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 (http://www.svidensky.com/). 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.

By abielphinstone, May 7 2015 03:09PM

I’m a huge fan of adventures (my last blog post detailed me finding trolls and dragons in Norway) but my most recent adventure - The Dreamsnatcher Expedition - was something very, very special indeed… Because for three days and nights my book came alive in the Berkshire woodland thanks to 46 incredible kids and 6 brilliant leaders from The Exploration Society.

We slept in Romany wagons (in wooden box beds just as Moll would have done) and bell tents; we collected fallen branches and twigs to build a campfire in the middle of the wagons (like Oak’s camp would have built in the Ancientwood); we carved bows, arrows, walking sticks and catapults to fend off any witchdoctors who came close; we told stories and played the violin round the campfire (as Mooshie would have done on feast nights).

Expedition highlights included:

• Carving oracle bone script into rabbit bones found in the woods

• Running through the forest at night while dressed as a witchdoctor as we re-enacted a Shadowmask raid (Skull would have liked this, I fear)

• Trading bows and arrows, amulets, peg dolls and walking sticks at our gypsy hawking fair

• Cooking home-made burgers on a campfire amongst the trees

• Reading The Dreamsnatcher in a gypsy wagon

• Creating magical kingdoms in a gamekeepers hut

• Climbing so high up trees even Moll would have been impressed

Expedition lowlights included:

• Face-planting into a tent that I didn’t see in the dark (the kind of thing Siddy might do…)

Things we learnt in the forest:

• If you rub flint and steel together you can create fire

• Hazel is the strongest wood to make catapults with

• How to skin and cook a pigeon

• It is extremely hard (and annoying) to pack up a big tent

• Fir cones, snail shells and bark bound together with string works well as a talisman against evil spirits (Cinderella Bull would have been proud of us)

The next Dreamsnatcher Expedition is taking place at the end of August. We’ll be sleeping in Romany wagons, carving catapults, foraging for food and tending to rescued gypsy cobs. For more details, visit: http://explorationsociety.co.uk/dreamsnatcher/

By abielphinstone, Apr 16 2015 07:20AM

Sometimes stories happen by accident. For example, I found my main character’s surname (Pecksniff) on a body lotion while shopping in TK Maxx and I figured out the plot for Book 3 after stumbling across an abandoned piano in the woods in Somerset. But sometimes I go out on a specific story-hunting adventure. And this Easter I went to Norway, mainly because:

1. My husband is part Norwegian and his great-great-great grandfather invented the fish finger (yes, true fact)

2. Apparently there are trolls in Norway

My first stop was Bergen, the ‘Gateway to the Fjords of Norway,’ founded by King Olav Kyrre in 1070 (I like to think he would have been pals with Toothless and Hiccup). I did a little bit of city STUFF (stroked a lobster and whizzed down the old Hanseatic wharf) then I headed up into the mountains to explore. Because my stories almost always ‘happen’ to me when I head out of the city and into the wild. And sure enough, after a short funicular ride up the mountain, I found Narnia. No sign of Mr Tumnus but plenty of inspiration for snowy stories – something I’m thinking a lot about for my next series.

In Narnia, I chanced upon trolls, witches, lynx tracks and frozen lakes – all that hidden in the mountains above a city. Proof to me that there is so much more magic lurking behind the curtain of every day life than we realise.

From Bergen, I went to Voss for two day’s skiing – important to get the adrenalin up on a story-hunting trip and I’ve always wanted to write a ski chase into a book! I can just imagine Moll bombing down the mountain with Alfie (Siddy would fall over too much to keep up, I suspect). In Voss, the friends I was travelling with put me in charge of off-piste ski navigation for a day but unfortunately I skied into a dangerous ravine in the first three minutes and I was promptly sacked. Still, I got to experience a face-full of powder (bit of method writing for when a Shadowmask dunks Moll in the snow) and I found some icicles that looked suspiciously like the Soul Splinter…

My last, and perhaps most magical, stop was deep inside the Norwegian fjords – up past Flam in a little village called Aurland. I’d never seen anything like this place. Whole mountains reflected back at me in the water, clouds hanging inside fjords, houses perched precariously on cliff tops and waterfalls gushing down entire mountains. It was absolutely, completely, definitely dragon territory… I hiked past huge boulders of rock strewn in the middle of rivers (no doubt hurled there by giants) and scaled up cliff faces with just a piece of rope (very Dreamsnatchery).

The place was tingling with magic; it was impossible not to imagine characters (feisty children and wild animals) roaming the landscape. I climbed trees, leapt over tumbled walls and star-jumped on top of mountains and I came home positively ARMED with stories…

I’m pretty sure Bella from Twilight had a vampire help her up into the canopy. I CLIMBED UP BY MYSELF. Gotta love writing feisty heroines…

By abielphinstone, Apr 8 2015 12:15PM

Moll is hopelessly headstrong and reckless but she has a few people back in Oak’s camp looking out for her – which is probably just as well… Because if Mooshie wasn’t on hand to brew herbal cures for her (and Siddy's) scrapes and bruises and Cinderella Bull wasn’t there to work spells against Skull’s dark magic, who knows where Moll would be. So, without further ado, over to Mooshie, Moll’s adoptive mother, and Cinderella Bull, the camp’s fortune-teller…

Hedgehog paws: carrying a hedgehog paw in a leather pouch around your neck will cure toothache

MOOSHIE: All trees have a spirit and they lend it to us if we listen hard. Trouble is, Moll is so busy tramping around her tree fort with Siddy and leaping from branches with Gryff, that she sometimes forgets about the old magic lying at the heart of the forest. But just in case you have a moment, here are a list of my favourite trees, plants and animals, together with their uses and medicinal gifts.

• Silver birch: its spirit protects against evil beings and the sap is good for sugar when you’re making beer and wine. And if you have kidney stones, drinking a few glasses of birch sap every day will dissolve them

• Holly berries: the greatest fertility charm there is. It’s worth hanging a cluster from your wagon though try telling Moll that – she has no interest in this kind of thing. It’s also a protection charm against witches, goblins and the devil and the young leaves can be used as a cure for colds, bronchitis and rheumatism

• Crab apple trees: the fruit can be used in crab apple jelly and wine and the pips can determine whether you are in love! Throw the pips into the fire while saying the name of your true love aloud, then if the pip explodes, the love is true

• Lovage: if you sprinkle this herb on your lover’s food it will increase his or her love for you and ensure faithfulness (my friend, Patti, is a firm believer in this). You can also use lovage as a cure for colic and wind in young babies

• Mugwort: after laying some mashed potato on the wound, press cooling, anti-inflammatory herbs like mugwort into the poultice. Try to gather the mugwort in a thunderstorm (herbs picked in a thunderstorm carry extra healing properties)

• Hedgehog: carrying a hedgehog paw in a leather pouch around your neck will cure toothache (though it took me ages to convince Hard-Times Bob of this). If the toothache is particularly bad, suck on the paw from time to time

CINDERELLA BULL: For the past few years I haven’t had to use that many protection charms – and I’ve only ever brought my crystal ball out at feasts – but Skull’s dark magic has grown stronger and I’ll do everything I can now to keep the camp safe.

Siddy’s talisman to ward off evil
Siddy’s talisman to ward off evil

• Talisman: every gypsy in the camp has a talisman, a good luck charm to ward off evil. Moll has a boxing fist necklace with her initials on, Siddy has a stone with a hole in the middle hung round his neck and I have a leather pouch full of salt

• Protection charms to hang from wagons: It’s worth hanging any of the following to ward off evil – lemon peel, fragments of mirror, salt, fox teeth, jay feathers…

• Reading the crystal ball: My crystal ball is made from black obsidian and has been handed down the Frogmore family for generations. I keep it hidden inside my wagon and wrapped tight in silk. Though it drains my energy to read it, I can sometimes foresee events. The trick is to wait for a full moon and then look inside the obsidian (don’t stare at it without blinking as that only strains your eyes). After a while the ball will fill with swirling white clouds and when they disappear you are left with a picture

• Learning animal signs: sometimes the animals in the camp or on the farm nearby provide clues as to what weather might unfold (though Siddy’s pet earthworm, Porridge the Second, has brought no such luck). If pigs grow restless, grunt loudly and jerk up their heads, there will be a great deal of wind; if spiders, in spinning their webs, make the final filaments long, the weather will be fine for a considerable stretch of days; to meet a red-headed person riding a white horse is extremely good luck

Jay feathers - Romany good luck charm

Ki shan I Romani

Adoi san’ I chov’hani

(Where gypsies go,

There the witches are, we know)

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