Category Archives: Flashbacks

Saved by a Writer from the Past, or How I Learned to Love Widsith the Poet

Whenever I write a new story, I often seem to reach a point where inspiration dries up and I get stuck. It’s almost as if a voice in my head says over and over again, ‘Why are you writing this rubbish? And what makes you think you’re any good at writing stories anyway?’ I like to think it’s an essential part of the creative process, the temporary triumph of the self-doubt that surrounds any attempt to create something. Get through this, I tell myself, and everything will be fine. But that doesn’t always make it any easier to deal with.

The dreaded moment came early with Winter of the Wolves, my latest Flashback. I had already written two Flashbacks – Revolt Against the Romans, the story of Caractacus’s rebellion in first-century Roman Britain, and Attack of the Vikings, a tale of action and adventure set in the west of Scotland in the Viking Age. I also had a good idea for the new book. It was going to be about the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain, seen through the eyes of a young boy, an orphan who is taken in by a chief of the Angles. I was keen to make the Beowulf story part of the plot too. I’m a huge fan of the poem, and I wanted to come up with a suggestion for how it might have been brought to these shores.

As usual I did plenty of research and came up with an outline. I wrote a decent chapter one, moved on to chapter two… and then found myself grinding to a halt. The words stopped coming, the characters wouldn’t speak or do anything interesting, the story refused to come to life. But I didn’t panic. I’d been in the same position many times before, and so I tried the things that have helped in the past – taking a break, reading my notes again, thinking about the characters from a different angle. Doing more research also sometimes helps – it might be that I haven’t immersed myself in the period enough.

That’s what did the trick this time. With Beowulf in mind, I looked up lots of other Anglo-Saxon poetry, and came across a poem I’d forgotten about. In The Traveller’s Song we meet Widsith, an Anglo-Saxon poet of the sixth century, and he tells us of all the royal courts he’s visited, and the important kings and chiefs and warriors he has impressed with his poems and songs. Widsith is a great character – he’s vain and boastful, and the poem reads like a glorious promotional leaflet aimed at getting him more work. At any rate, it really spoke to me across the centuries, perhaps because I’m a freelance writer too. I’ve certainly met a few writers like Widsith, and I have a feeling he never got stuck.

So I put Widsith into my story as an old blind scop – that’s the Anglo-Saxon word for a poet – who becomes a friend and mentor to my central character, Oslaf. Poets were greatly respected in early Anglo-Saxon culture, as praise-singers for warrior chiefs, but also as guardians of the tribe’s history. Widsith quickly became a very important figure in Oslaf’s story, and to a large extent the plot only works because of him. While I was writing the story I kind of felt that Widsith was looking after me too. It was almost as if I had a co-writer  I could turn to – ‘What do you think of this bit, Widsith?’ I put a quote from his poem at the beginning of the book, but really his name should be on the title page as well.

The rest of the story came fairly easily after that, although for me that means inching ahead at a rate of about 500 words a day. But you get a feel for how well a story is 9781472953780.jpgprogressing, and I knew this one was going to be all right. I’m not usually boastful about  what I do, but I’ve decided to emulate Widsith and say that I think Winter of the Wolves is one of the best stories I’ve written. I certainly enjoyed writing it enormously, and I think the cover (by Illustrator Rob Ball) is brilliant. If you want to find out more about Widsith there’s an excellent Wikipedia article about his poem. I’m thinking of starting a Widsith Fan Club – after all, I really do owe him a favour!

 

Tony Bradman is an award-winning author who has been involved in children’s books for 35 years. His latest novel, Winter of the Wolves, is out now!

Why the Golden Horsemen Came Riding

Growing up, I knew almost nothing about Baghdad and the Middle East except that an author there had written the 1001 Nights, or the Arabian Nights as my Year 4 teacher used to call it. It’s a wonderful anthology of fairytales that has filled the heads of many a child with the notion of flying carpets, thieves hidden in wooden barrels, genies and magic lamps. I received the Bancroft Classics edition for my eighth birthday, which I re-read endlessly. No author was credited with the work on the front cover but I hardly noticed. I devoured the Sinbad films on telly too, especially the Ray Harryhousen versions which had incredible special effects. But of the real Baghdad, I remained mostly ignorant.

In my teenage years, the Middle East started to feature on the news, but nearly always shown in a bad light. Uprisings and terror attacks flickered across the television screens. News reports showed tanks lumbering across deserts, flat-roofed houses being blown up, grim-faced youths hijacking planes. Not surprisingly I never connected those images with the magical lands of ‘Open Sesame’ and delicious lakoum.

Fast forward a few decades and I am doing an author visit at a school in Bradford where I lived for over ten years. Most of the children were of Pakistani and Indian origin. It was a warm day and we were eating our lunch out in the playground. We got to talking about our most cherished wishes. One boy said in a broad Yorkshire accent, ‘my biggest wish is to go truffle hunting with my father in the Afghan mountains.’

It turned out the boy’s father was Afghani. Trapped in the fraught and long-winded process of sorting out his immigration paperwork, he still lived in Afghanistan. The son visited once a year but never during the truffle hunting season.  It was a Eureka moment for me. It brought images of a magical Middle East flooding back into my head. Not the clichéd magic of genies and flying carpets, but the enchantment of real life still tied to the land and the seasons.

I started reading up on life in Middle Eastern countries, now and in the past and I fell for its charm all over again. Baghdad especially drew my interest. Based around the ‘beyt al Hikma’, meaning ‘house of knowledge’, a world-famous library built in the 9th century, it established itself as a world leader in the arts, science and innovation.

As I started sharing my discoveries in my talks to schools, I learnt that most children, even those of Muslim heritage, were unaware of Baghdad’s glorious heyday, of its massive contribution to the worlds of science, mathematics, medicine, poetry and translation. Without its scholars and their mentors, including the powerful caliphs who built the libraries and schools, much of the writings of the ancient world would now be lost forever.

9781472955999.jpgToday the Golden Age of Islam is part of the National Curriculum in KS2. It’s the perfect opportunity to explore the real history of a culture we in the West so often overlook. My book The Golden Horsemen of Baghdad was written to accompany the subject. Like my other works for Bloomsbury Education, it’s a rollicking adventure but it is also packed with information and insight into the culture and the period. I hope you all enjoy it.

 

The Golden Horsemen of Baghdad is bestselling historical fiction author Saviour Pirotta’s latest novel. Out now!

History is All About King What’s-His-Face, Isn’t It?

I’ve spoken to lots of people and groups over the years and I always ask if anyone in the audience doesn’t like history, a question which is always followed by a forest of raised hands that seem to grow out of the faces below them, all looking bored, snotty or argumentative. And then when I ask exactly why they don’t like history the answers are usually ‘coz it’s boring’ or ‘it has nothing to do with us today’ or ‘it’s just about a load of blokes with power and other blokes who want power’.

Good answers. I used to feel the same, but then one day something stupidly obvious occurred to me…history’s actually about people! Not just rich people with power, but all people. All of us today make up part of what will become the history of our time. We all make it, like house bricks, which when they’re all put together, make a building, sometimes a huge building! King What’s-His-Face, and Queen Thingy-Ma-Bob wouldn’t have got or kept their power without the ordinary people to help them. Kings and Queens and Presidents and Generals are just the bodies who give a name to whichever part of history we’re looking at; most of the real makers of history are people like us.

So, why do I write about Kings and Queens? Because they’re like the key that opens history’s door and shows us exactly what’s inside and also who’s inside. In The First King of England, I talk about Athelstan Cerdinga (what a mighty name), but I also tell of Edwin the shoemaker’s son. Not a person you’ll actually find mentioned in any of the history books, but a character who’s based on the ordinary everyday people who helped to make the history of their time.

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They lived when the Vikings were raiding and pillaging and taking the land from the Anglo-Saxon people who lived on these islands. And when you ask anyone today about these times, if they think about it at all, they believe the Vikings were unstoppable and that the Saxons spent their time running away from these nutters armed with axes. And at the beginning that was mainly true, but then came along a group of men and women who learnt how to fight back. So began a time of powerful people with wonderful names like Alfred the Great, Edward the Elder, Aethelflaed the ‘Lady of the Mercians’. Leaders who took back control from the Vikings, but who could only do it with the help of the ordinary people of those times who were just like you and me.

But if you think the Saxon people drove out the Vikings after they’d defeated them, you’d be wrong. The Saxon rulers allowed them to stay as long as they acknowledged them as their rulers too. This was the beginning of the country that would become known as England. A country made up of different peoples from different lands, just as it is today. And King Athelstan Cerdinga was the very first ruler of that new land. Read about him in The First King of England.

 

Stuart Hill is the author of the Icemark series of historical fantasy novels and winner of the inaugural Watersone’s Children’s Book Prize. Stuart’s newest book, The First King of England, publishes on 6th September.

 

 

From Pirate Sword to Pen

Pirates of Poseidon, the third book in my Ancient Greek Mysteries, has recently published. It’s one that I really enjoyed writing because it twins my two biggest literary passions: Ancient Greece and piracy. It is also set on one of my favourite islands: Aegina.

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I grew up on an island rich in pirate lore. Malta sits right at the centre of the Mediterranean Sea, half way between Europe and North Africa. Any empire that wanted to conquer the exotic lands of the Barbary Coast used Malta as a base for their naval operations. The island has been ruled by the Phoenicians, Romans, Carthaginians, Arabs, Normans, Sicilians, English and French. All this activity drew the attention of pirates, of course. For thousands of years, they plundered the sea around Malta, attacking ships as they bustled between the two continents. They left an indelible mark on both the Maltese landscape and psyche. Every corner of the island has a pirate story to tell. Here’s a house where a bride was kidnapped by pirates on her wedding day. Here’s a cave where a young girl hid from corsairs on her way home from the fields. That light at the bottom of the sea? It’s streaming out of a church that tumbled off a cliff after the holy saint in its painting came alive to rescue a boy from the evil pirates.

It’s no wonder, then, that I grew up fascinated by pirate stories. When I first had the idea for the Ancient Greek Mysteries, a good many years ago, the first image that flashed through my mind was of Ancient Greek pirates fighting two boys and two girls on a burning ship. I knew the pirate captain would have a highly polished sword that flashed in the moonlight. He would wear a golden mask to hide his true identity, one very much like the ‘mask of Agamemnon’ found in the ruins of Mycenae.  But who were the plucky kids? I toyed with all sorts of ideas: they could be actors in a touring company, or acolytes in a temple. I even thought of making them athletes, travelling around the ancient Greek world to take part in festival games and contests. But how would they come across the pirates? Why would they be fighting them?

For inspiration, I travelled to the Peloponnese islands. On the ferry from Athens, I chatted with a man with a shaved head and a snake tattoo on his right forearm. He claimed to be a detective, heading to the island of Poros.

“On holiday?” I asked.

“No, work.”

Having read that Poros is a sleepy island with a population of less than 4000, I couldn’t for the life of me think what he could possibly be investigating there. I tried worming some information out of him but to no avail. Later in the week I bumped into him a second time, at the famous temple of Poseidon on the northern side of the island. Was he on a break from his detecting duties, I wondered, or was he visiting the sanctuary in search of clues?

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Suddenly I had a role for the children in my stories. They would be detectives.  The boys would be Sherlock Holmes and Watson transported to Ancient Greece when the temple of Poseidon was at its height. They could travel all around Greece solving mysteries and every story would feature a famous temple hiding a vital clue.

In the end, I never did use the temple for the series. A few days later I visited the nearby island of Aegina, and decided to set one of the stories there.

It took me well over fifteen years to find the time to collate all my travel notes and work out proper plots for the Ancient Greek Mysteries. Other projects got in the way. But I never forgot that first meeting with the mysterious detective on his way to Poros. He was the inspiration for Thrax, one of the main characters and the lead detective in the stories.

Like the man with the snake tattoo, Thrax is someone who keeps his cards close to his chest, and he has a shaved head. Not to look cool but for an entirely different reason. A reason that ended up being the backbone for the whole series. Want to find out what it is?  Nico, the narrator of the stories, would love to tell you all about it…

 

Saviour Pirotta is the author of nearly one hundred titles, including Ancient Greek Mysteries Mark of the Cyclops and Secret of the Oracle. His most recent book, Pirates of Poseidon, is out now.

What Kids are Reading and Why we Commissioned the High/Low Series by Hannah Rolls (Commissioning Editor for Fiction & Poetry at Bloomsbury Education)

I’m always interested to hear more about what books children are reading so I was excited to see the recent release of the 2017 ‘What Kids Are Reading’ report: perfect reading matter for a reading geek like me!

The report looks at the reading habits of over 800,000 primary and secondary school children over the last year and is fascinating to those of us who spend our days trying to figure out how to get children as addicted to books as we are.

One of the things in the report that makes me particularly sad is the list of the most read books by struggling readers. These are children who are reading well below the expected level for their age, but I can’t believe that 9-11 year old children are excited to be reading The Gruffalo (the second most read book by struggling readers in year 5 and the third most read by struggling readers in year 6).  Obviously Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s masterpiece is a modern classic but these are children whose classmates have moved on to Roald Dahl, David Walliams and the Wimpy Kid series.

One of the things I’ve been working on here at Bloomsbury education over the last 18 months or so is improving what we have available for struggling readers so that (I hope) children can find something age appropriate to read, with just the right level of challenge.

The books in our new Bloomsbury High Low series have a higher interest age than their reading age – making them perfect for struggling readers, those with dyslexia and those with English as an additional language. Both the reading age and the interest age are printed on the back next to the barcode to make it really easy to tell who a book is for.

We’ve used tinted paper and a font from a list suggested by the British Dyslexia Association to try and make things a bit easier for children with Irlen syndrome or dyslexia. And we’ve worked with literacy experts from the charity Catch Up to make sure the text is perfectly tailored to suit the needs of struggling readers.

Most importantly, we’ve worked with brilliant authors and illustrators to make these books as engaging as possible – I really hope all children will find something they can get excited about here.

For more information on the Bloomsbury High/Low series and the brilliant new titles please visit http://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/education/series/high-low-fiction/

 

Falling in Love with the Romans

Sally Prue is author of our new laugh-out-loud adventure in the Flashbacks series set in ancient Rome – Land of the Gods

The Romans seemed to be everywhere when I was young. There was the Roman ring my dad dug up in the garden, there were scallop shells in the local fields (I didn’t find out until later that they were used as, um, lavatory scrapers) and there were bits of tiles to be picked up in the park. As if that wasn’t enough, the cathedral tower was built of Roman bricks, and a bus ride away was Verulamium, with its Roman walls, theatre, hypocaust, and rather dull museum (now, I must add, hugely improved).

The Romans were everywhere – but, to be honest, I didn’t really think that much of them. Their clothes were ridiculous, for one thing, their gods seemed full of cruelty and revenge. They spoke Latin, which could hardly have been more baffling if it had been specially designed for the purpose.

But then one day on holiday there was a downpour that lasted so long that in the end the Roman museum at Bath was the only place left to go.

And, do you know, I rather fell in love.

The museum revealed to me a dark, mysterious world of curses and magic; of the divine in everything, absolutely everything, every tree and gatepost and pool. It led me to discover Roman generosity in embracing the gods of all peoples, whether it was the goddess Sul who dwelt in the hot springs of Bath, or the Persian god Mithras. I discovered, movingly, the Roman gods of childhood: Cunina, who guarded a child’s bed; Ossipago, who made his bones grow strong; and Levana, who watched over the first time a father lifted his child in his arms.

And there in my mind, quite suddenly, was the story of the irrepressible Lucan, a Celtic boy captured by the dodgiest merchant in Britain. Luckily, as the boy Lucan tells us (repeatedly) Lucan is exceptionally brave, clever and good-looking, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t in great danger, even if it’s not exactly the danger he’s expecting. As a Celt from the edges of the Roman Britain, Lucan knows just about as much about the Romans as, well, I suppose as I did when I was his age.

Lucan’s adventures take him from the borders of Wales to Bath, and they end in the town of Silchester. He meets the weaselly slave Aphrodisius, the centurion Sabidus Maximus, and Claudia, who is possibly the bossiest girl in the entire Roman Empire.

Lucan’s journey was fascinating to research, and Lucan himself proved to be very good company. It was extraordinary to look through the eyes of a child transported in a few days from an Iron Age existence into a hub of Roman civilisation, and to see so clearly that for him the Romans truly were living in The Land of the Gods.

 

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