Monday 25 February 2019

Hunting for Treasure - by Liz Kessler

I’ve always believed that writing a book is a very special journey of trust and exploration. It’s like a dance, maybe, or a relationship, or a treasure hunt. In fact, it’s all of those things and more. 

I am actually in awe of the way a book tiptoes into existence. How does it do that? I mean, yes, I put in the hours – lots and lots of them – but I am convinced that there is something more to it than that. Something beyond me, and beyond my understanding. I don’t know exactly what it is, but I do know I am grateful for it.

When I was a child, I used to read Whizzer and Chips and The Beano. One of my favourite things in these comics (other than The Numbskulls; I ADORED The Numbskulls) was a feature on the puzzle page. The Hidden Objects puzzle.

They looked a bit like this:

If you imagine that this picture is the world, and the hidden objects are the pieces of your story, this is what writing a book is like.

The pieces of the book could be hidden anywhere – in a castle or a shop or on a path; in an object on the beach; in the bushy grey hair of someone’s beard; in an unusually shaped cloud; in a conversation. They could be anywhere. I firmly believe that my job as a writer isn’t about making up stories – it is about finding the pieces and putting them together until they form the story they were always meant to be.

I have written over twenty books, and out of them all, this journey of bringing together pieces of treasure to form the story has happened particularly intensely on two occasions. Once was with my Young Adult book, Haunt Me, where every scene came to life in my head as I walked along the coast path listening to a playlist I made especially for this book.

The other time was with my latest book, Emily Windsnap and the Pirate Prince.

I can’t help thinking it’s quite appropriate that a book involving pirates and treasure has brought me closer to this treasure hunt than ever before.

Unusually for my books, I knew the title before I knew anything else. A chance remark from my amazing US publicist Tracy Miracle (yes that’s her real name, and yes she does live up to it) meant that the Pirate Prince was mooching around in the back of my mind for a year or so before it was time to write his story.

That chance remark was the first piece of treasure.

When the time came to start writing the book, I had to decide where to go on a research trip. (I love my research trips and always have at least one per book. They have taken me to all sorts of places from the beaches of Bermuda to a Devon village completely destroyed by a storm.) This one was an easy decision: I had to go on a tall ship.

And here’s where piece of treasure two came in. After a day of scouring the internet for suitable trips, I came across a last-minute opportunity to be part of a tall ship crew. It was sailing out of Tenerife for a week around the Canary islands, and was leaving in five days.

Five days later I was on that ship.

As research trips go, this one was about as special as it gets. Sailing on the ocean on the beautiful Morgenster, feeling the breeze in my hair, tasting the salty spray, hearing the tinkling of the masts at night, witnessing a sky packed full of stars as the ship sliced through dark waves: I lost count of how many pieces of story-treasure I found that week.

The phosphorescence as the waves glinted at us like stars at night; the dolphin that swam through these lights; the inspiring personalities of the ship’s crew, many of whose names I used in the book; the locker that I sat on with my notebook out on the deck, which became known as ‘Liz’s office’; the sunrise across the water; the shop where I bought a crystal on a chain without knowing why, other than a kind of inner knowledge that it would appear in the book – and it did. The old pirate stories one of my crewmates told me each day. And above all, the beauty of the tall ship, Morgenster, that I fell a little bit more in love with each day. Treasure upon treasure, the building blocks of my story were found, gathered, stored for later.

But a little while after arriving home, I had a sense that there were more pieces waiting for me somewhere else.

Several years earlier, I had witnessed an amazing sight at Mont St Michel in France. It was a spring tide and we happened to be there at the exact moment the tide charged in so fast it was like a river. I had never seen a tide come in like this and I was hungry to witness it again. I felt sure that it would have something to do with my book.

So, my partner and I headed off on a road trip to France. I timed the trip for a day when the tide would be at its strongest and highest, and I booked us a room on the outskirts of the castle on the island of Mont St Michel. And here’s where the strange thing happened.

The tide didn’t move me, as I had thought it would. It didn’t race up the beach, carrying inspired thoughts about my plot along with it. We watched, and yes, it was a fast moving tide, but I didn’t feel anything, and my book didn’t call out to it.

For a moment, I wondered if we had wasted the trip. And then the next day, we walked around the castle, and explored the narrow, winding, cobbled streets around it – and something began to stir.

Yes, the tide had brought me back here. But it dawned on me that the tide wasn’t the hidden object in the picture after all. Instead, it was the bustling, bartering atmosphere of the small village that would find its place in my book.

And I remembered that in the old picture puzzles, sometimes you found the objects in places you would not expect to find them. Sometimes you had to work a little bit harder to find the hidden treasures.

Once more, I came home with a head full of ideas and a notebook full of scribbles. And I finally had enough pieces of the puzzle to start working on threading it all together.

And here we are, nearly two years on from my wonderful trip on the Morgenster, and the book is out next month. This is why I love being a writer. Not for sales or awards. (Just as well as I’m not really an award-winning type of author!) Not even for the emails and letters from happy readers, although they are right up there with the best things about the job. 

I love being a writer for the journey. For those moments of connection. For the joy of creativity, in and of itself, seeking nothing but wonder. And above all, for the privilege of following a path that I know for sure is paved with a sprinkling of magic.

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Penny Dolan said...

What a wonderful sea-going adventure, Liz, and description of the work of finding the hidden objects. All good speed to your new story's sailing.

Susan Price said...

Wow! -- Lovely blog and an amazing research trip. Are you a full-blown pantser yet?

Good luck for this book and the treasure hunt for the next one!

michelle lovric said...

That was a truly inspiring read, Liz! Good luck with the book!

Sue Purkiss said...

Lovely piece - the voyage sounds amazing! I volunteer each week on the SS Great Britain, so have become a tad obsessed by ships - but I have to admit I prefer them in dry dock - too much of a coward for the open sea. Love this description, though - and the whole picture of the way books come together.