Spinning stories out of the stuff of life

Ruth Hartley Storytelling, Dust and Rain, Zambia2 Comments

When you see this post I will have just arrived in Zambia and my children’s book Dust and Rain: Chipo and Chibwe save the Green Valley will have been published by Gadsden Publishers.

How a story grows and changes as the world spins

Medusa’s third eye

It was a shock when I first realised that my story, Dust and Rain, so relevant 20 years ago, had become dated and would be bewildering for children – I ought not to have been surprised. It is astonishing is that we don’t notice how different the world is, or how much we’ve changed – and this can be bad news for writers of some children’s books. Harry Potter may always wave his wand at monsters as his world is timeless, but mobile phones, tablets and technology are evolving as I write. The children whose story I began in 1994 inhabited a world that today’s children won’t recognise – there were no mobile phones then. It was never my intention to write a historical book, so I simply kept on rewriting the story to keep it contemporary and interesting.

A story for a grandson and granddaughters


I was writing a story for my grandson and though I couldn’t know how fast he would grow up, or how different his world would be, I wanted, all the same, to write a hopeful and positive story where he was the hero. I also put all my lifelong passions for the environment, nature, trees and human relationships into the story. My family has lived in Africa for two centuries, so inevitably this story is set there. So many brilliant children’s stories have opened windows into new worlds and made me think and rethink and I wanted this story to show that boys and girls, brothers and sisters, could be friends and comrades. I do believe in the power of literature to both reflect and support creative changes in society.

How the world of publishing changed

Mama Wati – a magical river creature from Dust and Rain

I was back in England, feeling exiled from Africa, and writing this story kept me going. I wrote in a previous blog about all the different jobs I took and all the training I did to stay afloat. I also had this crazy idea that if I wrote good books I might earn some money from them! None of us knew then how digital publishing and marketing would change authors’ lives and book sales. Self-publishing to a high standard became possible at the same time as it became harder to make money from writing because so many people were doing it.

Pages from a notebook

What I did first

I couldn’t find a conventional publisher for my children’s book, but by then I had already written a sequel and followed it with a series of stories about the same characters. I put all the stories together into one book and entered a BBC competition. (Sadly without success.) Rewriting was an interesting challenge, but that didn’t get my books published either. It may have made me a better writer, though, and I do intend to finish writing all of my children’s books.

And what I did next

I had ideas, plots and notes and research for another three books, so I put my children’s book aside and I started on my adult novels. I couldn’t find a publisher even though I knew my stories were good enough and enjoyable. They were judged to have a small market, though a better term might be a niche market. That requires more work if the story is to be marketed satisfactorily. What happened though was that the hero of my story changed. Chipo the younger sister is now the one who tells the story and is helped by her brother Chibwe!

What finally happened


I don’t know why I kept at it. I know I’m not the only writer to carry on after rejections. Writing is an addiction – Emma Darwin calls it This Itch of Writing – in her excellent blogs about how to do it well and the learning process goes on forever if you’re a writer.

I think writers may all be rather like Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner – we have to find someone to listen to our stories because we know they are important and unique! I’m tapping you on the shoulder and saying ‘Stop! Sit down. Listen to me! Read my stories! Please!’

2 Comments on “Spinning stories out of the stuff of life”

    1. Ruth Hartley

      Thank you Lorraine – yes it has been a very interesting experience and extremely hard work too. I think I need another holiday!

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