Sunday, 5 September 2010

Climb not

One of the most common questions a writer gets asked is 'Where do you get your ideas from?' Sometimes there is a clear answer to this question and sometimes not. The fact is that writers absorb the same fairly random cocktail of news, stories, movies and so on as everyone else, and have similar trials and tribulations, triumphs and tragedies, in their own personal lives.

The only real difference is that writers are given to dramatising (or over-dramatising) their personal lives and that a writer's reading and viewing may (though not always!) be more selective, with a particular project in mind, and that a writer has the ability to process all this information and make new sense of it. All art (writing, painting, photography, film-making) is about editing. It's as much about what you discard as about what you collect.

I wrote Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror after writing quite a lot of historical fiction (and non-fiction). I wrote historical fiction because that is what I enjoyed writers of historical fiction as a child - Rosemary Sutcliff, Henry Treece, Leon Garfield and so on. On the face of it the switch to writing horror looks like a change of direction, but that is not strictly true.

In fact many of the books I have written have an element of horror in them. My Tom Marlowe series for Random House - Death and the Arrow, The White Rider and Redwulf's Curse - all have a kind of Gothic aspect to the story. In fact had they been marketed as supernatural thrillers rather than historical adventures, they may have sold more copies. Even in my non-fiction output, I wrote a book called Witch Hunt about the Salem witch trials. I have always had a love of strange tales of one kind or another.

Long before I had anything published for children, I kept notebooks in which I would sketch out the plots of short stories - stories of a macabre bent. I was - and still am - an avid reader of this kind of story. There is a rich tradition of this kind of fiction in the British Isles (although not in any way confined to these shores) and it always felt very natural to me. Some of the stories I mapped out in those notebooks would find themselves in the Tales of Terror series.

Enjoying macabre stories is one thing - writing them is something else. I was determined right from the start that I did not want to write obvious horror - a story in which horror is the punchline. That kind of horror has its place, just as slapstick has its place - but for me it is more satisfying as a cinematic type of horror.

But I still wanted my stories to be scary.

An obvious place to start seemed to be with my own fears. Climb Not - the first story in Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror - plays on my fear of heights. It would certainly be a nightmare scenario for me, to be at the top of a very high tree and to be pursued with nowhere to go. . .

As I mentioned in my previous post, another inspiration for Climb Not was M R James' story, The Ash Tree. When I wrote Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror we were living in Norfolk and we had a very old ash tree at the back of the house - one that had a mysterious hole in it. The tree had been pollarded and so it's branches did not touch the house, as in M R James' story. Thank goodness.

We were also lucky enough to have a giant elm tree standing over the boundary wall that ran along our drive. Its crown used to shake like a lion's mane and it sounded like the ocean on windy nights. On still nights owls would screech from its branches.

The idea of objects being hammered into the bark came from a half-remembered documentary about this being done in Ireland to ancient, sacred trees. On our recent visit to Wales, we visited Portmeirion and saw trees with coins hammered into the bark. These were clearly not ancient, but it was still fantastic to see.


  1. Hi Chris
    Coincidentally, I recently came across coins hammered into a tree in woods near Hillsborough, Sheffield. Like yours in Wales, these weren't old coins. I like to think that over the years the tree's bark will grow over and envelop the coins...

    I really loved 'Climb Not'. I think a lot of what I loved about it was the not-knowing exactly what it was that 'haunted' the tree, just suggestions of what it could be...

    I was quite surprised when I read this one (it's the first isn't it?) that there is a death, it being a children's book (the fact that I read children's books means nothing, I am a great big kid!), but thinking back, I would have liked it as a child too. I LOVED scary stories when I was little, and the scarier the better. For me, it's a place to escape to.
    best wishes

  2. There's the outline of an interesting book here with these coin-studded trees. Glad you liked the story.

    I remember reading that one to a group of children and a girl came up to me afterwards and asked if the boy had died at the end. I think it was more a statement of surprise. Children have been trained to expect that the main character will escape. One of the many great things about writing short stories is that you can kill your main protagonist. In a novel, this is unlikely to be the case.

    But in a short story anything can happen.