Building Blaggard’s – a guest post by Katherine Wiseman #GangsterSchool

final cover edit 2 v05.pngThis week, I’m delighted to be kicking off the Gangster School blog tour with a guest post from Kate Wiseman. I believe our environment shapes us dramatically, affecting our ever-changing moods and attitudes, and that setting is, therefore, incredibly important in fiction. World building has to be infallible, whatever your genre or theme or intended readership. so I shall hand you over to Kate and her excellent post on Building Blaggard’s, a school for gangsters…  

Writers are always being advised to write about what they know. If you’ve been a police officer, write a crime novel. If you’ve worked in a pet shop, write about working in a pet shop, etc, etc. So when I finally screwed my courage to the sticking place and decided to try to fulfil my lifetime’s ambition of writing a novel, the obvious choice for me was to write something based in a school.

I’d worked in schools for a long time, doing everything from mopping up sick in the kindergarten to helping teenagers with learning difficulties. Of course this isn’t exactly undiscovered territory, so I needed a way of making my school a bit different. Luckily enough the solution to that conundrum wasn’t hard to find, thanks to my son, Harry. As a small boy, he always answered queries regarding his ambitions for when he grew up by saying that he wanted to be an evil genius. He was a strange child. But it planted an idea in my mind – a school for evil geniuses!

I was off to a good start. The name for the school was quite easy to find. I wanted something that conveyed its criminal ethos. I grabbed my trusty thesaurus and looked up synonyms for evildoer. One of the first ones was blackguard, which I thought had the right swash-buckling ring to it. But lots of kids wouldn’t know that blackguard is pronounced blaggard, so I changed the spelling. Blaggard’s School for Tomorrow’s Tyrants was starting to take shape.

I’ve always loved history, especially the gory variety and it seemed important to me to know who had started Blaggard’s, and when, and what had happened to it since. Enter Sir Thomas Blaggard, born in a mud hut in London in Tudor times, eater of stinging nettles because there was nothing else available, bear wrestler and in time, the most successful villain in Tudor London. In my world, he cut off Anne Boleyn’s head and pinched her emerald necklace when the deed was done. Sir Thomas’ first wanted poster has pride of place in Blaggard’s reception. Other famous alumni followed. There’s Sir Bryon de Bohun, the Devilish Dandy and Blaggard’s most infamous ex student. He died when his bullied butler shook up a bottle of champagne and aimed the cork at his heart. His portrait is in Blaggard’s reception too, looking as if butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth. My favourite is Sally Masters, the 18th century highwaywoman. Her nickname is Blunderbuss Sally and she’s the idol of my protagonist, Milly Dillane.

Knowing the school’s history had a big influence in shaping its appearance and layout. In acknowledgement of its Tudor founder, Blaggard’s has a thatched roof (adorned with bear statues, Sir Thomas’ emblem, concealing remote controlled look out cameras) and half-timber walls. It also has a huge, arched front door that Sir Thomas pinched from the Tower of London because he thought it was important to set a bad example. Another example of how the school’s history shaped it can be found in the artefacts on display in the Assembly Hall. My favourite is the badly stuffed body of Sir Bryon de Bohun, a relic of Blaggard’s long-defunct and famously unsuccessful Taxidermy Club. It sits in a glass case and has proved surprisingly vital in several of the stories I’ve written so far.

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The gigantic spectre of Hogwart’s hovers over any attempt to write about school life, and I was keen to differentiate between Harry Potter’s haven and Blaggard’s School for Tomorrow’s Tyrants. One way that I tried to tackle this was by the introduction of numerous high tech touches. As well as the cameras in the swivelling bear heads, there are fingerprint detectors instead of registers and glass shields that spring up in front of the serveries in the dining room, when one of the frequent food-fights kicks off.

OK, I had a school, a rich history, a layout and a location (the sleepy town of Borage Bagpuize, where a stolen wheelbarrow merits a headline in the local paper). Now down to some of the logistical stuff.

For a start, what would the local Dependable (non criminal, to you and me) population think of having a school like Blaggard’s on its doorstep? Obviously they couldn’t know. The school needed a cover identity, so the sign outside Blaggard’s states that the school is Constance Bottomley’s Academy for the Rural Arts, specialising in sheep topiary and corn dolly weaving.

Then the lessons. This was tricky. There was an awful lot that that I couldn’t and didn’t want to include: murder, terrorism, torture, all the dark stuff. But would it be right to leave them out altogether? I consigned these to Blaggard’s rivals – Crumley’s School for Career Criminals, crouching on a hill like a medieval gargoyle. What were the skills that a criminal kingpin would need in order to climb to the top of the felonious tree? They’d need to be very good liars, so I introduced Fabrication (it sounds so much grander than lying). They should be willing to let anyone down at the drop of a hat, so Betrayal was added to the curriculum. They should be nasty and unpleasant so my favourite lesson, Defiance and Discourtesy, became a staple at Blaggard’s, taught by the unfailingly rude Jane Vipond. There are lots of others, of course.

I really feel that all the thought I put into building Blaggard’s was worth it. Knowing my setting came before knowing my characters and it has given rise to much of the madcap action that peppers the Gangster School books. With the introduction of Milly Dillane and Charlie Partridge, two secret Dependables from long established criminal families (to create an immediate problem and sense of their not belonging), I was ready to dive into a world where good is bad, bad is good and where apologising to a teacher lands you in detention.

I love writing about Gangster School. I find it devilishly entertaining and I promise that no useful criminal knowledge is imparted. Or am I Fabricating?

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About Kate Wiseman: Kate is a late developer when it comes to writing. She started writing Gangster School, her first novel, about five years ago. Early incarnations were shortlisted for three national kids’ lit prizes. Her first book deal was with Piper Verlag, Germany, who have published two Gangster School books to date, with two more to come (so far). She is proud to be the very first author chosen for publication by new Manchester-based publisher, ZunTold. The series will also commence publication in Holland in August this year. She is currently working on a new MG series. You can learn more about Kate here

 

 

 

 

 

Belonging to Your Tribe

fullsizerender-77There may be prehistoric wildcats, an amulet, imaginary worlds, a pet rat, and a mechanical shark submarine in the Nine Lives Trilogy, but behind it all is twelve-year-old Ebony Smart; a girl who just wants to belong.

So, why did I choose to write about belonging?

One reason is that I remember being the new girl in a school playground, looking around me and trying to figure out whom to talk to. And what I could possibly say. Everyone else was in a group or pair, and seemed quite happy with their little tribe. I can remember quite clearly that feeling of being on the outside, looking in through an invisible barrier and not knowing how to cross over it.

I also remember the times my brother and sister didn’t want me to join in their games. They were quite happy with how things were going, and adding me into the equation would feel like an interruption – so they didn’t want my input. At the time I felt crushed, even though I pretended that I didn’t care. Later, I would get my revenge by stopping one of them from joining in – but to be honest, it never felt like a nice thing to do and I felt just as bad as if I’d been left out.

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Some quiet storytelling

Another reason I wanted to look at the theme of belonging is because it’s an important part of our human existence. How could we have survived this long if we hadn’t formed social groups? We all need to belong to a tribe of some kind, so we can feel safe, loved, and respected. For some people, their tribe is their family; but not everyone is lucky enough to have a family for one reason or another. Your tribe might be your friends, your sports team, or a group of people that share your favourite hobby.

It can be difficult to find your tribe, and the dynamics will often shift. There’ll be awkward moments with fallouts, disagreements and upset, but these will usually sort themselves out over time and with a bit of effort. When you belong, it’s just as much about forgiveness and compromise as it is about having fun and enjoying each other’s company. You might have to bite your tongue or apologise sometimes, but your tribe will do the same for you. There’s no right or wrong way to belong – so long as your tribe makes you feel safe, happy, and confident, and you feel like you can be yourself, it’s a good fit.

But if you’ve ever felt lonely or left out like Ebony Smart, guess what? There’s probably someone else nearby feeling the exact same way. So why not seek them out and make your own tribe? Or, if you already belong, let them join in and see what they can add to your tribe? There are no invisible barriers – only the ones we create for ourselves.

(Note: post originally written for Girls Heart Books)

#1stdraftdiary – Week 1 (0-14,000)

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Mood lighting 🙂

This is an easier week than usual, because I’ve taken a week’s leave from freelancing. I have a chest infection that’s slowing me down a little, and it’s just two weeks since I delivered the proofs of The Book of Shadows – Nine Lives Trilogy 2. Also, I’m just back from Listowel Writers’ Week, as well as my Caramel Hearts launch in Dublin, so my energy is low – but time doesn’t stand still and it’s time to get cracking on The Book of Revenge – Nine Lives Trilogy 3! It’s due to publishers on October 31st & I’ll need it to be on at least draft 3 or 4 by then. Here goes…

#1stdraftdiary Day 1: Some words are stolen from deleted scenes from Book 2 (approx 300). Today was a real slog – it was difficult to switch off from the publication & (double) launch of Caramel Hearts, so it felt like I was connecting back with the characters and little more than that. Probably the hardest day of writing yet – and this is my fourth book so I didn’t expect that! Instead of feeling pleased that I’ve started, the day ended feeling rather glum. Word count: 2012

#1stdraftdiary Day 2: I decamp to a friend’s house for a change of scenery as a pick me up. She’s an artist and works with music on somewhere else in the house and I make an important discovery – I can work with music on if it’s not in the same room! This isn’t particularly relevant for me on a day-to-day basis because I live in a mobile home, so everything sounds like it’s in the same room! But it’s a discovery all the same. The change of walls, desk, light works and I manage to get a great word count down. I know that these are all the wrong words and usually I don’t care – but this time, I’m unsettled. As I close my computer down, I realise where I should have started and know I have to start again. I don’t usually do this, but the book is due September 30th & there isn’t much room for mistakes so I delete a whole chapter. Word count: 4521

#1stdraftdiary Day 3: And start again! But the day is warm and muggy and promising sun, and it’s calling to me. I walk the dog six miles instead of the usual three before it gets too hot. An essay I want to write keeps bugging me, so I decide to think about this when I’m walking, and then concentrate on my first draft when I am stationary. It works! The essay begins to form and then I sit at the water’s edge half way through the walk, writing more of my book using notebook and pen, moving now and again to avoid a pair of territorial swans. When I return home, I write up my thoughts on the essay, then type up the book. Because I started again (something I don’t usually do), I’ve gone backwards – this puts me 1500 words behind schedule. Word count: 3500

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7,200 words!!!

#1stdraftdiary Day 4: I finally connect with my old way of working. Thanks to a brief conversation with Celine Kiernan on twitter, I realise that the start has been slow because I know the characters (this is book 3 after all!!) so I’m automatically editing and criticizing, when usually I let these things go and write freely, without the little nagging voice. And so, I force that voice to switch off and gallop on, feeling much happier with the actual writing part! End of day, I’ve caught up a bit; still 800 words behind schedule but it’s early days and certainly nothing to worry about – plenty of time to catch up. Word count: 7200 

 

#1stdraftdiary Day 5: Woke up in a mild panic. The garden had to take priority, meaning a trip to Bantry to buy plants, then weeding the beds and planting before any work can get started. By 4.30, I still have 30 minutes of garden watering to do and no writing. Beating myself up severely about this for several hours of the day, but when I finally get to sit down, the words flow quite happily and I realise what a pain I’ve been to myself all day. Feeling rather joyous when I shut the computer down. Word count: 9100

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#1stdraftdiary Day 6: A great day in terms of word count: I catch up and get ahead of myself. However, I had to cancel a street party with a friend, and also abandon the dog to my husband for the day to make it. I’m finding that #1stdraftdiary is revealing plenty to me about the way I work and also, all the ups and downs. I hadn’t actually realised what a daily rollercoaster it is! I’m also receiving messages from other writers saying the project is inspiring them to get started / making them feel better about their own process / interesting to read. That makes it even more worthwhile. However, I may have overdone it as my mood plummets once the writing stops and that inner voice I’ve been silencing comes out in full force… (You didn’t walk, you lazy so and so. You didn’t give the dog enough attention. Did you do anything nice for anyone else today? Why haven’t you joined this, done that – who are you trying to kid? Etc etc until I distract myself with Western films). Word count: 12,700

#1stdraftdiary Day 7: The promise of an afternoon walk with my husband and dog in one of my favourite spots, Glengarriff woods, gets me up and at it early today, with my word count achieved by 12.30pm. And that’s it on until tomorrow – just a couple of interviews to finish and this blog post, and I’m done for this week! Word count: 14,100

Other achievements this week (like I say, it’s a quiet week):

  • 3 miles walk daily (except Day 5)
  • Newspaper pitches x2 – both accepted
  • Essay notes: 8 pages A4 (happy about this – wasn’t expecting it to sneak in!)
  • Updated invoices, chased unpaid invoices, updated expenses (phew! Relief!)
  • One online interview completed and sent
  • Hay bales brought in (251 in total)
  • Planted fennel, lettuce, kale, carrots, parsnips, beetroot, spinach, mint, sage, rosemary – almost cleared a wild patch but saw bees feeding on the buttercups and felt I should leave it until winter.
  • Travel for Belfast organised (this consists of a walk, a bus, and two trains each way – takes a bit of thought)
  • #1stdraftdiary project started
  • 2 blog posts written/posted
  • Social media for writing.ie

Summary: word count on track, enjoyment of writing process back up to speed, that feeling of being a fraud still niggling but being ignored – looking forward to a new week that includes four nights & three/four events (schools, bookshop & fun day marquee) at Belfast Book Festival.

7 great books about writing

If you’re a writer, you’re also a reader. And as you read you become increasingly aware of how many possibilities there are as a writer. Reading makes you want to explore new styles, try new things, and write something as great as (no, even better than!) that last incredible book you devoured in one sitting. The one that made you burn the toast/turn up late to pick up the kids/cancel that dinner with friends you’d been looking forward to for months.

To improve your writing, reading is essential. But so is practice. You have to write as often as possible to progress. That’s a fact. And although there are no specific ‘rights and wrongs’ when it comes to plot/style/character etc, you do have to make sure that your writing does was it’s meant to: it has to convince and entertain. In short, your writing needs to transport your reader to another world that is wholly believable, one where they want to stay long enough to finish the whole book/story/poem.

Writing classes and workshops are a huge help; to get the most out of the experience, make sure you respect the writer that is taking the course and that it is pitched at a level that suits where you are in your writing career. But sometimes, geographical, financial or other constraints can make it difficult to commit to a workshop. Thankfully, there are some excellent books available that will help you improve in all areas of your writing – from grammar and punctuation, to holding narrative tension and creating compelling characters, to coping with rejection and solitude (and the best thing is, it’s combining two of your favourite things!).

Here are seven of my top choices…

on writing stephen kingOn Writing by Stephen King – part biography, part toolbox, this is one of the most readable, straight-talking and honest books on writing that you’ll ever read. The overall message is that practice, improving your skills, finding your own style and perseverance are the key to writing success. This may not seem like a revelation, but King’s wit, advice and fluid style really helps convey important messages without being overly didactic or patronising.

Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee – although this book focuses on, the principles can be applied to any form of creative writing. Informative, insightful and downright impressive in its scope, McKee’s book is essential reading for anyone who wants to add magic to his or her writing. In case you need a bit more convincing, McKee’s former students include over 60 Academy Award Winners, 250 Academy Award Nominees, 170 Emmy Award Winners, 500+ Emmy Award Nominees (and the list goes on…)!

Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss – although punctuation is a dreaded topic for many, there’s no escaping it. Yes, copy-editors can help you in this area but as the world of publishing grows increasingly competitive, it’s more important than ever that your manuscript is as polished as possible when you submit it to agents and publishers. Thankfully, Truss debunks the subject while making it accessible and fun (yes really!).

How to write Picture Books by Ann Whitford PaulWriting Picture Books by Ann Whitford Paul – beautifully produced, this book offers all you need to see a picture book through from concept to completion. Through detailed examples of great children’s literature and step-by-step exercises designed to help you to improve your own writing, it is an invaluable addition to the bookshelf of any writer trying to break into the world of children’s picture books.


The Elements of Style
 by Strunk & White – Just like punctuation, grammar is an essential part of a writer’s toolbox and this book remains the best and the most concise. It covers everything you need to know in a slim, portable volume. Presenting the facts clearly and sensibly, this book considers elements of usage, composition and style – it’s a reliable all-rounder, so you won’t need another.

Creative Writing, A Practical Guide (3rdedition) by Julia Casterton – the reason I like this book is that it covers a wide range of topics across poetry and fiction, including narrative tension, developing characters, research techniques, performance and effective dialogue. The book also looks at a writer’s life; why people write, how they structure their day and cope with various aspects of being a writer. The structure is clear and the advice is sound; a great choice for those in the early stages of their writing journey.

mortificationMortification: Writers’ Tales of Their Public Shame by Robin Robertson – although it’s not about writing per se, this book plays an important role in helping writers cope with an inevitable part of their writing life: failure/rejection. Read about some of the nightmare book tours that famous writers have had to endure and enjoy the sense of camaraderie as you chuckle along with their blush-inducing tales.

If you know of any other noteworthy books on writing that may help other writers improve their craft, please let us know in the comments – we’d all really appreciate it! 

(Note, this article was originally written for writing.ie)

Big thank you

This is a quick festive blog post to say thank you all so much for your continuing support in 2013 – for taking time to read or comment on the blog, for feedback when I ask and for moral support when I don’t.

I wouldn’t be able to be as productive, focused or happy without you and I really appreciate your friendship. We all know writing is a solitary affair, and I think it’s as important as ever to maintain a friendly, supportive and inclusive environment. Thank you for the part you play.

Happy Christmas to you all and see you back here – refreshed, renewed & full of cheer – in 2014!

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Try something new

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Jelly rolls

I was having a chat with a friend the other day who was feeling a bit fed up. There was nothing particularly wrong, but the long nights, plummeting temperature and ghost-town effect on the village were getting to her.

It was one of those moments where you haven’t much to offer. The only thing I could come up with was – why not try something new? She looked a little taken aback, then thought for a moment and agreed…”I might just do that!”

Now that advice may sound obvious, but sometimes, we don’t see the answer staring us in the face. And trying something new isn’t always the right answer. Often, we use new experiences as an excuse to avoid the things we don’t want to do (if that sounds like you, see this article by Alison Wells on procrastinating procrastination).

But at other times, a new experience or skill is the tonic we need to keep life interesting and challenging. As a writer, this is something I definitely need.

I’ve had a mixed bag of one-off experiences. For instance, feeding sharks from a perspex cage in Australia (amazing), sky diving (getting out of the plane was the scariest bit), trapeze (not so good – I made weird girly squeals I wasn’t happy about) and walking on the bottom of the ocean wearing a lead divers helmet (surreal). Then there was running with bulls in Spain (exciting but hair-raising at times), parasailing in The Bahamas (surprisingly tranquil), swimming with dolphins in Jamaica (too cute) and stingrays in The Bahamas (less cute). One of the weirdest things I tried has to be marching with trained flamingos that kept pecking my head.

But don’t get excited; I seem to be mellowing. Living rurally certainly provides me with enough challenges of late. Yet even though everyday life is busy – think finding and chopping fuel, escapee calves, growing our own veg, flash floods, fishing, running a social media business and maintaining a strict writing routine – there’s always room for more adventure. For something new.

My latest adventure is making a patchwork quilt. I’ve always loved patchwork quilts – the detail, the weight of the fabric, the million hidden stories – so I joined a class with a neighbour in her makeshift barn studio. And guess what? It’s been an amazing experience.

Here’s where we started, with bits of fabric and bobbins of thread…

Like a kid in a sweet shop!

Like a kid in a sweet shop!

It didn’t take long for me to select the kind of style I wanted to go with. I have to live with it after all, so it had to match my idea of style. Not to everyone’s taste, I’m sure, but I’m certain it’s going to look cracking!

Some select pieces

Some select pieces

I’ve never used a sewing machine before. I can’t drive a car and my wiggly sewing suggests there’s a link between the two. I’m still a bit scared of the sewing machine but I’m continuing nonetheless. Here’s the monster we’re using…

How do you drive this thing?

How do you drive this thing?

And after five weeks, this is where I’m at. It’s starting to come together nicely. Tonight, I’m sewing all the rows together and attaching the quilt to a backing with a blanket filling. I can’t wait.

Now, I could have put this blog post live when I’d finished the quilt, but I purposely chose not to wait. Why? Because all too often we focus on the end result and not the process. Whether it’s writing, growing vegetables or making patchwork quilts, the actual experience and learning we enter into are just as important as the finished product.

As I said, my sewing is higgledy-piggedly in places. Some of the patches aren’t quite straight. I think I’ve already stained a small bit of fabric by accidentally standing on it while organising the pattern. But none of that matters.

I’ve tried something different and have learned new skills. I got my butt out to the class, walking by torchlight along country roads in the driving rain, because the desire to play with fabric and improve on what I’d learned was greater than my desire not to. And it’s been invigorating.

What about you? What new experiences have you tried? What effect did they have?