Why the British tell better children’s stories (or do they?)


I recently came across this article in The Atlantic, entitled ‘Why the British Tell Better Children’s Stories‘. Its main premise is that classic British children’s books are almost all fantasies – such as The Wind in the Willows, Alice in Wonderland, Winnie-the-Pooh, Peter Pan, The Hobbit, James and the Giant Peach, Harry Potter, and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe – while American children’s classics, like Little House in the Big Woods, The Call of the Wild, Charlotte’s Web, The Yearling, Little Women, and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer are much more about realistic, moralistic portrayals of day-to-day life on the frontier. The British stories, the author contends, by their very nature stretch children’s imaginations further, while even American fantasies like The Wizard of Oz are rooted in realism and often have a moral message at the end.

“If British children gathered in the glow of the kitchen hearth to hear stories about magic swords and talking bears, American children sat at their mother’s knee listening to tales larded with moral messages about a world where life was hard, obedience emphasized, and Christian morality valued. Each style has its virtues, but the British approach undoubtedly yields the kinds of stories that appeal to the furthest reaches of children’s imagination.”

One of the things about growing up in Australia (and I suspect the same is true for Canada) is that you often get a mix of both British and American culture without really realising it. Up until the twentieth century, Australians still generally saw themselves as resolutely British, and this was reflected in much of the culture and literature, although a sense of ‘Australian-ness’ began to develop in the late 1800s. After World War II, not only did the American cultural influence begin to grow, but Australia also began to develop a rich children’s literary culture of its own.

So I was raised on all the British kids’ books listed above (plus The Famous Five, Beatrix Potter’s animal stories and Arthur Ransome’s brilliant Swallows and Amazons series), as well as a fair few of the American ones (most notably Charlotte’s Web and Little Women).  Australian classic children’s literature tends to be a mixture of styles, like Seven Little Australians (about a family of prankster children in 1880s Sydney), which is much closer to an American-style frontier story than a British fantasy, or, on the other end of the spectrum, The Magic Pudding, Blinky Bill, Snugglepot and Cuddlepie or The Muddle-Headed Wombat which are straight-up bush fantasies.

It’s probably no coincidence that, although I still love reading children’s and young adult books, I prefer the fantasy over the ‘moral’ stories. That said, one of my all-time favourite children’s books is Anne of Green Gables, by Canadian author L.M. Montgomery. Although it’s not a fantasy – in fact it’s very much in the ‘chronicles of day-to-day life’ mould – its heroine, Anne Shirley, indulges in flights of whimsy and imagination that I find delightful and enchanting . There is a moral element to it, but only in as much as Anne’s imaginings frequently get her into trouble and she learns her lesson. In contrast, I found its American equivalent, Pollyanna, to be so righteously insufferable that I couldn’t bear to finish it.

The comparison between Anne of Green Gables (or Seven Little Australians) and Pollyanna seems to me to reflect cultural differences in worldview and especially in humour. Australians and Canadians, for the most part, have inherited our British forefathers’ ironic, absurdist, self-deprecating humour, while American humour, in my experience, tends to be more literal (that’s not to say one culture or country is funnier than another, but just that they’re quite different). Australians in particular also love an underdog story and get suspicious of people who appear too perfect (the downside of which is the infamous tall-poppy syndrome), which stands in stark contrast to the ideals of the American Dream. The Atlantic article also goes into quite a bit of depth about the effect of landscape and mythology on the development of the different literary canons, which I won’t rehash here, but which is also rather fascinating.

I’m very thankful that I was brought up on such a breadth of literature (for which I can thank my mum), and I find it sad and rather irritating that the current publishing trend is to tailor all non-American books to fit American cultural norms (the changes made to Harry Potter being perhaps the most notorious in recent years), because how can kids be expected to develop an awareness of other countries and cultures if all the defining features of ‘foreign’ literature are sanitised? That’s an argument for another day; all I know is that if and when I have kids of my own I intend to expose them to literature from all over – and not just the Anglosphere.

I’m really interested to hear about your favourite children’s stories, especially if you grew up in a non-English speaking country. Why did they resonate with you and how do they reflect the culture in which they’re written? Please let me know in the comments.

New Year giveaway

Happy New Year all! I hope that 2016 has so far been good to you.

To celebrate, I’m running a special giveaway. If you sign up to my mailing list in January you’ll go in the running to win a signed copy of Greythorne or a $25 Amazon gift voucher. The prizes will be drawn at the end of the month and the two lucky winners notified in early February. Plus you get free access to exclusive updates, first-look book excerpts, reviews and more!

Twine and Slate


Ball of hemp twineCochem slates

As I may have mentioned before, I love storytelling. And one of the most exciting things for me about the way technology is currently evolving is the proliferation of new storytelling tools. I’ve recently started playing around with two of these: Twine and Adobe Slate. They do very different things but are both very cool in their own ways.

Twine is open-source software that’s been around for a few years (it was first developed in 2009) but a major upgrade, Version 2.0, was released fairly recently. It’s part-video game, part-storytelling device: basically it allows you to develop non-linear ‘choose your own adventure’-style stories.  You design your story as a flowchart with a series of linking passages, so that the choices a player makes send them down different paths (see the screenshot below). It’s essentially a digital version of the Choose Your Own Adventure books that were really popular when I was a kid.

Twine screenshot
From here.

You can make a basic story in Twine without any coding knowledge (although it’ll look pretty boring – just black text on a white background) but even a basic understanding of HTML and CSS (and JavaScript if that’s your thing) will let you pretty it up considerably. I’m very new to the whole coding thing and I’m finding it a great way to learn (with the assistance of HTML tutorials like this one).

I’m currently using Twine to develop a supplementary story and teaching resource for Greythorne – if you’d like to know more about it and get the chance to play it before it goes live please subscribe to my newsletter.

Adobe Slate is a visual storytelling program for desktop and iPad that allows you to create photo essays, newsletters, albums etc by combining text and photos. It’s very slick and the results are lovely – I haven’t had the chance to play much with it yet but it also seems to be quite straightforward to use. The downside is that your stories are stored on Adobe’s servers so you have to link back to them rather than having direct control over the files (unlike Twine, which allows you to export an HTML file that you can embed anywhere) and you need a (free) Adobe account to use it. So basically they’re giving you a funky tool in exchange for your data and pushing traffic to their website, but that’s a deal I’m personally happy to make for now. I don’t know how much I’ll use Slate in relation to Greythorne, but I can think of some applications for it in some of my other ventures, so I have a feeling it’ll come in handy.

What are some of your favourite digital storytelling tools?

Anatomy of a Novel Part 3: Road trip

In this series of posts I’m going to be giving you a warts-and-all look at the process of writing my next novel. Click here for Part 1 and Part 2.

Nepean River, Camden, NSW. Postcard company: Valentine's No. 3224
Nepean River, Camden, NSW. Postcard company: Valentine’s No. 3224. From here.

A couple of weekends ago we had to go to a wedding at Camden, which is a smallish town at the northern end of the Southern Highlands, about an hour’s drive south of Sydney (in fact it’s basically become a commuter town due to Sydney’s ridiculous sprawl). For various reasons, the wedding was on a Monday, so we decided to make a long weekend of it and explore the region, as this is the area where I’m planning to set The Dark Before the Dawn, and I really don’t know as much about it as I should.

The Southern Highlands is a gorgeous and fascinating part of the world, and if you’re ever visiting eastern Australia I can highly recommend it as a place for a weekend away. Situated on the Great Dividing Range – the mountain range that runs thousands of kilometres down the east coast of Australia, from southern Queensland to Victoria – the environment is all towering eucalyptus forests, sandstone gorges and meandering rivers. In the autumn the foliage is nothing short of spectacular.

Fitzroy Falls
Fitzroy Falls

The region is full of historic towns, beautiful bushwalks and great food and wine. It’s also got an amazing history, if that’s your thing – these towns were some of the first settlements on mainland Australia and were at the heart of the country’s developing wheat and wool industries.

This history is one of the main reasons I chose this area for the setting of The Dark Before the Dawn – because it’s brimming with bushrangers (like highwaymen or outlaws) and adventures and ghost stories and folklore. In short, it’s a rich vein for a writer like me and I don’t know why I didn’t think of mining it earlier. I suspect there’s the good old Australian ‘cultural cringe‘ involved – one of the things about growing up Australian is that most of us remain generally ignorant about the richness of our own history, as it’s not taught much in school (or at least wasn’t in my day). This is even more true when it comes to Indigenous history – it’s embarrassing how ignorant I am of Aboriginal history and culture.

Anyway, since we were in the area I decided to visit some of the places I’d been thinking about in the context of the story, and the first stop was Bargo. Bargo was an important staging post before the railway went through, and the infamous Bargo Brush was home to the highest concentration of bushrangers in the colony (the Bargo Brush was a particularly thick type of scrubby bush, which made it perfect for bushrangers to hide out in and attack coaches). I’d expected Bargo to be a historic town like Bowral, Camden or the other smaller Southern Highlands villages, with their colonial architecture and museums, but I was sorely disappointed – there was nothing there but a meagre collection of shops and a cluster of houses that wouldn’t have been out of place in the suburbs of Melbourne or Sydney. We stopped for lunch at the local takeaway joint (which did pretty good burgers, I have to say) and then went on our way.

We spent  most of the next day at the fabulous Trainworks museum at Thirlmere, which is all about the development of rail in New South Wales and is full to the brim (the site is 5 hectares/12.3 acres) with restored carriages and locomotives of various vintages. It’s a paradise for kids and fascinating for adults if you have any interest in infrastructure or history (or, obviously, trains). The coming of the railway in the mid-1860s revolutionised the colony – where it once would have taken a week to get from Sydney to Goulburn by coach (a distance of about 200km), it could be done overnight on the train. The implications for farmers in southern NSW were enormous – suddenly it was possible to get their produce to Sydney before it spoilt, opening up whole new markets.

The 'pay bus' at Trainworks, Thirlmere. This 'bus on rails' used to travel the NSW rail network in the early 20th century delivering the workers' paycheques.
The ‘pay bus’ at Trainworks, Thirlmere. This gorgeous art deco ‘bus on rails’ used to travel the NSW rail network in the early 20th century delivering the workers’ paychecks.

Thirlmere is just down the road from Picton, and this is where I found the history I’d been looking for. Picton is another old staging town, at the foot of the escarpment known as the Razorback. The original road over the Razorback was hand-built by convicts and apparently there are still old milestones nestled in the forest. We stayed at the lovely Pepper Tree Ridge bed-and-breakfast and had a good chat with the host, Barry, who recommended the local historical society and museum if I wanted to find out about the region’s ghosts and bushrangers. Australian country town historical societies are an untapped wealth of records and stories compiled by people who are passionate about their districts and who often come from families who have been there for generations. Unfortunately we didn’t have time on this trip, but I feel a proper research visit is in order very soon. All my other books have been set in either fantastical worlds or areas that aren’t directly accessible to me (like northern England), so it’s quite a novelty to be able to explore a setting in my own backyard – it really brings it to life.

The launch

Last Friday night, Greythorne was officially launched at Paperchain Bookstore by award-winning Canberra horror author Kaaron Warren, and I may be biased but I think it went splendidly.  Kaaron and I had a bit of a Q&A about the writing process and what inspired Greythorne, then I read a couple of excerpts, including the description that inspired Pamela Horsely’s fabulous painting of Professor Greythorne (which I’ve written about in more detail here), then we opened it up to the audience for questions. They were a wonderful audience and asked some really interesting questions — I couldn’t have asked for more. I had a really fun night and I’d like to thank all those who helped make it a success, especially Kaaron, the wonderful staff at Paperchain, everyone who attended, and my husband Tristan, who took these lovely photos.

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Anatomy of a Novel Part 2: Post-project blues

In this series of posts I’m going to be giving you a warts-and-all look at the process of writing my next novel. Part 1 can be viewed here.

Art blues

A couple of days after I wrote about unexpectedly bombing out of NaNoWriMo, this article from ArtsHub, ‘Eight ways to deal with post-project blues’, fortuitously popped up in my Facebook feed. It was quite a revelation to me, because I hadn’t realised that what I’ve been feeling lately is actually kind of normal for artists (of all persuasions) coming to the end of a major project. This part in particular rang especially true:

For cabaret artist and jazz singer Mama Alto, post-show blues take the form of exhaustion and deep questioning. While the exhaustion passes over time, the questioning is the scary part, said Alto. ‘The mind races: What will I do next? What’s the next step? What’s my next project? Has the work been received favourably?

‘These questions sometimes devolve into unhelpful, overly critical, and unrealistic perspectives. Am I good enough? Was this work good enough? If it was, how on earth can my next work be as good? Am I a fraud?’

The tl;dr version of the eight tips is this:

  1. Accept that it’s normal
  2. Understand that you’re experiencing loss
  3. Face down the critic within
  4. Learn to anticipate the blues
  5. Take a break
  6. Start thinking about the next project
  7. Look after yourself
  8. Don’t forget to celebrate the achievement

I’ve found all of these to be really helpful, and the good news is I’m starting to find my way back through an unexpected avenue. Sometimes when I’m at a bit of a creative loss I go back and look at some of my old writing to see if there’s anything worth resurrecting, even just the glimmer of an idea that has merit. Lurking in my ‘Stories’ folder (which is a treasure trove of 20 years’ worth of writing – some of which I still can’t bear to look at) is a 70,000 word young adult fantasy manuscript called Dragonscale that is so close to being finished I can almost taste it (although when I say ‘finished’ I mean a first draft – there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done after that). And, surprisingly, parts of it aren’t too bad. Even better, I wrote it during an obsessive ‘plotting’ stage, so there’s also a meticulous chapter-by-chapter outline and backstory. So I can pretty much pick up where I left off, even though the last time I worked on it was two years ago.

I have no idea if this manuscript will ever see the light of day, even after it’s finished – it’s very different to Greythorne and doesn’t really fit with my new incarnation as a horror writer. But it’s the book that taught me how to write, and so I feel that I owe it to the story to at least finish it.  Quite a few of the Greythorne reviews have mentioned that it doesn’t read like a debut novel, and that’s because it’s not. Although it’s the first novel I’ve published, Dragonscale is what I cut my novelist’s teeth on and where I found my voice. It’s no wonder really that it’s been eight years in the making. It’s also just a fun story – I enjoy spending time with the characters and it’s a good old fantasy romp. The Dark Before the Dawn will not be either of those things – the protagonist and the plot are far darker and more complex, and I just don’t have the emotional energy for that right now. Ultimately, I write because it brings me joy, and what I’ve learned over the last little while is that stories have their own time and place. For whatever reason, it seems that now is Dragonscale‘s time. I’ll keep you posted.

Anatomy of a Novel Part 1: Learning to be kind

In this series of posts I’m going to be giving you a warts-and-all look at the process of writing my next novel, an Australian Gothic thriller tentatively titled The Dark Before the Dawn.

Ruins in Joadja, NSW. From here.
Ruins in Joadja, NSW. From here.

The first week of NaNoWriMo is over, and to be honest it’s been a bit of a bust for me. I have a grand total of 3685 words so far across one-and-a-bit chapters (i.e. practically nothing). Unfortunately this week I was struck down with a bad case of Murphy’s Law – everything that could go wrong did. Work went crazy, home life was hectic and getting up early to write suddenly became very difficult. The evenings and weekends have been spent alternately catching up on life admin and binge-watching episodes of Castle, because I don’t have much energy left right now at the tail-end of a very big year and it’s easier to watch a TV show about a writer than to actually be one.

Had this happened during my first crack at NaNoWriMo (the one that produced Greythorne), I’d probably be beating myself up pretty badly right about now. But I’ve come to value the NaNo experience not so much for the word count as for the things it teaches me about writing and about myself.

As I’ve mentioned before, last time around NaNoWriMo taught me discipline. I learned that if you just keep showing up day after day you’ll eventually get somewhere. But this time around I’m learning to be a bit kinder to myself. I no longer have to prove to myself that I can do it – I know I can. The proof is sitting there in boxes on my living-room floor. Writing a novel is hard – especially psychologically – but it’s not the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And sometimes the shit hits the fan and all your best-laid plans get thrown completely out of whack, and that’s ok. I’m fortunate in that I’m not up against a deadline, so I have the luxury of sitting back and letting things unfold at their own pace. And given my perfectionist tendencies, this has all come as a bit of an epiphany.

One of the things I’ve been struggling with in those 3685 words is trying to get a sense of authenticity. It was only after I started writing that I began to realise I’ve fallen into the trap I’m always warning beginning writers about – I haven’t read enough of the genre I want to write. Looking back, I can see just how much nineteenth-century British adventure/horror fiction I’d read before I started Greythorne, and how that made it so much easier to tap into the tropes of the genre and make it sound authentic. Trying to transpose the Gothic themes to an Australian setting is proving much harder, because it’s the first time I’ve ever written anything set in my home country.

Throughout NaNoWriMo you get sent pep talks from experienced writers and, as fate would have it, this one popped into my inbox this week from graphic novel author and artist Gene Luen Yang. This is what he had to say about ‘writer’s block’ (which is a term I don’t much like, but I’ll rant about that another day):

Writer’s block can kick the wind right out of you. When I was just starting out, a serious bout of writer’s block would make me question my worth as a writer. Maybe the ideas weren’t coming because I wasn’t creative enough, or clever enough. Maybe I wasn’t meant to be a writer.

Now I realize that I just didn’t have enough input. Your brain doesn’t generate ideas out of thin air. It generates ideas by taking what it’s already experienced and reshaping it in new and interesting ways. If you’re not getting good output, maybe it’s because you haven’t taken in enough input.

When writer’s block hits, do research. Flip through old photographs. Watch a documentary. Read a nonfiction book, preferably one that’s been out of print for years. Visit a place you’ve never been and talk to people you don’t know. Gather input.

This input-output equation makes so much sense to me, and reading this confirmed what I’d already suspected – I just haven’t read enough yet. I like to think of it a bit like music. I’m a pretty average musician – I play piano and euphonium and sing, and I love it, but I’ll never be a concert pianist or an opera singer. I have only a basic knowledge of music theory, but lately I’ve been dabbling in a bit of songwriting. I know the kinds of things I like, and occasionally I get lucky and hit on something magical, but I couldn’t tell you why it works. Compare that to  the jazz musician who’s had years of training before even starting to improvise. It’s only by knowing the rules that they can break them and go to incredible places. Writing is exactly the same. You don’t read the genre because you want to copy it – you read it to gain a knowledge of how things are done, so that you can then make conscious technical decisions to change them to achieve your desired effect. As far as Australian Gothic goes, I’m still just plunking away and occasionally getting lucky, so I’ve realised it’s time to go back to basics before I can even think about putting my own spin on it. So I may have only 3685 words but, with that realisation, I think I can still count NaNo a success so far.

And now I’m off to read some books.

Writing with tomatoes

Tomato kitchen timer

It’s November 1, which means NaNoWriMo has started, and I’ve had to bite the bullet and begin my new novel. I’m now remembering all the reasons I both love and hate writing the first draft. I love it because it’s really exciting watching a story unfold before you – seeing the characters develop in unexpected ways and it going places you never envisaged. But I hate it because I can’t help feeling I don’t know what I’m doing – I have a vague idea about the beginning and the end but the middle is a big blank at the moment and that’s a bit scary.

I’ve decided to try a couple of new things this time around. The first is using Scrivener, a word-processing program designed for large writing projects like novels, which lets you draft your manuscript scene by scene, play with the structure and integrate all your research files. It also has full-screen mode, which lets you block out everything else on your desktop and just concentrate on writing, and in-built links to research tools like Google and Wikipedia (it also does a lot of other things, so it’s worth having a look at their website). Given the ridiculous number of MS Word files I had for Greythorne, I’ll be interested to see how well Scrivener’s integrated approach works for me.

The second thing I’m trialling is a time-management method called the Pomodoro Technique (so called because its inventor based it on a tomato-shaped kitchen timer like the one pictured above). The idea is that you write in 25-minute blocks called ‘pomodoros’, with short (3-5 minute) breaks in between, and a longer (15 minute) break after 4 pomodoros. You can either use a traditional manual timer or one of the many apps available for smartphones (which also time the breaks). The idea is that you’re more mentally agile if you take regular breaks. I haven’t been using it long, but I find that it’s easier psychologically in that I feel like I only have to concentrate for 25 minutes. So even if I’m planning a 2-hour writing session, it’s broken into manageable chunks. My aim while doing NaNoWriMo is to write from 6.30-8.30am every morning (after which I have to go to work), which is roughly 4 pomodoros. To complete 50,000 words during November you have to write 1,667 words a day, so we’ll see if the Pomodoro Technique can hold me to it! I’ll update you next week and let you know how it’s going…

What are your favourite methods for encouraging you to write?

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The next novel

Photo: AL (Flickr, http://bit.ly/1PO8sNp)
Photo: AL (Flickr, http://bit.ly/1PO8sNp)

In much the same way that people start asking you when you’re having kids about six months after you get married, now that Greythorne is out I’m starting to get questions about the next book.  Unlike the kid question, however, the timing is kind of perfect, because I’ve been turning over ideas for my next novel for a while now.

I’ve written before about NaNoWriMo and how taking part gave me the impetus to start (and finish) Greythorne. As luck would have it, NaNoWriMo 2015 is right around the corner – in fact, it starts next week, on 1 November – so I’ve decided to do it again and hope it works as well for the next book as it did for the last.

Truth be told, I’m a bit nervous. I’ve got a very rough idea of the story – it’s going to be another Gothic horror, but this time set in Australia and I’m very excited about the spooky possibilities of the Australian bush as a setting. And I’ve got three main characters, about whom at this stage I don’t know all that much, except that their names are Elizabeth King (the narrator, a squatter’s daughter who isn’t all she appears to be), Frederick Black (leader of a gang of bushrangers) and his sister Sarah. I have a vague beginning and a vague ending, and then a whole lot of blank space in between, which is both exciting and terrifying.

I kept a diary last time I did NaNoWriMo, and looking back at it I realise that I actually felt like this about Greythorne when I started – it’s just I’ve got so used to seeing the final polished version that I’ve forgotten what the bare bones of a book looks like. At least I have a better idea this time around what to expect of the actual process: the first week will be exciting and enjoyable as the story starts to take shape; the second week will be hellish as the novelty wears off and I get sick of having to get up early to write before work (and probably quite demoralising as I fall behind on my writing target); in the third week I’ll start to hit my stride, especially once I crack the all-important 25,000 words – the point at which the number of words left is less than the number you’ve already written; and by the fourth week I’ll hopefully be so engaged in the story that I’ll just want to keep up the routine.

I’m going to blog weekly about the process and how it’s going – partly because I want to share it with you (although books, like laws and sausages, may be something that it’s best not to see getting made) and partly to keep myself honest. I’m aiming for 35,000 words in November rather than the full 50,000 just because I have to squeeze my writing around work and other things, so I’ve decided to take the pressure off and be a bit kinder to myself this time around. Last time I did NaNoWriMo I finished with 32,000, so I think 35,000 is realistic.

As the story develops I also hope to be able to share some of the details with you (as I discover them), so if you’d like to be the first to get access to these exclusive excerpts please subscribe to my newsletter.

Book launches, parties, anything…

So I’ve now got a launch date for Greythorne – Fri 27 November, 6pm, at Paperchain Bookstore in Manuka, Canberra (more info available on my Facebook page, http://www.facebook.com/lmmerrington).

I guess the only thing to do now is actually organise it, which is exciting and terrifying in equal measure. There’s so much information out there about how to throw a successful book launch, but a lot of it seems geared to much bigger operations (and budgets) than mine – people who are promoting NYT bestsellers in New York, not debut novels in Canberra, which, despite being the capital city, is essentially a big country town.

And so I’m asking for your help – what do you think (as fellow readers and/or writers) makes a successful book launch? Theme or no theme? Giveaways (bearing in mind I’m on a pretty tight budget)? Any tips or tricks that have worked for you? Please let me know in the comments.