Wednesday, 30 March 2016

The Kelpie Challenge - Lari Don

I like a challenge. I don’t see much point in being a writer, if I’m just going to write the same stories in the same ways over and over. So I challenge myself to write stories in ways that I find more difficult and more complex. But more difficult and more complex doesn’t necessarily mean longer books for older children. I’ve just written a picture book that was as much of a challenge, in entirely new ways, as any novel I’ve ever written.

The Secret Of The Kelpie is a picture book retelling of the story of the kelpie, the shape-shifting child-eating water-horse of Scottish lochs and rivers. Writing it presented me with new challenges, which was a good enough reason to write it. But there were several other excellent reasons.

One was the chance to work with Philip Longson again. Philip illustrated The Tale of Tam Linn a couple of years ago, and his pictures of magic and beauty and darkness were so perfect that I was keen to have my words illuminated by his enchanting pictures again.

Also, the kelpie is a very Scottish beast, and I’m passionate about sharing Scottish folklore with kids in Scotland and, honestly, with kids everywhere else too. Scottish stories, like every culture’s stories, deserve as wide an audience as European fairy tales or Viking myths...

But mainly, I was in it for the story-shaped challenges.

The first challenge was that there isn’t actually one kelpie story. I don’t mean there are various versions of one basic tale. There are dozens of different stories about underwater monsters changing into beautiful horses (or handsome people) to lure victims into the water to drown them and eat them. Most lochs in Scotland and lots of rivers have kelpie stories, and those stories differ widely.

So I had to gather as much kelpie lore as possible, then resist the temptation to squash all that information into one slim book. I wasn’t going to retell them all, I simply wanted to search for clues to the one new kelpie story I wanted to tell.
just a few of the books I found kelpies in

I discovered that some kelpies like to eat children, some prefer to carry off young women or married couples or fishermen. Some kelpies like home comforts (one kidnapped a stone mason to build him an underwater fireplace and chimney.) Some object to metal. Some have a problem with bridles. Some kelpies are hard workers - there are bridges and mills and churches apparently built by kelpies. And some kelpies can grow longer to fit entire families on their back before rushing towards the water.

I was surprised to discover that kelpie stories are not just from the Highlands and Islands, the Gaelic speaking parts of Scotland. There are lots of kelpie stories from the east coast too: Angus and Aberdeenshire and even my own childhood home in Speyside.

I found so many kelpie stories, from so many parts of Scotland, that my publishers have created an interactive map of the locations and snippets of the stories, so you can go kelpie hunting too.

So now I had too much research, and I needed to distil it down to one clear straight storyline.

But I had another challenge. You may have noticed it, as you’ve been reading down to here. The kelpie is a child-eating monster. None of the kelpies in the old tales ate porridge or bannocks or tattie scones. They ate people. And often, they chose to eat children.

I had chosen to write a picture book about kelpies. About a child-eating monster. So, how could I do that, without either ripping the heart out of the story, or terrifying the readers?

I wasn’t prepared to create a cute cuddly glittery friendly kelpie. And though my editor and I were clear this story was aimed at older picture book readers, we still wanted to respect our readers (and the potential sensitivity of those reading to them!)

Of course, many of our best loved fairy tales are terrifying, and many of them contain child-eating monsters. Red Riding Hood’s wolf? Hansel and Gretel’s witch? But we know these stories, we’ve known them all our lives, which blunts their darkness...

And, even in Scotland, not many children know about the kelpie from their early years. So, how could I introduce a NEW child-eating monster?

My answer to both those challenges tuned out to be the same. How to synthesise dozens of pieces of kelpie magic into one story? How to make a story about a child-eating monster child-friendly?

The answer was to start, not with the kelpie, not with the magic or the monster, but to start with the child. To start with the character.

Once I met Flora, and her big brothers and sisters, and had them play hide and seek by a loch, then find a beautiful white horse, the story started to tell itself. Flora discovered exactly the right bits of kelpie lore to keep herself safe, and to rescue her brothers and sisters. And though I admit that the story gets dark and scary in the middle, I was always aiming for a happy ending, and I was fairly confident that my heroine Flora could get us there.

So, as often happens in writing, any challenge can be overcome with just a little bit of magic, and the right heroine!

The Secret of the Kelpie is retold by Lari Don, illustrated by Philip Longson and published by Floris Books

Lari Don is the award-winning author of more than 20 books for all ages, including a teen thriller, fantasy novels for 8 – 12s, picture books, retellings of traditional tales and novellas for reluctant readers.
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Joan Lennon said...

It sounds wonderful - and the interactive map is a great addition! Congratulations on challenge-overcoming!

Katherine Roberts said...

Oh, Kelpies! I love any kind of magical horses, but these do seem particularly Scottish. There are some very frightening water horses in Gillian Philip's "Firebrand" (at least I think they're a breed of kelpie!). I also have a lovely CD-plus-illustrated-book called "Mr Stourworm and the Kelpie's Gift", which uses haunting music and songs to tell the story and is performed by the Orchestra of Scottish Opera, well worth seeking out if you're still in a kelpie mood.

Lari Don said...

I am always in a kelpie mood Katherine, so I will check that out! Thanks for the recommendation. And yes, I think that kelpie stories are limited to Scotland, but if anyone out there knows different, please let me know!