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SPOTLIGHT: Cat Weatherill, author of Barkbelly, talks about storytelling

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

I'm very excited to be welcoming Cat Weatherill, author and storyteller extraordinaire, to the blog today.

Cat Weatherill is one of Europe’s leading performance storytellers. She has been creating and telling stories to adults and children for twelve years. She is also a best selling children’s author, with books translated into ten languages.   

This is what Cat has to say:

When it comes to writing novels, being a storyteller has its advantages and its disadvantages. In this blog, I will focus purely on the positive! The benefits. How I think it has helped me. And in talking about my writing, I hope to show how you might lift your text from the page and set it dancing in your readers’ ears.

The main advantage to being a storyteller, I think, is having a very distinctive ‘voice.’ It has been formed organically, through hours and hours of live performance. It is this voice that people hear when they read my books and, because it is a storyteller’s voice, it means the books read aloud extremely well. I also have a cinematic imagination – I use words to paint pin sharp images - and I evoke atmosphere in a multi-sensory way.

I am sometimes asked whether I tell the story out loud then write it down. No, I don’t do that, but I do think visually. This is what storytelling is about – creating a string of visual images. You have an image in your head, and you send that image to your listener’s head via spoken words. The image will reform in a different way – it comes through the listener’s personal filters before it reassembles – but that is the joy of it. The uniqueness. I use the same approach to the written word. I imagine a narrative as a necklace: there are beads linked by a thread. I spend time polishing the beads so they shimmer and captivate the reader. And I bring in sounds and smells to evoke the atmosphere fully. Here is an example of a ‘bead’ from Barkbelly:

By evening, the circus was ready to open. Barkbelly left the cottage at dusk and cut through the orchard toward Farmer Gubbin’s land. A low mist was rising. The air was still and curiously charged. He walked on, his heart drumming with excitement. And when he emerged from the shadow of the trees and saw the massive Stardust Palace rising from the mist, he caught his breath and bit his lip. It was too wonderful for words. As he walked through the long grass, his legs grew damp and sticky with seeds, but he didn’t notice. He was looking at the lanterns, bright as beads, strung between the wagons. He could hear the hum of the crowd, the roar of a lion, the crack of a whip.

As he drew closer, he could smell cotton candy and hot honeyed nuts. Sausages. Soap. Woodsmoke. Tobacco smoke. Sharp, sulphurous gun smoke!

Barkbelly was lost in a joyous, bewildering chaos of colour and sensation. His fingers closed around the money in his pocket. Three precious coins that would buy a ticket into the heart of this paradise.

I also love playing with language, and think rhythmically. Sometimes I put these rhythms directly onto the page. When they are read aloud, they add vibrancy to the text and feel delightful on the tongue. It saddens me when these lovingly crafted rhythms are lost in translation, along with my alliteration. And my character names! In the Danish version of Barkbelly, he is called Traeskind, which means ‘wooden child.’ That’s just not the same! The warm, cosy humour of the word ‘belly,’ the alliteration, the image of the bark-textured belly – all lost in one translated word. Hmm! Sometimes you just have to let these things go, but it’s a shame. These are my characteristic ‘flourishes’ as a writer. My style.

Here is an example of rhythmic writing, again from Barkbelly, when pirates suddenly attack the ship he is on: 

Chaos and confusion! A bell ring, foot stomp, Flynn fly, do-or-die, panic-stricken sailor cry, chaos and confusion!

And polished alliterative language from Snowbone, when the character Blackeye is flying across the ocean by night:

Over the waves, under the moon, into the east he went. Over sailing ships that snailed across the ocean, leaving their trails behind them, silver as starlight. Over islands, secret-sleeping, scattered like cushions on the wakeful waves. Over sage whales, barnacle blue, singing sea songs older than time.

I am very fond of sound effects in my books. As a storyteller, I use them all the time because they bring a story to life. When I write a book, I add the sounds I would make as a teller, spelled out phonetically. Not only do they bring the text to life, but anyone reading the book out loud will find themselves spontaneously making the sounds too. Children love to hear grown ups making sound effects, but adults often lack the confidence to do it, thinking they will look silly. By adding them to the text, I gently overcome resistance. Here’s an example from Wild Magic:

Finn reached for an arrow, set it into his bow and let if fly: ffoooooo!

But ENOUGH about my writing! Let’s look at how you might bring a storyteller’s sparkle to your work. 

1 Make more magic
I have a comments book. At the end of every adult show, I encourage people to write in it. And the same words appear time and time again: magical... spellbinding... enchanting... captivating. This is not coincidence. I believe the job of a storyteller is to conjure magic: to create a world from a single breath and transport the listeners there, captivating them so fully, they won’t notice the time that’s passing. They will be lost; entangled in the tale.

And that is how we want our readers to be, isn’t it? Gripped! Enthralled. Fervently page turning. And yes, strong characters and great plotting play essential parts in achieving this, but I think a vividly imagined world is vitally important too. As a writer, you journey through a created world and you invite your readers to walk with you. The more ‘alive’ this landscape is to you, the more alive it will be to them. This is where magic comes in.

Set aside some time to explore your world. I find this easiest in a darkened room lit only with fairy lights. I sit in a comfortable chair, close my eyes and start picturing the world of my story. In India, storytelling is sometimes referred to as the Cinema of the Imagination, and this is what you are doing here: running a private movie of your novel’s landscape. Step into it... explore it... experience it. Allow yourself to be surprised by it.

This technique can be used for looking at a specific scene in your book. Picture the setting then bring your characters into it. Note how they move, the expressions on their faces, the power dynamics at work – how they are relating to the space and each other.

This can be an extraordinarily revealing exercise – and very powerful. Some months ago, I worked on an oral story about a very sick girl who was given a pretty dress for her birthday. I had imagined her as frail and wasted, but it wasn’t until I did this exercise that I saw she had no hair. I was shocked. How could I have overlooked something like that? As I watched the scene unfold before me, the girl’s mother tenderly slipped the red woollen dress over the thin body, and I clearly heard her whisper: ‘You’re beautiful.’ I started to cry. In that moment, it had become so real.

2 Get physical

This is taking the above one stage further – getting out of the chair and joining in. I am a very physical performer and have an acting background, so it’s often impossible for me to stay sitting down! I am driven to explore the scene physically. 

Again, this can be very revealing – sometimes in a very practical sense. You might find, for example, that it is physically impossible for your hero to do what you had him doing. 

Charles Dickens frequently acted out scenes from his books. His daughters would hear him hotly arguing with someone in the next room and rush in, only to find him alone. I seem to recall reading that he threw himself into his dramatics with such vigour, his rehearsals of the death of Nancy scene from Oliver Twist (in readiness for a live speaking tour) so badly affected his own health, he died before the tour began. 

3 Read your work aloud
If you want a book to read well aloud, you must read it aloud! Better still, get someone else to read it aloud for you. Make a note of any words or phrases they stumble over, and then change them. With children’s books, ask a child to read and listen to how they pronounce the character’s names – if they can read them at all. With Barkbelly, I was shocked to find my eight year old test reader couldn’t pronounce the name of the very first character named in the book. Page one! What a terrible impression to give: this book will be hard to read. I changed the name instantly.

4 Be playful
... with language and images. A sense of moderation must prevail, of course, or the book will become over-written and florid. A good editor will help judge if you’ve gone too far. But certainly in the first draft, which should be written for yourself (‘with the door closed’ as Stephen King wonderfully puts it) I think you should have fun. It’s easier to cut later than add later.

Well – that’s it! It’s time for me to make yet another cup of tea. I cannot write without it!

Happy writing,


Cat's author website
I love Cat's writing - please go on and read my reviews on Barkbelly  and Wild Magic. I also totally agree with her in regards to the importance of playfulness in writing - I wrote a blog for BOOKTOPIA about that very subject - you can read it here.  

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