Scully Ashes by Susan Price


 Scully Ashes and the Highwayman

 A couple of weeks ago, I finally published Scully Ashes and the Highwayman and Other Stories.

The book began, before lockdown, with a publisher's brief. They wanted a book, so many words long, for children aged roughly 8-10. But, specifically, they did not want the entire story spelled out in the text.

To test and develope children's comprehension of a piece of writing, some aspects of the story were to be unmentioned, so the readers had to work out for themselves what exactly had happened. Usual in writing for adults, but not so much for 8-10.

Not the easiest of briefs, I thought.

Aynock and Ayli

The Black Country
An idea for one story came to me immediately. I come from the Black Country and, growing
up there, was often told 'Aynock and Ayli' stories. This is the Black Country pronunciation of 'Enoch and Eli' which were once typical Black Country 'chapel' names. The stories were of a kind which were -- probably still are -- told all over the country, though the characters will have different, local names. In the tale I remembered Aynock and Ayli bought a horse each (in this story they were being rag and bone men.)

They were to keep the horses in the same field and fall into a long wrangle about how to tell which horse belongs to who. Neither of them wants to feed the other's horse by mistake or find that their horse has been tired out by working for the other man.

Paint their initials on them? -- But they have the same initial. Paint a dot on one and a cross on the other? -- But the horses will quickly rub the paint off, or the rain will wash it off.

Tie different coloured ribbons in their manes? -- But the ribbons will be tugged off in hedges. Crop the mane and tail of one? -- But they'll grow again.

The argument goes on and on. Then, one day, as they lean on the field gate, a revelation strikes Aynoch. "We be a right pair of noggin-yeds," he says. "It's easy to tell 'em apart!" Ayli is still puzzled. "Use your eyes!" says Aynoch. "One's  much bigger than the other!"

"Which one?" says Ayli.

"Which one, which one? Look at 'em!" says Aynoch. "Anybody can see the white un's a lot bigger than the black un!"

 I thought this story fitted the bill because I distinctly remember that, when I was first told the story, I struggled to understand the joke. But I was about nine at the time. I was a little taken aback when one of the reasons the publisher turned it down was 'we don't quite understand why they couldn't tell the horses apart.'

Well, exactly.

I told the publisher that I'd always understood the story as a comment on the human ability to utterly miss the point, to complicate things, and to be blind to the obvious right under their nose.

At nine, when I finally understood the joke, I remember being pleased because it exposed adults as very stupid. Always a plus point for a child.

In Scully, I don't tell it as a Black Country story. Instead, it's about a brother and sister who farm together but are always quarrelling. 

The illustrations are by Andrew Price. 

The Old Woman

There are three stories in the book. 'The Old Woman and the Thieves' is another old story,  retold as seemed good to me.

"That's my house at the edge of the village. The old stone place with the thatched roof and the little vegetable garden. Nanny lives with me.

I like the garden. There are rats in the compost heap. Catching them keeps me busy. I like the cottage doorstep too. It's warm in the sun. I like to sleep there after I've done with the rats..."

 The unspoken element in this story lies in what the thieves overhear the old woman saying. Thinking she's gone to bed, they climb on her roof, meaning to slip down the wide chimney into her kitchen and steal the fortune they believe she has hidden about the place.

But the old woman hasn't gone to bed. She's frying the kippers she intends to share with her cat and, since she talks to everything -- her cat, doors, the fire, trees, etc -- she also talks to her frying pan and the fish. "Oh, I see you there!" she says to the first kipper. "You're a fine one! I'm going to roast you and toast you and eat you all up!"

Tom, Dick and Harry, the villains of the piece  
 The thieves, who already half-believe she's a witch, think that supernatural powers have revealed to her that they're lurking outside and that she intends to turn cannibal. They run away in a panic. (But this isn't stated as plainly in the story as it is here.)

The cat observes all and even applies a little pressure to the villains at the end, persuading them that they'd be happier living elsewhere. But he assures us that Nanny is not a witch and he is not a witch's cat.

After all, he would know.




 I didn't use an Amazon template for this book. I made the size 8x8 and made each page in Photoshop, which enabled me to put the pictures and text where I liked without having to grapple with Word thinking it knows better. For instance, this double page with the cat anticipating his kipper.

I turned the pages into jpegs and inserted them into an 8x8 Word file, which I then turned into a PDF and loaded up to KDP. I'm sure there are simpler and quicker ways of doing it, but I already had the software to do it like this and, as me old Dad often said, the quickest way to a place is the way you already know well.

Scully Ashes

The final and longest story is the one I've called 'Scully Ashes and the Highwayman.' I discovered it in K. M. Briggs' invaluable 'Dictionary of Folklore in the English Language.' The story as she gives it was collected in Australia but seemed to me to carry echoes of a tale that began in Scotland -- the Scottish diaspora, after all, carried Scottish stories all over the world.

So I set it in Scotland. Well, in my mind, it's Scotland. I don't think I actually name the setting anywhere. I changed a lot of other things about the story too but, in essence, it's a David and Goliath story: a small, weak but clever person outwits someone much more powerful.

Scully cleans a cauldron
Scully's full name is 'Scullery' because she was abandoned, as a baby, outside the scullery of 'the Old Man's' grand house. She acquires the name 'Ashes' because she sleeps on the floor of the kitchen, in the warm ashes of the fire, as servants used to do. So, like Cinderella, she is always filthy with soot and ashes. (Cinderella's original French name, Cendrillon, means 'Little Ashes' not cinders. Like Cinder's 'glass' slipper, it was mistranslated.) So I suppose Scully is a Cinderella story too.

The Old Man's remote home is a small town in itself, with stables, kennels, a dairy, a brewery, cattle-sheds, hen-houses... There are a great many servants and, once or twice a year, messengers are sent to town, via long, lonely roads, to collect a great deal of money from the bank, to pay the servants' wages. 

But a highwayman begins to rob travellers on the road and none of the servants are willing to risk meeting him. Until Scully -- 'the lowest servant...the kitchen skivvy who does all the hardest, dirtiest jobs...' volunteers to go. She convinces the Old Man to allow it by telling him how she plans to outwit the highwayman. But the reader isn't let in on the plan.

Is it giving away too much of the story to say that Scully meets the highwayman and is robbed at pistol-point of her bulging, jingling saddle-bags -- and yet manages to deliver all the wages money for her fellow servants? How does she do it? -- The reader is given the clues to the trick but the 'how' isn't explained until near the end of the story.

I finish with a story-teller's rhyme, which I liked...

This tale here told, how it's sped by,

And every word of it made up and a lie.

But like all honest tales (there's no shortage of proof)

By telling you lies, it told you the truth.

What it is that's 'true' about Scully's tale, the readers must puzzle out for themselves.
As Christmas is coming, I shall just mention in passing that I've published several books for the 8-10 age group.  

Tales of the Underworld, Super Scientists and Saving the Ice Bear are all in print at the moment with 'conventional' publishers. The others all have been published mainstream, originally, but are now self-published. All except Scully, which went straight to KDP.

Follow this link to my website for more information about these books.


Peter Leyland said…
Well I wouldn't have known Susan that such a lot of planning and execution has to go into writing a book for children, but I'm sure it's true of many books. Well done and I hope it's a success.
Sandra Horn said…
You always create such engaging plots and characters with unexpected bends in the paths to keep readers intrigued and entertained.I enjoyed this bit of insight into the process! (not the techie stuff (blimey!) but the story-making.
Susan Price said…
Thank you, both. But Peter, is your comment about the planning and execution of children's books tongue-in-cheek? I certainly hope so...
Jan Needle said…
Can anyone confirm for me that the original glass slipper, talking of misunderstandings, was made not of verre, but of vair? So it was not glass, but fur. No wonder he was so keen to find it!
This looks like an excellent book - personally I have always liked stories where you have to work things out for yourself. I used to enjoy reading series in the wrong order from an early age!
Susan Price said…
Thanks Cecilia -- and Jan, yes, in the original French story, the slipper was of fur. Very Freudian. But the mistranslation to glass has been a big hit -- and since it's all about whether the slipper fits or not, it works well. Imagine those toes all crushed up against the glass.
Peter Leyland said…
Just massively impressed by the amount of creativity that's gone into producing it. I'll be looking at the website...

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