By abielphinstone, Feb 23 2017 10:46AM

I was lucky enough to grow up in the wilds of Scotland – a country of icy lochs, snow-capped mountains, rugged islands and sprawling moors – and when I sat down to write my third book, The Night Spinner, I thought back to the adventures I’d had as a twelve-year-old girl there: building dens in the woods; listening to stags roaring in the glens; watching golden eagles soar. And I knew that I wanted to take my characters to a land like this. The world in The Night Spinner is called the northern wilderness and adventures enjoyed up in Scotland, both as a child and more recently, coupled with a few other explorations slightly further afield, built the plot.

1. Re-discovering the world beyond The Blue Door

Out of all the wild places I explored as a child in Scotland, there is one that sticks out: a walk just north of a village called Edzell, a few miles from our house. After you leave the village, you cross an old stone bridge and then, on your left, there is a little blue door. You could miss it if you didn’t know it was there but my parents knew about it and they pushed it open. And what lay beyond could well have been Narnia. On the left, thundering through a steep gorge, the North Esk River browned by peat from the moors and on the right, above the gorge, a little path that wove alongside rhododendron bushes, silver birches, beech trees and a long-forgotten folly. The gorge opens up eventually, then the lochs, moors and mountains take over. When writing The Night Spinner, I walked through the Blue Door many times – to watch salmon leap from the river and to take notes inside the folly – and before long the North Esk river became The Clattering Gorge and my characters had found something extraordinary inside the folly there...

2. Quad-biking across the moors

To build The Rambling Moors in my book, I spent weeks walking through the Scottish glens. I heard stags bellowing, I watched coveys of grouse pour over the hills and I saw golden eagles circling the crags. I rented a quad bike one day so that I could cover more ground and as I tore across the heather, I imagined my characters fleeing the Shadowmasks across this same landscape and before long, my moors were teeming with mystical creatures: peatboggers, skeleton-stags and a goblin called Kittlerumpit (whose name I pinched from a Scottish retelling of the Rumpelstiltskin fairytale called Whuppity Stoorie).

3. Climbing Lochnagar in the Cairngorms

On Easter morning last year, I set out to climb Lochnagar with my husband – partly because I thought the name was fabulous and partly because I’d heard the view from Perseverance Wall up at the top was spectacular. During the first half of the climb the landscape was purpled by heather and green with juniper bushes. Further up though, the mountain was still locked in the icy grip of winter and it reminded me of how wild and inhospitable the Scottish mountains can be. I wanted a range of almost inaccessible mountains in The Night Spinner and so, after that climb I invented The Barbed Peaks and as I sketched them onto a fictional map for my book I drew a circle of deadly summits in their midst and called that The Stone Necklace.

4. Exploring Eilean Donan Castle

I’ve always loved the idea of writing about an enchanted castle. Perhaps that stemmed from living near Dunnottar Castle, a dramatic ruined fortress on the cliff top near Stonehaven, and my always believing that such a place was magical. Or maybe it was reading fairytales about maidens locked in towers and dragons lurking around castle walls. Whatever the reason, I booked a tour of the magnificently situated Eilean Donan Castle to spark ideas for my fictional castle. I pinched the location of this castle, perched on an outcrop of land in Loch Duich on the west coast of Scotland, for my book, and the items inside it – spinning wheels, cannon balls and beakers carved from the ivy that once clung to the castle ruins – set my mind reeling for magical motifs withing my story.

5. Swimming across Loch Duich

When I donned my wetsuit for this swim the sun was shining and I was anticipating a refreshing dip. But the clouds rolled over as soon as I reached for my first stroke and, despite it being July, it felt like I was swimming through a block of melted ice. Someone once told me that lochs are as deep as the mountains are high and as I saw across Loch Duich I remembered that – and gulped. I had no idea how deep Loch Duich was but I’d heard talk that Loch Morar, in Lochaber, was 310 metres deep. And glancing down, it felt easy to imagine monsters like Loch Ness lurking in the depths… Shortly after this swim, I wrote about a very, very deep loch at the foot of the Barbed Peaks, and I made it home to a mysterious monster.

6. Hiking through the Dolomites in Italy

I went to the Dolomites last Autumn because of tales from friends of staggering waterfalls, jagged peaks and World War One tunnels stretching the length of giant mountains. But once out there, I realised that I could borrow aspects of this incredible – and haunting – place for The Night Spinner. I saw mountain peaks bursting through the clouds and look-out posts on the precipices of cliffs, where Italian soldiers had watched Austrian troops advancing. And so, when writing about The Rookery, a forgotten monastery carved into the cliffs with turrets masked by the clouds, I drew on my hikes through the Dolomites.

7. Escaping The Labyrinth in Berlin

A few years ago, I went to Berlin to visit a friend for the weekend. She asked what I wanted to do and I said: ‘Something off the beaten track. Something weird that I can write about one day.’ And so she took me to The Labyrinth, an old warehouse in Friedrichshain converted into a maze of passageways made entirely of recycled materials. Outside the warehouse, I was given a coin by an organizer then I was blind-folded and led away from my friend. A few seconds later, I heard a door click shut and I realised I was alone, with no instructions as to what to do next. I took off my blindfold to find I was in phone box but everything was dark outside it. There was a small TV screen in front of me depicting a man placing a coin into a slot. I stared at him, bemused, then remembered the coin in my own palm and noticed there was a slot in front of me. I pressed it in. A moment later, the front of the phone box fell down and I was inside the labyrinth – a dark maze with stairs leading up to giant mirrors and passageways lined with skulls and sculptures of crooked hands. I ran through the corridors, trying to find a way out, but ended up stumbling through a trap door and landing on a mattress inside what appeared to be a giant egg with seven passageways leading off from it. I choose one and realised, half way down it, that it was shrinking in size and before long I wouldn’t be able to keep going. I backed away and tried another passageway then another, occasionally stumbling across other people desperately trying to find their way out (to this day, I have no idea whether those people were actors or punters in a similar position to me...). I blundered on until eventually I burst out of a door into the sunlight. My friend followed an hour later. ‘Did you see the white room with bizarre instruments?’ she said. ‘And the pitch-black tower ringing with echoes? I spent ages sitting in there; it was amazing.’ ‘No,’ I replied. ‘I didn’t see any of that. I was trying my best to escape.’ And as we chatted to the organisers we realised that the labrynith was, in fact, a psychological experiment – it tested whether, in the face of strange and unsettling experiences, you fled or slowed down to enjoy them. I fled, as if the Shadowmasks themselves were on my heels… But I’ve always remembered that labyrinth and in The Night Spinner, I created my own one beneath Whuppity Cairns, a collection of stones on top of Rambling Moors.

By abielphinstone, Nov 7 2016 05:02PM

2016 has been a busy year...

• School visits: 77

• Literary festivals: 19

• Books published: 3

• Amount of times bucked off an Icelandic pony: 1

So, let’s break this down with some photos (and yes, there are several of me being bucked off an Icelandic pony...).

I’ve met so many incredible kids, teachers, librarians and booksellers this year while touring the country for the release of The Shadow Keeper (you can read all about the adventures behind that book here). The most memorable moments have included signing a whoopee cushion at Cheltenham Literature Festival, playing netball with Year 6 at Notre Dame School, dressing up as Roald Dahl’s peach for World Book Day when visiting Whitchurch C of E Primary School and seeing The Times select The Shadow Keeper as its Book Of The Week :)

To research the setting for my third book, The Night Spinner (out on 23rd February 2017), I’ve been climbing mountains like Lochnagar in the Cairngorms as inspiration for The Barbed Peaks, I’ve been quad-biking over the moors to get a good look at where my evil goblin, Kittlerumpit, might live and I’ve been exploring a hidden folly beyond The Blue Door in Angus to set the scene for the folly Moll, Sid and Gryff find in the Clattering Gorge…

The Night Spinner is now finished and has been sent out to one journalist - The Bookseller’s Fiona Noble - for a sneak peek before its release. Her comments might have made me do a few cartwheels.

Thank you so much to all the wonderful kids who have sent me letters. They are stored safely in my writing shed at the bottom of the garden and here is the last page of a letter I wrote back to the brilliant James Allen’s Prep Girls.

I’m 20,000 words into my fourth book, an adventure set up in the frozen north, due out in 2018. This is a story about an eagle huntress, an inventor boy and an organ made of icicles. But it is also a story about belonging, even at the very edge of the world. And to research it, I’ve been up to the Arctic to watch the northern lights ripple across the sky and killer whales dive as they feed on herring and to Iceland to climb glaciers (and get bucked off Icelandic ponies - for those photos, I'm the one in yellow…).

(for the video of me being bucked off the Icelandic pony, check out my Instagram: @moontrugger. Hehe)

And lastly, I’ve had the pleasure of writing alongside some of the UK’s most talented writers, firstly in an anthology of short stories called Winter Magic and secondly in a collection of illustrated animal fables called A Wisp of Wisdom.

The former is a beautiful hardback anthology featuring snow queens, frost fairs and fur-lined sleighs from acclaimed writers such as Michelle Magorian, Berlie Doherty, Lauren St John, Katherine Woodfine, Emma Carroll, Piers Torday, Amy Alward, Jamila Gavin, Michelle Harrison and Geraldine McCaughrean. My story is about an orphan called Phoebe who goes on an adventure far beyond the orphanage walls with a Snow Dragon and a dachshund fond of dancing. Recommended for children aged 7+

To buy a copy of Winter Magic, click here.

And A Wisp of Wisdom sees another gathering of award-winning authors – Lucy Christopher, Adele Geras, Elizabeth Laird, Sarah Lean, Gill Lewis, Geraldine McCaughrean, Tom Moorhouse, Beverley Naidoo, Ifeoma Onyefulu, Piers Torday – in a project with a HUGE heart. The Korup region in Cameroon is rich in stories, full of animals that live in their precious forests, but the oral tradition that hands these stories down is being lost. And the people in Korup have no books. So we decided to gather their stories up and write them down. The result is this stunning book, illustrated by Emmie van Biervliet, and for every copy you buy, we will send a copy to the children in Korup. Recommended for children aged 6+.

To buy a copy of A Wisp of Wisdom, click here.

An enormous thank you to all the children, booksellers, teachers and librarians that have made my year so special. Keep an eye on my ‘EVENTS’ tab early next year for upcoming public talks and signings and remember, if you're planning on going on any adventures of your own: never trust an Icelandic pony…

By abielphinstone, Apr 21 2016 08:27AM

I grew up in the wilds of Scotland where weekends were spent scrambling over the moors, building dens in the woods and jumping into icy rivers and the sense of wonder I experienced back then in those remote and almost forgotten places made me want to write wild, outdoor adventures years later - and with that has come some awesome book research adventures... So, here you go for a gallery of photos showing the adventures I went on while writing THE SHADOW KEEPER.

1. Abseiling 72 metres into Abismo de Anhumas, a cave in the heart of the Brazilian jungle and home to incredible stalactites that lurk in the depths of the underground lake inside. There are several caves in The Shadow Keeper but this one inspired the secret cavern Moll discovers.

2. Learning to fire a long bow at Barbury Shooting School. There was a lot of catapulting in The Dreamsnatcher but I wanted to up the tension in The Shadow Keeper so after I had got to grips with the technique (Katniss makes it look far easier than it is…) I added arrows fletched with owl feathers and bows carved from silver birch for Moll and her Tribe to use against the Shadowmasks.

3. Foraging for mussels and oysters near Gamle Hellesund in Norway. I put out nets to catch cod, turbot and sole, I dived for mussels and I let down pots for crabs – and it meant that I could write with greater accuracy, and in more detail, about my characters living as outlaws in Little Hollows down by the sea.

4. Kayaking through the Norwegian fjords. In the early drafts of The Shadow Keeper much of the movement was shown through characters racing along the cliff tops on horseback. Poldark style. I then realised I wanted to use the sea more and so I kayaked out to a remote lighthouse near Lillesand in Norway to help me visualise the kayak scene in my book.

5. Trespassing into Smoo Cave, located at the eastern edge of a village called Durness, on Scotland’s most northerly coastline. After I’d waded past the KEEP OUT sign I found a hidden waterfall and wrote the prologue to The Shadow Keeper, about two witch doctors gathering in a gloomy cave.

6. Iguazu Falls in Argentina. I took a boat ride right up to one of the waterfalls and as I listened to the thundering roar of water and watched swifts pass into the cave beyond, I wrote about Moll and Siddy facing the haunted shipwreck and journeying through Devil’s Drop.

7. Free running near Aurland, Norway. I didn’t manage any of the backflips and barrelrolls Sébastien Foucan employs but I did scale a few cliffs and leap over some walls as I tore down the Norwegian coast. It helped me imagine my characters charging across the cliffs to find the amulet ahead of the smugglers.

8. A 35-feet cliff jump in France. A late addition to the book but I had to get my characters into the sea fast – and with maximum energy – so this seemed an appropriate conclusion. Plus, my two younger brothers made the jump before me so there was no turning back from the adventure itself…

9. Hang gliding over Rio De Janeiro. I wanted to see what it would feel like to fly, without the whir of an engine or the boundary of an aeroplane window and this experience inspired the penultimate chapter of the book: Sky Battle.

By abielphinstone, Feb 28 2016 07:18PM

Before I start writing any book I draw a map. I won’t have a plot in mind at this stage but I will have a head full of places my characters can visit. For THE SHADOW KEEPER it was caves, fishing villages, fjords and waterfalls and for THE DREAMSNATCHER is was forests, tree forts and heathland. I sketch the places onto paper then I start imagining my characters journeying from one setting to another. Perhaps they are chased along the coast, find themselves lost in a forest or are held hostage in a cave. As soon as I doodle these character movements across my map, a plot starts to emerge. I then break my fictional world down into smaller maps – the interior of a cave, a sitting room inside an old fishing cottage... I’m creating an imagined world but it has to be every bit as believable as our world and I wanted to share my Top 10 SHADOW KEEPER Doodles with you:

1. Little Hollows Cove. Moll and her Tribe are living as outlaws in a secret cove down by the sea. There are hidden tunnels, diving rocks, old rowing boats and smugglers next door – all the finest ingredients for a sea adventure.

2. Little Hollows. The cave Moll and her Tribe are hiding in, complete with secret tunnel and alcove hammocks.

3. A house that must not be named (for spoiler reasons).

4. A room Moll, Gryff and Sid find themselves in on their journey to find the Amulet of Truth. I even drew a dog and a book on the side table – that’s how specific I have to be before I write!

5. Behind Devil’s Drop. Inspired by the Waitomo caves in New Zealand.

6. Oracle Bone script. These are the letters Moll carves into the Oracle Bones with her penknife before she throws them to find the second Amulet of Truth.

7. My map of the Shadow Keeper world. Complete with smuggler caves, raging waterfalls and wild horses.

8. Mapping a chase scene across Inchgrundle. Involving dastardly smugglers and a very fierce storm. The photo deliberately chops off the edges as I don’t want you to see what happens there…

9. Mood board for the book. Witch doctors, wildcats, kelpies and lots and lots of unsolved codes.

10. Teaser for Book 3. I can’t take credit for this – my dear friend, Thierry Kelaart, painted it. But inside this feather you’ll find some hints about the final book in the series.

By abielphinstone, Oct 15 2015 03:35PM

In April 2014 I saw a photograph that made me grip my laptop and blink non-stop for ten minutes: Asher Svidensky’s picture of Mongolia’s only Eagle Huntress, 13-year-old Aisholpan from Han Gohadok, just south of Ulgii.

Eagle Huntress Aisholpan, photographed by Asher Svidensky. Visit Asher's website here ( He is one of the most talented photographers around today. Prints of all his photos are available online.

The photograph of a young girl on top of a mountain loosing her golden eagle at twilight quite literally blew me away and when I saw it I decided two things. Firstly, that this was a children’s book waiting to be written. And secondly, that I’d go to Mongolia to see the Eagle Hunters for myself. And so, on 27th September this year, I boarded a flight with my husband, as well as thirty four Nutri-Grain bars (I’d heard the fermented horse milk and yak cheese were things to stay clear of) and a shedload of thermal vests.

Me with a two-week supply of cereal bars the day before my flight to Mongolia

We flew to the capital of Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar, on a Russian airline that sounded like a brand of yoghurt (Aeroflot) and spent the day there visiting Gandan monastery (a Buddhist place of worship that had been virtually destroyed by communists in 1938 and then re-built) and marveling at one of the world’s best collection of dinosaur fossils uncovered by the Flaming Cliffs in the Gobi Desert. The next day we flew to Ulgii, the capital of the far west, and after meeting our translator and driver we set off in our 4x4 past turquoise lakes, golden larch forests and ice-dusted rivers to the Altai Tavan Bogd National Park.

My husband, Edo, and I standing on top of our van
My husband, Edo, and I standing on top of our van

Where we pitched our tents in the Altai mountains

Me doing a star jump at Green Lake

Bear Valley

We camped in -10’C beside fresh wolf tracks (I wore fourteen layers to bed and our water bottles froze in the night), we brushed our teeth under the largest and brightest canvas of stars I’ve ever seen, we did starjumps above Green Lake and we chewed on larch sap during breathers on our hikes (it tastes like cloves so it’s a bit like chewing on Christmas). Afterwards we stayed with a Mongolian family, at the only settlement in the mountains for miles and miles around. We ate the Five Fingers Meal (Beshbarmak) with them, a traditional dinner of mutton (torn from the bone by the head of the household), noodles, onions and carrots – eaten with your hands. We played games with sheep’s ankle bones, met a 5-year-old girl who spent her evenings wrestling a cat because there were no other children nearby (she was a story in herself) and slept in their one-room wooden house. Other occupants in the room we slept in were: one driver (who decided, at 2am to drive three hours to the nearest settlement to buy vodka to see him through the night), one translator, one 5-year-old cat wrestler girl, one alarmed cat, one dog, one mother, one father (and his loaded shot gun), one giant beetle and one goat.

Home of the 5-year-old cat wrestler, where we stayed the night and ate Five Fingers Meal

The following morning the father took us fox hunting on horseback – the families use fox fur to make coats to see them through the bitter winters – and we watched his 12-year-old son herding vast numbers of yak across the hillside. But the main reason for our visit was to live with the Kazakh Eagle Hunters, men (mostly) who tame golden eagles and loose them from towering mountains to hunt foxes, marmots and wolves. And so the next day we moved on to the Eagle Hunter festival, a gathering of the country’s finest eagle hunters just outside Ulgii.

Me with a Mongolian fox hunter

The Mongolia fox hunters spying for foxes

The Kazakh Eagle Hunters

Wearing traditional Kazakh dress, the Eagle Hunters compete to show control over their eagles. One hunter holds the eagle on top of a mountain and another hunter rides out on horseback below, calling to the eagle with whoops and cries and dragging a fox lure to coax it from the cliff. The eagle launches off the crag and then hangs in the sky, its feathers rippling in the wind, before arrowing its wings and diving down. It was a jaw-dropping sight… And the rest of the festival was just as impressive. I’ve taken part in a few Highland Games up in Scotland where I grew up and I thought they were hardcore (tossing the caber, hurling the haggis and tug of war) but they are nothing compared to the Kazakh Eagle Festival. Here, hunters gallop through mountains, stooping down to snatch up strategically placed coins, they race camels, fire arrows from longbows and wrestle dead goats while on horseback – before finishing the whole event up with a concert where women play dombyras (a long-necked lute) so fast it’s impossible not to get teary-eyed as such a spectacularly wild and ferociously beautiful culture.

An Eagle Hunter wrestling for a dead goat at the festival
An Eagle Hunter wrestling for a dead goat at the festival

An Eagle Hunter reaching for a coin at the festival

Two Eagle Hunters wrestling for a dead goat at the festival
Two Eagle Hunters wrestling for a dead goat at the festival

Me meeting a wolf

Me in a traditional Eagle Hunter coat (made from ibex fur)

The eagles were incredible. With wingspans of two metres and cries that hung in the wind long after their beaks closed, it’s no wonder they’re listed one of the world’s most spectacular birds of prey. But there was one person at the festival who was perhaps even more breathtaking than the eagles themselves: Aisholpan, the only female eagle hunter in Mongolia, and at 14-years-old, one of the youngest hunters to compete. Though she was surrounded by men twice her age and three times her size, she more than held her own, her hair bunched in white ribbons perhaps the only nod to her gender. Aisholpan is the daughter of one of the most legendary eagle hunters in Mongolia, Agali, and after the festival we went to stay with her family in their ger (felt tents sewn by Mongolian women and heated by animal dung hurled into a furnace).

Agali with his horse and eagle
Agali with his horse and eagle

Me as an Eagle Huntress (or trying to be)

I milked cows at sunrise with Aisholpan’s mother, Alma, drank beer and sang Mongolian songs with Agali and, of course, we went hunting with Balapan, one of the family’s prized golden eagles. Mounted on Aisholpan’s horse, I slipped on the animal hide glove and then Aisholpan passed me her eagle, as casually as if she were passing me a cup of tea. The sudden weight of the bird (they can weigh up to 8kg) sent my arm plunging down and I realised why the Bertuchi (eagle hunters) have wooden poles attached to their saddles to rest their arms while holding the birds. Aisholpan giggled as Balapan stretched out her wings, flapped and screeched, then Agali took the bird off and told us to get ready for the hunt. We rode out across the valley together and wrapped in a yak coat an eagle hunter called Bashakan had leant me, I tried to look all brave and huntressy and forget about the fact that the metal-decorated hunter saddle was biting into my bottom. Agali explained that the hunters take the eagles from their eyries as chicks then they keep them for ten years, treating them like members of their family (many live inside the family’s houses and all have different temperaments – some are lazy and irritable, some are kind are gentle), before releasing them ten years later so that they can breed and fly wild.

Me with Aisholpan and her prize horse and eagle

Me hanging out with Agali

Me milking cows and sunrise

We rode the horses up to the highest point on the cliffs then Agali’s friend, also on horseback, led his horse half way down the mountain and began flanking round the side of the hill to flush out any foxes that might be lurking there. We waited on horseback, just the eagle yapping into the wind, and then Agali slid off his horse, motioned for us to do the same and we crouched, half hidden by a rock. ‘Fox,’ he whispered, pointing down below. It took me a minute to locate the fox racing across the open valley below us but when Agali lifted the eagle’s cap off, the bird’s eyes locked onto it within seconds. It launched from Agali’s arm and he cried out, like a call to battle: ‘wooo wooo BAH BAH!’ then we were scrabbling over the rocks, boots skidding on the scree, to get a better view as Balapan soared over the valley. Agali raised his arms and whooped then the eagle plummeted down onto the fox and I remember thinking that in that moment I was watching the closest thing to magic I’d ever seen in my life.

Riding with the Eagle Hunters

Lake in the Altai Mountains

Out on my Mongolian travels there were long-drops for loos, hand-wipes for showers, cardboard-tasting cheese and winds that whipped dust over everything you owned – but there were also eagles, fierce huntresses and whole mountains flooded pink at dusk. I went out looking for a story and I came back with a notepad full of scribbles, doodles, and notes. And sometime soon, there will be another Elphinstone story on UK bookshelves – about a young eagle huntress in Mongolia and her gold-winged Balapan.

A Mongolian ger in the sunlight

Tolbo Lake at dusk

Me writing Book 3 in the Dreamsnatcher trilogy by Tolbo Lake after sunset

Yak selfie. Because why not.

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