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GUEST POST: Author Catherine Bruton on Another Twist in the Tale and Creating Characters the Dickensian way!

It’s the second Victorian-inspired blog this month in celebration of the launch of Mr Dilly’s A Very Victorian Christmas, the festive treat for primary schools that the whole school community can enjoy! I’m really excited to welcome Catherine Bruton to the blog, author of No Ballet Shoes in Syria and most recently, the Oliver-Twist inspired Another Twist in the Tale. Today, I share my review of this wonderful tale and Catherine is sharing some wonderful insight into creating Dickensian characters.

You have heard, no doubt, the tale of Master Oliver Twist – that rags-to-riches boy; the parish orphan who became heir to the Brownlow fortune. But what few know is that was a second Twist – a girl, brought into this world moments ahead of her brother. This is the story of Twill Twist – and her journey through the gambling dens and workhouses of London, as she attempts to make a life for herself, rescue her friends, and uncover the mystery of her past – while meeting some familiar faces along the way…

For me, Oliver Twist always brings back memories of Christmas – the musical version was always on at Christmas time and who can fail to recall Ron Moody’s fantastic performance as Fagin?! And now, author Catherine has brought to life Dickens’ Victorian London again, with the most wonderful twist, as the title suggests. Meet Twill, none other than Oliver Twist’s twin sister, rescued from death by Baggage Jones, herself a young girl fighting for survival in Victorian London. Intertwining characters from the original story – including the wonderful Artful Dodger- with utterly delightful new faces, Catherine weaves a world fraught with danger for Twill as she navigates her way through the backstreets of Victorian London, trying to discover the truth about her past. Another Twist in the Tale is one of the most authentic, engaging and downright enjoyable books I’ve read in recent times and I am really pleased to welcome Catherine to the blog with a brilliant post about creating Dickensian characters. Welcome to the blog Catherine!

Creating Incredible Characters – the Dickensian way! By Catherine Bruton

“What was the best thing about writing ‘Another Twist in the Tale’, my sequel to Charles Dickens’ ‘Oliver Twist’ set in Victorian London and featuring Oliver’s long lost twin sister? That’s easy – it was the characters! Rediscovering familiar old faces from Dickens – the Artful Dodger, Fagin and Oliver Twist himself  – and creating a host of exciting new heroes and villains of my own – Baggage Jones, the Monstrous Madame Manzoni and Miss Twill Twist –  was just so much fun!  So what did I learn from Dickens about how to create incredible characters?

Names

From Mr Pumblechook, Martin Chuzzlewit, Ebenezer Scrooge, Pip Pirrip, The Aged P, the Artful Dodger, Mr Jaggers, Abel Magwitch and The Barnacles  to Creake, Crumple, Cripples and Cruncher, Dickens’ character names are as weird and wonderful, glorious and grotesque, sad and funny and moving and brilliant as Dickens’ incredible cast of characters themselves. So how did he do it?

Well, Dickens knew how to play with sounds, from the assonantal Scrooge and Drood, the plosive Pip Pirrip, the alliterative Newman Noggs and Nicholas Nickleby, to the onomatopoeic Creakle and Jingle and Crimple.  And he loved using homophones and puns too – Micawbre/Macabre, Jaggers/Jagged, Uriah/Urine, Claypole/Maypole, Krooks/Crook, to name but a few. Sometimes the word association goes further – from McChoakumchild, choking all the joy out of children, to the deadly Lady Dedlock and the heartless Harthouse. Dickens also  enjoyed using everyday objects in his names – Bucket, Pocket, Guppy, Slime and Honeythunder – and he was the absolute master of the pithy epithet: who can forget The Artful Dodger, The Avenger and The Aged P?

So I gave myself licence to have fun with names in ‘Another Twist in the Tale’. I have my own alliterative heroes and villains – from Tommy Tickle, Madame Manzoni, Bob the Butcher’s Boy to Twill Twist herself (not that she becomes a Twist right away!) as well as my own associative names – Mrs Spanks who is famous for her beatings, Fleet who is fast and stinky as the river she takes her name from, and the cherubic Angel.

Names in ‘Another Twist in the Tale’ are particularly important because many of my characters’ names have been lost – or found! ‘Baggage Jones was quite sure she’d had another name once but it had been lost like a penny down the floorboards or an odd sock in the laundry  … she  had spent her fourteen years on this earth being addressed thus ‘Get over ‘ere, you baggage … Fetch this, you useless baggage …. Get on, you baggage you’ – that she had come to believe Baggage was indeed her name.’ Similarly, all of the members of the Sassy Sisterhood of Saffon Hill are named after the places where they were found, shivering and starving on the streets – ‘There was Sloane whose half-closed eye and scarred cheek had been gained in an encounter with the Old Bill on the King’s Road, Chelsea who has slept a whole winter in the snow on Eaton Terrace and little Angel who has been found starving on a street corner in Islington.’ Poor Piccadilly and Trafalgar – the asymmetrical twins – come off rather worse in this particular naming strategy! Meanwhile, many of the urchins who find themselves prey to the exploitative Blacking Factory sweatshop are nameless – ‘the latest arrival had no idea what his name was so the boys called him Nemo (which means nobody)’  Oh, and there’s  the one known simply as Boy Number 12 (my nod to ‘Hard Times’!)

Meanwhile some of my names are riddles. The mysterious Mr Barrabas (not his real name!) takes his pseudonym from another literary baddie who poisoned his own daughter and a houseful of nuns with porridge (can you name the author and the play?) Oh, and this evil gentleman’s name also links him to another famous Dickensian villain to whom he bears a striking resemblance. ‘Mother Earth’ and the mysterious Mrs C also have names that prove to be riddles to be solved before our heroine can save the day. Meanwhile, Madame Manzoni is a tribute to one of my favourite characters from a classic novel NOT by Dickens! I shall leave the literary sleuths amongst you to figure out who (look out for the clue later on in the blog!)

As for  Miss Twill (Twist/Brownlow) Jones – also known as Camberwell, Will Camberwell or  just South o’ th’ River to her friends – well, our plucky heroine loses a name,  gains a name, changes her name, throws off  a name and gets a brand new one at the end! Yes, names are a big part of this story!

Appearance

Dickens’ character descriptions are famously gloriously visual, almost cartoon-like at times. His characters come in different shapes (the ‘square’ Mr Gradgrind), sizes (Tiny Tim) and colours (just think of Miss Havisham’s wedding attire faded to sere yellow, like her hopes!) and his descriptions are peppered with wonderful metaphors and similes  – who can forget the letterbox mouth of Mr Wopsle?

So, you can just imagine how much fun I had creating my own character descriptions, drawing on Dickens’ techniques and allowing myself licence to exaggerate as much as I liked. There’s the monstrous Madame Manzoni ‘who had once been a diminutive bird-like woman of singular beauty. But over the years a monstrous accumulation of flesh had descended upon her tiny body like lava upon a doomed city, burying the fairy-like girl in waves and waves of undulating white flesh’. Or Baggage Jones, ‘a scrawny scrap of a creature who bore a squashed appearance as of clothing hastily scrumpled.’ Or Twill Jones who ‘shared all her brother’s angelic beauty, but her big blue eyes shone with a fierce light and there was a determined tilt to her chin and firm set to her rose-petal mouth which reflected her fearless temper.’

And I had the most brilliant fun inventing suitably Dickensian metaphors and similes: ‘wobbling like a colossal blancmange’, ‘a tall hot, poker of a woman’, ‘tiny beady eyes that glimmered like currants in the swelling pudding of her doughy face’, ‘an eyebrow raised like a slug wriggling on a vast mountain of lard’, ‘he had the soft, plump features of a newborn and not much more hair on his head than a babe-in-arms neither’, ‘a squat looking girl with the appearance of a pugilistic pug’. Yes, when it comes to creating Dickensian characters it’s all about the imagery – the more weird, wonderful and grotesque the better!

Voices

During a trip to the Dickens’ Museum in London I learned that the great man would ‘act out’ his characters in front of a mirror to get the voices right (I even got to stand in front of the actual looking glass and mutter a few of the Artful Dodger’s choicest phrases!)  Dickens uses dialogue almost like a play-write to evoke his characters’ idiosyncrasies. From Mr Sleary’s lisp and Harthouse’s lazy drawl, to the catchphrases for which so many of his characters are famous – Fagin’s obsequious ‘my dear!’, Scrooge’s ‘Bah Humbug!’, Uriah Heep’s ‘Umble’  to Jo the Crossing Sweeper’s ‘I don’t know nothink’ and Stephen Blackpool’s ‘Tis all a muddle!’ not forgetting my personal favourite, Joe Gargery’s ‘Ever the best of friends!’

Dickens researched the idiolect of his characters carefully, studying a book of Lancashire dialect before writing ‘Hard Times’ and introducing into his  London novels the earthy  Cockney slang associated with the working class, the theatre, or the criminal underworld,  such terms as butter-fingers (a clumsy person), flummox (bewilder), sawbones (surgeon), and whizz-bang (sound of a gunshot). He also made up plenty of words of his own – comfoozled meaning exhausted is my particular favourite. He turned nouns into verbs (and vice versa) ‘I won’t submit to be mother-in-lawed’ declares Fanny – adding prefixes and suffixes, and creating compound words, many of which have found their way into the Oxford English Dictionary (manslaughter and corkscrew apparently!). This playfulness with language lends a richness and variety to his  novels and particularly to his dialogue, bringing characters vividly and memorably to life.

So, as a writer who spends a (possibly worrying!) amount of time ‘acting out’  characters in my head – and sometimes out loud, too (I frequently find myself talking in role as I potter round the supermarket or on the school run!), this was music to my ears. I loved going back to my well-thumbed copy of ‘Oliver Twist’ and studying the dialect of Fagin, Bumble, Dodger and other characters. This allowed me to mimic the cadences and rhythm of their speech, as well as echoing the syntax, peculiar idiosyncrasies of grammar, lexical sets and other idiolect features (yes, my English teacher geekhood quivering with delight!)

Oh, and I rather fell in love with Philip Thorne’s appendix in the Penguin Classics edition with its glorious list of Dickensian slang which I devoured hungrily, allowing me to pepper the Sassy Sisters’ dialogue with some of the choicest Victorian vernacular.  I gave my characters their own catchphrases – ‘Spare the spoon and spoil the child,’ ‘Beauty is your duty’ – and allowed myself to go fully to town on accents, phonetic spelling – and even the occasional made up word of my own!

Yes, Dickens’ characters inspired many children’s authors, from Roald Dahl to J K Rowling, and his methods of characterisation are so distinctive that his creations live long in the memory. Following in his footsteps was the most incredible fun as a writer and when young readers close the covers of ‘Another Twist in the Tale’ I hope it might inspire them to check out one of Dickens’ stories for themselves. I love the idea that Twill Twist might introduce readers to her long lost brother Oliver and  Nancy and Bill Sykes, to  Pip and Magwitch and  Miss Havisham, to Ebenezer Scrooge and Bob Cratchitt and Tiny Tim, to Nicholas Nickleby and David Copperfield and many more of  the glorious characters and unforgettable adventures created by the inimitable Charles Dickens!”

Another Twist in the Tale by Catherine Bruton is published by Nosy Crow (5th November 2020, £7.99 paperback). With thanks to Nosy Crow for sending me this book to review.

A Very Victorian Christmas Booklist!

The first of two Victorian-inspired blogs this week, I’m delighted to be sharing a very special festive collection of book reviews today in celebration of the launch of Mr Dilly’s A Very Victorian Christmas online show for primary schools. A festive treat for the whole school community, the show features themes of the Nativity and festive favourite, A Christmas Carol, as well as amazing insight into some of our most treasured Christmas traditions that became popular in Victorian times and remain so today! You’ll meet Charles Dickens, Prince Albert, the Innkeeper, Shepherd and more as the magical Christmas treat unfolds! View the trailer here.

The following stories feature Victorian settings or themes (including a re-imagining of a Christmas classic) and would make a marvellous addition to your festive bookshelf!

A Christmas in Time by Sally Nicholls illustrated by Rachael Dean is another fun-filled, festive time-slip adventure with Alex and Ruby, the twins who keep falling through the mirror in their Aunt’s house into a different historical period. Each time they must solve a problem for a long-distant member of their family so they can then return home. Lively characters, authentic Victorian historical setting and lots of fun bring the story leaping to life and I love the insight into how Victorian families celebrated Christmas – not so very different to our own celebrations! Great fun, you’ll be counting down till the next in the series! Published by Nosy Crow

The Girl who Saved Christmas by Matt Haig, illustrated by Chris Mould is a magical tale featuring a wonderful cast of characters -including a cameo from Charles Dickens and a brilliant scene with Queen Victoria ! Amelia Wishart is the ‘girl’ in question and after her mother dies, she is sent to the Workhouse, where her hope in everything slowly slips away. But it’s hope that powers Christmas and Father Christmas knows he must save Amelia so that with her help, Christmas can be saved. Full of festive magic and all the things we love about the festive season – from elves to gingerbread men, the story brilliantly shows the importance of hope and how it keeps the magic in our world alive! Published by Canongate Books

Tinsel: The Girls Who Invented Christmas by Sibeal Pounder brings more festive heroines to life in a story celebrating friendship and Christmas in equal measure, and giving a twist on the origin tale of Santa Claus. Blanche Claus is homeless on the streets of Victorian London when she receives her first ever Christmas gift – a magical bauble. So begins a madcap adventure that will see Blanche making new friends and finding magic she couldn’t have possibly imagined! So much so, Blanche wants to share her festive dreams and wishes with all children. Sleigh rides, the North Pole, elves (or Carols…), mince pies – there’s more Christmas than you can shake a stick at, turned on it’s head with laugh-out-loud results and lots of love. Tinsel is bound to be a festive favourite for years to come! Published by Bloomsbury.

The Miracle on Ebenezer Street by Catherine Doyle is a gorgeous modern reimagining of Charles Dickens classic, A Christmas Carol – hence including it in this list! We meet George, who isn’t allowed to celebrate Christmas since his mother died on Christmas Eve. Life is rather grey until he stumbles upon a magical shop with a magical snow-globe – and embarks on a transformational adventure that will rescue him and his father from despair. With journeys to past, present and future, and some fantastical characters including an elf on the shelf, this story positively beams the magic of Christmas across the pages and will tug at your heart-strings AND warm your heart. Published by Puffin Books.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens is a must for a Victorian Christmas booklist – or any festive booklist for that matter! And there are, as you can imagine, more than a few versions of this incredible story. I’ve included three of my favourites today. Barrington Stoke publish a dyslexia-friendly, unabridged edition of this timeless story, in a format accessible to all readers. Pavilion Books publish an absolutely beautiful version illustrated by Quentin Blake and Puffin Books publish a lovely classic edition.

It’s Victorian London and Ebenezer Scrooge is a lost soul – not that he knows it. Scrooge is a bitter, and quite honestly, unpleasant old man, who cares more for money than anyone or anything. No-one feels this more than his long-suffering clerk, Bob Cratchit and his determined nephew, Fred who every year invites Scrooge for Christmas – only to be told the festive season is nothing more than ‘Bah Humbug’! But this all changes when Scrooge is visited on Christmas Eve by the ghost of his old business partner Marley, who warns Scrooge he will be visited by three spirits who will show him the true meaning of Christmas. The most wonderful Christmas tale, A Christmas Carol embodies the spirit, heart and soul of Christmas and really does bring hope and joy to all who read it.

Find out more about Mr Dilly’s A Very Victorian Christmas show and book online today!

GUEST POST: Every day is a Poetry Day with Joshua Seigal

Today is National Poetry Day, the annual mass celebration that encourages everyone to enjoy, discover and share poetry. This year’s theme is Vision and with activities centred on encouraging young and old to See it Like a Poet and #ShareAPoem, there’s bound to be a plethora of creativity and imagination coming to life everywhere!

Today, award-winning children’s poet Joshua Seigal, who can often be found visiting and performing in schools, libraries and theatres around the country sharing his poetry shows, joins us on the blog with a guest post about why every day can be a poetry day!

Welcome to the blog Joshua!

Every Day Is Poetry Day – Joshua Seigal

“It is great that we are given a day every year to celebrate the joys of poetry, but it is important not to forget that every day can be a poetry day!

Poetry is a wonderful opportunity for people of all ages to express themselves and get creative, and it can be embedded right across the curriculum in all kinds of interesting ways. For geography, why not write a poem from the perspective of a river or volcano? And in maths, you could try describing yourself using numbers, shapes or mathematical equations. Try to add a little bit of poetry to everything you do, a bit like adding spice to your cooking.

Perhaps you have studied poetry for exams, and have decided that it is not for you. It is important to remember that poetry is not supposed merely to be analysed, like we do in exams; it provides us with a chance to engage with ourselves and society, as well as the joys of language, in a way that is meaningful to us. To write poetry is to play with words, and we can use those words in incredibly powerful ways.

So how might one go about doing this? I always offer the following piece of advice when I visit schools: write about something you are interested in, that means something to you. If you’re interested in football, write about football. If you’re interested in butterflies, write about them. That way your poem will have heart and soul. It might also be a good idea to write in the style that you normally speak. That way your poem will come from deep inside, from the place that truly belongs to you.

Also, try to seek out poems on topics and in styles that speak to you. Simply saying “I don’t like poetry” is, when you think about it, as senseless as saying that you don’t like music or movies. A lot of people do say that they don’t like poetry; I even called my first book I Don’t Like Poetry! But remember that, just like songs or movies, poetry comes in all kinds of styles, and you can pick something you like! Nowadays you don’t even have to read poetry, if you don’t want to; you can watch it on Youtube.

Poetry is for life, not just National Poetry Day! There is no right or wrong way to write it, and there is no right or wrong way to consume it. There are as many different poems out there as there are people. Try to find something you connect with, and have fun!”

Find out more about Joshua on his website www.joshuaseigal.co.uk. and visit National Poetry Day to see how you can get involved in celebrations!