I was lucky enough to be invited to talk at the Penzance Literary Festival last weekend – and what a weekend! Not only was the atmosphere friendly, the audiences appreciative and the cakes extremely good, the sun shone and shone and shone and the sea was as warm as bathwater.

I love Penzance and the surrounding countryside, coastal paths and beaches, hence my choice of the area as the setting for my new novel for young teens, Summer’s Shadow. It was a privilege to be asked to speak about my inspiration for the book to an audience of girls from Cape Cornwall School in St Just (which is the best place for pasties in the county, if not the world, if you ever need to know).

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On Friday I talked to the girls about how keeping a diary has been an important part of my life as a writer since I could first string a couple of words together. I then went on to explain how Summer’s Shadow started as diary entries – mere scribbles in a Paperchase notebook which I took with me to the beach on holiday. I read extracts from the notebook and then read passages from the book to show how early, scratchy ideas had been honed and shaped into the final story. I explained that, once I knew I wanted to write a story from my notes, I began to write in the third person to distance myself from my own experiences. This was how I came up with the main character, Summer.

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Sometimes it helps to play around with voices and even tenses when you are at the early stages in writing, and a notebook is the perfect place to do this. Messing around in a notebook like this feels less ‘real’ than typing early ideas directly on to my laptop – it keeps me feeling free to experiment.

I finished the talk, had a quick chat with the girls and was about to pack up and leave when an elderly gentleman arrived, looking a bit lost. He asked if I was Anna Wilson and said he had very much wanted to hear my talk and that he had a present for me. I was rather puzzled as the talk had been for teens, but he was adamant it was me he wanted to see. He explained that he had heard I was going to be talking about keeping a diary and that he had self-published his own diary from his travels around Europe in 1952. He went on to tell me how he had met his wife after coming out of the army, and that he had fell in love immediately. He became quite tearful at this as, very sadly, his wife had passed away in 2010 after a long battle with Alzheimers. He told me how they had travelled on their bikes across post-war Europe, staying in youth hostels and living on very little money, but how utterly happy they had been. He then presented me with a copy of his published diary! I was very moved by this. The diary was not especially wonderfully written and it was obviously a very personal account, much of which would not be interesting to a reader who had never met the man. Yet, having heard him tell his story and sat with him as he remembered his beloved wife to whom he had been married for so long, it made me think about how all of us have a story to tell. Our lives are stories: whether we choose to pass them on to others or not is up to us.

I carried on the theme of diary-keeping when I gave my talk on Sunday about my book for younger readers, Monkey Madness. This talk was a lot less serious and featured, amongst other things, stories of elephants getting drunk on marula fruit, hippos pooing dangerously close to tents, and monkeys stealing cans of pop and throwing them at my children.

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My family and I went to Botswana in 2011 and, of course, I kept a diary. That diary formed the basis for Monkey Madness which I wrote a couple of years later. I read the audience extracts from that diary, as many of the things I had noted in it were actually stories that our driver, Bibi, had told us around the campfire. So, in many ways, I have Bibi to thank for his life stories, as without him I doubt I would have written Monkey Madness.

So, if there is one thing you do this summer holiday – keep a diary! You never know when it might come in useful in the future. It may be that one day you will write a book based on your thoughts and experiences. Or maybe you will keep it until you are old and grey and you meet a younger person with whom you can share your precious memories. Whatever you do, remember – you have your own story to tell, so get on and tell it!

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