Thursday 27 January 2022

Tips on the art of storytelling

To celebrate National Storytelling Week (January 29th to February 5th)
Susan Brownrigg asks for tips on telling stories to an audience …

Storytelling has a long tradition (Photo Tom Hughes)

Where do you find your stories?

: “I’m a Magpie when it comes to stories! What shiny gems can I find in traditional tales, myths and legends? What is already on my shelf? In the library? Tucked away in a charity shop? I love charity bookshops and the old compendiums of stories and nursery rhymes. There is always a hidden gem!
Most of the stories I tell have been written by somebody else. It just so happens that that somebody else is 1000 years or even older! They don't mind that I take their ideas and give them a twist.  I like telling stories that are a little bit silly. A pinch of nasty. A little bit bitey. A little tense…

Gav Cross with Dave the toilet brush! (Photo Gav Cross)

TOM HUGHES: I generally use traditional folk tales in my storytelling, stories that have been passed on for many years, some are even centuries old.  If they have been around for that long then usually that means they are worth re-telling.  I have a good collection of tales gathered by storytellers which is sometimes useful for helping put together a set of stories on a theme, but I get most of my stories from local history books.  Some very curious things happen down country lanes, less so in big cities, and there are all sorts of strange tales to explain unusual features in the landscape.”

DOM CONLON:  I find my stories in two ways: firstly in the quiet times where I let my mind wander without needing to think. I might be looking up at the Moon, or walking through the countryside and I just naturally start wondering what might be happening by a riverbank or in the deep shadows of a lunar crater. The other way is when I'm given a theme. I love this. Ladybird asks me to write books from time to time and they give me a theme. They might tell me the book should be about Christmas, or that it's funny. In those cases I think about the stories I love and what I might do differently. Or I might try to cover a selection of genres like sci-fi, mystery, fairytale, and so on. Then I think about who my characters are and how they'd react if they were faced with a particular problem.

ROGAN MILLS:  The stories I tell come from a variety of sources. Sometimes I’ll read a book, maybe a picture book or a short story and I’ll get a sense that it will translate well into an oral story. Very often I’ll hear another storyteller tell a tale and I’ll think, “I’m having that”. The storytelling community is a very sharing one. I always encourage children to do the same with a story that I might have shared with them. Sometimes I’ll make up a story myself. I carry a notebook around with me so I’ll jot down ideas all the time. Traditional stories are a great source too.If it's well known, I like to add in a twist to keep it interesting. As long as you can remember all the key events in the story, you can have great fun weaving in as much fun or silliness around the plot as you like.

Do you use any props/costumes when storytelling?

TOM HUGHESWhen performing at events I dress in some historical costume, anything from a medieval pilgrim to a Victorian pauper.  I enjoy having a good wardrobe of dressing up clothes. I have always been very shy, but as soon as I dress up in some clothes from the past, then I am not myself, I am in another character and that's who people are looking at and listening to, so there isn't the same pressure. Also if someone is dressed in funny looking clothes, they usually already have the audience's attention, so the first bit of work is done.  


Storyteller Tom Hughes (Photo Tom Hughes)

Most of my storytelling work is history based so it all helps.  I used to take a lot of props with me, partly to  remind myself of the stories, but they can end up being a distraction to the listener, so I now use props very little.  One thing I do use as a sort of prop are my bagpipes.  I play various types of historic bagpipes, but not the Highland type which most people know.  Starting with a tune helps keep people focussed while all the audience are gathering, and there are so many great stories from across Europe relating to bagpipes too.

DOM CONLON:I do have some props but I try to ask the audience to manage those. For some stories I have soft toys which children use to join in with the story. For other stories I might use plushes to give children a way to focus on what I'm talking about. I have a wonderful soft moon which I often use (and it's looking a bit tattered like all well-loved toys ought to). I also have space toys - like a model Saturn V and a projection moon - for when I'm talking about my space poetry. I think using props which underline my ideas help but I don't make them a key part of a session because I'm not a natural storyteller. 

I just tend to gush about how amazing it is that maths and engineering can make it so we can launch a rocket made up of three million parts so that it travelled at 23 metres per second by burning more fuel in a single second than it takes to travel across the Atlantic ocean. And I'm lucky because if I can't remember those facts then there are so many more I can mention in my 'story' that the audience still understand how impressive the accomplishment was.

ROGAN MILLS: I occasionally use props for the Early Years and KS1. For junior children, I far prefer for the focus to be solely on me, using body language, eye contact, and variations in my voice to convey different emotions or anticipation. Using different voices is very important for young children because it helps them to differentiate between the characters.

"The one story that I always use props for is ‘The Three Little Pigs’. I have a wolf hat that I put on each time I become the wolf. I also have a play tunnel that I use for a follow up activity after ‘The Three Little Pigs’ which becomes the chimney. In my version of this story, the wolf gets stuck in the chimney and, following the tale, the children take turns at putting on the wolf hat and getting stuck, all accompanied of course by a rhyming song that everyone can join in with.

Rogan Mills, storyteller (Photo: Rogan Mills)

"I’m quite a reluctant dresser upper but I do often tell bedtime stories dressed in my cap and nightgown as Wee Willie Winkie. The children come to their school or library dressed in their pj’s and snuggling their favourite cuddly."

GAV CROSS: “I don't use many props or costumes and I'm always envious of people that have magnificent hats in particular! For me it's because I have a gigantic head. (If only it were full of brains.) Having a gigantic head means I can't find all the fabulous hats that instantly make a character. I like to find or have made, little surprising props. One of my favourites is Dave. Dave is a very sad character who is a very close friend of mine and happens to be a toilet brush. Don't worry, I clean Dave, twice. Mostly. I also love an umbrella. An umbrella is a brilliant prop for a storyteller. It can be a walking stick. An oar. It can be a sword. It can be another character! And if I'm telling stories in a festival, it can even be an umbrella!”

3.  Can you give any tips on being a storyteller?

ROGAN MILLS: "The biggest challenge for any aspiring storyteller is to find their own style, the one one that works best for them. And you can only do that by practising. The good news is that you’re almost certainly already a storyteller. It’s part of being human. You’re telling a story when having a gossip (“You’ll never guess what Rogan did yesterday!!!”). You’re telling a story when you tell your mates about that grumpy man in Asda. You’re telling a story when you’re discussing what happened on Corrie last night. Or how fantastic that goal was you scored on Saturday.

"Know your story but don’t learn every word by heart. Just learn the key events and then have fun. Don’t rush, take your time. Look your audience in the eye. If you don’t feel confident, pretend that you are confident! Read your audience and if something isn’t working, don’t be afraid to change what you’re doing. In some stories there are moments when everything stops. There is a silence. If in those moments of stillness you look across at a sea of faces and they are, every single one of them, fixed on you in anticipation, then you know that you have your audience right where you want them. And it feels great."

Dom Conlon, author and poet (photo Dom Conlon)

DOM CONLON: I think storytelling is mostly about finding the approach which works well for you. If you are great at organising your storytelling and then acting it out then go big! Dress up, use props. That way you can enjoy pretending. I always prepare a script to help me understand the flow of what I'm going to say but then I'll mostly ignore it. Once I know my story then I can relax a little and let the audience guide me. If I rehearsed too much then I'd get rattled if I had a question or something unexpected and that would throw me as though I'd lost my place. My rambling style helps me to keep everything together without looking like a complete fool.

TOM HUGHES:My main tip for starting storytelling would be to make sure you really know your story inside out before you start.  It's a bit like telling a joke, you have to remember everything in the right order before getting to the punchline. A good tip is to look to the people furthest away and aim your voice to them, usually everyone will hear.  Other than that just think about the setting and avoid noisy settings with other distractions. There are so many fantastic storytellers out there in lots of different styles.  It's well worth getting out and listening to as many as you can in real life, not on a screen which tends to break the magic of it all.  

I think its so important to keep a tale to be no longer than ten minutes, and make it shorter if you can.  Short and snappy is best, five minute tales are great.”

GAV CROSS: “My tippiest top tip for storytellers is that everybody loves stories! People will sit and listen and join in when you want them to. They will get a bit nervous at the right times, laugh with you, or at you and gasp and feel nervous, even if they know deep down it's all going to be okay. Probably…

“People always like to laugh. Popping jokes into your stories. (And I don't mean knock-knock ones, though I love them too.) Pulling a funny face for a character will get a laugh. A silly voice will get a laugh. Get that laugh and your audience already likes you and your story.

“Have some stories in your ‘back pocket’. Maybe you've read some local legends on the Internet just before you go camping. You can all sit by the light of the fire and can drop into conversation your tales. People want to hear a story whilst they gaze into the flames of a wood fire.

“But the biggest top tip is to try to enjoy yourself.

Thanks to Gav, Tom, Rogan and Dom for their insightful responses.

National Storytelling Week is annual celebration of the Oral Tradition organised by The Society of Storytelling. This year's theme is Your Story, My Story. Find out more at

Have you watched this week's Time Tunnellers YouTube video? Discover the history of storytelling and have a go at our challenge!

Gav Cross is a storytelling and theatre maker and can be found all over the country showing off to children, young people and their families. Usually by invite! He is also Chief Chaos Wrangler for Funny Looking Kids: Live. An alternative comedy club for families, at the Bluecoat in Liverpool.
Find more information about Gav and the stories he tells in schools, libraries, festivals, theatres, pubs and online here: 
Tom Hughes has been a storyteller for 15 years. He works in museums sharing stories as part of his job, but also tells tales at festivals and storytelling clubs.  Since reading a book about legends and traditions of Cheshire when he was ten (the place where he grew up), Tom has been really interested in stories about landscapes and why certain places get their name or perhaps why a hill or rock is shaped in a certain way.  He is also very interested in old and lesser known tales, and likes to save them from being lost so that they can be passed on again.
Follow Tom Hughes on twitter @TomTellTale 
Dom is a disabled, hat-wearing, thought-thinking, cake-eating poet and author whose books have been nom nom nominated (sorry, still thinking about cake there) for the Carnegie and the Greenaway medals. He’s a bit of a work in progress but has written books such as Meet Matilda Rocket Builder, This Rock That Rock, and the Wild Wanderers series (which so far include Leap, Hare, Leap! Swim Shark, Swim! Blow, Wind, Blow! and Shine, Star, Shine!). They have been praised by Chris Riddell, Brian Bilston, Nicola Davies, and even the European Space Agency, so that’s a bit smashing. He’s also written for Ladybird, Puffin, and the BBC as well as interviewing people on stage and appearing on television to talk about the importance of libraries.
Find out more at
Rogan Mills has 20 years of experience as a professional storyteller. I have a wealth of stories in my pretty little head. Purveyor of tall tales, shaggy dog stories and joyful exaggerations. Your wish is my command!
Follow Rogan Mills on twitter @MillsRoga

Susan Brownrigg is the author of the Gracie Fairshaw mystery series and pirate adventure Kintana and the Captain's Curse. Find out more at

Thursday 20 January 2022

Would the Real Robert Burns Please Step Forward… by Barbara Henderson

I live in Scotland. Every January, primary schools return from their Christmas break and, for the next fortnight, focus on the Scots language. They recite poetry in preparation for one of Scotland’s most iconic festivals. No, it’s not a saint’s day. No, it’s not religious or seasonal in nature. It is a day to celebrate an iconic poet – Scotland’s national bard, Robert Burns. 

Robert Burns, Scotland's national poet

Schools hold Burns-themed assemblies, households up and down the country empty supermarket shelves of haggis, neeps (swedes) and tatties (potatoes). The radio warbles with My love is like a red, red rose. Tartan is everywhere. School lunch halls echo with head teachers reciting The Address to the haggis.

Other than the ‘ploughman poet’ label, I was surprised how little people knew of Robert Burns. As a writer of historical fiction, had a hunch that a children’s novel about the poet could do well, particularly in the schools’ market in Scotland. Time to do some Time tunnelling. What could I dig up?

It’s true, Robert Burns spent much of his life farming. However, he also worked as an Exciseman on the infamous Solway Coast where smuggling was rife, due to its proximity to both England and the tax haven of the Isle of Man. At first glance, the poet’s day job sounds almost boring – working for the tax office doth not an adventure make! I wondered if he had ever been involved in anything interesting.

And, oh my goodness, did I strike lucky!

A side note on a museum website briefly mentioned that Burns was involved in the seizure of the Rosamund, a smuggling schooner which had run aground near the coast. 


An extract about the seizure of the Rosamund

The ship was full of contraband which had to be confiscated. The Exciseman in charge of the operation was one Walter Crawford, an Excise riding officer whose job involved riding up and down the coast and reporting any suspicious activity which may point to smuggling. The size of the stranded ship meant he needed reinforcements, and fast. Over forty horse-mounted soldiers marched into the freezing sea in three parties, led by three Excise officers. Burns was one of them.

Because Crawford was relatively new in post, he kept a meticulous diary of the operation: dates, times, people present and a blow-by-blow account of what came to pass that February. To me as a writer of children’s fiction, it was a kingly gift!

The Excise officers and the soldiers arrived on horseback and attempted to ride into the sea. But the local beach was famously dangerous for its quicksand. 

Quicksand is very dangerous, and is found along the Solway coast

They had no option but to leave the horses behind and proceeded on foot. According to Crawford’s diary, they waded into the wintry waves in February 1792, while being shot at with the ship’s carronades (small cannon) and with muskets. Despite the dangers they were under strict instructions: to mount the ship ‘with pistol and sword’ and to seize the cargo, arresting the dozen or so smugglers on board if possible. 


An etching showing smugglers

They approached from angles on which the ship’s cannon could not be brought to bear and eventually succeeded, with the smugglers abandoning ship and fleeing across the narrow stretch of water towards England.

Gosh, take a breath! What a story!

A painting depicting smugglers

All I had to do was to throw a young apprentice Exciseman into the mix – a children’s story needs a child protagonist. I didn’t have to invent any of the jeopardy like I normally do – it was already there in real life. 

But it was also important to me to create a little balance – the smugglers were not always the villains, of course – much of the smuggling took place because of genuine need and poverty. I invented Old Finlay and his granddaughter so that their perspective could also be included.

I pitched the book to my publishers. They loved the idea, thankfully, but offered me some unexpected advice.

‘Barbara, schools only do this for a couple of weeks in January. They start after Christmas and they finish on Burns Day, the 25th of January. You need to give them something that they can read in that time. Not a novel – a novella.’

Nothing for it. I cut my proposed manuscript by two thirds. 

Barbara finishing her Black Water manuscript by the Solway Firth

The result is the smuggling novella Black Water. It’s a  story of sea and smuggling, of quicksand, cannon fire, musketry and bravery, but of poetry too.

 Anyone who thinks that learning about Robert Burns is boring would be wise to take another look.


Extract from the Cranachan's (Barbara's publisher) catalogue 





Thursday 13 January 2022

Here be dragons! - by Ally Sherrick

I do like a good dragon! The fearsome, treasure-loving Smaug in The Hobbit has got to be one of the best ever. His creator, the celebrated writer and Oxford Professor of Anglo-Saxon, J.R.R. Tolkien modelled him on the vengeful, treasure-hoarding dragon in the epic Old English poem, Beowulf which the legendary monster-slayer and hero must face in the final, epic battle of his life.

The fire-breathing Smaug from ‘The Hobbit’ by J.R.R Tokien,
in an illustration by the author. Can you spot Tolkien’s hobbit hero,
Bilbo Baggins bravely doffing his cap to him?
(Authors own photo of postcard)

My own wartime adventure, The Buried Crown has a dragon or two in it too. The book tells the story of two brave children – London evacuee, George Penny and German Jewish refugee, Kitty Regenbogen – who get caught up in a desperate race against time to find and rescue a priceless piece of Anglo-Saxon treasure before a bunch of Nazi treasure-thieves can get their hands on it in a bid to change the course of the war.


It was inspired by the discovery of the now famous Anglo-Saxon Sutton Hoo Ship Burial treasure in the summer of 1939, a few weeks before the outbreak of war. Excavating at a site just outside the town of Woodbridge in Suffolk, archaeologists unearthed the remains of what turned out to be an early 7th century long-ship buried deep beneath the largest of a series of ancient burial mounds belonging to local woman, Edith Pretty.  

The archaeological excavation of the largest burial mound at Sutton Hoo
revealed the impression of a ghostly ship the length
of two double-decker buses
(Author’s own photo of postcard)

Though the timbers of the ship itself had rotted way to leave nothing but a ghostly imprint and lines of rusty rivets in the soil, a wooden shelter inside contained goods which ranged from humble domestic objects such as cups, bowls and spoons, to weaponry and gorgeous items of treasure including a purse filled with gold coins, a great golden belt buckle and a magnificent helmet. At the time it was described as the British equivalent of the celebrated Tutankhamun discovery and remains one of the richest archaeological finds in Northern Europe.

Following decades of research by archaeologists and historians, the most widely-held belief today is that the ship was the burial site of the pagan ruler, Redwald, King of the East Angles and High King of Britain and that the goods it contained were intended for use by the king in the afterlife.

One of the many fascinating things about the treasure is the appearance on some of the most precious items, including the famous Sutton Hoo helmet, shield and sword-belt, of dragons. These are very stylised and not at all like the modern idea of dragons as depicted in the movie version of The Hobbit and HBO’s Game of Thrones. But, if you know how to look, they will reveal themselves to you, emerging as creatures with red garnet eyes, beak-like faces and wings either tucked along the length of their body or spread wide, as in the case of the helmet, to form the eyebrows of its awe-inspiring, mask-like face. They are also a part of the celebrated animal interlacing – a trademark feature of much Anglo-Saxon art – and of which the priceless Sutton Hoo belt buckle is a stunning example.


Shield boss – Replica of the boss from the king’s shield ringed
by a circle of ‘beaked’ dragons heads with red garnet eyes
(Author’s own photo)

Gold and garnet dragon - This highly stylised dragon is one of the shield
mounts and features a fearsome set of spiked jaw, a red garnet eye
and a line of ‘winglets’ fringing both sides of its body.
(Author’s own photo)

Replica of the famous Sutton Hoo helmet -
Can you spot the dragons?
(Author’s own photo)

The Anglo-Saxons loved – or perhaps I should say lived in dread – of dragons. They believed there were two types. ‘Drakes’, who breathed fire and could fly like Tolkein’s Smaug, and wingless ‘wyrms’ who slithered across the landscape like giant reptiles. The creatures lived inside burial mounds like the ones King Redwald’s ship was discovered beneath at Sutton Hoo, and guarded the treasure buried inside them, exacting the most dreadful revenge on anyone who dared try and steal it away from them.


Beware a burial mound like this one at Sutton Hoo – it might be the home of a dragon!
(Photo used by kind permission of The National Trust)

This idea of an ancient and angry treasure-guardian, so powerfully depicted in the Anglo-Saxon epic poem, Beowulf, provided the inspiration for my own ‘story within a story’ in The Buried Crown. Known as The Legend of the Dragon-Headed Crown, it became the ‘foundation myth’ for the magic which leaks into the world of my heroes, George and Kitty as the story progresses.

And the dragons depicted on the treasures at Sutton Hoo – perhaps as protection against thieves? –  gave rise to my own piece of dragon treasure which – spoiler alert! – might just have special powers of its own.

You can visit the real-life treasures found at Sutton Hoo in the Early British Medieval Galleries at the British Museum in London. Or if you can’t make it there in person, check them out on the excellent museum website. And if want to visit the site of the excavations at Sutton Hoo, view the burial mound field and see more exhibits on the treasures and the life and times of the Anglo-Saxons who made and buried them there, why not take a trip to Sutton Hoo itself, now in the property of the National Trust.

Writing prompt

Take a look at dragons in other cultures – either writings or images; historical or modern. How might their depiction inspire you to create a dragon of your own? What might you borrow and what would you discard? What is their purpose, their power, their name? Happy dragon-hunting! 

Ally Sherrick is the author of books full of history, mystery and adventure including Black Powder, winner of the Historical Association’s Young Quills Award 2017, The Buried Crown and Tudor-Set adventure, The Queen’s Fool. She is published by Chicken House Books and her books are widely available in bookshops and online. You can find out more about her and her books at and follow her on Twitter: @ally_sherrick


Your sister, brother, mother and grandmother have confessed to witchcraft - and you must give evidence against them! That's what happene...