September 13, 2015

Yes, really, a haunted castle . . .

This week I'm getting ready for two wonderful Canadian fall literary festivals — Thin Air in Winnipeg and Wordfest in Calgary. I'll be talking to kids at both about my new book, Seven Dead Pirates.

Kids love to hear where you got your ideas. As Seven Dead Pirates is a ghost story, I have decided to tell them the true story of — cue creepy organ music — my night in a haunted castle.

It happened long ago when I was backpacking in Europe with my friend Gloria and staying in youth hostels. Most hostels at the time were neglected historical buildings, converted as spartanly as possible into bleak-but-cheap accommodations.  My friend Gloria and I searched them out as we hitchhiked around northern Ireland.

One evening at dusk, we were dropped at a castle-turned-hostel. It was located in remote countryside. A sign on the door directed us down the road to the caretaker, a surprised-looking woman (late March was early for hostelers) who grabbed her keys and walked us back to the castle. Amazingly, I still have a photo, taken the next day.

The caretaker led us into the Great Hall — empty except for an enormous walk-in fireplace with a laminated card on the mantle. It said "Castle History." As there was no electricity, we read it by . . . er . . . gaslight? Yes, gaslight. It lit an area less than an arm's length from the source. Huddling together, Gloria and I read that the castle had had a long, tragic history of violent deaths, bizarre sightings and eerie sounds which had naturally (unnaturally?) earned it a reputation for being haunted. The card concluded with a suspiciously cheerful attempt to reassure would-be guests. Unusual sights and sounds, it said, were "probably just due to the bats in the tower."

"Well then," said the caretaker. "I'm off! Here are your candles. Ta ra!" And she was gone.

In that moment, Gloria and I understood two things: (1) we were alone in a haunted castle (at least, we hoped we were alone), and (2) we had no choice but to stay overnight. Eventually, we crept up the stairs with our candlesticks and found our way to a room containing a dozen empty bunkbeds. Claiming the two closest to the door, we slunk into our sleeping bags. And then, like your favourite hackneyed gothic movie in which things can only get worse . . . they did. A clap of thunder shook the stone walls. Gloria and I looked each other in the eye, as best we could by candlelight. Really? Was this literally going to be a Dark and Stormy Night in a Haunted Castle?

In fact . . . yes. It was. Cue sound effects. Thunder crashed. Lightning flashed. Rain lashed. Winds shrieked. We did not, I am now sorry to say, see or hear a ghost. But the main point is this — we must have believed that there could be ghosts. Because neither of us slept. At. All.

And I will tell the kids when they ask in Winnipeg and Calgary that although I did not meet a ghost that night, I did learn what it felt like to be afraid of a ghost.

And yes, I put that fear in my novel.

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September 9, 2015

Three New Fall Books (the Math!)

I've been writing kids' books now for decades — and they generally come out one a year at best. But this fall, for the first time, I have three new books coming out all at once. See below — three! I'm a little gobsmacked.

Other people are as surprised as I am. A few have said things like, "Whoa, you've been busy." Well, yes . . . but no. These books are all being published this year. As for how long I've been writing them, that's a different story. I checked my files:

Stanley at School — started 7 years ago
When Santa Was a Baby — started 11 years ago
Seven Dead Pirates — started 18 years ago

Add it up. It comes to . . . 36 years! That's not cumulative time, of course, but even so — none of these books exactly tripped off my pen. Most of that time they spent in a computer file labeled "VAULT."  I call it that to remind myself of its value because on the surface, it doesn't look like much. A scrap heap. Messy files, half-baked ideas, semi-abandoned projects.

But that's the thing about writing . . . you never know. Some faint spark might, years later, finally strike and blaze. The 17th draft of that execrable little story might turn out to be . . . the one. And meanwhile, there's the slow, steady polishing.

My three shiny new books all put in time in the scrap heap (VAULT!) of a working writer. Eventually, they found their way to the surface. And from that, two simple thoughts emerge to sustain me in the inevitable years of no-books:

1. Don't be in a hurry.
2. Don't throw anything out.


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