Busy in the back room

It’s ages since I posted anything. I’ve been busy moving house and cities, and working on two new books.

I live in Dunedin now. My study has a view of the Pacific Ocean. Most days there’s a long flat horizon where sea meets sky. Sometimes there’s a huge roll of bumpy cloud far out there at the edge of a mirror-sea. Some days it’s all cloud or mist, and the white chimney of the house over the road seems to float in it like an unmoored castle.

Soon it will time to change the name of this blog. And The Tales of Fontania Facebook page will be ‘Barbara Else Author page’ or something. I still have to figure that out.

I am working on a new children’s novel, not part of the Fontania series. There’s still a layer to put in this new one. Writing a novel is rather like baking a cake. A famous editor once said that writers are like good cooks – they always know what to add, and when. But I think we’ll make that ‘writers hope eventually they’ll figure out what to put in the mixture.’

The recipe for this book is taking while to sort out, and the cake’s a sort of upside-down layer cake. There is a great deal of cake actually in the book too.

Before that novel comes out, I’ll have published a totally new kind of book for me. It’s been incredibly exciting to work on it, with a hugely talented lot of people. I’m waiting for the publisher to say – spread the news! So I’m not even telling you the name yet. But the page proofs have been checked and checked again and the whole thing is off to the printer. arrived this week, so I’m very excited.  The real-life-rejoicing cake to celebrate this book just has to wait a few more months.

In the meantime, here’s a picture on my study wall. It’s the clock tower of Otago University in Dunedin. It’s actually a piece of needlework done my grandmother, Alice Lucy Jane Groves, maybe eighty years ago or even more.  If anyone can explain why it insists on sitting sideways on this blog post, I’ll be very grateful.


A review of The Knot Impossible

On a wet winter afternoon, I found this post, unposted, from some time last year.  So I’ll post it now then think about writing a new one.

The unposted is:

Here’s one of the first reviews of the 4th Tale of Fontania. It’s always scary seeing a new review come out. Some writers say they never read reviews of their work. Secretly I think they’re fibbing. Um. Now I’ve written that, it isn’t secret any more.





Hey, young readers, Happy New Year from a nervous grown-up


What will I have written by the end of 2016?  Now that the Tales of Fontania are finished (the 4th, The Knot Impossible, is out already in New Zealand and Australia, out in March in the USA) it is time for me to try something new.

At the moment I’m packing my bags ready to take the ferry from Wellington NZ to the South Island. Then I’ll drive all the way down the east coast to Dunedin and Otago University for six months as the 2016 Children’s Writing Fellow. This still makes me blink with astonishment.

I told the University something about the new novel I hoped to write. I even showed them the first few pages of the first draft. They said, ‘Yay, we want you! Come down!’ (Um, they were rather more formal about it but they did sound excited, which was very flattering and made me super-excited too.) I had to keep the news deep-secret for months. That was extreeeemely hard.

But now – I’m nervous.  I’d rather scurry back to Fontania and the strange creatures that live in its forests and oceans. Already I miss the brave Fontanian children who struggled to sort out the muddles grownups were making of everything.

I have to tell myself – the new novel will have a different set of brave children. They too will struggle, make jokes and be bemused and amused by grown-ups. (After all I am still very bemused and amused by plenty of grown-ups.) When I’m finally in Dunedin in my own university office, maybe the ideas and action of this new novel and the jokes will begin to bubble in my brain and race out my fingertips through the keyboard and onto the screen.

Please send encouraging thoughts to beautiful Dunedin with its magical harbour and Otago University with its handsome clock tower – very gothic and even a bit Harry Potter-ish. I must post a photo of it on the blog very soon.

In the meantime here’s a shot of a performance of the Anarchists’ Marching Song from The Volume of Possible Endings. Rousing.

Marching Song 3

Let’s hear it for minor characters!

Probably every reader has favourite characters from favourite stories. Most often they’ll be the main ones, like Pippi Longstocking or Pooh Bear, Willie Wonka or Charlie himself  from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

But I had a great letter from a reader a couple of weeks back. It’s always special to hear from children who’ve enjoyed one or more of the Tales of Fontania and Zac from Nelson said something really pleasing. Among other things he liked a minor character in The Travelling Restaurant, Crispin Kent. He’s a journalist who also appears in The Volume of Possible Endings. Journalists are meant just to report the news, not take sides.

But Mr Kent seems dodgy at first. Is he a spy? Is he an enemy? He’s one of my favourite minor characters too, because he does seem so slippery and I’ve known several slightly wicked but very funny people a bit like him.

Have a think about the last book you read. Did any of the minor characters stand out? Can you work out why? How about writing a story of your own, with that character as the main one?


How cool are maps?

J R R Tolkein said: “Believable fairy-stories must be intensely practical. You must have a map, no matter how rough. Otherwise you wander all over the place. In The Lord of the Rings I never made anyone go farther than he could on a given day.” I loved following the adventures in the maps, and the artist helped give atmosphere to the story.

I feel very lucky to have an artist as clever as Sam Broad to do the cover and maps for each of the Tales of Fontania. He has an amazing sense of fun and drama. I don’t think he could do a boring picture no matter how hard to tried. His illustrations almost zoom off the page with energy. The other thing I really like is how he adds his own details to the basic ideas.

The Volume of Possible Endings is in five parts and each one is headed by an illustration. The one on page 158 is a fabulous raven soldier. See how his foot rests on the toadstool. See the feather dropping off his hunky arm. And take a look at the can of army rations on p 98. It’s disgusting. I love it.

The inside covers of The Volume of Possible Endings have a map of Owl Town where most of the action takes place. While I’m drafting a novel, I have to do maps myself to make sure I’m sending the characters in the right directions. I’m very grateful that Sam can look at my scrappy scribbles and turn them into versions that are so much fun and – well, I’ve already said clever. But when it’s about Sam Broad, it is worth saying clever at least twice.

Check out more of his work on his website.

Off on its own

This week, the Third Tale of Fontania, The Volume of Possible Endings was published in NZ and Australia at least  I think it’s out in Australia on the same date). I’ve been edgy – excited – happy and nervous – and I’ve decided it’s kind’a like sending your child to school for the first time. It’s what you’ve been heading for since the child was born. Your child has to go. He or she has to start making their own way in the world. But you are anxious for them. All you can do it cross your fingers, close your eyes tight and hope for the best.

It made me think of my own first day at school, Kelburn Normal Primary, Wellington. I remember my mum had put a hard-boiled egg in my lunch-box. I peeled it and dropped the pieces of shell on the ground. I’m sure I wouldn’t have been allowed to drop stuff on the ground at home. Anyway two older girls told me rather bossily that wasn’t the right thing to do, and I must put the rubbish into the bin. Did I pick it up? I’ve no idea but I remember being a bit annoyed that nobody had told me the rules earlier. Possibly I just walked away in a five-year old’s huff.

Here’s a link to a page from Around the Bookshops, one of my favourite blogs for children’s books. It contains one of the first reviews. There’s a photo of me rather happier (and older) than during the boiled egg incident.







What have I been up to? Plus a writing tip for young authors.

Without even leaving my study, I’ve been up to plenty. In February I finished the editing and final proof-reading of The Volume of Possible Endings, the Third Tale of Fontania. It should be in shops in NZ and Australia in a few weeks, the UK and US early next year. Here are two links:  
The Volume of Possible Endings (Gecko Press)

 Random House the distributor


And since October last year I’ve also been writing the Fourth Tale of Fontania. It’s another stand-alone book though it does wrap up some things that have been lurking in the margins of the first three.  

I wanted to complete it by this week. About three months ago  I had to tell my lovely family and friends, ‘No phone calls. No coffees. No hanging out till I have done the job and that means weekdays and weekends.’  Some of them screamed, bless them. But they all  understand how important it is for someone to focus hard on what they’re doing.

So, my nose has been over my keyboard. There I’ve had wild adventures, being attacked by monsters and discovering villains, all in the company of three of the toughest children I’ve ever met in the world of Fontania.

Okay, here is the writing tip.  If you’re writing  a scene and you suspect it’s a bit boring, ask yourself how the main character feels at the start of the piece, and make sure he or she is in a different frame of mind at the end. Try to make a character move from one mood to something better, or something worse. Those changes in emotion help to give a story pace.