Monday, 25 July 2011

Open House Day 55 - Helen Grant

Authors are always being asked "Where do you get your ideas?“ I go out and find mine. I found one in a Flemish bell-tower, and one in a ruined castle in a German forest, and a really good (if slightly niffy) one in the Brussels sewers.

I’ve always been inspired by my environment, the things I see around me. My first forays into fiction were short supernatural stories set in Slovakia (where we holidayed with German friends), Germany (where we were living at the time) and Scotland (land of my husband’s fathers). My first novel, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, is set in and inspired by Bad Münstereifel, my home for seven wonderful years. Bad Münstereifel is a town simply bursting with bizarre old legends: the Burning Man who lives in a cave in a hill, the spectral cats who haunted a lonely mill, the ghostly huntsman who rides to hounds through the pine forests. The town itself is over a thousand years old and has cobbled streets, black and white half-timbered houses, not one but two castles, and an ancient church with a carved box full of the bones of saints in the crypt. It’s a town to make any author’s pulse beat faster and their imagination run riot.

The Vanishing of Katharina Linden: A NovelI wrote my first book for love; I adored Bad Münstereifel and it broke my heart to think that we would have to leave one day. I wrote The Vanishing of Katharina Linden as a tribute to the place I still love more than any other. A strange kind of tribute, you might say, since I’ve peopled the town with evil gossips and stalking serial killers, but a tribute nevertheless! If I had not been lucky enough to find a mainstream publisher (Penguin UK) for the book, I would have striven to publish it by some other means.

The Glass Demon: A NovelSince then I have written two more books (The Glass Demon and Wish Me Dead) and am currently working on a fourth. Not every book can be a tribute to somewhere I have lived for a long time – since we left Germany in 2008 we have lived in Flanders and now in Scotland - so lately, rather than waiting for ideas to seep into my imagination, I have gone out looking for them.

This is not as daft as it sounds. Many books are based on the writer asking themself a "what if?“ question. What if there were still a place on earth where dinosaurs had not died out? What if 99% of the population died of superflu? Hell, I expect chick lit authors ask themselves "What if my boyfriend ran off with my mother?“ etc. I go to the kinds of places that inspire me and then ask myself some of those questions.

Recently I climbed the bell-tower of a village church in Flanders. I don’t think I was meant to do it; the stairs were worn and unlit and the bell-tower itself full of bird droppings. I went up anyway; I can’t resist creepy old places, especially if I’m not really supposed to be there. I looked out of one of the louvred windows and asked myself, "What if I saw something terrible from here?“ and "Supposing I wasn’t an adult; supposing I were a child; how would I react then to the thing I can see from the window?“ Ultimately what I really saw from the window was a cracking idea which came striding across the fields towards me, shiny with Flemish rain and carrying a terrible burden in its arms.

Since then I’ve hunted down some other ideas, in the sewers under Brussels and the Paris catacombs. Visiting these places is great for generating ideas; it also helps me to keep the details of my stories right. If I had never been up the bell-tower, I would not have known how very windy it is up there. There is no glass in those windows, just louvres, which let in a lot of freezing air. Details like that can make a story come to life.

It’s also fun, if you like your fun dark and creepy. Who wouldn’t want to see the Paris catacombs, where the bones of six million Parisians are arranged in elegant patterns? Or the mossy remains of a castle a millennium old, haunted by a Carolingian ghost? So when people ask me whether I do a lot of research for my books, I’m hard put to know how to reply. I do the legwork, yes, but it’s so fascinating, so compulsive, that it doesn’t feel like "research“, and I’d do it anyway, even if I never wrote a word about any of it. I suppose I’m still doing what I set out to do at the beginning; writing for love.

Helen was born in London in 1964. She showed an early leaning towards the arts, having been told off for writing stories under the desk in maths lessons at school. She went on to read Classics at St. Hugh's College, Oxford, and then worked in marketing for ten years to fund her love of travelling. In 2001, she and her family moved to Bad Münstereifel in Germany. It was exploring the legends of this beautiful old town that inspired her to write her first novel. Helen now lives in Scotland with her husband, her two children and her two cats.

Twitter @helengrantsays

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