Sunday, 5 September 2010
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.