Challenge The First

My Home Area

Can I suggest a topic – an easy one – tell us about your village/town. What’s to do. What the countryside is like. Your community? Any disadvantages.

I am suggesting this only because I love being able to visualise where bloggers are in their day to day lives!

If you’ve been keeping up with my challenge to write about new topics (if you have no idea what I’m on about, look here and here), welcome to the first result! Barbara suggested this topic for me and I’ve spent a while thinking about which angle to take, as our home area has many different aspects that I love and probably nearly as many that I hate. I’m sure you are exactly the same. In the end I’ve decided to interpret the question literally, so here you are: The Whirlwind MyLittleNotepad Guide to County Durham & Teesside.

If you want to place where we are exactly, picture the map of Britain. See the border with Scotland? If you go down a bit – a bit more…bit more…there, that’s it – you get to Newcastle. This is probably the closest big city to us. Now, go down a wee bit more. Durham and Middlesbrough are our next two large centres, although calling Durham large is stretching it a bit. It’s a beautiful city, and crammed as full of history as you can get, but you can’t call it large by any stretch of the imagination. Middlesbrough is…well, it’s bound to have a few good points. To be fair, it does have Captain Cook. He was born in Marton, a suburb of Middlesbrough although it was Yorkshire. That’s Middlesbrough for you – one of its few claims to fame was stolen from another county.

I may have been a little scathing so far, but the truth is I am actually quite fond of our little, often-overlooked corner of the world. Most people know Newcastle (coal-black ex-miners drinking ale and supporting a football team who are, shall we say, up and down in their fortunes) and Durham, if mentioned, will probably bring an image of the Cathedral to mind. Did you know, by the way, that the Harry Potter films were filmed in the cloisters here? Or that the Cathedral was one of the first places in the UK to be recognised as being of Outstanding Universal Value when it was inscribed as a World Heritage Site in 1986? It attracts 600, 000 people a year. Rather more, I imagine, when the film crews are in for Mr Potter. Yarm, a mile from where I live now, was an important site in the development of the Stockton & Darlington Railway, the first public railway in the world, and my home town has a little-known fairytale spot that shelters the oldest surviving railway bridge in the world, Causey Arch. I used to spend magical hours here as a child, walking up to the bridge, looking down into the gorge and making up all sorts of stories in my head.

And of course, we have the Angel of the North, overlooking a notoriously busy stretch of the A1 dual carriageway. This pretty much sums up the area – a piece of art covered in scars from its industrial heritage.

One thing this area doesn’t do particularly well is prettiness. Our bordering county to the south is North Yorkshire, which is full of more pretty villages than you can shake a stick at. North of us is Northumberland with its castles and beautiful coastline and more pretty villages and towns – Alnmouth and Alnwick are particularly worth a mention (and of course Alnwick Castle is another Hogwarts location). To the west over the Durham Dales you come to Cumbria – I do not need to tell you how pretty the Lake District is. But Durham and Teesside? Not so much. There are nice bits. Quite a few green, flat bits, and the Durham Dales are lovely. We do have a couple of pretty villages but mostly we are left with the remains of the Industrial Revolution, consisting of brick terraces and town centres that were ‘improved’ in the 70s and not since. This is true throughout Durham and Teesside, and my own home town is a prime example.

Stanley, in the north of Co Durham, is an ex-mining town and if you can picture the description I just gave, you can picture Stanley. I have a kind of love-hate relationship with this place. There is virtually nothing to do – for most regular entertainments such as cinema, bowling, decent shopping, you need to go to Newcastle, the Metrocentre (the largest shopping centre in Europe, by the way) or Durham. We have a small but surprisingly decent library, a moderate supermarket (with a Tesco monster on its way) and a few pubs and working men’s clubs. If you’ve got small children, there’s a pretty good little play park (Oakey’s Field, I believe on the site of a former mine) and a nice enough swimming pool. There is a multi-purpose hall that serves as a theatre for a cluster of pantomimes around Christmas, the occasional local production and the odd touring production. This place, recently renamed the Lamplight Arts Centre in testament to the town’s mining heritage, is a source of sadness to me – I was in several amateur productions there when I was growing up and revisiting it lately it is unfortunately clear how little investment has gone into it. The seats are faded and even damaged, and the equipment has been depleted by other local venues. Ah well. Back to Stanley. As I reached the end of my teens, I couldn’t wait to leave. The town seemed to represent deadness and a lack of hope. I still can’t spend more than a few days there without remembering why I was so glad to leave. But it is my town, and it will always have a tiny, irrational pull on my heart.

One of the best things about Stanley is Beamish Museum. This is a large site with various areas set up as a town, a colliery village, and a farm (all set in 1913)

and a manor house, set in 1825. Almost all the staff are costumed, and trams and a replica bus take you from one area to another. It’s a really magical place, and has extra special associations for me as I met my husband when we both worked there for a season (11 years ago now!). The buildings are relocated from their original homes around the region – for example the Town street was a terrace in Gateshead, and the Co-operative store is part of the Co-op that was originally in Stanley, that my dad remembers visiting as a boy. It makes me imagine what Stanley was like in its heyday, when the town was living and busy and had a purpose as a community. It is also set in a lovely bit of countryside – drive along the outskirts of Stanley and you look down over a green valley that drops down into Beamish then sweeps away towards Newcastle and, far in the distance but just visible on a clear day, the North Sea.

There is more that could be said about the area. The people have problems like any other community in the Western world, but they are among the warmest, most passionate people that you could meet. There are still heavily industrialised areas such as Teesport, a few miles east of where I live, but a quick drive along the River Tees brings you to Teesdale which is wild and woodland and windy dale, a retreat from the real world. But this was a whirlwind tour after all, and although this is the end of the first post of my challenge, I may expand on the topic another time.

What is your home area like in comparison to mine? Anything you can identify with, or anything wildly different?

Keep Pushing!

Thought you might like a quick update on the challenges (see here if you don’t know what I’m talking about).

I am gathering info on my topics and have a pretty good idea on how I’m going to approach at least three of the subjects. I’ve also been given two more since the last update: 10 Reasons Why Glasgow is Better Than Edinburgh and Why Asian People are thinner than Western. Yikes, this should keep me busy!

The first post, about my home area, should be arriving in the next few days so keep an eye out. I have to say, this one (which I thought would be the easiest) is actually quite difficult, as I am putting quite high expectations on it. The subjects I’ve started to look into, ukeleles and football, are surprisingly fascinating! Though whether I’ll still be saying that after the World Cup is anyone’s guess. What I could really do with is a video of someone playing football songs on the Ukelele – Three Lions anyone? Kill two birds with one stone. 😉

If anyone’s got any more challenges, keep them coming. Unless they’re time-specific I’ll put them onto the end of the list and work my way through. I suggest subscribing to the blog to stay notified of new posts so you don’t miss your suggested / favourite topic (shameless plug over now). Or you can follow me on twitter: @rebeccaebrown.

Thanks for reading!

Push Me!

This post is coming directly after the last one for a reason. My own rule is never to put two blog posts up at the same time from the same blog as I like to focus on one at a time, plus I rarely have two posts ready at the same time! But I am breaking it this time because this post is linked to the one I’ve just done, Finding Me Now.

At the end of that post I said I needed to stretch myself more, I was in need of a challenge. So I’m asking for your help.

Over the course of the next month or so I will write a series of blog posts, based on topics you set me. They can be on pretty much anything, I will go and research where needed. The only thing I ask is that you remember I have two small children, so please don’t make it too obscure, requiring trips to the British Museum for example!

There’s a few reasons for this challenge. Firstly, it will get me doing research and finding out new facts, possibly on subjects I’ve never explored before. Secondly, it will stretch my writing skills, as I will have to suit my style to the subject given and make the posts interesting and fun instead of a school essay. Thirdly, it will give you a reason to keep coming back to my blog and I’m hoping will give me new connections here! I’m also very willing to reciprocate – leave a link to a similar post on your own blog and I’ll leave my challenge for you (heh heh).

So, have a look through my blog to see the sorts of things I’ve mentioned before. A couple of posts to look at might be Ten Things You Don’t Know About Me or Creative Writing Awards. Or give me something completely new (gulp). Post a comment, catch me on Twitter (@rebeccaebrown) or use the contact form on the blog. I’m nervously awaiting your challenges!

UPDATE: I’ve received 5 challenges, so here are the results in no particular order. Sorry, been watching too many tv talent shows lately. Anyway…

The challenges I’ve been set are: Ukeleles, Theatre in Second Life, The Passion of Football, My Home Area, and Twilight vs Harry Potter. Gulp. That’s quite a range of subjects and almost all brand new to me so lots of research to do and lots of exciting new stuff to find out, I’m really looking forward to it. At the minute, here’s the order I’m going to tackle each in, and I’ll post a link on Twitter so you can see when your favourite topic is up. (Or you can subscribe to the blog…hint hint!).

  1. My Home Area. I’m starting with a less obscure post to get me going! However there’s a lot of interesting history in this area so there’s lots of ways I could go with this, it’ll be hard to focus on one!
  2. Ukeleles. I have an interest in music in general although ukeleles are not something I’ve come across much.
  3. The Passion of Football. Doing this after the other two should just about get me to the end of the World Cup so the timing works well.
  4. Theatre in Second Life. This will require quite a lot of research I’m thinking, so will take a wee bit longer.
  5. Twilight v Harry Potter. This will take the longest to do properly, as (big admission here) I’ve never actually read any of the Twilight books.

I’m setting myself a target of the end of July to get all 5 posts up and will blog about my progress in the meantime so keep checking back. If anyone else wants to suggest new topics please feel free! I’m thinking I will make it a regular challenge for myself, so keep them coming and tell people about it.

Thanks for all your support and input so far!

UPDATE 2: Today (13 June 2010) I posted the first response to the challenge, which you can visit here, about my home area. Go me!

Creative Writing Awards

Don’t get excited, this isn’t about my picture book being accepted by an agent, sold to a major publishing house and winning a prestigious award since my last post. If it was, I would be too busy running around the room screaming to write a blog post about it.

No, this is a response to a post on the wonderful Jane Travers’ blog, here, in which I was tagged to come up with my own list of lies, sorry, ‘untruths’.

So the idea is, I give a list of 6 untruths about myself and one half-truth, and you have to guess which is the half-truth. The prize is, um, well I’ll have to get back to you on that one.

  1. I speak fluent Portugese. I don’t have any qualifications in it, but have taught myself through those, well, ‘Teach Yourself…’ books. Very interesting it was too.
  2. I did the Coast to Coast bike ride for charity five years ago. Ouch.
  3. I met my husband in 1913 and stalked him until he agreed to make an honest woman of me.
  4. I can explain the off-side rule in 140 characters or less. I shall prove it at some point in the near future.
  5. I bake most of the cakes we eat as a family as I much prefer home-cooked food. I also try to do my own bread at least a couple of times a month since we were given a bread maker for Christmas two years ago.
  6. I am one of the few women I know who can actually parallel park. This is because my husband made me practice over, and over, and over for my driving test.
  7. I had a dream about the National Lottery numbers and we won a prize the same week.

My husband is automatically disqualified from entering, of course. Anyone else, please join in and have a go!

Aaaaand Press ‘Send’…

So, in the last couple of weeks, after putting it away for a while, I have taken out my picture book (which you may remember from my post Lightning Bolts and Dragons). I have revised it, changed the character name a couple of times, tweaked it and polished it. I have bought a copy of the Children’s Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook 2010 and carefully gone through all of the agents and publishers. And this morning I submitted my manuscript. Yikes.

I have done my homework. I highlighted agents and publishers who took on unsolicited picture books and looked at their lists. I followed their advice. I chose 5 agents to submit to first, and I am grouping agents together for further batches of submissions. I put together a CV, a covering letter and two versions of the manuscript. I looked at my documents again and again to make sure they were as good as they could get – and after I sent them I thought of about a million changes I should have made. Does everyone get this feeling?

I went through a long debate with myself, friends and family as to whether I should submit first to agents or publishers. In the end my reasoning was that if I submit first to publishers who then turn it down, there was a slightly greater chance that if they were then presented with it again from an agent it might stand against me (Because, of course, they will remember it however many months down the line. Bear with me, I had to make a choice somehow). Whereas if agents turn it down, they will never know if I then go to publishers with it, except on some prestigious awards night when I am presented with my nth award and they are sitting kicking themselves for turning it down (ok, ok, I’m awake now). So I went with the agent route. And I’ve first chosen the agents who accept unsolicited picture books from first time authors by email – 5 in total on my list. I wrote my letter to each of them, checking for spelling mistakes. I don’t think there were any… And then I pressed ‘Send’. This was the most nerve-wracking, sickening moment I’ve felt since asking people for honest opinions on the book.

I’ve had one answer already, from an agency who are taking on “very few” new picture book authors at the minute but wished me the best of luck. Fair enough. At least I’m only waiting for 4 responses now. But please, all readers, spare a thought for my poor family. I am not renowned for my patience, and as well as listening to me moan about the non-appearance of a baby who isn’t due for another 2 weeks, they now have to put up with me checking the post, email, phone, etc for responses from agencies which may take 8 weeks. I’m not sure who will go round the bend first…

All sympathy comments and stories welcome!