs. Then everyone would be happy.

How To Become An Author (Or My Job and Other Animals)

Claire Barker

How do you become an author?  This is one of the questions I am asked a lot and I never really know what to say. I didn’t study for a vocational qualification like a doctor or a plumber. I didn’t study Plot Knots or Character Alchemy, nobody handed me a certificate stating ‘Author’ and yet somehow, here I am.

I could give you the exact directions to this point but even if you followed them to the letter, I suspect you might end up somewhere else because fate’s fickle like that. I’m not  one of those ‘start after breakfast, 1000 words by lunch’ sorts. I don’t even write every day. Naturally I work like fury on occasion but it’s all rather freeform for the rest of the time. However I’m coming to believe that these casual tendencies may be a blessing, my relaxed door policy letting all manner of useful ideas wander in.

What…

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Home Is Where You Park It

Claire Barker

I write a lot about the countryside, probably because 23 years of my life have been spent living there.  But the 24 other ones have been spent living in towns and cities.
In the 70’s we spent Saturdays at my grandparents’ house, on a street in the heart of the Black Country. The houses on that street were stuffed with my relatives; Aunty Dolly, Uncle Jack, Aunty Vera, Uncle Ted, Aunty Esther, Uncle Harry… a tight tribe, full of portents and proclamations. My grandparents were  much older than the other children’s; they called me ‘wench’ and seemed to belong to another time.

1146496_10201735952940170_753270312_n ( From left to right) My nan, my Great-Aunty Dolly and my mum dressed as a cowboy circa 1956

Their house was very interesting. There were shoe boxes of sepia seaside photos, drawers containing mysterious old papers and a visiting Communist uncle who called me ‘comrade’.  These were different times:  the Rag and Bone man still visited and stray dogs patrolled patches of…

View original post 601 more words

Home Is Where You Park It

I write a lot about the countryside, probably because 23 years of my life have been spent living there.  But the 24 other ones have been spent living in towns and cities.
In the 70’s we spent Saturdays at my grandparents’ house, on a street in the heart of the Black Country. The houses on that street were stuffed with my relatives; Aunty Dolly, Uncle Jack, Aunty Vera, Uncle Ted, Aunty Esther, Uncle Harry… a tight tribe, full of portents and proclamations. My grandparents were  much older than the other children’s; they called me ‘wench’ and seemed to belong to another time.
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( From left to right) My nan, my Great-Aunty Dolly and my mum dressed as a cowboy circa 1956

Their house was very interesting. There were shoe boxes of sepia seaside photos, drawers containing mysterious old papers and a visiting Communist uncle who called me ‘comrade’.  These were different times:  the Rag and Bone man still visited and stray dogs patrolled patches of waste ground, occasionally succumbing to makeshift leads. There were even abandoned air-raid shelters and brambly rubbish tips to find treasure in.
Best of all were the travellers’ horses tethered at the top of the street, long manes cascading down, dining on the smart privet hedges. The sight of these wild-looking creatures in an urban setting was astonishing, like spotting an eagle in a post office. My Nan, noticing my interest, made no bones about it: I was to steer clear of the gypsies.
However my favourite book was Dahl’s ‘Danny Champion of the World’ and I wasn’t put off so easily. Inevitably I made friends with a traveller girl, her ears adorned with gold. We dug old bottles up from ground baked hard in the summer heat and ate ice lollies from the shop that dripped down our arm. We played on the swings and made-up spooky stories to scare each other. At the end of the day we went our different ways; me to a brick house and her to her wheeled one, surrounded by horses. I loved my Nan and never troubled her with the truth.
Years later, when I lived in Oxford city centre, I found myself cycling down the towpaths, gazing longingly at the narrowboats with smoke curling out of the chimneys. Soon, I’d moved out of a house and on to Frank Thomas, a 64 foot narrowboat.
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Me and my little boat cat; Noah.

This time of indoor/outdoor living left its mark on me. Although I’ve been a house dweller for a very long time, I’m still at my most content when I am outdoors, wrapped up in a jumper, woodsmoke in my hair, mug of tea in hand.
One of the best things about being a writer is that you have the power to give memories the kiss of life. When I had the idea for  a broken-hearted ghost horse searching for its Romany owner , beloved wagon in tow, I leapt on it. All the pieces fell into place, but only because a lot of them were there already.
Long ago I painted a picture of a horse that lived at the end of the lane – the real lane that Winnie and the Beloveds walk down every day to the bus stop – and I always hoped it would find its way into a story.
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Night Horse

Then I met an amazing wagon painter called Sarah Harvey  who painted this beautiful sign for me. She travels all over the place, working on remarkable pieces. I kept looking at it until, eventually, it started to feel like it really had belonged to the Starr family in the story.

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I borrowed fascinating books on Romany history from my knowledgeable author friend Victoria (Victoriaeveleigh.co.uk) and spent the whole of the Christmas holidays reading them. Victoria had owned a Romany wagon ( a vardo) for several years too.  Then I visited her magnificent heavy horse, Sherman whilst she and her husband Chris told me all about wagons and horses.
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Re-visiting Sherman

I went to the library and gathered piles of books on  constellations and meteor showers, about helicopters, the North Pole and highwaymen.I read and read and read.
Then I began to write.
A year and a half later, by the wonderful guiding hand of Usborne and the extraordinary illustrative talents of Ross Collins,  Knitbone Pepper and a Horse Called Moon was born.  Today it is published, which is just brilliant.

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I wish I could go back to my eight-year-old self and hand her this  book  with the beautiful pictures and the purple silk ribbon, because I think she’d really like it. I imagine me and the traveller girl flicking through the pages, sat on the swings and kicking our legs, until the grown ups  called us home for tea.
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My writing room today, an Exmoor shepherd’s hut built by Paul Hackman

 

 

 

 

How To Become An Author (Or My Job And Other Animals)

How do you become an author?  This is one of the questions I am asked a lot and I never really know what to say. I didn’t study for a vocational qualification like a doctor or a plumber. I didn’t study Plot Knots or Character Alchemy, nobody handed me a certificate stating ‘Author’ and yet somehow, here I am.

I could give you the exact directions to this point but even if you followed them to the letter, I suspect you might end up somewhere else because fate’s fickle like that. I’m not  one of those ‘start after breakfast, 1000 words by lunch’ sorts. I don’t even write every day. Naturally I work like fury on occasion but it’s all rather freeform for the rest of the time. However I’m coming to believe that these casual tendencies may be a blessing, my relaxed door policy letting all manner of useful ideas wander in.

What I can say for certain is that before I was an author I was a writer, and before that I was a storyteller with a small ‘s’. In fact, I’m a storyteller from a long line of storytellers. They would probably be surprised to hear themselves described in this way. Some of these storytellers could write and some could not. Some left school when they were still children and had never read anything but bits of the Bible.  By today’s educational measuring-stick they would undoubtedly be deemed literacy casualties, but I owe them a debt of gratitude.

Interestingly Aborigines, architects of the Dreamtime, don’t have a word for artist, creativity being seen as a fundamental part of the human condition. Describing someone as an artist would be as odd as describing them as ‘a breather’. Reading ability aside, we are all full of stories; fertile gardens filled with seeds, waiting for the sun and rain of encouragement. My own story garden is full of life but I’m very lucky because there’s always been a lot of weather going on in there.

Of course, if you like books then you carry the golden keys. But just about everyone, regardless of literacy levels, has stories to tell; tales of mad relatives or funny animals or beautiful places, stories of love and loss, stories of the past and hopes for the future. Stories enable us to empathise, to understand, to predict consequences. They teach us how to conduct attention, to thrill and dismay. Quite simply they are records of who we are and how we got here.

‘This is all very well Claire, but how do I become an author?’

Oh yes. Well, the answer is you can’t handle lions until you can swim like a dolphin, and the water’s going to be a nightmare if you haven’t sorted out the baby bird.

‘Pardon?’

In order to dissect the reverse order stages of the author journey I turned them into metaphorical animals because…well…because I am a children’s author. Bear with me (see what I did there?)

The Lion

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To my mind being a published author is a bit like being a lion. This part is about making decisions and social media noise. It’s the business end of the chain, involving tax, diaries, publicity, deadlines and negotiations. It’s exciting, time-ravenous and impressive. Lions make it their job to be noticed, which is probably why the initial question arises in the first place. Remember: Always be nice with your teeth.

The Dolphin

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Being a writer is like being a dolphin; crafting dynamic plot lines that race and flow in harmony, creating prose full of leaps and splashes, constructing scenes that plunge the reader down into the emotional depths before hauling them back blinking into the sunlight. The finished style must look effortless to the reader (it’s not).If you’re very lucky you get to work with lots of other nimble, friendly dolphins called Agents and Editors.

The Baby Muse-Bird

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This is the baby muse-bird.  Ask any author and they will tell you that the hatching of The Idea is where the first magic lies.  This shiny-eyed chick unfurling its damp wings, flapping into life might not look as impressive as the lion, and it certainly isn’t as lissom as the dolphin, but it’s a precious thing from which all future work flows. Raising these little muse-birds is the answer, for you cannot go straight to lion without first passing dolphin and chick. The first question should not be how do I become an author? or even how do I become a writer? but how do I become a storyteller?

‘Ok, how DO I become a storyteller?’

You’re human, right? Well then, you already are a storyteller, but maybe you need to go further and pursue that ‘open door’ ideas policy. You might be dreaming at the bus stop, or gazing at the trees or tying your shoelace when a little flash of life unexpectedly appears: Cheep! Are you listening? I’m ready to begin. So listen because, sure as eggs are eggs, it will die without love and attention. Perch it on your finger and, instead of worrying about its fragility, marvel at its wings.

You never know, the odd rare bird might even take you all the way to the bookshelves.

Claire Barker is the internationally published, award winning author of the critically acclaimed ‘Knitbone Pepper Ghost Dog’ series (Bio courtesy of The Lion)

Library Love

 

A speech to celebrate the launch of Libraries Unlimited in Devon

In all of the photographs of me as a small child, I’m wearing a worried expression. This is hardly surprising as I was anxious about just about everything at that age: teachers, bullies, overly chatty adults, blancmange. I could have sworn I’d seen a goblin at the bus stop…. ‘what if? What if’? My imagination twitched like a demented squirrel.

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Then one day I joined the local library. There, my skittish eccentricities didn’t seem so odd after all. In fact, once released amongst the books, my wild imaginings were positively encouraged to run free. Ideas – of course! The library was the first place I felt that I truly belonged, outside of my own home. It was like a church where I worshipped weekly, at the feet of the blessed St Blyton.

Here I was free to wander amongst the shelves, running my finger down the long lines of books, making my own choices about the stories I wanted to read. In a reversal of Matilda’s father’s mantra: I’m big, you’re little; I’m right, you’re wrong and there’s nothing you can do about it’, in the library I was SOMEONE.

What I was interested in mattered more than the fact I was small and had no money. This was a very important lesson. In the confines of the library I was equal to any adult because I wielded that great leveller, that magical talisman: the library card. With this ticket, I could go wherever I liked, an adventurer on the high seas of words. Have you ever noticed that the books look like little doors? Open them up and you fall onto a desert island or into an English wood. You may end up in the arctic or in someone’s living room. Portals into other worlds, a library is full of them. It’s like a first class departure lounge for the imagination.

Fast-forward forty years and this second home has become my place of work, albeit indirectly. Now I have the outrageous privilege of creating stories that live on those shelves, as do several of my friends here in this room today. I’m not sure I would be doing it were it not for the sense of possibility that first library gave me, the mirror it held up to my imagination.

When putting together my cast of characters for the Knitbone Pepper series I always knew one of them would have to be a librarian. The character in question – a ghost goose – has been watching over the Starcross library with fierce devotion for 371 years, so I gave him the name Gabriel, just like the angel. He is helpful and wise and funny; just like all of the best librarians I have ever known. Gabriel states the truth ( ‘knowledge is power’) and, just like the book warriors he is based on, is determined to defend the library to the end.

A library is much more than just another public service, it’s a symbol of a truly civilized society. A public library doesn’t care what you have in your pockets, it cares about what’s in your heart, in your mind.

Aspirational communities, they offer sanctuary to the most vulnerable people in society, opening arms to all, to people who need it for warmth and friendship as well as knowledge. It’s a fizzing laboratory of ideas for the curious, an observatory of thought, a playground for the mind.

In the last 6 years 350 libraries have closed across the country, including that first one, the one that made me brave. It’s far from alone.

But the libraries of Devon, feeling the North wind blowing at their backs have rather magnificently turned it into the sun. We have 50 libraries and 4 mobile libraries, all retaining professional librarians. This is quite simply remarkable.

But of course in these increasingly challenging times the battle is not just to keep libraries where they belong, but to make them thrive. The trick is to make them strong and grow. Which is why I’m so delighted to be standing here today, cheering them on as they stand on the brink, embracing change, as Devon libraries becomes Libraries Unlimited. This is a momentous day for them, as they set their course, stretch their bright new wings and soar into the light, like the guardian angels they truly are.

 

Finding Luna

18th March

In January we received a call from the Dogs Trust centre in Ilfracombe. Our old dog Finn, the inspiration behind Knitbone Pepper, came to us as a puppy from there about 13 years ago. After he died I’d visited the centre a few times, hoping to find a friend for Sam, our Border Terrier. But thing was that Sam, a typical terrier, only likes certain dogs (we think he missed Finn) and finding the right one was tricky.

I’d almost given up when I got a call out of the blue, a year after my last visit: “Hello? Mrs Barker? We think we have the right dog for you. She’s called Luna and she’s a two and a half year old French Bulldog. She’s so sweet and we all love her, but she does have problems. You work at home don’t you? Aren’t you a writer? It’s just that she hates being left alone…”

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The First Time We Met Luna

 

Sam and I went over to the centre and met her. They played for a while in the introduction room and, despite Luna barking in his ear for quite a long time, he really seemed to like her! And not only this, our whole family ADORED her: she is the sweetest little soul who yowls like a little cat when she is sad and sort of purrs when she’s happy. All of this is remarkable when you realise that Luna had a such a terrible start in life. Caged for 15 hours a day, she had dreadful separation anxiety. She kept being sick, her fur was sparse in places and her ribs stuck out. She hated going outside and had to eat special prescription food five times a day, as well as take two different types of medication.The situation was so bad that she came on a full foster plan, which means her vet bills are covered for life. The centre had done their very best with her but they knew that what she really needed was a special someone.

Now it is March and she has been a part of our family for over two months. Already the transformation in her is amazing. She plays all day long with Sam and then goes for runs in the woods where she gambols like a little lamb.12790919_10208821404192023_2249764696847236723_n
She eats all sorts these days ( cheese and chicken are her favourite treats at the moment) and is never sick any more and the tablets are history. She’s putting on weight and her coat is glossy and full. She can even be left at home alone for up to 4 hours at a time quite happily. Best of all she doesn’t run away from her lead and loves the outdoors. She’s cheeky, funny, very loving and such a wonderful new addition to our family. It’s been a real joy watching her learn how to love being a dog again. The Dogs Trust didn’t give up on little Luna, or me. And thank goodness for that.

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A chance meeting on a train + clever little girl = Knitbone Pepper school visit!

Some things are just meant to happen. This is one of those things.

A year ago I sat next to a young girl on a train from London to Devon. I was editing the final draft of Knitbone Pepper and she was reading her holiday book, her mum sitting across the aisle. We got chatting about animals and holidays and I explained that I was an author. She said that she really liked books and asked me if I might be able to come to her school. I said that I hoped so, although I lived very far away and i didn’t know if I would be coming to London. Then I got off the train at Tiverton and waved goodbye.

Eight months later an email pinged into my inbox:

“I don’t know if you remember me but I am the young girl with very red hair who sat next to you on the train going to Exeter a few months ago…. My name is Lily and we talked about your new book and lots of other things….You did say you might be able to come to my school to talk about it too but I don’t know how to arrange this. If you are able to do this it would be really great.”

How could I resist?! It was a very bold and clever thing to do. Luckily I already had plans to visit a couple London schools, but I had one spare morning, just before I was due to head off to sign books at Tales On Moon Lane in Herne Hill. It clearly had Lily’s name on it.

So I picked up the phone, spoke to both Lily’s school and Usborne. Everybody thought it was a great idea and before you could say ‘Paddington Station’ it was all booked!

I received such a wonderful welcome at the school and it was SO BRILLIANT to see Lily again and get the chance to sign her book.LilyTanner