Find out how Catherine Johnson finds inspiration, and explore how a character’s convictions can be expressed through clothing!
Originally published in Pop Up Magazine.
A bold and colourful picture book with a heart-warming story about always being yourself.
Arnold blends right in with his bright pink flamingo family. Then a growling gang of lions stops by and demands that Arnold should be more lion-like, just like them. Poor Arnold tries but misses his old life. But then his flamingo family is threatened by the growling gang. Is this the moment when Arnold will find his roar?
London 1800. Jupiter is young, black, living at the African Academy in Clapham with other boys from wealthy Sierra Leonean families. His life is a mixture of privilege and dispossession as he copes with the cruelty of his teachers, the rivalries and tensions among his schoolmates, a sense of duty towards his younger brother Robert and guilt over the death of another brother in Africa. Throughout, Jupiter strives to maintain his dignity, his Christian faith and pride in his roots.
But beyond the relative ease of Clapham lies another London, where poor black communities struggle for survival along the squalid reaches of the Thames. A world where Jupiter’s education and background mean nothing and skin colour alone determines fate. Into this world his younger brother Robert vanishes, and Jupiter is obliged to follow …
The grown-ups are having a party, and Meena would really love to join in but instead she’s sent to bed. Only grown-ups get to stay up late. So the next day she makes a very important announcement to her parents: “I’m actually really grown-up now!”
In this very funny story we join Meena as she plans her very own grown-up party and explores what it REALLY means to be a grown up. She has a lot of fun experimenting with fashion, going to work and party planning, but she soon finds out that being grown-up might not always be as easy as it seems.
I’m Actually Really Grown-Up Now by Maisie Shearring is the follow-up to the wonderful Anna and Otis. Maisie has a special talent for capturing the bittersweet highs and lows of childhood and the humour to be found in everyday situations.
Anna and Otis the snake are great friends and they love having fun together. But Otis knows people are scared of snakes, so he usually just plays at home or in the garden. He is nervous when Anna suggests a new adventure.
At first people are afraid, and Otis feels he isn’t welcome in the town. But Anna encourages Otis not to give up, and it soon turns out that maybe snakes aren’t as scary as people thought! The hairdresser enjoys shampooing a reptile for a change, and at the skate shop Sally has a lot of fun fitting Otis with his own set of awesome wheels.
Anna and Otis is full of endless rich details to spot and Maisie’s artwork is a real treat to pore over.
Hello, I hope you enjoy using my resources.
Please note, Star Dancer is currently being re-printed, and should be available in January 2020.
This resource is in two parts.
Part 2, below, is notes to help your class dream up and structure writing ideas using the same process.
Part 1, which you can find here, is an outline of how I thought of Star Dancer and put it together – with photos of places and things that inspired me.
How to create a story using setting
First, find somewhere interesting to write. It can be out in the open:
Or visiting a country house:
Next, imagine yourself as someone who might live or work there.
Take time to put yourself into that person’s life. Do some research, what was their life like? What did they eat or drink, what did they wear?
Try dressing up as your main character. Wearing long robes or hooped skirts changes how you walk and move. Oddly enough, it also changes how you think of yourself. Try it, get long dresses, cloaks or robes from a charity shop or the school drama department.
Wearing long woollen druid robes like mine make running difficult, but they do keep me warm and dry, even in awful weather.
As you go – make notes!
Would your characters walk everywhere? Or would they have travelled by boat or horse? Tegen and Griff had to cross the Somerset marshes by trackways made out of woven sticks, or by coracle.
I don’t suggest you try this, but when I was writing Star Dancer, I was struggling with a scene where Tegen loses her shoes in muddy snow. The following day I was out walking and I got stuck in sucky-snowy mud and lost my boot. The experience really helped me write that scene!
Imagine yourself actually doing all the things your characters do. Go to museums and re-enactment days, try cooking and eating food your characters would recognise. (There are lots of useful websites for every historical period and culture). Get a real feel for what your character’s lives would have been like in detail.
BIG TIP: Once you’ve chosen your setting, take the time to sit still, then one by one use all your senses. If your story is a modern one, you can think of things as they are, but if you’re working on something historical, take care to remember the feel of rough woollen clothes and maybe walking bare-footed, even in winter. Your character will probably have head lice and terrible spots – even if they’re rich.
Remember your research into the taste and textures of their food and the stream water they’d drink (don’t try this one either, just imagine).
Don’t forget to make notes! (Nag nag – but it is important!)
Social context and making the story ‘relate-able’
Look up the social history of the times your story is set. Think about whether your character is rich or poor and what their home would have been like. Did they feel safe? What sort of problems and dangers would their world offer? For example, if you were a woman or a serf (a semi slave) in the middle ages, you’d have had a pretty hard life. But even a rich nobleman would have had to obey the king – and the king probably lived in fear of being murdered, so no one’s life was easy and safe.
Next, Would your character have been treated well or badly by their family or those around them? Who might care for them or abuse them?
Why? In Star Dancer, Griff was abandoned as a tiny baby because he has Down’s Syndrome, and his mother thought he was ‘useless.’ Tegen’s parents adopted him out of compassion, but they also believe he’ll be a good worker if carefully taught. In the end, they learn to love him.
Give your main character a real problem
Think about how people with physical and learning disabilities may have been treated in the world you are creating. How are people of fluid gender or in same-sex relationships treated? Might your character be one of these? Some societies have a great deal of respect for people they perceive as ‘different’, these people are believed to be closely in touch with their gods or ancestors. Other societies (like the Nazi regime) treated people who weren’t perfect in body, mind, or who weren’t cis-binary as outcasts. They saw them as less than human, to be disdained, experimented on, then put in the gas chambers.
In Star Dancer, Griff has Down’s Syndrome, but he is far from stupid. He’s also the best man in the whole village because of his love, loyalty, insights and dignity. So why did people belittle him? If your characters have problems, think about how they are treated.
Consider Griff’s part in the story, could Tegen have done what she did without him? By the way, Griff is based on a real person I had the privilege of knowing once. Nothing about him is made up. Think about really interesting people you know; do they give you ideas for the characters in your story?
I think it’s interesting if a story character has a problem like a disability, someone is prejudiced against them, or they face life difficulties like being bullied. These give the story depth and make it more ‘real’ so people can relate to the story. No one wants to read about people who are perfect. In the next book, Fire Dreamer, Tegen travels with Owain who has a broken leg which hasn’t set properly, the injury changes his entire life. Like Tegen, Owain also struggles with prejudice, especially in Stone Keeper (book 4). Tegen also faces bullying and attempted rape from Gorgans, and Derowen bullies both Griff and Tegen – there seems no escape.
You could also think about giving your character moral quandaries. Tegen and her companions such as Griff, Kieran and Owain face these in every book.
Whatever problem you give your character, make it matter — keep it personal and something your reader can relate to.
Why is your character important?
Why should your reader want to read about your character? What’s important about them? Give them a BIG want or need to drive them on. Again, make sure your reader can relate to it.
Oddly enough, thinking about the ending of your story will help you write the middle. If you know where your character is going, it’ll help you get them there. If they don’t have a big driving goal, they’ll wander around the story aimlessly and you’ll struggle with the ending. I go into this in more detail here:
The Story Stair looks simple, but don’t be put off, it will offer you structure for really complex work. I won’t go into it all here, but here’s a ‘Story Stair’ an ex student was rather proud of:
The antagonist or ‘baddie’
Tegen and Griff both face the devious conniving of Gorgans and Derowen in Star Dancer. Before the book was published, my editor asked me why Gorgans and Derowen hated Tegen and Griff so much. I wrote a brief back story for both of them and discovered dramatic depths I hadn’t imaged before; it helped me do some really constructive re-writing. Understanding why people are the way they are makes the story 1000 x better. Try it!
I’d also recommend you make a story stair for your antagonist as well – are they competing for the same goal as the protagonist (hero/ine)? Why does your antagonist hate the protagonist, why are they trying to stop them?
Understanding the antagonist’s drives and goals will again, give the story depth and perspective.
The Twist and the Reveal
It’s always fun to put a twist somewhere into your story. As Star Dancer comes to its climax, we discover that the real enemies aren’t Gorgans and Derowen, and the real threat isn’t the invading Romans, but they are all being used to a darker and more sinister end.
Try teasing your reader a little, allow them to believe they can guess the ending of the tale, then at the last minute, pull back the curtains of your readers’ minds, and reveal a wider picture. BUT you HAVE to drop clues in on the way to hint at what the solution could be – otherwise it’s cheating!
I’ve got more help for writers here: https://www.bethwebb.co.uk/advice-for-writers
I hope this has been of use, and I look forward to reading some of your stories.
It’s 1987 and Ira and Zac are being uprooted once again, this time to Skilly House, a home for social care children. Their lives over the next few years are beautifully realised amongst the antipathy of the authorities, the drama of the poll tax riots and the moments of peace and hope Ira finds at Skilly and further afield. This is a memorable and moving tale about growing up, making friends and finding a home.
Hello, I hope you enjoy using my resources.
Please note, Star Dancer is currently being re-printed, and should be available in January 2020.
This resource is in two parts.
Part 1, below, is an outline of how I thought of Star Dancer and put it together – with photos of places and things that inspired me.
Part 2, which you can find here, is notes to help your class dream up and structure writing ideas using the same process.
How I wrote Star Dancer
I first thought of writing Star Dancer when I took my creative writing students to the Peat Moors Visitors Centre in Somerset (sadly, no longer there). The site was a big field with Iron Age roundhouses, a stream with a hollowed-out boat, woven trackways though the reeds and the mud, weaving looms, and rotary and saddle querns for grinding grain. It was a brilliant place; you could have a go on almost everything. There were people in costume and even goats, chickens and ducks running around.
I always teach my students to daydream – and sitting on a rough wooden stool in the Peat Moors Centre was the perfect place to do it. While my students were dreaming up their own stories, I imagined the people who’d lived in a village like this two thousand years ago.
In those days, society was led by druids – men (and some women) who were poets, musicians, storytellers, historians, teachers, healers, politicians. They also studied the stars and made prophecies. The druids particularly liked comets and shooting stars as they were meant to be signs of important events or great people being born.
I imagined a teenage girl – Tegen, and her foster brother Griff. Griff is a ‘half head’ – he has what we’d call Down’s Syndrome. I wondered about their lives, who they were, what they wanted or needed, and why they were special enough to have a story written about them.
Tegen, as imagined by Tom Ralls http://www.tomralls.com/
and this is Griff as I imagine him:
It’s often useful to start writing with a concept – an idea you want to explore or explain. I’m very keen on people being allowed to fulfil their dreams. I started to think, what if Tegen and Griff both had dreams they couldn’t fulfil? What gifts might they have they weren’t allowed to use?
Maybe Tegen wasn’t allowed to do something important because she was a girl, and no one listened to Griff because people thought he was ‘thick’ (which he’s not!). That’d make a story that readers can really relate to.
My next question was, what’s the major story event that Tegen and Griff must respond to?
Then I thought, what if the druids have read in the stars that something awful is about to happen? They’ve heard the Romans have invaded and are taking over the land, so they’re looking for a hero urgently!
The druids believe that a child born when the stars dance, (a meteorite shower) will be magical enough to turn the evil aside. This will be their ‘Star Dancer,’ a boy child who they’ll train up as a great warrior-magician to defeat the Romans.
What use were a girl and a half-head boy – even if they were born while the stars danced?
I’d found my story!
Here are some photos of other images and ideas that inspired me:
Somerset in Flood
When Tegen was alive, most of Somerset flooded every winter. (‘Somerset’ probably comes from old Saxon ‘Somer-sette’ meaning summer fields). This flooded landscape is pretty much as Tegen would have known it. When she leaves her home in later books, she uses the name ‘Tegen of the Winter Seas.’
Tegen discovers she can do magic by dancing.
The ancient British believed that yew trees were a sort of ‘doorway’ between this work and Tir na nÓg, the world beyond – where spirits lived.
This yew is in Ashbrittle in Somerset, and is 4,000 years old, and so would probably have been used in rituals 2000 years before Tegen was born.
And this is the great circular chamber at Wookey Hole. Archaeology in the further cave (beyond where the light is shining in the middle) has shown that the dead were put there in ancient times. People believed that water = life, so if you put your dead at a source of water, it’d help them to be re-born (they believed in reincarnation.)
I love these caves, and it’s where the final show-down of the book takes place.
Tegen finds her courage and Griff proves he’s a better man than anyone else in the village.
Just to put a sinister twist to the story…
A much greater threat than the Romans that has slithered out from Tir Na nÓg, the land of the Beyond…
No sword can stand against it.
No spells can bind it.
But Tegen and Griff might just have what it takes to defeat it, if only they can find a way to use their gifts.
Time for a break
My friend Ernie Bell wrote this song for Tegen when he read my book. (Ernie is the druid dressed in white and playing the bodhran in the picture above)
If you get an idea that really grabs you – try doing different things with it. It might not be a story, try writing it as a poem, a song – or why not give it a go as music or dance?
Six thousand years ago. Evil stalks the land. Only twelve-year-old Torak and his wolf-cub companion can defeat it. Their journey together takes them through deep forests, across giant glaciers, and into dangers they never imagined.
In this page-turning, original, and spectacularly told adventure story, Torak and Wolf are joined by an incredible cast of characters as they battle to save their world, in this first book in the Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series.
From the slums to the circus, a mixed-race Victorian boy seeks a place to belong. Ted lives with his mum and poorly big brother in the city of Bradfield. When a stranger turns up in their kitchen, Ted gets two big surprises. Firstly, the man – Pablo Fanque – is the first black circus owner in Britain. Secondly, he is Ted’s father. Before Ted can recover from his shock, he’s sent away with Pablo to learn the tricks of the circus trade. Pablo is determined that Ted should follow in his footsteps. But Ted isn’t at all keen on this terrifying new life among strangers. Can he adapt to it? And will he ever see his mother and brother again?