Talking to the Rotary Club, Portland

I was invited to talk to Portland Rotary Club at The Boat that Rocks a couple of evenings ago. My theme was: – Writing children’s books inspired by Portland myths, legends and history. I kept some of my notes from the evening….

People often ask what inspired me to start writing the Portland Chronicles and the answer is Portland, the most important, elusive and intriguing character in my stories. A sense of a real place inspires the settings and plot. The West Cliffs and the sea view from these sheer cliffs, battered by an Atlantic wind, inspired my description of a dragon, a creature lost in time, misunderstood, fragile but also frightening at times.

The Portland Sea Dragon has been described as Dorset’s answer to Nessie!  The Veasta or Chesil Beach sea monster that inspired my sea dragon was first seen by islanders in 1457. The last recorded sighting was on the day of a solar eclipse in 1999 and there have been other sightings even recently. The Veasta is partly sea horse, partly fish and 12 feet high. The artist Domini Deane, editor Julie Musk from Roving Press and I worked hard to get the dragon right for the cover, to get the Portland sea greens and blues and seaweedy quality. Domini came to Portland to work on the sea dragon. She painted the dragon for the cover in watercolour. The covers take 6 weeks to complete, they’re real pieces of artwork.

There was also a real dragon in the seas around Portland millions of years ago. Again this intrigued me and made me wonder. The bones of the predatory Pliosaur which was found locally are displayed in Dorset County Museum.

My children loved the stories I told them at bedtime about a Portland dragon. So one winter I sat down and started writing. When I had a spare moment I also researched local legends and folklore, as well finding out about the history of Portland at Easton library and at the museum. Because I spend a lot of time with youngsters, I made the children as true to life as possible with refs to email, iPhones, real language and behaviour.

A mermaid
The mermaid was inspired by stories of a mermaid washed ashore at Church Ope hundreds of years ago.

Phantom Black Dogs
It hardly seems safe to go out on Portland after dark with 3 phantom black dogs running around. The Roy Dog is a large shaggy black dog with one green and one red eye associated with Cave Hole at Portland Bill. Another Portland black dog is the Row Dog, a ghostly animal with large saucer-shaped eyes who wanders local footpaths at night. And a third phantom black dog has been spotted at Portland Castle. Black dogs are often found in the same place as other rural phantoms such as headless horsemen, and fairies. I was intrigued by some university research at Northampton into appearances by black dogs, trying to find an explanation for them and I found in this the basis of my plot. That the Black Dog is not as inhuman as he seems to be.

Civil War
I enjoyed writing about the Civil War period – it was interesting to research and I tried to imagine what kind of effect the war would have had on Portland, as the country itself was so divided. As a Royal Manor, people supported the King. We visit Portland Castle in this story. I was helped with my research on this by Antoinette who used to work at the Castle – Wolven one of my character names is actually a family name going back a long way for her and she gave me permission to use it.

Windsurfers and climbers
Ryder the windsurfer is another favourite character. I found some windsurfers who liked talking for hours about wind direction and possible changes in the weather, and find it hard to understand that not everyone can balance on a surf board.

Church Ope features in Portland Pirates and some of my research has been done on foot, walking around this area and trying to imagine how the place would have looked in 1692.

Talking about the Chronicles

I an working on a talk for Portland Rotary Club entitled Writing the Portland Chronicles, children’s stories set on Portland inspired by local myths, legends and history. So far I have found various maps and old dragon jokes. I think in some ways it will be more challenging than talking to children – at least you can guarantee that kids will ask lots of very searching questions (How much do you earn? etc). In fact, there are so many aspects of my books that are drawn from the local landscape and folklore that it is difficult to know where to begin.

Pirate Graves

Here is a preview of the cover artwork by Domini Deane for Portland Pirates, inspired by the ‘pirate graves’ at Church Ope. Domini works in watercolour and it takes about 6 weeks to complete the cover. She is great at capturing the spirit of a place and character in her painting.

Autumn Ghosts

The Autumn evenings are drawing in and my thoughts turn inevitably to ghosts. Several places on Portland lend themselves to ghost stories. The Verne at the highest point of Portland deserves a legion of Roman soldiers tramping down the steep incline. There should be a headless horseman lurking somewhere near the windmills. And a group of lost Edwardian ladies with umbrellas walking around Wakeham in the rain.

I’m not sure why I am fascinated by ghosts. Perhaps something to do with watching a lot of Scooby-Doo shows in the early 1970s.