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.