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What I learned on Retreat

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I’m back in Edinburgh after a month writing in Italy. In a week’s time I launch my second picture book, The Grouse and the Mouse. I’m moving house the following weekend. So I’ve gone from having no urgent agenda to having a long and urgent to do list. It feels a bit overwhelming. So I thought I’d write about my retreat to try to take some of the lessons learned back to everyday life.

What were the best things about being on retreat?

1) Time to reflect

Sometimes we’re so busy doing things, we forget to look up and think. Here’s some cherries I spotted above me on a walk. To remind me to stop and look up.

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2) Wild Swimming

I was with Ali (week two retreat buddy) and we weren’t planning to swim. We were walking along a river through the valley with mountains on either side of us. Every now and then there was a roar of a small waterfall and we trecked through the undergrowth to find it’s source. One of these waterfalls had hollowed out a natural pool – it was so perfect I decided I was going in. Ali said she would come back another day – when she had swimwear. I undressed and spent a while procrastinating – apologising for my too small pants (so I had a builders bum). I sat on a rocky ledge with my feet in the water willing myself to be brave enough to jump. It was freezing. Ali got so bored of me counting to three and not actually jumping that she decided she might as well join me. Also apologising for her not-the-best underwear. And we jumped in. It was amazing – freezing cold followed by that tingling I-am-alive warmth. So this is to remind me to go for it. You might not always have the right clothes (or be ready) but sometimes it’s good to take a leap.

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Read about wild swimming adventures closer to home in Scotland here.

3) Walking in the mountains

There’s something so calming about time and space outside in nature. I know I don’t live in the mountains, I live in Edinburgh but I live by the sea. I can go for walks there. The highlands aren’t far away.

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John Muir says this better than I could:

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(taken from Tales from Our Wild Park)

So this is to remind me to go outside.

4) Retreat buddies

Being creative brings joy and life. But it’s also lonely and scary. The act of creating is taking a risk, the act of sharing it with others puts you in a vulnerable position. But if you don’t take that risk, you won’t get the feedback you need to improve or know if you’re on the right track. So one thing I loved was sharing work on retreat. I shared writing with Sian (week three retreat buddy – that’s me and her below). I enjoyed being useful and constructive and encouraging to her and her feedback helped me massively to work on and improve my work.

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With week two buddy Ali, we swam and walked lots as well as doing some drawing. One afternoon we were walking along a path where a whole load of butterflies were drinking from some puddles. As we walked they took off – around 40 butterflies flying all around us as we passed through their puddles. It was like a film. Here’s one of Ali’s drawing’s from the retreat. It makes me think of moments like the butterflies – the magic of retreat:

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So this is to remind me to not create in isolation, artists need other artists.

5) Food and sunshine

It was also really lovely to have someone to share meals with and we took it in turns to make food for each other. I loved the food – it was all so fresh that everything we cooked tasted amazing! It was lovely to have sunshine too.

What were the worst things about being on retreat?

1) Insects

I got so many bites. They itched. I took pictures but I don’t think you want to see them.

2) Being propositioned

You say you’re not interested and that you have a boyfriend they say “why is he not here?” and “you should finish with him”. You say you need to get on with your work they say “you have been working for three hours already, I have been watching you. When will you stop working and go for a drink with me?!” and so on. It gets very tiring. Especially when you’re on your own and you’re trying to work and they won’t leave your table.

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3) Heat

It was a bit too hot. Like at night in the last week it was too hot to sleep. So that made me less productive in the day.

4) Being cut off

There was wifi every now and then at the cafe in the square. And in some ways – that was great. I was less contactable and this gave me time and space. I wanted to write without the distractions of every day life and work. But there were some proofs for a book that was going to print and it needed to be looked over. And my time slots for the Green Man Festival needed to be finalised. I needed to check in for my flight home. I had to send a list of email addresses for book launch invites to go out. And so on. So when I needed to do something it often took a few days because I was waiting for wifi to work – so I guess not being able to be distracted properly became a distraction.

5) Loneliness

I was on my own week one and week four. I started to find it hard to cope near the end of week one. Partly because of point 2 above and partly because I was trying to deal with a challenging situation in the UK and partly because I was in a village with no-one to talk to in my own language. Here’s one of the stray cats from the village demonstrating how I felt:

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And do you know what I did eventually? I wrote a blog I’d never publish and sent it to a few friends and I told them how I was feeling. I asked if people could say some encouraging things or funny things because I needed cheering up. And they did. I was sent cat photos and dancing videos and emails from people who shared how lonely they’d felt on retreat and cheery texts and words of advise and one friend called me. It was so good to actually speak to someone! And thanks to that and texts and emails, I knew I wasn’t alone and that people cared and it totally cheered me up. And I realised I was really lucky to have such lovely friends and lucky to have an opportunity in a beautiful place to do some writing. So this cat is to remind me, if you’re feeling rubbish and alone it’s okay to ask for help.

Did I get work done?

Yes. I wrote a middle grade novel (for age 6 – 9 years) I first started on retreat two years ago. It’s about an otter who’s an artist. Many of the experiences I had while I was out walking became part of the novel. I also rewrote a couple of picture books I first began six years ago, one about a frog and one about a worm. And I did some sketches for another book I’m writing. And wrote a first draft for a version of sleeping beauty (with cryogenic freezing) that I’ll be performing at Unbound at Edinburgh International Book Festival.

Would I do it all over again?

Yes definitely, but I’d prefer to do it here, in Scotland.

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Posted by on July 10, 2015 in Events, illustration, nature, Writing

 

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Kick It Cameron!

Last week, people kept sending me links to a video of this bird:

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The video was of a dancing capercaillie attacking skiers! It went viral. That same week I got a couple of lovely letters about my much less violent capercaillie children’s book ‘Can’t-Dance-Cameron‘. I wanted to share these things with you.

Firstly, I’m sure you’re dying to see the video:

It reminds me of how important it is to observe nature from a distance! Male capericallies dance during the mating season but they also dance in defense. Sometimes they dance so hard they drop down dead. No joke. And there’s only around 1000 of them left in the wild in Scotland. That’s why we humans shouldn’t get too close. If they waste their energy dancing for us it might just be their last dance.

If you do want to see the phenomena that is a dancing capericaillie you could watch one from inside a bird hide. That way you don’t disturb the bird causing any unnecessary dance moves. I’ve been to RSPB Loch Garten Caperwatch the last three years in a row to try to see a dancing capericaillie. I live tweeted my adventures and even made a wee video about it. Did I see a dancing bird? You can find out here.

Alternatively, to dance like a capericallie without harming any capericallies in the comfort of your own home or school, you could follow the dance moves in Can’t-Dance-Cameron!

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And now, on that lighter and much lovelier note – I’ve received a letter from a Dad and one from a Mum all about just that:

 xxxx had to give a talk in school this week about an object that summed up ‘Scottish identity’. So, he took along his signed copy of ‘Cameron’ and talked for two minutes in front of his P2 class. His teacher said he did really well, and she was delighted to discover the book through him. She read it to the class after his talk and it went down a storm, with all the kids doing the Cameron Boogie at the end. The teacher has ordered a few copies for the school (she said she was struggling to find new books for P2’s with accessible Scottish themes). So, if you are planning a promotional roadshow to local schools any time soon, please include xxxx PS in Musselburgh to the list – you already have an established fan base there!

I just wanted to let you know how much we loved your new book – My daughter was given a signed copy of ‘Can’t Dance Cameron’ for Christmas and I will make sure its kept safe so she can treasure it forever . She loves the book and we read it often and do the dances , we both love the beautiful pictures and the story of the book is very apt for my little late bloomer who took her time to find her groove like Cameron. We can’t wait for other stories to follow x

Writing is sometimes a lonely job – you don’t get much feedback sat at a desk by yourself. So getting letters like these is really one of the loveliest things about being a writer. It’s so great to know you’re making a difference – thanks to the parents who took the time to write them – you totally made my day!

 Image Credit: Laurie Campbell

 
 

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Tales From Our Wild Park

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This is me holding a giant copy of the book I’ve written for Loch Lomond & the Trossachs National Park. It’s called ‘Tales From Our Wild Park’ and it launched yesterday at Glasgow Queen Street station.

The Launch

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That’s Paul Wheelhouse the Environment Minister in the middle and Fiona Logan (Chief Executive of Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park) on the left and the park convener Linda McKay on the right – getting their photos taken at the launch. They were interviewed by the BBC too, you might have seen it on Reporting Scotland last night?

Behind them to the left is the green screen. It was used to create portraits of people in the park. For example, I stood in front of the green screen and cupped my hands and…. here I am holding a red squirrel in the Trossachs Forest!

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You can see all of the photos created by the green screen on facebook here. Read more about the launch on forargyle.com here.

Tales from Our Wild Park

It’s so exciting to see the book in print! It looks absolutely gorgeous. The designers (Create 48) and project manager (Aelred Nicholas) have done an amazing job in putting it together. This is one of my favourite spreads:

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John Muir’s quote, the designers beautiful word art, an amazing photo of the bog cotton and my writing.

The publication is 52 pages long. It focuses on five wild challenges:

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Half of Scotland’s population live within one hour’s drive from the park so really, the park belongs to all of us and this book is written for you. It sets out the priorities for the park over the next ten years and it invites us to get involved. It invites us to visit the park and experience the beauty of nature for ourselves:

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The book is free and is available at outlets across the Park. You can download it here.

My Brief

My role was to make the 150 page biodiversity action plan as relevant, engaging, exciting and easy to read as possible. I needed to write for someone with no background knowledge of the park. I read the action plan several times. Some sections, for example ‘our woodland habitats’, were several pages long. My challenge was to condense seven pages into the equivalent of two. Other sections like ‘red squirrels’ or ‘black grouse’ only had a few paragraphs so I needed to take what was relevant and research the topic elsewhere. I thought a lot about how to make things relevant to the public and proposed a general format for each wild challenge of:

  • Relevant quote
  • Descriptive intro
  • Why it’s important / why it matters
  • What we’re doing
  • How can you get involved / what can you do to help
  • Where can you see it / them (location and travel info)

Aelred loved this format and so I set to work on a sample spread. I wanted to check I was on the right track before I wrote the whole thing. I chose peat bogs first. I read the action plan section a few times and researched bogs in books and online. I spoke to a natural history expert, Kenny Taylor to find out more.

I submitted my first spread and received feedback. The good thing was the tone and style were just right but there were things I needed to work on. The team wanted more excitement and adventure. What is it like to climb the mountains and visit a peat bog? I’d suggested visiting Flanders Moss – the most famous bog in the park but this was the wrong type of bog.

This initial feedback was really useful and helped me to understand what the team were looking for. It also helped me to request the information I needed instead of coming up with it myself – like locations for mountain bogs (since there weren’t bog locations in the action plan). I asked for clarification on the angle of each section – for example with invasive non-native species I suggested as an intro we started off all gentle and beautiful and then switch to the destruction of the plants taking over. They liked that.

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I had to think about the best way to get key points and information across. Not everyone is interested in invasive plants (they’re not cute like red squirrels) so I didn’t want to use lots of text writing about each specific plant. Instead I suggested photos and a table.

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I wrote the rest of the sections and simplified the vision and overview. The feedback was good – just some minor changes and a suggestion to find some alternative quotes (apart from John Muir). I’d chosen John Muir because I love how he captures the heart of the beauty of experiencing nature with so much simplicity. Also, he’s from Scotland, he founded national parks in the US and it’s the year of Scotland’s homecoming. But taking the feedback on board, I found some other relevant quotes and they’ve really added something – like Billy Connolly’s quote about a sexy raincoat!

Aelred asked partner organisations for quotes too – they really bring the topics to life.

I love that about the creative process. When others contribute ideas and vision it makes the whole thing so much better as a result.

Feedback

The style is completely different to anything the park has published before. Feedback and so far has been really positive. One staff member told me how she cried when she read it. It’s been described as a publication that engages with the head as well as the heart. 

I’d be interested to hear what you think too!?

Edinburgh International Book Festival

I’m really excited to say ‘Tales of our Wild Park’ is going to all the teachers visiting Edinburgh International Book Festival School Gala Day on the 26th August. I’m doing three events at the book festival this year including an event at the Gala Day. I’ve written another book that came out this week, this one is for children but it also features a red squirrel and a forest! It’s called ‘Can’t Dance Cameron’. Read more about it here.

Find out more about Wild Park on the Wild Park 2020 website.

 

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Don’t Forget the Snowdrops

Earlier this week I was running forest families workshops with children at Gorebridge library as part of Love Your Libraries week. During the workshops I told to the children why I like to go outside. I explained I feel relaxed and it gives me ideas for stories.

Six workshops later, I prepared to head back to Edinburgh. I’ve got writing deadlines just now so I had no time to lose. But then I changed my mind. I realised making the time to go outside would make all the difference to my time inside writing. I needed to do what I’d been telling the children. I needed to go outside.

It was a sunny day so me and the Educator I’d been working with took an hour out before our trip back to Edinburgh to visit Vogrie Country Park. We were met by these snowdrops:

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That hour made all the difference. It was so good to see the snowdrops and remember there’s a world changing and growing all around us. If we stay indoors we miss out on moments like this.

 
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Posted by on February 6, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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Firefly Magazine

There was a big white envelope waiting on the doormat. Inside was my copy of the exciting new children’s magazine Firefly:

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It’s a seasonal magazine which includes outdoor activities, puzzles, comics, wildlife, books, craft and cooking. The magazine is aimed at children 5 to 10 years or as the cover says “it’s for families who are wild at heart”.

Flicking through the pages you’ll notice Firefly is visually stunning. I think what makes it special is the contributions from many different illustrators and writers. I was commissioned to write a 2 page nature feature for the magazine and I chose to write about otters:

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Why Otters? 

Otters are an animal most children won’t have seen but would like to spot. They’ve got character, they do funny things like pooping on the tops of rocks or tufts of grass so everyone can see where they’ve been. Urban otters are getting much more common so even if you live in a city you won’t be too far from an otter. They’re inclusive but not too common to be ordinary. I’ve tried to spot otters myself a few times so otter spotting is something close to my heart.

The Writing Process

First I found out as much as I could about otters online, in books and by asking people. I interviewed an otter expert (Chris Cathrine from Caledonian Conservation) and I spent time choosing the best bits from everything I learned. The hardest thing I think is condensing all of that research. Which bits stay and which bits go?

I wrote sections in bite sized chunks and gradually and ruthlessly chopped out sections until I was only left with the best. I want to make children laugh or tell them something so weird and wonderful that they would want to tell their friends or family about it. That way they’re much more likely to remember it.

If I used a complicated word I made sure I explained what it meant. I used to write the Dino’s Dynamos Kids Club magazine for Dynamic Earth so that really helped with knowing how to write and plan to communicate science to children. I had a good editor back then so I got told which bits worked and which didn’t. Later I edited the magazine when new writers started writing it so I think that whole process helped me to be objective and to really weed out every word that isn’t necessary.

I included Chris Cathrine’s answer to “What is the funniest thing you’ve ever seen an otter do?” because I knew children would love finding out something like that from an otter expert. I thought about the illustrations we would need to go with the text and made notes and found examples in books so I could send these to the illustrator who was working on my section (Cat O’ Neil).

I spent lots more time rewriting and cutting to get down to the word limit I’d been set.

Help, I can’t think of an otter joke!

I was desperately trying to come up with a good otter joke but hadn’t managed it. I went along to the Edinburgh Literary Salon for a much needed break from writing. It’s a monthly get together for writers and anyone involved in books and publishing. My friend Alan McIntosh was there (I interviewed him on this blog here) and knowing how quick-witted he is I explained I was trying to come up with a good otter joke. Here’s how the rest of the conversation went:

Alan: Tell me about them, where do they live, what are the names for things?

Me: Their homes are holts, their poos are spraints, they eat fish…

Alan: What do you get if you tread on an otter poo?

Me (smile)

Alan: A spraint ankle!

It was perfect, exactly what I was looking for. Any joke about poo is a big hit with children but they also love to learn a new word that they can show off with by using it in a joke. Funny and educational. When you laugh you learn more so massive thanks to Alan for that one!

Finishing

When I finally submitted my feature it included a page of extra ideas, things like a dot to d’otter (otter dot to dot) or having a hidden spraint (otter poo) somewhere in the magazine for children to find. Firefly Editor Hannah Foley liked my ideas. She decided to add an extra page called ‘Otter Fun’ to include the puzzles and extra ideas so now I’ve ended up writing a three page spread on otters. My text went to copy editor Genevieve Herr and she was happy with it, she made some minor changes and that was me done.

It really is amazing to see the magazine in print. I just need to order a copy for my nephews and nieces!

Order your copy of Firefly Magazine on the Firefly website here

 
 

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Social Reporting from the Capercaillie Lek

If you live tweet from a bird hide does anyone care? How can you capture nature as and when it’s happening? Can you create a story around something that may or may not even be there?

This Easter I challenged myself to try social reporting from the caperwatch 2013 at RSPB Loch Garten.

Social reporting is about capturing an event from the inside using audio, video and photos.

Caperwatch is about waking up at 4am to see if you can spot a big black turkey like bird dancing, while peering through the window of a little wooden hut on the side of a loch.

The bird I’m talking about is the capercaillie and here’s how I got on: Watch to the video on youtube here

I interviewed Richard Thaxton from the RSPB to ask why we have to get up so early to see the capercaillie dancing, here’s what he said: Watch the video on youtube here

On the way and during the caperwatch I live tweeted some photos, here’s a couple from the carIMG_20130330_051821 IMG_20130330_052451

We watched the sunrise from the hide, wow!:

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This is the osprey EJ, taken through a telescope with my phone on the eyepeice:

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Can you spot the red squirrel in this shot?:

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But the bird didn’t dance. Does that matter? We also went to see golden eagles but they didn’t fly in:

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And we visited the national dolphin centre but we missed the dolphins by an hour:

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I didn’t mind and the things we did see were beautiful. Getting up at 4am was worth it just to see the sunrise. Eagles would have been a bonus but mountains were enough.

Life can be a bit like that sometimes, you don’t always find what we’re looking for, things don’t always turn out how you planned but if you don’t look for things in the first place you’ll miss the wonderful things there are to see along the way.

Just wanted to point out the kindest way to watch a capercaillie is in the RSPB Loch Garten hide. The capercaillie are critically endangered and when they dance every day they sometimes just drop dead. Bop till they drop. If you go looking for them in the wild and one sees you it will dance to defend itself. The purpose of dancing (or leking) is to attract a mate and you are not that. You will be wasting the poor birds energy and it could be enough to push that bird over the edge. Please let him save the last dance. 

 
 

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Sine Wave Squirrel

Last night at 3am I was thinking about the way squirrels bound along with such joyful glee. All the other jumping animals I could think of (kangaroos, birds, frogs) are not graceful, the squirrel seems to jump just perfectly, in a perfect sine curve. It’s a funny way to move along the ground. So I wrote a wee poem about it, I read it to my friend Katie first, because it’s her 29th birthday today. So in tribute to Katie Smith:

Sine Wave Squirrel

Blissful bouncer
Mouse on a mission
Risk taker

Graceful dancer
Bounding musician
Joy rider

Gleeful prancer
Motion magician
Free styler

Perfect sine wave
Mathematician
High flyer

Sleek
Leap
Excited

My
Heart
ignited

Your every spring it sings hooray!
Squirrel I love you and I wanted to say….

Of all the animals that jump,
I think YOU do it the best.

 
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Posted by on August 13, 2011 in nature, poetry, Science, Writing

 

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