Sunshine Gypsies :: Wolfgangsee

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I love the idea of camping. But until this week, had only ever camped two or three nights with my little sunshine family. Here, though, beside the Wolfgangsee in Austria, we set up our fancy glamping tent under an apple tree for ten whole magical days…

From under the shade of the apple tree, we’d emerge each morning in the quiet, lakeside farm campsite and walk directly into crystal water. A swan or duck on the surface, or a shoal of fish in the shallow water would be the only sign of life. Other than the glorious mountains, surrounding the lake.

The farm where we stayed provided fresh cow’s milk, and semmel (little breads) every morning. The girls disappeared directly into the apple tree to eat breakfast while Gregor and I drank coffee.

Days were spent either beside or in the warm lake, rowing across the lake, in one of the lakeside towns, like St Wolfgang or Hallstatt, or walking in the mountains. In the afternoons, Gregor and I took turns running into the surrounding hills.

Our neighbouring campers were mostly locals – people who have a permanent camp set up, and have travelled to the lake most weekends of the summer for years.

There are many big resort-like campsites across Europe. But this is my style. Simple, inexpensive, lakeside, farm camping among friendly people.

What more could you want?

 

Children Book Tuesday :: Writing by heart

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As some of you know, I have spent much of the last week sitting beside a lake, writing. Words flow in a steady stream. I pause for a moment to look up at the magical horizon, then back at my computer, lost in the story as it unfolds.

This is what I imagined it would be like to write a novel.

Like many lovers of books, I’ve had a quiet fantasy to at some point write a novel. Every novel I have read since I was a kid makes me feel like maybe I could do this too. But it was an airy fantasy. Because, as I have been finding out, writing a novel is far harder than it looks. It’s craft. It’s hard work. It requires knowledge.

I’ve studied writing at university, and have written many thousands of words since. Last year, it occurred to me that I really need to learn how to write a story. A novel-length story. I can write a 350 word picture book. I can write 150,000 word course books. But as far as I knew, I didn’t have the skills to write a full length novel.

My first step was to ask other professional writers: what courses have you done? What books have you read? Where did your knowledge come from? I read blog posts and websites. Some resources I have come across include Story, by the formidable Robert McKee, James Patterson’s masterclass,  Writing Irresistible Kidlit  by Mary Kole and The Snowflake Method by Randy Ingermanson. I also did a wonderful course through SCBWI Netherlands earlier in the year with Sarah Davies. Threads started to come together, and I began to understand the makings of a good story. The task of writing a novel began to feel less daunting.

Because I haven’t been doing a lot of paid work this year, I’ve had time to write. So armed with a little knowledge and time, I began. I had a few story ideas, so started to flesh them out. It seemed that writing by heart was my style, and I would write, and write and write, and suddenly had 10,000 or so words for a couple of stories.

But that’s where I’d get stuck. I began four different times. Four different stories. Each time, when the uphill bit began, and my story started to lose momentum, I fell into the temptation of a new prospect. A new character would come to mind, and a new plot would unravel, and I would leap from what I was doing into the next project. It became easy to start, but incredibly hard to keep going.

One of the popular theories in fiction writing, is that you are a pantser or a planner. Al Tait says you are a mapmaker or a discoverer. By all attempts, I thought I must be a pantser, i.e. someone who writes by the seat of their pants, and sees where the story takes them. The discovery is fun. Characters come to life, and an initial idea for a plot swells and twists, taking you in all sorts of directions.

In life, I am a pantser – someone who plays everything by ear. I wait and see where I end up. There is no official plan. No law degree, or linear education. I have done things because I like to, or am interested, or because a particular door opens at a particular time and it just feels right to step through. Mostly, this approach has worked. But there have been times, {like nowish}, where I find myself living in a tent, with no clear objective and direction. The world is my oyster, but geez, that’s a scary concept.

As is completing a novel, when you have absolutely no idea which direction you are heading.

Of course, when I explained the concept of pantser vs planner to my husband, he had to play the devil’s advocate.

‘I don’t buy it,’ he said. ‘No one will be one or the other. They will be a combination of both.’

I read about the Snowflake Method at some point in my self-education, and decided it wasn’t for me. I’m a pantser, after all. But maybe there was something there – something to help me.

When I write education and training course books, they come with an outline. I use the outline, and fill in the blanks. I work fast and well, and before I know it, I’m 100,000 words in. Because there is an outline.

When I thought about my life as a pantser, I had to think again. Yes, sure, I’ve followed random paths, and taken unexpected forks in the road. But then again, I do have clear goals and objectives. I know, and have known for a long time, that I want to be a professional author, and I know roughly what my objectives within that look like. I’m heading to certain plot points along the way. Plot points evolve as I move towards them, and goals shift, but that just makes life interesting.

Could it be I am not such a pantser after all?

I revisited the Snowflake Method, and applied it to one of my stuck manuscripts.

I couldn’t bring myself to do the whole scene by scene, Excel spreadsheet breakdown, so I did an abbreviated version. My steps were:

1. Write down a clear story hook; make sure it sings

2. Write down a clear plot summary, outlining the key arcs and finale of story

3. Get to know characters thoroughly, and outline a story synposis for each

4. Flesh out the story synopsis

5. Write.

In truth, the planning stage didn’t take long at all, because the idea was already there, and I had already taken three attempts to write the story.

When it came to writing character outlines, the story really took shape. I could start to see various subplots, and understand my characters’ motivations. I needed to see how this story would shape them.

While I started a scene by scene lowdown, I gave up when I got to the lakes of Austria. It was time to launch in, headfirst. And so the tick tick of my keyboard began.

On Saturday, not long after rewriting my story from the beginning with my new outline in mind, I sent myself a 30,000 word draft of an almost complete middle grade novel.

Of course, there is no way this is anywhere close to being complete in real terms. Now the really hard work begins, as I go back over it, refine the story, and probably rewrite every line.

Still – something a week ago which seemed impossible was suddenly possible.

So maybe, as usual, my husband is right. Writers, or at least me, aren’t one or the other. A bit of pantsing and a bit of planning can take you a long way when writing a novel, just as it can in life.

What are your thoughts on this?

Join in for Children’s Book Tuesday by linking your post below. Anything related to children’s books is welcome!

Fairytale Village

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Earlier this week, we visited a town on a lake in Austria called Hallstatt. It is said to be one of the ten most beautiful lakeside towns in Europe. And I’d believe it. Overrun with tourists, and rarely sunny, yet so like wandering through a fairytale. Little Elka wandered the town, lost in storytelling mode. It was magic. 

Sunshine Gypsies :: Garmisch-Partenkirchen

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I won’t pretend we are not lucky. For the next six weeks, the Sunshine Gypsies are travelling around Europe. One tent and a carful of gear.

Stop one. Garmish-Partenkirchen, Germany.

We enter the green valley by train. The surrounding mountains are not imposing or intimidating. They seem kind, like a protective force around the valley.

Our sunshine tent has already been set up for us by loving family. It looks over the kind mountains, and we look over them.

Our first morning camping, the sun blazes. We dress and do a little walk among the pine trees. My daughter calls it fairy land and it is. The sun glints through the trees, sparkling on moss covered ground. We want to creep off the path and be part of it all. Fairy land. Red Riding Hood’s forest. Cottages made of wood remind us of the little piggy’s house. Sheep tinkle, bells around their neck as they graze. The music of grazing.

From the top the view is clear and perfect.

We meet granny Annie at the play park by the lake. We leave the children with her, and Greg and I go for our first run together in months. Up the mountain. Down. Around the lake. The day is so warm and I’m worried about my heart and blood pressure. But I don’t need to be. I feel amazing.

Like my daughter does most of the day, I tell a story in my head as we run. The lake is bright blue. Bright pink umbrellas and tanned German holiday goers line  the shores.

Later, all of us leap in the lake. It is unbelievably cold but once you get used to it, bearable. This mountain lake has a slide going into the water! One by one we pop out into the water. I’ve never seen little Rosie’s eyes so huge!

Walking back Gregor and I realise how amazingly relaxed we feel. Thank you mountains for your kindness and your protection.

‘Do you love them yet?’ asks Greg who is from a long lineage of mountain loving people. I think I do.

 The next day, we leave Garmisch, but not before stopping off at the cable car. We ride up within the incredible cliff, and reach the pinnacle. Well, there is climbing to be done first. One child on the back, and the other one – a self-proclaimed mountaineer, heading up the mountain. One wears her Peppa Pig tutu swimmers and sandals. The other wears a skirt and gold sandals. None of us have jackets.

‘What would my Austrian grandfather be thinking, his grandson taking his children up the mountain dressed like this?’ says my husband, slapping his forehead.

We walk through a tunnel in the mountains, then stand with one foot in Germany and the other in Austria. The air is cool, but it’s bearable, as the day is stunning.

We leave late afternoon for the Wolfgangsee, just beyond of Salzburg. Driving in a hot car with two little kids isn’t ideal, but if that’s as bad as it gets, we aren’t complaining.

Creative Spaces

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I’m not sure if it was the labour itself, or perhaps the new event of being forced to sit, with little to do for long periods of time, but when I became a mother, I had a new, insatiable creative itch. Stories, ideas, thoughts, concepts, images swam through my mind. I longed to take a net, and capture them.

But between wrapping a baby, carrying a baby, feeding a baby, walking a baby around the town, and rocking a baby to sleep, it seemed I had little to no opportunity to cast a creative net. It was frustrating, because the pool seemed so deep, yet so alive with life. All I needed was five minutes – an hour, to reach in, and catch what I needed.

Around that time, my great and amazing friend Fritha was starting her journey as a life coach, and was looking for someone to test her new skills with. My arm, tired from carrying child, shot into the air, as if coffee hung from a cloud above.

One hour chat with Fritha changed everything. The first thing was identifying what I really wanted. Was it to amble around the lake, admiring the fish? No. It was to lower the net, and start making something happen.

What was stopping me? So much, I asserted. A baby. And all her many needs. I have absolutely no time.

She encouraged me to look at my week, not as a whole, but in fractions.

‘So, when are you having these creative thoughts?’ she asked.

‘Walking the pram.’

‘How often is that, would you say?’

‘Most days. Twenty minutes to town and back.’

‘OK. So that’s seven days. Forty minutes. So at minimum, you are spending two-hundred and eighty minutes being creative a week?’

It sounded like a lot. But it was true. I started to get excited. Where else were these creative pockets?

Hanging clothes. Washing up. Rocking baby to sleep in the dark. The creative minutes piled up before me.

‘And what time does Baby go to sleep at night?’

‘Around seven.’

‘Then?’

Then… well, exactly. Then. Then my creative life really began. All those thoughts accumulated through the day, baskets of creative fish writhing and alive, were waiting. And all I had to do was open my computer, and let them free.

It was a wonderful feeling.

I discovered blogging around that time. I blogged most nights. Not because I felt I had to. Simply because I had to. The need was irrepressible. My husband kindly washed dishes while I wrote short stories and posts. The accumulative effect of being creative was like a snowball, ever growing the more I rolled.

In recent years, I haven’t had a structured nine-to-five job. My work day has been broken over many hours and days, a week fragmented into slices of parenting and shards of work. I worked when I could, and parented around work. But thanks to my early conversations with Fritha, creativity was never far from hand.

I’d sit down to work, and before launching into a project, would quickly tap out a blog post that had been burning within. Between dishes and folding the washing, I squeezed out a status update. Or maybe jotted down the outline of a picture book. Creative ideas were everywhere, as long as I was looking.

As busy as we were, technically, my week was bursting to the seams with creative space.

The richest space of all, ironically, came from what was otherwise the hardest hour of my day.

As a constant do-er, I found lying down with my kids to help them sleep initially lovely and wonderful, but later challenging, the longer it took. Some nights, lying beside my eldest, waiting an hour and a half for the wiggles to cease seemed like a small torture, as lovely as she is. I longed to get on with my night.

But then I let my mind sink into a creative space. The richest, deepest most wonderful creative lake there was in my week. Stories formed, almost in tact. Blog posts too. Entrepreneurial ideas I felt convinced would change the world. My subconscious was in overdrive and having the time of its life.

And as soon as the child’s arms finally became heavy, I lifted them off, and turned my thoughts into words on a page.

My life as a parent is never static. Nor is my husband and my work schedules. Things are forever changing, particularly this year, as we travel Europe with two small children, and no official address, taking life as it comes.

My creative spaces are sometimes elusive, and harder to find. Lately, they’ve appeared in the swimming pool, in the forest, running through the gardens and at seven in the morning, when I am the only one in the house awake.

The important thing about catching fish though is to do it. If I harness that creativity when its there, it grows.

Where are your creative spaces in the week? 

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