Castles in the Air

Using the past as a springboard for young writer by Paul Mason

The idea for the book came while walking the grounds of Walmer Castle in Kent.  What would it be like, my daughter asked, to sneak in and live there?  I spent the afternoon taking in the thick walls, and deep, grassy moat; the Duke of Wellington’s bedroom with its camping cot, the row of cannons pointing out to sea, the pair of Wellington boots—scribbling down notes, possibilities, real detail.

A Gibbon quote comes to mind: “There is more pleasure to building castles in the air than on the ground.”  I often like to use one to inspire the other. The past can provide young writers with a powerful springboard.

I took a class to visit a scale replica of a steerage deck on an 1840’s immigrant ship. They perched on bunks in the dimly lit deck as it rocked back and forth, listening to the waves crash, the boards creak. They pictured the hard yards of the early settlers, and put down some evocative description.

Here in New Zealand, a trip to a marae can be a source of inspiration. The wharenui or meeting house often symbolises an ancestor–with a beam for the spine, rafters for ribs and the heart represented by a strong post.  Carvings inside usually tell stories of those that have gone before, great leaders and navigators. (Check the local tikanga or rules before visiting.)

Of course, the past can creep into the classroom too.  I once brought in an old travelling chest.  The students could look and touch the worn leather, but weren’t allowed to open the lid.  What hid inside? Who did the trunk belong to? Where were they travelling? What would they themselves pack in the trunk if they were going on a long journey?

An inquiry into family history began with a mini-museum of personal heirlooms. An old hat that belonged to granddad. A medal. A treasured photograph. The young writers made them breathe in poems and stories. Given the chance, castles in the air can begin here on the ground.

Paul Mason is a former primary school teacher. He writes fiction for Bloomsbury Education including the Skate Monkey series which has two new titles, The Cursed Village and Fear Mountain, publishing in January 2017.

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