Happy Midwinter’s Eve!
Tomorrow is the solstice – in the northern hemisphere, at least, the shortest day of the year. The day in the depths of winter when it can seem that the sun will never return. In England, anyway. The day when houses are traditionally decorated with evergreens to remind that, in the months to come, the sun and spring and burgeoning life will come again.
This afternoon I brought greenery in from my garden – holly and ivy mainly, as in the old song. Another tradition of this day for me is starting to read The Dark is Rising. This children’s classic by Susan Cooper is, for me, the quintessential Christmas book. (My reasons for this can be found in other recent blogs – as can details about the worldwide readalong of the book that begins today #TheDarkIsReading.)
I first read The Dark is Rising aged 11 – the same age Will Stanton is when he wakes to strange music on his Midwinter birthday and discovers that he is no ordinary mortal. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that it was also around that time that I began to write ‘seriously’. And constantly. I was rarely to be found without my nose in a book or a pen in my hand for years to come.
Over those years I experimented with many genres – science fiction, fantasy, historical, even spy fiction – before realizing that the central thread running through it all was a desire to write for children. Or rather, perhaps, a child. Aged about, oh, say, about 11 or 12. Maybe, in fact, me – at about the age I read the whole ‘Dark is Rising’ sequence…
Writing experts usually advise writers to write what they would like to read. I guess that’s what I do – write what I know my 11- to 12-year-old self likes (liked?) to read.
So apart from perhaps encouraging me to write for a similar audience, how has this oft-read sequence of books influenced my writing?
I don’t tend to be particularly analytical about my writing, but from what other people have said about it (thank you, reviewers!), a few aspects emerge that may trace a path from these earlier books.
Perhaps the foremost is a strong sense of place. Each of the ‘Dark is Rising’ books is firmly set in a particular ancient landscape (or landscapes) within the British Isles – Cornwall, the Buckinghamshire and Chiltern Hills, Snowdonia – described so acutely you feel you are there. And, for me, you feel you must visit. In my late teens and twenties I tried to identify and find as many of the locations as I could – one of my greatest disappointments was being driven off Cader Idris by the onset of a tremendous rainstorm – though I had been warned by seeing the breath of the Grey King around its summit…
Readers of The Order of the White Boar have similarly commented that the landscapes of the Yorkshire Dales around Middleham Castle are important in their appreciation of Matthew and his friends’ adventures in 1482-3. Many have already visited the area, following their researches into Richard III’s life; others have said how much they would like to. I know it’s always important to me to gain a ‘feel’ for the places where my story is rooted.
Another theme is perhaps a different sense of place – that of a place in time. In the ‘Dark is Rising’ sequence, Will and Merriman in particular travel through time, often while staying in a single place – at Greythorne Manor, for instance, or in Huntercombe. At times, the two times (or more) even overlap – layers of time laid one upon the other – with people ethereal as ghosts unless themselves also in both times.
When I was first writing The Order I wondered whether I would be able to find a proper sense of time – to immerse myself fully in the past. My previous two projects had been effectively ‘time-slip’ books (or one more a ghost story) and I was uncertain how much I could write a character seeing the fifteenth century from the inside, rather than from the outside as in a time-slip. To my surprise, and relief, before long it was more difficult to drag myself back into the twenty-first century than to dive back into the past. Walking the moorland landscapes where I live was a great aid in that – striding along ancient tracks much like the old ways that Merriman shows Will.
Yet another is perhaps extreme weather – especially snow. ‘Beautiful, deep, blanketing snow’ – Will longs for it for his birthday – yet when it comes, it brings unease and danger. As it does for Matthew and friends at the time of the boar hunt in The Order. Such weather is a thing of the Dark – in both the fifteenth century and today. I think Susan Cooper may have been drawing on her memories of the almost legendary long cold winter of her childhood in 1947. In a similar way, my previous book, Time out of Time, draws on the almost legendary heatwave and drought of 1976 for its background.
So a smattering of the more overt influences. Perhaps I’ll think of others as I make a start on reading chapter one, ‘Midwinter’s Eve’, tonight. Or maybe I won’t. Perhaps I’ll just enjoy the familiar, comfortable prose – with its undertones of disquiet and eeriness underlying the happy Christmastide of the Stanton family and their annual rituals. ‘This night will be bad…’