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Free Writing Friday in the forest

I’ve been a children’s book author for over twenty years. During that time I’ve lost count of how many people have asked me the best way to encourage creativity in kids.  My answer is always: have a notebook to write and draw in just for fun.

I started writing and drawing when I was very young, and I’ve kept notebooks ever since.  Some of the story ideas I had about Vikings and dragons eventually became the How to Train Your Dragon book and film series. I still keep notebooks now. For my most recent series, The Wizards of Once, I kept a big A3 scrapbook for five years, which I filled with poems, drawings and inspiration.

Keeping a notepad helps me to create new stories (Photo: Cressida Cowell)
Keeping a notepad helps me to create new stories (Photo: Cressida Cowell)

Get involved with Free Writing Friday

In 2018, with the National Literacy Trust, I launched Free Writing Friday for primary school children.  The idea was to find a space for children to be creative. Each Friday children are allocated just fifteen minutes to draw or write in their books. No rules. No marking. Just fun!

Children are naturally creative and imaginative thinkers, but can be put off writing by the dreaded, red correction pen. In this one notebook, spelling, grammar and neatness should be completely irrelevant – what’s important should be the ideas.

Woods are great places for writers  

My writing is inspired by the landscapes I played in as a child. The sea-wilderness of the Scottish island where I spent my childhood summers inspired my How to Train your Dragon books. The chalky woods of the South Downs have inspired the wildwoods of my Wizards of Once series, in particular ancient Kingley Vale, where some of the trees are over 2,000 years old.

Green, leafy places are fantastic, magical places to get creative. They are full of peculiar plants, curious creatures, and ancient trees where you wouldn’t be entirely surprised to find an entire family of sprites.

One of my characters, Squeezejoos the sprite (Image: Cressida Cowell)
One of my characters, Squeezejoos the sprite (Image: Cressida Cowell)

Not sure where to start?

I know how daunting a blank page can be when it comes to starting a story. Here are a few tips to get you started:

Tip one: make your writing come alive

The more detail you put into your writing, and the more you base it on a tiny grain of truth, the more it comes alive in your reader’s head. The example I use for this tip is from How to Train Your Dragon. If I say to you, ‘Gobber has a big red beard’, you can see the image in your head a bit, but not very well. If I say that, ‘Gobber has a beard like exploding fireworks’, or, ‘Gobber has a beard like a hedgehog struck by lightning’, you can see the image much more clearly. 

An extension to this is to think about your senses when you’re describing. If you use words that encourage your reader to smell, hear, taste, see or touch, then your story is more compelling.

Tip two: research is a boring word for something really exciting

If you’re stuck for where to start a story, then surprising facts about the real world can give you loads of ideas. For example, I read somewhere that Vikings trained cats for battle because sword-fighting an opponent is very difficult if a cat is attacking your head! This gave me an idea that I then put in one of my books (How to Fight a Dragon’s Fury).

Many of my dragons in How to Train Your Dragon are based on extraordinary fish. For example, the Monstrous Strangulator Dragon is transparent, like a barrel-eye fish.

For The Wizards of Once, I did a huge amount of reading about Ancient Britain. The Iron Warrior Fort is the same shape as an Iron Age Hill Fort, and the ancient forest Kingley Vale in Sussex gave me the setting for the Wildwood. Both history and the natural world are full of unbelievable facts and questions that you can base stories on.

The ancient trees of Kingley Vale are inspirational (Photo: Organics image library/Alamy Stock Photo)
The ancient trees of Kingley Vale are inspirational (Photo: Organics image library/Alamy Stock Photo)

Tip three: draw a map of your imaginary place

A map is a very useful starting point for a story. Many great books begin with a map – Treasure Island, for example, or Peter Pan. I use maps too, for every new world.

Draw a map of your imaginary place. Give it boundaries, which can be either sea or land, and give it place names. How long would it take to get from place to place? Are there any obstacles? Maps encourage you to think about your characters too, because as soon as your settings have names, you start to wonder who lives there.

One of the trees I drew for Wizards of Once (Image: Cressida Cowell)
One of the trees I drew for Wizards of Once (Image: Cressida Cowell)

The Woodland Trust also has some cracking ideas on its Nature Detectives website. Here are a few of my favourites:

  • Use woody materials for woodland make believe. Is that twigreally a dragon’s claw?What might be living in the nooks and crannies of a tree?
  • All over the world people have made journey sticksAs you walk through a forest, tie interesting finds like leaves, petals and feathers to a stick. Each item symbolises part of your adventure.
  • If an empty notebook is a little scary, why not try scribbling in this woodland log book? With lots of space to draw and write, and ideas for what to look out for in the woods, it’s a great starting point.
  • Find some stones and write words on them. What sort of pebble poems can you make? Do they make sense or are they total gobbledygook?

Don’t forget – be messy, experiment and have fun!

Whether it’s a full-blown story or a comic strip tale told in pictures – get out there and give it a go! The Woodland Trust has over 1,200 woods for you to explore during your Free Writing Friday.

Seek out inspiration for your next story

Find your nearest wood