Why do you do scary books?

I love receiving letters from readers – recently I heard from Chatterbooks at Sherborne Library and it was great to hear from them. They asked about why I chose to write stories set on Portland, why the first book is based on a sea monster and why do I write scary books??

Great questions! Here is the reply:-

I started writing The Portland Sea Dragon a year or two after moving to Portland. I found it such an intriguing place to live. Having grown up in Hampshire, I found it fascinating to live somewhere that had castles and a lighthouse, as well as a long and interesting history. My children were very young when I started writing; they would ask me to make up stories at bedtime about Portland, and from this point my stories and characters started to take on a life of their own.

The sea monster is based on a local legend: – the Chesil Beach Sea Monster or Veasta is Dorset’s answer to the Loch Ness Monster. It has a fish’s tail and the head of a sea horse and has been seen across the centuries emerging from the sea by Chesil Beach, which connects Portland to the mainland. Having also read about a Pliosaur discovery on the Dorset coast (a huge, fearsome sea monster with rows of very sharp teeth!), I came up with the idea of a sea dragon. My dragon is a gentle, misunderstood creature, very ancient and mysterious. My favourite part of the story is when Isabel gets to ride with the sea dragon. What an amazing experience!

I love scary books – the more witches, dragons and monsters, the better! My scariest villain appears in the fourth book of the series, The Portland Giant – a headless horseman. As this story is set in the week leading up to Halloween, I felt that this was a good excuse to create lots of ghosts and dark shady characters to cause trouble for Isabel and her annoying little sister, Suzie.

 

How to begin…

I was asked recently about exactly how and where I begin writing a new story. I always begin with character and a sense of a voice. It can almost be as clear as hearing someone talking! And I start writing from this voice, listening to what he or she has to say. As I write I start to evolve a picture in my mind of what the character looks like and the situation that they are in – often a feeling of crisis and/or personal conflict emerges here –  and this drives the story forwards.

It takes me quite a while to develop a new story as I need to get to know my new characters and, as I like to write with a fantasy theme, I have to work out how their reality intersects with a fantasy world. I often find that a feeling of comedy or humour comes from the characters themselves, often from the fact that they cannot see aspects of their own personalities that are nonetheless clear to others!

 

Writing and astrology

Being a typical Capricorn, an earth sign, I write from a sense of place and landscape. I live by Chesil Beach, close to the extraordinary Isle of Portland, and I write looking across the sea. There are big skies, swathes of turquoise water, tides that rise and fall and, as dusk draws in, a thin delicate moon. Night falls, and Portland is covered in sparkling lights. I also write with a strong, Capricornian sense of structure, a feeling for beginning, middle and end. I research the background to my stories. I draw on history and folklore. I work from the ground up.

My Aquarian rising sign is the wacky, impulsive reckless part. A wacky sense of humour can often derail a scene. Inventiveness can take me outside of any recognisable novel genre into the outer cosmos, where no reader has ever been before, and by and large does not wish to go. I try to confine my Aquarius aspect to plot twists, and the occasional poem.

The moon in Pisces brings imagination, dreams, and a disconnect from reality. This is useful as a writer, less so in other aspects of life; I’m far too busy writing a story or a poem to go shopping for food! There are visions, magical pieces of synchronicity and the ever lurking possibility of lunacy; in a ‘Victorian lady in a lacy nightdress who never gets out of bed’ kind of way.

The Portland Giant

The Portland Giant was launched in December. I spent the best part of a week dressed as a tree spirit (any excuse really) and waylaid folk at the Royal Manor Theatre as well as at the Saturday event at White Stones cafe in Easton.?????????? Thanks to designer Lea Jackopson for the great costume.

Ghosts and Giants

An article for the Wyke Register, December 2012:-

The final book of The Portland Chronicles, a series of time travelling stories for children, takes place during the autumn, a season of mists and long dark nights that lends itself to ghosts and supernatural encounters. In The Portland Giant, Isabel’s best friend points out, ‘You’re a witchy family. Your mum’s got red hair. Your sister’s a pumpkin.’ The reluctant young witch encounters several ghosts during the adventure, whilst also trying to evade an angry local giant. For this story, I delve into the midnight world of Dorset ghosts and explore the fascinating local links to giants.

Isabel’s most challenging ghostly encounter in The Portland Giant is a headless horseman, inspired by a headless rider who is sometimes seen galloping along the ramparts of the Verne at dusk, a dark, fleeting figure. Headless horsemen are ‘rural ghosts’, phantoms who make an appearance riding across the ancient countryside of Dorset. In fact, England’s oldest ghost is the Bronze Age horseman at Sixpenny Handley, who has been seen riding a small horse and wearing a long flowing cloak, and brandishing a sword. This horseman was spotted by an archaeologist working on a site nearby, who was able to suggest the probable era of the ghost. For my story, I link the archetypal phantom rider to the underworld of dark island caves, where he lurks until he is summoned from the depths by a mermaid.

Another intriguing rural ghost and source of inspiration is the ‘White Lady’. This white-gowned phantom makes nocturnal appearances around Dorset, appearing near old gates, bridges or crossroads. A drifting headless Lady in a long white gown has been seen several times over the years at Corfe Castle. For my story, I imagine a White Lady appearing from a rock pool, swathed in a watery gown, to warn Isabel that the island giant is looking for her.

Portland Castle is a great place for ghost hunting. The Tudor castle is apparently haunted by a sweetly scented Lavender Lady and a troop of Civil War soldiers. Other impatient ghosts have been reported pushing past visitors to run up and down the winding stairwells. A ghostly black dog has been seen running across the gardens and is an interesting addition to the human ghosts. Phantom hounds are sometimes associated with Dorset graveyards and crossroads. On Portland, there is the legendary Roy Dog, who haunts Cave Hole at the Bill, and the Row Dog who runs along island paths and has even been seen recently near Chesil Beach. Enchantment of the Black Dog (Book 2 in the series) draws on my research into this spooky hound.

A ghostly cavalier and highwayman in The Portland Giant are drawn from local ghost stories. A phantom 18th century highwayman in a black cloak and tricorn hat visits the Crown Hotel in Blandford, once a coaching inn. He was shot in the courtyard while attempting to rob the Hotel.  A cavalier ghost was seen at Corfe Castle by a local fisherman, who was collecting worms for bait late at night. He saw a tall figure in a long cloak with a high collar and a floppy-brimmed cavalier hat. Other villagers have reported hearing a nearby gate open and close when no one is there.

For ghostly Romans soldiers, I looked for inspiration to the stories from Lulworth Cove of a legion of phantom soldiers seen marching nearby, and at the ghostly Roman soldiers that appear at Ridgeway Hill near Upwey. In The Portland Giant, I locate Roman ghosts at the Verne, a place occupied by Romans after General Vespasian conquered Dorset two millennia ago.

Like ghosts, giants are an intriguing part of Dorset folklore. For my giant research, I set out first to the ‘Giant’s Head’ in the east cliffs below the Grove. A sombre rocky face with deep-set eyes and heavy brows stares from the cliffs across the sea, like a statue of an ancient Pharaoh. There is some debate over whether this face is an accident of nature or was deliberately carved into the rock many years ago. I also walked across the Verne, thinking about the mysterious, tall stone-slinging people who once lived there and kept invaders away from the island with their stone-throwing prowess. A little further afield, the Cerne Abbas giant is our most famous Dorset giant. According to legend, he was a Viking giant who fell asleep on the hill, exhausted after killing several villagers. After slaying the giant, locals dug a chalk outline around him as a warning to fend off any further giant attacks.

During my giant research, I also walked around King Barrow Quarry on Portland. Left to regenerate for a hundred years, the quarry is full of wild flowers and butterflies, a great setting for a giant in a story, and I found myself wondering about the identity of the ‘King’ buried in the Barrow… Could he too have been a giant?

Giants! for the Free Portland News

Here is the short article on Giant research that I wrote for the local newspaper, The Free Portland News:-

For the final book in The Portland Chronicles, I decided to write about our very own Portland giant. The biggest ‘clue’ to local giants is the Giant’s Head in the east cliffs below the Grove. A sombre rocky face with deep-set eyes under heavy brows stares across the sea, like an ancient Pharaoh. I also walked around the Verne, thinking about the mysterious, tall stone-slinging people who once lived there and kept invaders away from the island.
Giants in myth and legend are intriguing too. They are wise, but famously grumpy: – Fe Fi Fo Fum, snarled the giant in the ancient saga of Jack and the Beanstalk. Giants are part of the West Country landscape, often linked by old stories to ancient landmarks, barrows, stones and hills. They are magical but clumsy: – an island appeared because a giant dropped earth from his apron; a hill arose because a giant kicked a pebble with his shoe.
During my giant research, I also walked around King Barrow Quarry. Left to regenerate for a hundred years, the quarry is full of wild flowers and butterflies, a great setting for a story. I found myself wondering about the identity of the King buried there… Could he have been a giant?

The difficulties of writing a new novel:-

Trying to avoid stories about wizards, dragons and ghosts.

The weather – it’s windy outside and I can’t concentrate. Now, what shall I call this wizard? Harry? Oh dear. DELETE. And the dragon.

What’s in the newspaper today? Ooh, a crossword. Excellent.

Another cup of tea.

I seem to be rewriting the plot of Merlin.

Why do all the characters in the TV show look like a boy band circa 1995?

I’m sure Arthur would have a beard.

DELETE.

Cake to go with the tea.

And a biscuit.

Perhaps my new story needs a ghost. A ghost dragon!

It’s lunchtime already.

Busy, busy.

Latest Giant news

The Portland Giant is in the final stages of editing and will be available soon:-

‘You’re a witchy family. Your mum’s got red hair. Your sister’s a pumpkin,’ says Noah, a keen Dragoneer and Isabel Maydew’s friend. But the local elves think Isabel isn’t a proper witch, even when she encounters a ghostly highwayman, a headless horseman and the keeper of the lost Vindelis lighthouse. Her interfering little sister Suzie is keen to find the Portland Giant, but Isabel is worried. What will a giant think of the quarries, the boats in the harbour and the modern roads that criss-cross the island, and of Isabel herself, the reluctant island witch?

In the final book of the Chronicles, Isabel finally discovers the greatest secret of the mysterious Isle of Portland.

Talking about Giants

Off to meet Julie from Roving Press today. We are discussing the final book in the Portland Chronicles, about the local giant! Researching the book has been fascinating. Legends about giants are widespread along the south coast of England – and the Portland Giant mythology has been explored by Gary Biltcliffe in his book The Spirit of Portland. I have also delved into the paranormal world of the rural ghost in this book, including various local spirits in the story; a headless horseman, a cavalier and a highwayman, all of whom obstruct the plot in some way or another…