By abielphinstone, Jan 15 2018 10:00AM

I’ve always been enthralled by snowy stories and many of my favourite childhood books featured icy realms: Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights. So, perhaps it was inevitable that one day I would write my own wintry book. But it was only when I travelled up to the Arctic recently, to north Norway, that I started taking notes about the landscape, wildlife and people and a plot for Sky Song began to take shape.

1. The Lofoten Islands

I first came across Norway when reading about Roald Dahl’s childhood adventures there in Boy and then, years later, I married a man whose ancestors were from Norway (true fact: my husband’s great grandfather INVENTED the fish finger there!) and every summer I found myself returning to the fjords on the south coast to go fishing, kayaking and sailing, adventures that inspired much of the action in my second book, The Shadow Keeper. But it wasn’t until 2016 that I made my first trip to the Arctic, to the Lofoten Islands off the north-west coast of Norway.

I flew from London to Oslo then on to Bodo and finally to Leknes, on the Lofoten archipelago itself, before hiring a car and setting my bags down in a little wooden hut in Hamnøy. I arrived at 3pm and it was dark already because that far north, in January, you hit the polar night… The sun doesn’t rise all winter but despite its absence, you encounter a blue half-light from 10am until about 2pm and during that time, I went exploring: hikes up dramatic mountains, walks on deserted beaches with driftwood swings and boat trips to watch orcas dive for herring.

This was a land shrouded in silence and, for the most part, locked in darkness but if I really listened, I could hear the place whispering: the crack and pop of ice, the underwater clicks of the whales, the whir of ptarmigan wings over mountain peaks, the faintest hum of the northern lights as they rippled green and blue across the sky at night. And eventually, the idea of a kingdom ruled by an Ice Queen’s enchanted anthem wandered into my head and I knew had the very beginnings of my fourth book.

2. Tromsø

There is something absolutely mesmeric about the northern lights and last year I found myself journeying back to the Arctic, to Tromsø this time, to see them again. After sheltering from a blizzard in a small wooden hut, I crept out to see that the storm had passed, the clouds had cleared and great ribbons of green were flickering across the fjords at Sommarøy. The scientific explanation for the northern lights – that they are the result of the solar wind interacting with the earth's magnetic field – is all well and good but I like the magical beliefs behind their existence more: the Dakota people from North America believe the lights come from the fires heating enormous cauldrons in which the gods roast their enemies; the Finns believe the lights are caused by an Arctic fox’s tail touching the peak of a mountain and sending sparks up into the sky; the Danes believe the lights are swans flying so far north their wings are tapped in ice and when they flap the sparks ripple into the sky; Inuits believe the lights are the souls of stillborn children playing football with a walrus-hide ball. And, naturally, I leant towards the magical in Sky Song – I have my characters believing the northern lights are in fact the sky gods roaming their celestial world.

I watched both orcas and humpback whales diving for herring off the coast of Tromsø and although it was too cold, and bumpy, to take notes on the RIB boat I was on I watched these animals fiercely: the almost luminous glow of orcas beneath the surface of the sea, the slow menace of their dorsal fins breaking the water and then sliding into the deeps, the graceful bow of a humpback carving into the sea. And all the while, further scenes for Sky Song began to play out in my head.

But what really stood out on my second trip to the Arctic was the kindness of the people there. This is a land locked in the harsh white glitter of snow for much of the year and yet there is an enormous sense of togetherness that far north and I felt this perhaps most acutely when I spent time with the Sami Reindeer Herders (a trip organised by Lyngsfjord Adventure - http://www.lyngsfjord.com/). Tucked inside a fire-lit lavvu (a circular framework of poles leaning inward like a teepee or wigwam, and a floor of birch twigs covered with layers of reindeer fur) I spoke to the Sami Reindeer Herders about their nomadic way of life. They roam across north Norway with herds of up to 5,000 reindeer, they have hundreds of different words to describe snow (terms that exist for powdery snow, snow that fell yesterday, snow that is soft underneath with a hard crust on top) and they believe they can determine the weather from the behaviour of their reindeer. Despite the remote location and the bitterly cold air whipping round their lavvu, these people radiated warmth and as I rode through the mountains that night on a sled pulled by a reindeer (the only sound to break the silence was the clink of the bell around the animal’s neck), I thought about the idea of belonging, even at the very edges of the world. I ended up writing Sky Song at the peak of the Refugee Crisis, and as the photos of capsized boats and ostracised families flooded in across new channels, I began to see my fictional world – a kingdom torn apart by an evil Ice Queen where tribes turn inwards and are prejudiced against outsiders – as a stage to challenge the idea of what it really means to belong. That acceptance shouldn't hinge on principles such as background, race, religion or birthplace. Acceptance should be forged from open mindedness, understanding and an unerring sense of compassion.

My last stop on this Arctic trip was Camp Tamok, just over an hour's drive from Tromsø. Thanks to Lyngsfjord Adventure, I stayed in a wooden hut with a glass roof so that I could fall asleep watching the northern lights and during the day I went dog-sledding over frozen lakes and through icicled forests. And when I wasn’t tipping the sled over round hairpin bends, I was able to enjoy the creak of the wooden sled against the snow and the yaps of the Alaskan huskies, memories which later formed Chapter 2 of Sky Song, as Flint urges his own huskies over the ice towards Winterfang Palace.

I feel enormously lucky to have visited the Arctic, a formidable landscape under constant threat from oil drilling, destructive fishing and global warming. And while Sky Song is an imagined tale – complete with Erkenbears, snargoyles and giants – I hope that through it my readers will glimpse some of the beauty of the frozen north and understand how important it is we protect this precious place.

Renowned pianist and composer, Ludovico Einaudi, playing ‘Elegy to the Arctic’ on a melting glacier on Svalbard.

3. Mongolia

After seeing Israeli photographer Asher Svidensky's photograph of Kazakh Eagle Huntress, Aisholpan Nurgaiv, I decided to travel to Mongolia to meet her. And out in the Mongolian mountains, Aisholpan taught me how to hunt with a golden eagle, an ancient tradition upheld almost exclusively by men - until Aisholpan came along... The heroine of Sky Song, a twelve-year-old girl called Eska, learns to hunt with a golden eagle but at the beginning of the story she is trapped inside a cursed music box without the use of her limbs or indeed her voice. And I think this idea of a powerless, voiceless girl fighting free was inspired by my meeting Aisholpan and hearing about how she broke into a centuries-old male-dominated tradition. For my full blog post (and lots more photos) on this adventure, click here.

4. Iceland

Again, not technically the Arctic, but still a land of glaciers and thundering waterfalls and much of the setting in Sky Song comes from this ruggedly beautiful country: The Giant's Beard waterfall came from seeing, and then hailing, the almighty Skogafoss waterfall and The Groaning Splinters came from climbing Solheimajokull glacier.

5. Oman

A warmer adventure this time and one that inspired the closing scenes of Sky Song: microlighting over sun-streaked mountains in Oman…

By abielphinstone, Nov 8 2017 05:28PM

1. Erkenwald

The very first book I ever wrote was inspired by Neil Gaiman’s 'Stardust' and it featured a fantasy world on a star named Erkenwald. This book was rejected by over thirty literary agents so after a while I shut it away in a drawer in my writing shed and moved on to another story. Although that book was definitely not strong enough to be a published work there were elements of it – names, character ideas, features of settings – that I’ve borrowed since. For this story, I borrowed the name of the star, Erkenwald, and used it for the name of my icy kingdom.

2. Winterfang

This is the name of my Ice Queen’s palace, a fortress of domes, spires and towers carved out of an iceberg. I wanted a word that would conjure up the menace of the Ice Queen: ‘winter’ carried all the connotations of ice and snow and ‘fang’ leant the word a sinister undertone. Often when I’m creating a new setting I use a photograph or google image to inspire me and in this case I used the below.

3. Never Cliffs

I’ve always loved J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan and especially Neverland, the fictional world the characters travel to. There’s something endlessly magical about the word ‘never’ – and using that word in conjunction with a mountain range implies dazzlingly high peaks and ridges that go on and on and on. I grew up surrounded by mountains in Scotland that seemed to go on forever and so I wanted to include that kind of setting here.

4. Needlespin

A few years ago I read a wonderful book called One Wish by Michelle Harrison. It featured a terrifying river monster called Nessie Needletooth and in Sky Song I wanted to create my own ‘needle-sharp’ monster. Cue Needlespin, a ghoul made entirely from splinters of ice, who haunts the Never Cliffs.

5. Devil’s Dancefloor

This is the name of an enchanted lake in Erkenwald but I didn’t make the name up myself. While researching the book, I was reading about adventurer Olly Hick’s kayak expedition from Greenland to Scotland and one of the toughest stretches of his journey was over the 300 miles of open water between Iceland and the Faroe Islands, known as the Devil’s Dancefloor. I loved the alliteration of these words, and their sinister connotations, and I decided they would be perfect for a lake enslaved to an Ice Queen’s command.


This is the name my heroine, Eska, gives to the golden eagle that befriends her and I first heard it when living with the Kazakh Eagle Hunters out in Mongolia (you can read about my adventure here). Eagle hunters and huntresses call every eagle under the age of one Balapan and so

7. The Groaning Splinters

To research my Arctic setting, I journeyed to the frozen fjords off the northern coast of Norway where I watched orcas dive for herring, steered a dog-sled through snowy valleys and glimpsed the aurora borealis rippling across the sky. This was a land shrouded in silence and locked in darkness – the sun doesn’t rise at all in the winter months – but if I really listened, I could hear the place whispering: the crack and pop of sea ice, the underwater clicks of the orcas and the whir of ptarmigan wings over mountain peaks. Many think of icebergs as frozen blocks of silence but I wanted a name for my icebergs that implied movement and noise…

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.

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