Episode 2 – The Story Thief Challenges – How reading helps your writing!

Written by Liam & all photos by Liam (well, ok, one by Aoife)

Writing tips by author Sinéad O’Hart

Note: You should always start every story at the start so if you haven’t already, go and read Episode One now! Oh and if you’re a teacher or librarian or work with kids in any way then don’t forget to check out at all the guidance for educators which has advice on how to do this month’s Story Challenge with kids! There’s also an author profile for this month’s featured author Sinead O’Hart!


Me and Aoife cornered Dad in the kitchen. I asked, ‘Dad! What’s going on?’

Dad said, ‘Nothing.’ He tried to whistle and hum nonchalantly at the same time. He wasn’t convincing. Too much had happened over the last two days.  He’d suddenly lost the ability to tell us bedtime stories or write any story at all.  And last night me and my sister had found a weird note he’d hidden in his favorite book.

 

IMG_20180201_205042269Aoife shoved her biggest and most threatening teddy at him. ‘Tell us or Teddy will get ya!’

Dad looked back and forth between us. He could see we weren’t going to back down. He sighed, ‘I just… I just wanted a really good story.’

A few minutes later Dad slapped a big brown envelope on the table in front of us. As Aoife shook it and listened as if it was a bomb, Dad said to me, ‘Have you ever woken up from a dream, remembered it perfectly then forgotten it?’

I nodded. Aoife peeked into the envelope, ‘Nope! I remember all my dreams.’

Dad ignored her. ‘Well sometimes that happens with writers. Sometimes we think of a story, but if we don’t write it down or tell it to someone then a few minutes later it’s gone. Now most writers think they just forgot it but… The truth is the story’s been stolen.’

At that exact moment, Aoife spilled the contents of the envelope out onto the kitchen table. Sheets and sheets of paper. It was a weird mix of stuff. There were pictures of writers there. I recognised some of them. Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Enid Blyton, even William Shakespeare.

IMG_20180201_193340441Aoife scowled. ‘Just old people!’

Dad smiled grimly, ‘Those old people said the Story Thief stole some of their best stories and look -‘ Dad grabbed at some others paper he’d scribbled on. He showed them to me giddily. ‘I found all of this on the internet. It goes back for years. See? I’m not making this up.’

Aoife went ‘Huh?’

I thought Huh? and said, ‘The internet? Seriously?’

 

IMG_20180201_193413203Dad frowned, ‘Whether you believe me or not, a lot of writers have always writeor tell their story quickly. Else the Story Thief will get to it. It’ll steal your story away without you even noticing.’

I was about to tell Dad that this sounded like something a forgetful writer would make up when a couple of papers caught my eye. Print outs of faded pencil sketches. One of them stood out. I couldn’t look away from it.

Aoife asked, ‘Is that the Story Thief?’

Dad answered quietly, describing that thing in the picture, ‘Some say it carries a pen, big and sharp as a sword, and a giant ledger strapped to its back where it writes the stolen tales. They say it has a secret library filled with millions of stories.’

 

IMG_20180201_193650256I didn’t believe it. ‘Dad it’s just a story -‘

Dad interrupted me, ‘Liam, all my books were being rejected -’

‘You have to keep trying -’

‘Yeah,  you’re right, but, then I read about a way contact the Story Thief.’

I peered at him suspciously. ‘How?’

‘You write a letter to it. Hide it inside your favorite book. I didn’t ask for much. just asked for one story. One really good story.’

When Dad didn’t say anything else, Aoife whacked him on the shoulder with her teddy so hard that it almost knocked him off his chair. ‘What happened?!!!’

Dad looked shaken and not just because of Aoife hitting him. ‘I don’t remember. I woke up in the back garden. I thought maybe I had sleep walked. But since then each time I get an idea, it just disappears and -’ His terrified eyes quivered. ‘I think the Story Thief’s stealing my stories.’

Aoife’s gazed open mouthed at him. She believed it all. ‘What a meanie!’

I stared at the drawing. I looked into the darkness where its face should be. I shivered.

It couldn’t be real could it?

 

IMG_20180201_193650256The heating clicked on. I shook. The spell was broken. I was angry at Dad for scaring us then quickly forgave him. He had to be sick. Working too hard. What did they call it? Mental illness? Mam’s phone number was pinned to the noticeboard. Once Dad went to bed I’d sneak down and phone her. She was flying a route between Spain and France this week. I’d leave a message for her. Tell her to come back and help us.

But Aoife wrapped her arms around Dad. ‘We’ll help you get your stories back!’

Dad said, ‘It’s too dangerous.’

‘We’ll write to the Story Thief and we’ll -’

Dad grabbed her by her shoulders.‘Aoife! Promise me you won’t do anything?!’

Aoife went all stoney faced. She’s so stubborn. Dad looked to me for help. Maybe I thought he crazy, but that drawing of the Story Thief gave me the heebie jeebies.

I said, ‘Will we ask another writer for help first Aoife?’

‘But -’

‘Maybe Dad just needs a bit more writing advice.’

Typical Aoife, her mood changed instantly. She gap teeth smiled and shouted, ‘Come on!’ and ran out of the kitchen.

Just the two of us, Dad tried to smile at me, but it came out all crooked. ‘I hope you’re right Liam’.

I pretended to be confident. ‘I am. Don’t worry.’

In the office, I  helped Aoife find the author’s webpage and got typing:

Dear Sinéad. Please help! What did your favorite books as a kid teach you about writing great stories? Liam and Aoife.

First thing in the morning, Aoife shouted in my ear, ‘We got an answer!’

In Dad’s room, Aoife pushed his phone into his hand. ‘Read Sinead’s answer!’

‘Ah yeah’. He sat up on the edge of the bed and sleepily read out the Writing Advice from Sinéad O’Hart, author of The Eye of the North.

 

IMG_20171128_222241_574Dear Liam and Aoife

Thanks for contacting me with such a great question!

The best way to get inspired to write, I think, is to read – and I don’t just mean reading books (though they’re really important, obviously). Reading the world around you is vital, too; reading faces, voices, emotions, keeping your senses open all the time to soak up as much as you can of everything you experience. It all goes into your subconscious and gets mixed up nicely without you knowing a thing about it until, someday without warning, words come gushing out as something new, something you’ve created – a story that didn’t exist until you thought of it.

The books you read in childhood are probably the most important ones, as they really can shape your mind and the way you think and approach the world. Here are three of mine, and the lessons they taught me:

1. Elidor, by Alan Garner, is a book about four children thrust into a dying Otherworld and entrusted with its four Treasures, objects they must keep safe in their own reality. Gradually, malevolent powers from the Otherworld begin to creep into the children’s world.

This book gave me a lifelong fascination with stories about other worlds intersecting with our own, as well as folklore and legend. From this book, I learned how much can be accomplished by using simple, clear language, as the story is told very plainly even though its themes are huge and complex.

Most importantly, this book teaches me, every time I read it, that sometimes the best stories are ones which take the everyday and make it ever so slightly wrong, and which focus on perennial things like family, love, and the threat of separation.

2. The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, is a book I’ve loved since I was seven. It’s the story of a young boy stranded in the Sahara and his unlikely rescuer, a pilot whose plane has crashed in the desert. It’s hard to categorise: it’s a children’s book, and a story about philosophy, and a fable.

I have learned many things from this story, including the importance of writing about the things which are meaningful to you; chances are, they’ll be meaningful to others too.

It taught me to treasure things like nature, beauty, and thought, to fiercely protect them, and never to be ashamed of anything that brings joy to my heart. It also taught me there is space in the world for odd little tales.

3. The Hounds of The Morrigan, by Pat O’Shea, is the third pillar of my imagination. It’s a madcap, whirligig adventure through the landscape of County Galway, with siblings Pidge and Brigit doing their best to keep a powerful magical object out of the clutches of a mythical queen – with the help of some figures from Irish folklore, of course. It’s bonkers and brilliant and completely unique

It taught me that there is value in absurdity, power in myth, and that the secret to good characters is making them multi-layered and unpredictable.

So, to sum up:

  • the things which seem everyday can be the most important
  • family, love and the threat of their loss are eternal themes
  • write whatever makes your heart sing, and be proud of it
  • remember always to laugh and be a little unpredictable
  • the best characters are like onions, with lots of skins to peel away.

I hope this helps!

Yours in stories

Sinéad

Aoife asked Dad, ‘Did she say anything else?’

Dad read on.

PS: I’ve got a Story Challenge for you. Do you know how they say you can’t judge a book by its cover? Well, I want you to imagine a book that you’d love to find in a book shop or library. What would the book be called? What would it be about? Now use paper and colours and your imagination and make the cover for it!

Aoife squealed, ‘I’ll get my paper and colours! You’ll see! The Story Thief didn’t take your stories after all!’

Dad opened his mouth to answer. For the briefest second I felt the temperature drop as if something or someone cold was slipping past me. Dad’s smile vanished. His brow furrowed in confusion, ‘Why are you talking about the Story Thief?’

Aoife rolled her eyes, ‘Because you said the Story Thief took your stories!’

Dad stared at us. ‘I said what?’

Aoife and I glanced at each other. What was going on?

I answered,‘Dad, you wrote a letter to the Story Thief and -’

Dad climbed out of bed, laughing, ‘The Story Thief? That old writer’s myth? Hmm.  How would I get a letter to it? Post it?’

‘But you said you did? Last night, you…’

My words trailed away. Aoife looked close to tears.Dad had no idea what we were talking about. He hopped around the room in his pjs and picked out clothes for the day, his mind already moved on. ‘Do you two have sports today?’

I remembered that cold wind just seconds ago. And I remember how Dad always said that memories were just stories. Could the Story Thief have just stolen some of his memories from him?

Could the Story Thief be real?

Forty five minutes later, Dad and I were waiting out front of our house for Aoife. She was being really slow. When finally came down from upstairs. Dad asked, ‘Where were you?’

‘Oh nowhere,’ she said, but she did a terrible attempt at a wink to me and whispered in my ear, ‘I wrote that stupid Thief a letter. Told him we wanted Dad’s stories back!’

I gasped, ‘You did what?!’

She held out her hand to me, ‘High five!’

But I was already running, running as fast as I could into the house. My heart going thud-thud-thud in my chest. Dad shouted, ‘Liam! We’re late!’

I ran up the stairs, taking three steps at a time, hitting off the wall, spinning down the hall into her room. I need to get that letter back before anything happened.

I jumped for her favorite book, the only book she really loved now sitting on her bedroom floor. ‘Please! Please!’ I rifled through it. Shook it. A piece of paper fell out. I sighed. ‘Thank God.’

But it wasn’t her handwriting and I felt my tummy go sore. It was old fashioned writing, like something from hundreds of years ago.

The Story Thief’s response to Aoife’s letter was just three, terrifying words.

 

Story thief note photo

 

Go ahead and read Episode Three featuring ER Murray right now!

Oh and here’s the stuff Dad told me I had to tell everyone…

The Story Thief Challenges is a twelve part series published on the first Monday of each month. Each episode includes writing advice from an Irish children’s fiction author and a Story Challenge activity. To subscribe to The Story Thief Challenges to ensure you don’t miss an episode please click here.

If you would like more information on Sinéad O’Hart and her books and how to contact her, including for school and library and other visits click here.

If you’re a teacher / librarian / educator or parent and you would like advice on how use The Story Thief Challenges and this specific blog post and it’s Story Challenge with children to promote reading, writing, story telling and creativity please click here.

Oh and a special thank you to Eve McDonnell for her great artistic assistance with this episode. To check out her beautiful work click here.

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