So I put out some feelers to some of my fellow debut authors, wondering why we write what we write. and in response, I got this wonderful post from Kit Grindstaff, author of a creepy-awesome middle grade called The Flame in the Mist. Enjoy!
From the Dark Depths of Childhood Tales.
Hi, Dancing with Dragons readers! I’m Kit, guest posting for Miriam today. When Miriam put word to The Lucky 13s for authors to talk about why they wrote the books they wrote, I leapt at the chance—expecially for Halloween, since my upcoming book The Flame in the Mist is full of scare. What drew me, she asked, “to spooky, to spiders, rats and creepy atmospheres”? Well, for a start, the book is set in Anglavia, a fantasy version of England (where I’m from), in medieval-ish times. And who can think “medieval England” without thinking of castles and dungeons, or “dungeons” without rats, bats and arachnids? Not me.
So, perfect to ponder the week when ghosts wander freely from the Otherworld to their earthly haunts…
For as long as I can remember, ghosts and ghouls have fascinated me. Growing up in England, where castles and cobbles, thatched rooves and half-timbered houses are commonplace, it’s hard to avoid an eerie sense of the generations who have lived—and died—there. Spooky is everywhere. Quaint old villages breathe it, with their ancient little churches (usually freezing inside) complete with creepy graveyards (also somehow colder than anywhere else around) with worn, lichen-covered gravestones hundreds of years old, under which real, once-living people lie. Brrr. And look…so many of them were infants! As a child, when you read epitaphs to children as young as or younger than you, you can’t help wondering, How did they die? What was it like to live then? Do their ghosts still roam the churchyard…?
Ghosts your own age, when you’re five, six, seven…? Imagine that! You develop a sympathy for them, identify with them just as surely as for any character in a book. Their possible stories run rampant in your mind. And as you stand there shivering (from cold, or…what?), some of the damp, shadowy chill that goes along with those poor children’s imagined fates begins to creep under your skin and live inside you. So did any of that also creep into The Flame in the Mist? Oh, for sure!
But as well as everyday spookiness, there’s also England’s history, full of blood and guts. We’re talking the land where King Arthur supposedly roamed, and where other less mythic but equally legendary Kings certainly did. The most famously gory is probably Henry VIII, with his penchant for having people’s heads lopped off—after he’d had them thrown into the Tower of London to await their fate behind bleak stone walls and portcullisses, watched by the beady eyes of black ravens hunched everywhere like sinister guardians of doom.
British literature is also full of it. For centuries, Shakespeare, Dickens, the Brontes, Wilkie
Collins, et al, have fed us stories of ghosts and gloom whose chilly, misty settings literally get into your bones. (And yes, capital-M Mist features in my book, too.) And from an early age, any story-loving English child gets its daily dose of darkness from the brothers Grimm, with their folk yarns full of wicked witches and poison apples. (H.C. Anderson was a lot nicer.) There’s also Strewwelpeter, a Victorian-era book of cautionary tales (like Grimms’, from nearby Germany) in which Little Suck-a-thumb has his thumbs cut off and left as bleeding stumps, and little Harriet, who will play with matches, sets herself on fire and ends up as a sorry pile of ash next to her shoes (which mysteriously survive). Oh, and so many more that are probably foisted on Brit kids to this day. Scary? You bet. And I lapped them up, ready to regurgitate in some other form years later.
Perhaps at some level these gruesome tales spark the question, where is the edge between safety and danger? As a child, I generally played it safe (though I did once set my hair on fire, plus I was an avid thumb-sucker, so I guess I was quietly testing the limits), but maybe that’s why danger, and creepy, and terrifying—with a spattering of humor—come out full force in my writing.
But for all that explanation, quite simply, scary stories are immense fun to write! I loved dreaming up the vile menus in The Flame in the Mist (entrail stew with spleen and pancreas? bees-in-syrpuwater? Yum!), and throwing monsters, ghosts and ghouls at my heroine, Jemma—none of which I’d like to eat or encounter, thank you very much. But on the page, they’re harmless, and I can explore in safety while making Jemma be brave for me—and hopefully, for the reader too.
Beware what you write, though. One detail in the book had an unexpected outcome: the choice of two rats as Jemma’s companions. I wanted them to have an initial “ew” factor for kids—they certainly did for me. But since writing them…I now love rats. (The fact that hers are golden, and more palatable, was a happy afterthought. They were originally ratty brown.) So maybe I can learn to love ghosts too. Or maybe I’ll just leave them to whisper in the British wind, chilling and thrilling as they’ve done for eons. Wooooo….
Happy Halloween, everyone! And thanks so much, Miriam, for having me here as a guest, and singlehandedly getting me over one of my biggest fears: Fear of Blogging!
Want to know more about The Flame in the Mist? Check out the Goodreads page and Kit's shiny new website! Her book is also available for preorder at IndieBound, Amazon and Barnes and Noble.