If Dreams Should Die

Don’t judge a book by its cover.


In personal life, definitely.

To sell novels? Without doubt, the cover attracts the reader as pollen-laden stamens draw bees (and the other pollinators, yes, yes)


I’ve spent weeks trying to find the appropriate cover for my latest novel, working with the brilliant Matthew Richardson – who has a terrific record as a designer– and the equally gifted Matthew Connolly, who has not only published two of my previous novels but created beautiful video trailers for all three.


And of course I consulted my writing group: prize-winning novelists and poets who are my most stringent critics.


If nobody judges a book by its cover, why should I care?


The first potential cover used a fabulous photograph taken by Stewart Sanderson – but the consensus was that it didn’t say enough about the novel. I’m going to use his photo for the cover of a novel provisionally called. Through a Glass Darkly. It’s too good not to use.


Then we went through a sequence of images of teenage girls … my protagonist is a near-15 year old, and the antagonist is her disturbed mother. The images were gorgeous but … too old, too glamorous, too misleading.


Conversation with publisher:

“Are you wedded to the title?”

Me: (thinking this novel has had the title When the Killing Comes Home since c 2016) “No.’

“What then?”


I run through titles I’ve wanted to use for other novels, eg my first, Morph. I wanted to call it You Made Me but Jackie Kay, who had read it and was my supervisor objected that it sounded like coercive control. She was right, of course. I owe the title Morph to my good friend Viccy Adams. She had read it too. Thanks, Viccy!


My other consistent and invariably generous reader is Linda Anderson.  She recognised in this latest novel my conviction that the stories we tell ourselves are richly creative, or destructive, and urged me to focus on the way story-telling enabled my young protagonist to keep her sense of self alive, despite multiple foster-placements.


The new title is The Making of Cassie Clearwater.


And amazingly, Matthew Richardson and I independently found the same image for Cassie.


Dinghy used by refugees landing in Symi harbour

Wrengill quarry - central location in
If Dreams Should Die

David: how long to carve?



I SPENT A GREAT MORNING AT Carnforth High School, working with Year 7 students on creative expression, to encourage them to write for themselves. I showed them the videos created by Matthew Connolly for my three novels published so far, to help them see how exciting language can be, and then read some Six Word Stories, to demonstrate how powerful a few words can be. Altering or adding a single word can change the whole meaning of the story.


We began with Six Word Stories taken from songs, plays, and novels. English seems to lend itself to the six-word story!


For instance:


To be or not to be ..

It’s been a hard day’s night

You’ve got a friend in me.

Marley was dead. To begin with.

It was the best of times.


Then we read stories which are complete in themselves:


Lovely spring weather. Bubonic plague raging

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

Should’ve. Could’ve. Would’ve. Didn’t. Didn’t. Didn’t.

Tomorrow they’ll interview everybody I know.


Year 7 Six Word Stories

At first the students were a bit doubtful, but ‘I can’t think of anything’ qjuickly turned to ‘I’ve got one,’ and. I’ve got two.’ Here are samples. I am SO impressed.


  • She likes beauty, he likes sports
  • Filthy fingerprints, blood around, case unfound
  • She was murdered but why today?
  • The time flies like wind blows
  • Love is strong but never true
  • Demon flowers are colourful and bright
  • Darkness, sadness on a cold night
  • Stay strong and believe in horses
  • The baby’s birthday would be today
  • Why can’t we just be friends?
  • Reading every day makes you smarter
  • Why don’t I see my dad?
  • Just let me be myself everyday
  • Little girl left in the park
  • Everything was slowly falling into hell
  • Baby bird out of the tree
  • Spy – assassin – telepath – secrets hidden away
  • I am not safe at home
  • Never give up and stay strong
  • Why am I always so different?
  • Tomorrow is the past’s future
  • Why don’t you see my beauty?
  • He cried, regretting his horrible action
  • Shot dead but he didn’t die
  • Pen flew, after growing paper wings



After this, I read opening lines of a few famous novels and invited them to produce their own. We ran out of time, but these are a few.


If you don’t like sad stories I suggest you put this book down.

            A loud screech echoed in the mist.

The wind was howling in the small village.

            The grass was green but flowers died in my darkened world]

The essence of the perfume lingering, spring colours blossoming – FLASH.  I was back.


I hope they carry on writing. I was hugely impressed by their originality and promised to post their stories in the blog on my website.



I GUESS MOST OF US LOOK FORWARD to holidays where we can find time to read all those books on our list (I’ve brought Demon Copperhead with me, the amazing Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Barbara Kingsolver); but for years, ‘books on the beach’ have meant, for me, writing fiction as well as reading it.


In November 2009 I sat at little beach bars on a Thai island, writing for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing month). I was staying with one of my daughters …

The allure of the beach itself, the snorkelling in a transparent sea, skilled and ferocious Thai massages and barbecued fish for supper, were tempered by the enchantment of writing at speed: 1,500 words a day to reach the 50,000-word quota. My novel, never yet published, is called Babysnatch and tells the story of a boy and girl who abduct the boy’s baby brother to rescue him from their mother’s drug habit and exploitation by her pimp. They head for the island of Skye, where he thinks he has a grandmother. They are pursued by the mother and her pimp, the girl’s parents and the police. A friend who read it often asks me why it isn’t in print as she really enjoyed it but I’d begun a PhD in Creative Writing and wasn’t sure about using many points of view. It’s a story I still like and mean to revisit. (I’ve been on many Scottish islands since, invariably writing fiction as well as buying yarn and whisky, discovering Harris gin…)


2010 saw me back in Thailand,  visiting the daughter who was working there at the time. This year, my beaches were overwritten by Morph, my PhD novel (published 2018). That was the year we went on a jungle trek into a cavern that regularly flooded. We waded and swam with flashlights on our heads.


After that, my holidays on the tiny Greek island, Symi, meant work on another novel – still unfinished! I’d begun it years before: a life of Christ told through the eyes of a 14 year old girl. I felt, and still feel, that the situation in some Middle East countries for girls and women hasn’t changed. The research fascinated me. I went twice to Israel/Palestine. The poverty gap was stark, the Palestinians welcoming, the archaeology riveting. In 2015 the island received Syrian refugees while we were there. We gave them bottles of water as they waited for ferries to take them to the mainland, and I fretted about refugees worldwide. Back home, we became involved in fundraising, and friends drove lorries across Europe full of supplies.


I started Anna and the Snake Queen on Symi and used it as the backdrop for abuse of many kinds: domestic, racial, ruin of the natural world, and found myself in the parallel world of magic realism. The novel came out in 2020 in the midst of lockdown, when nobody could travel except in imagination.


To write If Dreams Should Die, I returned to magic realism in my own immediate landscape, full of holidaymakers all year round. I wanted to write about how to belong (still bothered about refugees), this time thinking too about children in care. This was published in 2022, much of it set in Longsleddale. I wrote in Spain, in a small town south of Malaga, where I’m staying again and working on the sequel to Anna and the Snake Queen. This one’s called Anna and the Shrivelling.


My most recent completed novel, finished earlier this year, is When the Killing Comes Home, and it’s set entirely in West Cumbria. Yet I puzzled over it last year, on Scottish islands and Spanish beaches, in lofty air-conditioned apartments and quiet beach cafes. When the story-telling seizes you, it’s irresistible.



I'VE SPENT THE LAST WEEK reading a novel for a friend. He’s spent four years writing it in his spare time and the plot is terrific, but it needs a lot of work to turn it into the compelling thriller he’s imagined. He told me how much he’d enjoyed the writing, how it began with telling a story to his children to distract them from the boredom of a walk through pine woods; but he was excited by the prospect of editing, too.

            I thought to myself, he’s a proper writer.

            In my experience, editing is almost addictive. I have to stop myself from starting afresh every time I open whatever it is I’m writing, including this blog, which has already undergone three revisions as I reach this point.

            Michelangelo is reputed to have said: ‘The sculpture is already complete within the marble block, before I start my work. It is already there, I just have to chisel away the superfluous material.’  If that’s true, it’s enviable. I have to create my block of marble and then work out what’s concealed inside before I can begin. I imagine the sculptor doesn’t inadvertently hack off a finger, but it’s all too easy for the novelist to find the plot unravelling, or rushing off in a different direction. How many of us discover, as we write, a character we’d never intended to be prominent, who walks into the action with a distinctive voice and insists on significant changes to the plot?

            This isn’t meant to happen. I have become a manic planner, using different frameworks for stories to find the best fit for the story in my head. These can include:

  • John Yorke’s five act structure (explained in Into the Woods)
  • The Snowflake method developed by Randy Ingermanson
  • The Hero’s Twelve-stage Journey, devised by Joseph Campbell and refined by Christopher Vogler
  • The Magnificent Seven Plot Points, invented by David Troitter
  • Michael Hauge’s Six Stage Plot Structure
  • The Syd Field Paradigm originally related to screenplay
  • The Lester Dent Pulp Fiction Plot Formula
  • The Plot Whisperer approach created by Martha Alderson
  • The M. Weiland Structure for plotting your novel
  • Kurt Vonnegut’s The Shape of Stories
  • James Scott Bell’s Superstructure

  And there are others … Most of these have a great deal in common but significantly each one asks a set of questions to make the novelist take stock, reappraise, discover (in my case) there’s much to learn.

             It’s a craft as well as an art. Michelangelo didn’t just take hammer and chisel and randomly chip away. I love learning from others, and the innate teacher inside can’t help volunteering to other writers, ‘I’ll read it for you’. I know I will learn more for myself, too. 

How many revisions to this blog, which has taken about 15 minutes to write? Well, maybe 15? I lost count.

Thai beach

Underground cave, jungle trek in Thailand

Inspiration for the bridge to Pelm, Anna and the Snake Queen

Leaning Tower of Pisa: How long to build?

Lighting rig for live theatre at Leeds Playhouse

Preparing for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory



I SPENT A FEW DAYS recently with one of my daughters and three of my grandchildren, all adult or nearly so. It was delightful. One sat beside me crocheting – she learned to crochet at the Feminist Society of her Cambridge College, was taught by a young man. Her finger-movements were expert. One spent several hours watching her phone’s screen. I asked if she followed TikTok. ‘Well, yes,’ as if I were speaking an alien tongue. ‘Do you get your news from TikTok?’ ‘I read what people post.’ ‘Do you believe it?’ I don’t really know.’ This from a highly intelligent young woman. I talk about fake news and how to trust what one sees online.


My questions had been prompted in part by following the harrowing interviews with Andrew Malkinson, released after seventeen years in prison for a crime he did not commit. They’d heard a bit about it, hadn’t followed the detail. I say something about the importance of becoming politically active (ie using their vote).


They agree about voting, don’t quite see my point. I spent four years of a PhD in researching online identity among young people. Safety lies in experience of the arts. It’s going to be their world, but the world is not virtual. I can’t preach to them, can’t win them over by argument. Stories change minds. Arguments rarely do, which is why our adversarial justice system throws up wrongful imprisonment of innocent people – and probably the release of the guilty.


Stories aren’t virtual, either, even though they are lived in the imagination. I buy many books on Kindle, including the complete Dickens, Trollope, Austen. I have these volumes on my bookshelves but I also want the safety of carrying them with me. I don’t buy as ebooks the new stories or poetry I will want to keep. Turning the pages of a first-rate novel is a tactile, sensuous experience involving the passage of time.  I listen to many audiobooks, though, and don’t think this is cheating myself of a sensuous experience. So many stories are written to be told, listened to, that I often rewrite sentences and paragraphs to meet the criterion of my inner critic: ‘Will the listener give up on this story, or stay?’


My daughter took us to see Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, performed by the Leeds Playhouse touring company, with a live band. It was joyous – a packed theatre, doubtless scruffy backstage but magnificent viewed from the gallery – with visual effects entirely computer-generated and entirely believable. Well, I suspended my disbelief for the duration. Live theatre is like live music, live sculpture, dance, art. Novels and poems are different, but only in that the theatre is within the human mind.

Take the Fair Face of Woman by Sophie Anderson

Castle St Theatre, Kendal, Saturday August 5, 2023



ON AUGUST 5, MORE THAN 20 readers, of all ages, will be reading ‘fairy’ tales for 12 hours, non-stop, In Kendal Library: our marathon to raise money for another production by Kendal Community Theatre.

Last year’s version of A Christmas Carol for Kendal was an original adaptation of Dickens’ story, inspired by his rage at the inadequacies of the ‘ragged schools’ system for educating the poorest of the poor in Victorian England. Kendal Community Theatre was praised for its wholly inclusive approach in casting members aged 6–90+, none of them having to audition for parts, and many with acute special needs.


This year the production in December 2023 will be A Snow Queen for Kendal – another original adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s story of Gerda’s heroic quest for her lost Kay.


I looked up ‘fairy’ largely because I’ve written two novels of magic realism, in which this world and another flow in and out of one another. It’s an ancient genre, dating back thousands of years and across all cultures, never designed largely for children but usually encapsulating the deepest fears and longings of human nature. ‘Fairy’ derives from ‘fae’ and ‘fata’ – the Fates. There’s nothing childish in fae. The Brothers Grimm collected their stories from adults, not children.


I was given a copy of Joseph Jacobs’ collection of English Fairy Stories when I was six, and John Batten’s illustrations have haunted me.  In writing my novel Anna and the Snake Queen I was influenced by the picture of Childe Wynd, holding in his arms his sister who had been turned into the Laidly Worm. When I was writing If Dreams Should Die I kept recalling the image of Janet, meeting her lover Tamlane in a forest, after he had been stolen by the Queen of Fae.


These are sinister pictures, nothing like the sweet-faced girl-fairy so often depicted.


We say some of the stories we read on August 5 will be for children, and others for adults, but the division is artificial. There’s nothing comfortable in the story of Hansel and Gretel, or Rapunzel. Violent death, grisly cruelty and danger are integral to most of the folk tales labelled ‘fairy stories’ and they wouldn’t get a PG or U listing from the British Board of Film Classification, though they are regularly found in the children’s section of libraries.


I’ll be reading from my two magic realism novels but I hope to find time for Terry Pratchett, too. If you don’t know his novels, DEATH (always in capitals) features in several.



Timeline of West Cumbria mass shootings, 2010



AFTER YEARS OF NEGLECT and abuse in foster-placements, Cassie (15) is sent to a loving family, but Stella,(35) her psychotic mother, tries to find her, desperate to prove she can be a good mother.


What’s behind this title for my latest novel? I once said to fellow writer Matthew Connolly that the violence we inflict on children in the care system is as bad as serial killing. He thought I was being unduly provocative.  Am I overstating the case?


I was a headteacher in three very different schools. Children don’t choose to be born. Adults choose to give birth, whatever the circumstances. I worked out long ago that it’s the adults who are responsible for how children turn out. Three cases haunt me – they are just examples.


  1. A 13-year-old boy, very difficult in school, sits in my study. His father points at him. ‘I don’t fucking want you. I’m taking you down the social. They can have you.’ He thumps the desk. Tears roll down the boy’s face.
  2. A 14-year-old girl is brought to me for slapping a member of staff. Am I to exclude her from school? I discover she is on her 14th foster-placement and her grandmother has just died.
  3. A magistrate friend describes the case of a woman who has discovered her birth mother, who did not want to be found, and now stalks the mother’s new family. Magistrates fear she will regularly reappear in front of the bench. They cannot help her by sentencing.


I followed the media frenzy in 2010 about a serial murderer, Derrick Bird, who killed 12 people and wounded 11, in the beautiful countryside of West Cumbria. He called bystanders to the window of his taxi cab and shot them in the face, beginning by shooting his twin brother.


Little media attention is paid to how we manage children removed from neglectful, abusive or violent parents. Well, they aren’t shot in the face, but too often we leave them with poor education, ill-health, poverty, rootlessness. A Sky installer told me about going into a home where he passed a room full of black bin liners, stuffed with rubbish, and a naked baby lying on his/her back in the middle of the room. He rang the police. Good man.


Social worker friends struggle to find secure placements for children who must be kept safe. I learned about the mothers – ‘maternal outcasts’ – whose babies are repeatedly removed at birth.   


I read everything I could find about Derrick Bird, including a major police report. Bird erased people’s individual identities by shooting them in the face.


We inflict a different kind of violence on children in the care system – but it’s still a threat to identity. This sense drove me to write my novel When the Killing Comes Home.

Woods above the River Esk where Derrick Bird shot himself

Image that inspired Anna & the Snake Queen cover