The Map of Leaves by Yarrow Townsend is a magical story of being at one with nature. Since her mother died, Orla’s only company has been the plants surrounding her home. Now a sickness has come and nature is blamed but Orla knows that can’t be. The Warden of Thorn Creek demands all plants be destroyed. He orders Orla to clear her garden. But how can she possibly do that when she can hear the plants whispering their secrets?
In this celebration of traditional plant-based medicine, Orla discovers she must be the one to help. The plants are counting on her and it seems she has known the secrets of the land up river all along. With determination, loyalty and love, she and some new friends face the evil that is destroying the natural world and try to put things right.
Finding Inspiration in the Outdoors Without Having to
Adventure Too Far
Special Guest Post by Yarrow Townsend
As writers, we often find ourselves writing and daydreaming at desks in cafés, offices, libraries. Sometimes, we’re lucky enough to have a view of the outdoors*, but mostly, we’re trying to imagine the places we’re writing about – some of which are distant memories, some we’ve never been to and some that are entirely made up – while in our own little world of notebook and computer.
Though I’ve had jobs working outdoors, I’ve also spent a lot of my time writing without a view, in a narrowboat with tiny porthole windows. Back when I was teaching, I noticed my students struggled to daydream while stuck inside the four walls of the classroom.
So—what can we do to spark inspiration and imaginative writing?
Using small found objects to awaken our senses
My desk is rather cluttered with things I’ve found – seedpods, bits of pine sap, a dried yarrow flower. Even just looking at these wakes up my senses a bit. But there’s something magical about touch too, and remind ourselves about texture and shape can really bring writing to life. So: take a walk and bring back bits and pieces that catch your eye (within reason!): fallen leaves, muddy rocks, little plastic toys dropped on the pavement. Then when you’re stuck at your desk, sit with your eyes closed for a moment and FEEL! Jot down some words to describe your objects. Then, spend 5 minutes thinking about the story behind each item.
Try a practical task
Most local nature reserves offer the opportunity to get involved in activities like chopping back invasive species and creative habitats for wildlife. It’s a great, free way to get to know the wilderness in your local area. But even on a smaller scale, trying out practical tasks helps our writing– engaging our senses and adding some authenticity to stories!
For The Map of Leaves I had a go at making pine tar from pine sap. I mushed up plant seeds and twisted fibres to see what would happen. And I was in the middle of the city when I did this! There is so much amazing guidance online to get you started, from weaving natural fibres to making beads from river clay.
It’s a nice way to feel inspired and refreshed – but research also shows that activities like this also improve motor skills and writing in the classroom! I was especially keen to show all the children in The Map of Leaves making things with their hands – Idris knits, Orla makes poultices for her horse and Ariana loves doing science experiments.
Write from an image or video
This is an especially useful activity in the classroom, or if you’re a writer who is feeling a bit terrified by the blank page in front of you. First, you’ll need to find yourself an atmospheric picture. If Pinterest or Instagram seem a bit overwhelming, jump straight to National Geographic and choose a picture at random. The idea here is not to worry too much what you’re writing about – but to spend 30 seconds writing down EVERY word that the picture makes you think of. Don’t even worry about full sentences. I assure you, it will get your brain in the zone for writing, even more than coffee. In the classroom, you can take it to the next level by using videos of the sea, or storms, or tornados…
*(a couple of my favourite spots in the past have been upstairs in Newbury Library, where I did some of the editing for The Map of Leaves where there’s a great view of the sky and the canal – and the café at Boulder Public Library, with its view of the rocky creek).
Messy Notes and Story Planning
When I was teaching English, I noticed that my Year 7 students felt pretty intimidated by a blank page (who doesn’t?). They hesitated before writing anything down, their minds filled with thoughts of SATs questions from the year before. They wanted so much to get it right that they struggled to begin.
So one day, I decided to tell them how I liked to plan stories – and how many writers, artists and film-makers go about dreaming up ideas. I told them that despite whatever I might say about underlining the date and title with ruler, I also LOVED messy notebooks. In fact, I thought it was the best way to think up a new story.
I begged the art department for some sketchbooks for my writing group. I found some pictures of notebooks by fantastic creators like Guillermo del Toro, Frida Kahlo, Chris Riddell, David Almond – and we discussed how ideas could be messy to begin with. We found bits and bobs and scraps to collect for our own sketchbooks. We cut up magazines and collaged pictures we liked, and I told them that it was actually in the art room that I first really thought about storytelling (listening to The Lord of the Rings soundtrack while copying out Alan Lee illustrations…) – and how I’d always loved keeping notebooks, long before I’d even thought about getting my stories published.
I loved collecting little scraps of ideas and then flicking back through them weeks or months later and daydreaming about the stories they might become. It felt a bit like wandering in a tangly woodland and deciding which path to take next – with the same sparky excitement of wondering what’s around the corner. It was a place to dream up stories in secret: with no judgement, no red-pen, and no mark schemes.
So I told them just that – they didn’t have to show me those notebooks. They didn’t have to have them marked. Yes, they could show me their cool sketches if they wanted. But the notebooks were for them.
When I came to write The Map of Leaves, it made sense that a notebook – Ma’s herb book – would be at the heart of the story – filled with pressed flowers, scribbled notes and secret messages.
Yarrow’s Top Tips for Notebooks:
– Notebooks can be more than just words! Collect plants, receipts, bits of newspaper articles, wrappers from cool chocolate bars. Some notebooks have fancy pockets in the back, but you can make your own by gluing the edges of a page down like Orla does. Then, you can keep things hidden in there.
– You don’t have to write in full sentences! Lots of people think that notebooks should be like a diary or that they’ll last forever or that they have to SAY something in case someone finds them. Write down words you like, squiggles, learn another language your family don’t speak or write in code like Da Vinci did, if it makes you feel more confident.
–Doodle! You don’t have to be a confident artist – this is just for you! When I was teaching (inspired by my amazing mentor Mrs Wright!) I always let kids have scrap paper to draw on while we read aloud or watched a film. I do it too. It helps me to concentrate and dream up new stories.
The Map of Leaves by Yarrow Townsend is out now in paperback (£7.99, Chicken House)
Click on the covers below to find out more or purchase on-line from Amazon or bookshop.org.
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