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What makes a place feel like home?

I spend a lot of time preparing a good foundation for a story. For The Sand Dog I watched wildlife programmes, read news stories and spoke to people, including a sea captain and dog rescuers, who could fill in the gaps in my own experience and give me a better understanding. I dived into memories of my dad who lived in Cyprus and his best friend who was an Armenian refugee.

I remembered our family seaside holidays spent in Cornwall. My brother, sister and I would play in the waves and make sandcastles on the beach. I’d roam the tideline and put anything interesting in a bucket filled with seawater to make a kind of aquarium. At the end of the day, we’d either kick the sandcastles down or watch them softly collapse as the sea washed the beach clean, and I’d pour the contents of the bucket back into the sea. The next day I’d collect for a new aquarium and we’d build again, bigger and better, shaping whole cities out of sand.

I thought about the miniature worlds we created on the beach, how perfect they seemed, and the fact that they were only ours for a day. It reminded me of the Greek myth about a city called Atlantis which was supposed to have been a kind of Paradise but ended up at war before an earthquake finally swallowed it and all its people whole. Today people believe Atlantis was a real place and are still searching for it at the bottom of the ocean.

 The Sand Dog is the story that came out of considering all these things and grew as I asked myself a lot of questions to try to understand more:

  • What belongs to me?
  • What do I belong to?
  • What does this sense of belonging feel like?
  • Would I still feel a sense of belonging if any of these things were gone?
  • What is it like feeling that you don’t belong?
  • What makes a place feel like home?

The Sand Dog starts with Azi finding objects on the beach where he lives, including a dog that doesn’t belong there. My idea for a story starter for you is to write about this sense of belonging or not belonging. You could prepare by asking the same questions that I did. Talk with others and share your answers, including any experiences. Make some notes about your investigation to give you a good foundation for writing a short story…

Imagine a character (it can be you) who lives near the sea where the town has been destroyed and left in ruins. Contrast how things used to be and what remains. Describe using all the senses and feelings. Then imagine they find an animal. How can they rebuild a sense of belonging that gives hope for the future?

Here’s an example: Your character belongs to a football team but the school and pitch has been destroyed by bombs. What difference would it make to the players, spectators or anyone else involved? They find a dog and caring for it shows them that they still have a sense of belonging. Could the footballers still be a team? Could they reinvent a game of football in the rubble?

Sarah Lean grew up in Wells, Somerset but now lives in Dorset with her husband, son and dog. She has worked as a page-planner for a newspaper, a stencil-maker and a gardener, amongst various other things. She gained a first class English degree and became a primary school teacher before returning to complete an MA in Creative and Critical Writing at the University of Winchester. A Dog Called Homeless was her first novel.

The Sand Dog is published by HarperCollins Children’s on 31st May 2018.