Authors’ challenge to ‘Do a Dickens’

120319-304_LITERATURE_QUIZ_SR_27/1/12'Authors Andy Briggs qnd Ali Sparkes at the Portsmouth Secondary Schools Literature Quiz in the Victory Suite at Fratton Park..''Picture:Stev Reid (120319-304)
120319-304_LITERATURE_QUIZ_SR_27/1/12'Authors Andy Briggs qnd Ali Sparkes at the Portsmouth Secondary Schools Literature Quiz in the Victory Suite at Fratton Park..''Picture:Stev Reid (120319-304)
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The News launches an exciting writing competition with six great openings from top writers

SIX award-winning authors are challenging schoolchildren to follow in the steps of Portsmouth’s most famous son, Charles Dickens.

Ali Sparkes, Sophie McKenzie, Steve Cole, Mark Robson, Guy Bass and Andy Briggs have written gripping opening paragraphs set in the Victorian age for our Do A Dickens short story competition.

From deformed creatures and menacing marshes to wacky inventors and destitute children – youngsters will be spoilt for choice when they decide which opener to kick-start their 1,000 word piece.

This competition forms part of our Read All About It campaign to boost reading across the region.

And prizes don’t get much better. The overall winners for primary and secondary school categories will have their story published in The News and read out loud on our website by the author whose paragraph they select.

Steve Cole, author of The Astrosaurs, said: ‘I’m looking to be wowed by the unexpected with lots of imagination, chills and thrills.

‘How very apt and lovely it would be for a modern-day Dickens to emerge from Portsmouth!’

Andy Briggs, who created the series, said: ‘I love a cracking Victorian ghost story, and hope they will be inspired to create something that is not only spine- tingling, but also original and unexpected.’

Ali Sparkes, who penned the Shapeshifter series, said: ‘I’d like to see something original – something that will keep me gripped and give me a real flavour of the time.

‘Dickens was fantastic at conveying an amazing amount of information wrapped up in fabulous description. It’s a hard act to follow!’

Mark Robson, who wrote the highly acclaimed Darkweaver Legacy, suggests experimenting with the ‘steampunk’ genre which mixes up historical periods.

He said: ‘I bet Dickens would have loved that! I’d like to see the young writers step into the story and become a part of it.’

Guy Bass, who has twice won the Portsmouth Book Awards for his Dinkin Dings series, is looking for the surprise element. He said: ‘It’s exciting when a story takes you in a direction you don’t expect.’

Sophie McKenzie, multi-award winning author of Girl, Missing and Blood Ties, added: ‘This is a wonderful opportunity to get children thinking about stories.

‘Dickens was a master storyteller and through his stories he tried to highlight things that were wrong in the society he lived in.

‘I hope children have fun with this. They might want to think about injecting as much drama into the situation as possible but keeping it realistic – I’d avoid aliens!’


EDWARD knew he’d made a deadly mistake as soon as he felt the cold sucking at his feet. It was so insistent he could feel it even through the battered leather of his boots.

The lamps along Albert Road were dim, sputtering, all but out of gas so far past midnight. It was hard to see - but even so, he should have known better.

Maybe if his nose hadn’t been stuffed up with cold he would have smelt it.

Maybe if he hadn’t been so scared of getting caught with a stolen bag of bread he would have slowed down before he was off the firm ground.

Maybe God was punishing him for his theft.

He’d stumbled into the Great Morass. Already he was sinking; thick dark water pouring eagerly into his boots, licking at his toes like a hungry animal.

The marsh was about to eat him alive.


THERE is no more a sorrowful place than a workhouse full of half-famished labourers crushing bones for the purposes of fertilizer, save that same woeful place held in the grip of night.

Picture such a grim edifice on the banks of Fareham Lake; the deathly quiet punctuated by the screams of a poor wretch giving birth in the darkest corner. But what came forth was no recognisable child, but an eyeless deformity with skin purer than snow. As its mother died, the ungodly creation crawled betwixt the floorboards lest it be discovered, where it fed on a diet of rat and beetle.

That was the yarn I heard while purchasing the said building after it was condemned following the damming investigation into conditions there. I now fervently wish I had paid more heed to rumour from the outset, then, perhaps, this terrible tale would never have transpired.


I THOUGHT the man was just a hat, at first.

Me and my brother were skimming stones when we saw it. I’ve seen all sorts wash up on Southsea beach. Shoes and fish and a dog. But I’ve never seen a hat, and not attached to a man, and not a man walking out of the sea like he’s out for a stroll.

‘You all right, mister?’ My brother asked.

The man was thin like he wasn’t well, but dressed in top hat and tailcoat that was drenched and covered in weeds and barnacles and starfish.

The man opened his mouth and water poured out, a gallon at least. Then he looked me in the eye.

‘Pray, what is the year?’ he asked.

‘You mean, what’s the time?’ my brother said.

‘I mean year, as I asked.’

‘1848,’ I said.

The man took off his hat then, ever so slowly.

‘Then I’m too late,’ he said. ‘They’re already here.’


‘WHAT was so exciting about a tiny bit of paper?’ Henry grumbled as Archie led him round the house and into the back garden.

‘That wasn’t just any bit of paper, Henry,’ Archie enthused.

‘Father says the Penny Black is going to revolutionise the postal service.’

‘Well, he would, wouldn’t he? He’s a postman!’

‘And an inventor,’ Archie added. ‘We’re living in the age of invention, Henry. Can’t you smell the adventure in the air?’

Archie lifted his nose and sniffed as if to prove a point. All Henry could smell was the noxious whiff of a stale chamber pot.

‘Father will be famous,’ Archie bubbled, leading Henry towards his father’s workshop. ‘You’ll see.’

Henry nodded, realising it was easiest to humour him.

It was true – invention was all the rage, but Archie had invention fever worse than most.

What monstrosity was lurking in the shed this time, he wondered?


THE sky was wild above Portsmouth Harbour, dark clouds blown by like dirty washing torn from a giant’s clothesline.

The vast, ironclad bulk of HMS Warrior loomed over me; the largest warship in the world, she had made her old wooden sisters in the fleet obsolete overnight.

Heavier, metal-hulled craft would join the ranks in 1862 – and deeper channels were needed in the harbour to stop them running aground.

I loved to watch the excavation work each morning, eyeing the dredging buckets as they rose from the depths on thick chains, weighed down with sticky clay scraped from the harbour floor.

Then, in one such bucket, I saw a human skull.

Its dark sockets stared out balefully at those who’d disturbed its resting place.

A skeletal finger curled out from the mud, showing a glowing blue ring.

And suddenly that fleshless finger began to twitch and beckon…


LILIAN walked into the bakery.

The smell of fresh bread nearly made her faint she was so hungry.

This was the fourth bakery she had tried and she had to leave with something.

The baker was a tall man with greasy hair and a stained white apron. He glared at Lilian. ‘Yes?’

Lilian gulped. Until last year she’d never had to beg, but then Father had died and Mother had been forced to work all hours as a seamstress.

Now Mother was sick it was up to Lilian, the eldest of six, to feed her whole family.

The wooden shelves groaned with pastries and cakes.

‘Please, sir,’ she said. ‘Might you spare some stale bread?’

The baker’s eyes narrowed. He looked at her shabby pinafore, faded from too many washes.

‘Can you pay?’ he barked.

Lilian’s face flushed. ‘No, sir,’ she said.

‘Then get out!’

Now what was Lilian to do?


SELECT one of our six authors’ opening paragraphs to write a short story with a maximum of 1,000 words (including the opening).

Submit your story by July 1 in a Word document via email:

Provide us with your full name, age, school and a contact number (parents or school).

Entries will be judged in two categories – primary and secondary school age.