Epic Fairy Tales writing workshop

From one kind of workshop to another… at the weekend I went to a writer’s workshop at Southsea Library run by Zella Compton and William Sutton. The workshop, entitled Epic Fairy Tales and Mysteries at Our Own Doors, was part of a project called Portsmouth Fairy Tales, which involves 11 local writers, including Zella and Will.

On such a lovely sunny day I think they were quite surprised that a good number of us turned up, but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. I first met Will at the launch of his book Lawless and the Devil of Euston Square last summer, and have been delighted by his energy, creativity and kindness ever since.

Epic Fairy Tales workshop

The workshop began with a few warm-up exercises, including what I have termed the paper-throwing game. We were each given a sheet of paper with one sentence typed upon it, then had to write just one sentence in response. We then scrunched it up into a ball and threw it (nicely!) at another member of the group, who opened it, smoothed out the creases and wrote another sentence. This went on a few more times then we all opened out the sheet of paper we were left with, now containing four sentences, and were invited to read them if we wanted to. There were some quiet poetic combinations, just going to show how you can create something from just a single sentence – a useful thing to remember when staring at that daunting blank page.

We then got down to business with a brilliant little worksheet from Zella (see picture). It was to help us plan our epic fairy tale, and it gave us a list of protagonist names, settings, villains and magic objects to choose from. The idea was to just give it a go and see what we ended up with, spending no more than five or so minutes on the worksheet. Down the right-hand side was a column for us to briefly plan the start, middle and end.

Epic Fairy Tale worksheet

Once upon a time I would have spent far too long deliberating over my hero’s name, and worrying whether I had got everything ‘right’, but the more you practise letting go the easier it becomes. All these improv workshops, acting exercises and the writer’s group I went to – all activities and environments that require the ability to be spontaneous and go with the flow – have helped me reach this more creative state of mind.

On the back of the worksheet or in our notebooks we chose either our hero/heroine or villain, then answered several questions about them from Zella. Again, this wasn’t a case of leisurely pondering over each minute detail, but about putting pen to paper and getting an answer down, often the first thing that popped into our heads. This produced some pleasantly surprising results, with many of us discovering hobbies and characteristics we didn’t originally realise your characters had. The questions ranged from what is their favourite hobby (spear-throwing for my heroine, Faith), to what is underneath their bed (a rottweiler), and my personal favourite, what are they most ashamed of (apparently Faith has a third nipple!). It was a quick, incredibly productive exercise and great fun.

We finished the workshop by starting to write our story not at the beginning, but at the point of climax where the main action happens (in my case, Faith kills her evil twin sister with a spear). Hard-working writers need brain fuel, and Will kindly supplied this in the form of home-made brownies, which I must say were bloomin delicious. It took all my willpower to stop myself having more than one!

After 20 minutes of writing Zella and Will drew the workshop to a close and we said our goodbyes before heading back out into the sun. I may have missed two hours of tanning time, but it was well worth it, and if these guys run another workshop any time soon, I’m there!!


You can download the Portsmouth Fairy Tales for Grown-Ups ebook here (priced £3.97 on Amazon).

A visit to Jane Austen’s House

On Saturday I paid a visit to Jane Austen’s House Museum in the pretty village of Chawton. Although I’ve always wanted to go there, this seemed a particularly fitting time to finally make the short trip, with One Off Productions currently rehearsing Pride and Prejudice.

Jane Austen's House Museum

Jane Austen’s House Museum

I wanted to get a feel for the writer behind the story – if I can better understand her, surely I can better understand her work and the characters within that. I’m lucky enough to be playing Elizabeth Bennet, and though I’ve seen the film and TV adaptations, and am a great fan of Jennifer Ehle’s Lizzie in the BBC series, the original source material has to be the novel, and indeed the writer herself.

As the novel is set during Jane’s lifetime, seeing the house also helped me get a taste of the clothes, living conditions and day-to-day life of that period, which I can apply to Lizzie’s life.

The baking was done in an outhouse, which would have been lovely and toasty when in use, but on a chilly day in the middle of January was rather less so! Inside the house, we wandered round the kitchen, which is entered separately from the rest of the house, then headed back out and in through another door to the other rooms. Although it’s not a small house, the upper quarters seemed a little cramped, probably due to the number of visitors trying to circumnavigate the furniture and each other.

The Austen kitchen

The Austen kitchen

The kitchen was my favourite room as it had things to play with – quill fountain pens with ink and paper, dresses and bonnets to try on, dried lavender by little circles of fabric and string to make lavender bags with. The writing proved to be particularly difficult, as you could only write a few letters before needing more ink. To think that Jane Austen wrote all her novels by this means fills me with an even greater admiration for her.

Upstairs there were further examples of the type of clothing worn at that time, including some delicate dancing slippers, which I’m guessing would have been worn at the infamous balls. Perhaps Lizzie wears these at the Netherfield Ball when she is dancing with Mr Darcy, ripe with sexual tension.

The museum portrayed a life of eating, writing and taking long walks, with a spot of needlework in the evening. Now if only I could give up work and do a spot of method acting – I reckon I could cope with that!


It was wonderful to see the place where Jane Austen lived, to look down at the desk where she did so much of her writing, to walk in the footsteps of a person who’s beautiful stories have so delighted me – well worth a visit! I felt closer to the writer, closer to the mind behind Pride and Prejudice, and that bit closer to Lizzie. Bit by bit, I’m getting there…

Local writers in Day of the Dead

Portsmouth BookFest is in full swing. If you haven’t yet made it to one of the events on offer, take a look at the BookFest website to see what literary treats are still in store.

Ahead of this evening’s ‘Day of the Dead’, I caught up with William Sutton, one of the authors taking part in this year’s festivities. Writing for Strong Island, I asked him about tonight’s event, an evening of spooky tales organised by Portsmouth Writer’s Hub, what literary festivals like BookFest do for writers and the local community, and how it feels to be taking part this year as a published author.

Writer Will Sutton in action

Writer Will Sutton in action

Below is a taster of my chat with Will – for the full interview and others related to art, literature and culture generally in Portsmouth, check out the Strong Island website.

Why did the organisers choose to do a ‘Day of the Dead’? It sounds a bit grim! 

Day of the Dead, or Día de los Muertos, is a huge festival especially in Mexico which is a counterpart of Hallowe’en, and it’s anything but grim, celebrated with feasting, skeleton models, amazing food. We’ve adopted the title to bridge all aspects of death, from spooky to gory to elegiac. 

What can those attending the event expect from the evening? 

Expect the gut-wrenching, the terrifying, the mind-blowing, the fantastic.

Last year’s BookFest featured a brilliant evening in the atmospheric Square Tower about Dickens and Conan Doyle, with a ghostly flavour. We wanted to unleash the imaginations of our own brilliant writers. Among our writers are Diana Bretherick (appearing on ITV3’s Crime Thriller Book Club and nominated for Specsavers Crime Awards); award-winning short story writers, Lynne Blackwood, Jack Hughes and James Bicheno; and Matt Wingett, whose work with The Three Belles scored a sell-out hit at the New Theatre Royal.

What are the benefits of an event like this to the local writers taking part? 

It’s fun. Writing is a lonely game. Writing and performing for a specific event is a welcome challenge. This is a way for wonderful authors, including published novelists and award-winning short story writers, to entertain local readers, to connect with each other and to push our writing skills in new directions.

Read more at Strong Island


Time for tea – writers on tour part deux

Earlier this week I wrote about the OutWrite day I went on with Rob Richardson of WriteInvite, and the first mystery location we went to – Southsea Castle.

Cuppa illustration

The second location was completely different but just as inspiring, and prompted a wonderful variety of stories from our little group of writers. The location: All About Tea, the tea company whose factory and shop can be found on Middle Street, Portsmouth. This place of enticing smells and intriguingly-named teas is also housed in the former University of Portsmouth print room, above which I used to work!

After wandering down the aisles and sniffing the contents of so many tester bags I gave myself a headache, I settled down into one of the settees in the shop area, a pot of Portsmouth Tea by my side, and started to write. This is my story…

Time for tea

My first cup of tea was nothing special. When I was a child my mum’s friend Sandra would come over for a natter and a cuppa, and I’d hear the clatter of crockery and the tinkle of teaspoons as they sat downstairs in the kitchen.

“Oh he never-”

“He did!”

“But really!”

“I know. And he said he was in the navy.”

“Was he?”

“Was he hell.”

The click of the kettle became synonymous with lazy Sunday afternoons and the pleasure of idle gossip.

Whenever we got in from a cold wintery walk dad would pop the kettle on and I’d sit there guzzling my Robinson’s Special R while my parents warmed their hands on their cups and sipped the hot tea, followed by a customary “aaah!”.

I thought of it as a rite of passage, the drinking of tea, like an initiation into adulthood. Imagine my disappointment when, aged 15, I finally had my first, long-anticipated cup, only to find it tasted like armpit and old socks.

They say that sometimes in life the timing just isn’t right, and it was that way for me with tea. At the tender age of 15 I hadn’t lived enough of life to truly appreciate a good cuppa. My young bones had never felt the gnawing exhaustion that a steaming cup of tea can heal. Quite simply, I just wasn’t ready for it.

Today I am ready for it. Three weeks ago I broke up with my best friend, my boyfriend of five years and living companion of three. I have felt the weariness, the angst, the general being down in the dumps, and as I stand at the counter ordering a “pot for one please”, today I feel, more than ever before, I really could do with a cuppa.

Carrying the pot carefully over to a table, cup and saucer in the other hand, I think back to those gossipy conversations in the kitchen with Sandra and mum. There’s no-one here for me to gossip with, but I don’t mind. After five years, it will be nice to have a little me time.

I lower the cup and saucer on to the table, and ever so slowly tilt the pot until the hot brown tea gushes out of the spout. As it sloshes around in the cup I breathe in its comforting tangy scent. A sugar lump joins the dash of milk I pop in, then a little stir and I’m ready. I clutch the mug with both hands and slowly raise it to my lips.

I don’t know what I’m expecting. Fireworks or maybe a kind of taste explosion. I get neither. But what I do feel as the warmth of the tea fills my mouth and spreads to my belly is the sure, safe, cosy feeling of contentment.

“Aaah,” I say, and sit back with a smile.

OutWrite day – writers on tour part un

Writing on location is something I’ve often wanted to do but never had a pen and notebook ready at the right time. The key is to plan your writing expedition, which is where OutWrite comes in. Run by Rob Richardson and his lovely wife Chris, who run the WriteInvite short story competitions in Portsmouth, OutWrite is basically a day out for writers.

You are taken to two mystery locations where you have time to look around and get a feel for the place, then half an hour to write a story inspired by the location. At the end of the day you reconvene for coffee and cake to share your stories and get a bit of feedback.

From the upper level, looking across the courtyard at the lighthouse

From the upper level, looking across the courtyard at the lighthouse

This weekend I was lucky enough to go on my first OutWrite. The first location was Southsea Castle, one of my favourite places in Portsmouth. Being surrounded by so much history is bound to invoke certain feelings and spring up ideas, and I felt a little well of excitement inside me as we crossed the wooden drawbridge and stepped into the courtyard. We had 45 minutes to explore our surroundings before we set down to write wherever we chose to. That little girl inside me, who loved nothing more than exploring the ancient ruins of an abbey or peeking into rooms in stately homes, imagining what it would have been like to live there, was in her element.

I ran my hand along the uneven wall as I climbed up a curved stone staircase to the roof. Open to the elements, my hair was swept about by the wind as I looked out over the wall at the sea. I tried to imagine standing here in 1545 watching the heart-wrenching sight of the Mary Rose going down, her masts tilting forlornly as they sank below the surface. Making my way along the wall, I ran my fingers into the nooks and crevices, imagining the many hands that have traced this path before mine. In an opening in the wall that looked much like a fireplace I saw what I presumed to be broken-up headstones. A name was engraved into the surface of one, and bending down to get a closer look I saw it said ‘Annie Maria’. The name had a lovely ring to it, and I instantly chose it for my character.

The three gun ports, which were sealed up in the 17th century - the one on the far left was re-excavated in 1966

The gun ports, which were sealed up in the 17th century – the one on the left was re-excavated in 1966

Opposite the stones stood the seaward-facing wall of the keep. On the far left a dark wooden door was set into the wall. To the right of it I noticed the outline of a second doorway, and to the right of that, a third. Both archways had been filled in, and I wandered over to investigate. I love spotting things like this – filled-in doorways and windows. There’s something mysterious about openings that once led to somewhere and provided a passage for people from one place to another, that are now blocked, the way barred. It’s as if, once a passageway has been created, the ghost of it remains, even if the way through has since been boarded up. My eager curiosity always wants to know what’s beyond. If you put a doorway there my instinct still wants me to go through it – filling it in with stones doesn’t stop that.

The 19th-century lighthouse

The 19th-century lighthouse

I decided to use the blocked doorways in my story, and moved on around the outside of the keep to the lighthouse. A striking black-and-white-striped figure, it stands elegantly amidst the ancient stones and looks rather out of place. Heading down off the roof and into the keep, I read on the information boards that the lighthouse was added in the 1820s, which explained it not fitting in with the surroundings. There was also a mannequin of Henry VIII inside the keep, along with several examples of period clothing, and I stood before a Tudor dress, taking in all the details and imagining how the fabric would feel against my skin. I felt its weight as it hung on my body, imagined how its cut would affect my movement.

Moving on to a collection of replica Tudor vessels and household objects, I picked up a jug and pictured liquid sloshing around inside as I held it. By now I had decided my protagonist would be a Tudor lady, so I wanted to understand how she would have lived and what it would have physically felt like to be her.

With five minutes to go before we could start writing I made my way back up to the roof and found a spot on the wall opposite the blocked doorways. I had discovered these were gun ports that were sealed in the late 17th century, once they were no longer needed. Fishing in my rucksack for my little black writer’s notebook and a pen, I shuffled around until I was comfy, crossed my legs and got down to some writing.

I’m guilty of editing as I write, which can be a very frustrating and unproductive habit when you only have 30 minutes to write your story. It can also dangerously disrupt the creative flow, so although there was the odd bit of scribbling out here and there, I did my best to just let the words flow and worry about form and polish later. As it turned out, it made perfect sense even without my constant editing, and gave the right-brain-left-brain battle a bit of a rest. That said, half an hour passes much too quickly when you’re having fun, and when your stupid hand tires out long before your words run dry, struggling desperately to keep up with your mind.

A paragraph on the first information board in the keep, and just the reason we were there!

A paragraph on the first information board in the keep, and just the reason we were there!

When I read the story to the group at the end of the day I felt excited at the prospect of taking the character and her story further at some point. I wasn’t satisfied with the story as it was – I’d need more time to make it work as standalone piece – but the creation of a character and situation with the potential to develop was the sign of a productive day!

Part deux – coming later this week – will talk about the second mystery location!

A pretty little thing

Basking in the glorious bank holiday sunshine, I wandered down the seafront today with my friend Louise, and happened upon a pretty little thing courtesy of Love Southsea.

Butterfly notebook

A pretty little notebook from the Love Southsea stall

In desperate search of a breeze we headed towards the sea, sitting high on the bank above the bandstand for a while before moving on down to the beach. A little row of stalls stood near the pier, enticing passers-by to view their assorted wares.

One of these stalls was hosted by Love Southsea, a name I‘d heard here and there but whose market stalls I hadn’t actually encountered until now. A waft of pretty fabric caught my eye and I closed in on a delicate cream scarf printed with heather-coloured hearts, sitting snug in a row of colourful fabric. At two for £15 I decided to treat myself and picked out a second scarf, this one black and printed with musical notes.

For each month there's a page showing the whole month followed by a double-page spread per week

For each month there’s a page showing the whole month followed by a double-page spread per week

The true gem I found, however, was a pretty little diary. I think butterflies are the most beautiful and intriguing little creatures, so anything butterfly-themed holds instant appeal, but this was particularly enticing.

Butterfly notebook stickers

Tiny stickers tucked into the inside front cover

Covered with a clear plastic jacket, the 2014 pocket diary sat amongst others with various illustrations decorating their covers. Delicately drawn butterflies fluttered across its pages, and I delighted in its quaint charm. Inside I found a sheet of tiny stickers slotted into the sleeve, bearing pictures of butterflies and words such as ‘meeting’, ‘remember’, and ‘holiday’, to stick on the pages. A lovely touch!

Butterfly notebook notes page

Beautifully illustrated notes pages near the back

At £7.50 it was a little more than I’d usually spend on a diary for myself, but I just had to have it. Now I’ve got to wait until January to use it, so it will have to wait patiently on my desk for a while.

Meanwhile I may head along to the next Love Southsea market (the first Saturday of the month) and check out the other designs. They would make perfect little gifts.

Byron by day, Beethoven by night

As a press officer, I write releases that often make it into the local paper. Recently I was asked to write this year’s graduation stories – one for each day about a student graduating that day with an interesting story to tell.

Will at his graduation

Will at his graduation this summer

One of these graduates is Will Sherwood.  An edited version of Will’s story made it into the local paper The News, and you can read the full story on UoP News.

Will, a creative writing graduate, balanced a passion for music and creative writing with his academic studies, and earlier this year achieved his dream of conducting the University of Portsmouth choir. I asked him where this dream came from, why he was set on being a fantasy writer, and how he manages to keep his different interests going.

Where did your goal to conduct the university choir/ensemble stem from?

“I’ve always been enthusiastic about music. My grandad made sure of it by playing Tchaikovsky or Beethoven whilst I played with my train track when I was little. I started learning the piano around the age of ten and soon began to expand into the history of music.

When I came to uni, I was rather lucky that the orchestra were in need of a percussionist, so before I knew it I was banging around on the timpani. At the same time a course mate dragged me along to the first University Choir and Chamber Choir rehearsals.

My interest in conducting began after watching the Proms for the first time. I particularly loved the interviews with the conductors. They would explain how they interpreted the music and shaped it so that it was their own unique performance.”

How did you go about achieving your goal?

“Well, I enquired about the possibility when I arrived at university but obviously they weren’t about to put a fresher in charge of an orchestra! When I started my third year however, the Chamber Choir wasn’t being run so I decided to put together my own ensemble for the Music Unplugged concert before Christmas.

George Burrows (Choir Director) and Colin Jagger (Head of Music) asked me if I wanted to conduct the University Choir. So I suppose I finally achieved my goal through my own stubborn determination to try new things, no matter how tough they are.

George and Colin were extremely supportive throughout the rehearsals. I met with George at regular intervals to discuss my progress and what I could do better in the next rehearsal and Colin helped in preparing the music, booking rehearsal slots and the venue itself.”

Will playing the timpani in the University orchestra

Will playing the timpani in the University orchestra

How have you balanced academic study and all your musical activities?

“Oh goodness, with great difficulty! Time management is not my forte and I get distracted extremely easily by anything artsy. Thankfully I only had my dissertation to focus on whilst I was conducting but it was a matter of pulling apart Byron’s poetry in the library by day, then picking at Mozart and Rachmaninov by night. It was an overwhelmingly demanding few weeks but it was also a thrill.”

With your passion for music, why did you choose to study creative writing rather than music?

“Ahh, the question that almost everyone I’ve met has asked me over the past three years! I was set on being a fantasy writer before I came to university and I wanted music to be something I could do in my spare time, that I could look forward to when the stress of reading Shakespeare or George Eliot got too much. I didn’t want it to feel like a chore or something I could become annoyed about.”

You said you were set on being a fantasy writer before you went to uni – why?

“It all starts with Tolkien. My parents bought me a recording of the Hobbit on cassette when I was very young and I strongly remember falling asleep whilst Bilbo gazed into his fire in Bag End with the dwarves singing their song. It was a magical moment and since then I’ve devoured all of his works, written a dissertation on the Lord of the Rings at college and organised a choral ensemble to sing Tolkien’s elvish languages in the orchestra film concert in May this year!

The great thing about fantasy is the myth building. I actually wrote the first draft of a big fantasy novel between my GCSEs and A Levels with the intention of polishing and publishing it at uni. It was the first of a five-book series with plans for another trilogy. It’s been four years and I haven’t really gone back to it. The freedom with fantasy is limitless and you can really let your imagination go wild.

I mainly read Tolkien and C.S. Lewis but also read other series such as the Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan. I read a range of classics but I was always attracted to fantasy. I’m currently planning an academic work on Tolkien as a Romantic writer, exploring his approach to nature and how he deals with the Romantic ideology, critiques and develops it. I’ll never not be into fantasy; it’s where I went every night, hoping to suddenly wake up in the Shire or Lothlorien.”

Do you think it can be difficult to balance two creative passions (writing and music) in your life?

“My remedy for making sure I don’t neglect my studies, writing or musical activities is by making sure that I’m connected to groups or people that I can either debate ideas with, sing or perform.”

Now you’ve graduated, you’re going to teach English at Canterbury College, and you want to go into academia. Why this route rather than the many other routes involving writing? Do you not find academic writing quite dry and restrictive in comparison to the creative work?

“Teaching is an area I’ve always loved. In 2011 I took part in the Student Associate Scheme programme where I worked in a primary school for three weeks. I enjoy helping people with their work and when it’s English or music I become extremely passionate about what they’re doing.

[Academic writing] demands a formal style and requires a kind of straight back attitude to your writing. However, I wouldn’t necessarily agree that it lacks creativity. Your job as a researcher is to develop new ideas and although the writing may be a bit dry and dense, the essence of the writing is bursting with creativity. As much as I might moan when writing an essay because I can’t exactly express my point, nothing quite thrills me as much as writing an essay on a topic that I’m interested in. I love writing about my own interpretations of texts and analysing poetry.”

How does music fit in with your future career in academia?

“Well, my aim is to be a Byron scholar and Byron had a phenomenal influence on the music scene both in Europe and outside of western culture. I’d like to write a monograph on the subject of Byron and music influence at some point.

Although I don’t want to devote myself completely to the connection between music and literature, I feel that I don’t need to because poetry and music evolved together and rhythm is the foundation of both. Whenever I look at a poem, I always see the musicality of it.”