By abielphinstone, Mar 25 2015 09:11AM

I thought about having a go at writing this blog post but then Moll told me to shut up because I’m not technically in The Tribe so there’s no way I could know anything of real importance about forest survival. I tried to point out to Moll that in a way I created The Tribe but she was having none of it, and so before she had a chance to set Gryff on me, I decided to hand over to her…

Introducing Moll – outside her wagon

MOLL: If you haven’t already formed a gang or a club or a secret society, you probably should – especially if you’re planning on Not Dying in the forest. We invented The Tribe a few years ago. At first it was just me, Sid and Gryff – then when we let another member in coz he proved good at picking locks and riding cobs. Most of the time we break rules, avoid chores, tell lies on Tuesdays and Thursdays and do brave things like rescuing trapped otters and mending owl wings. But the first thing we did was to learn how to get by in the forest – how to build shelter and hunt for food – so if you’re keen on staying alive when you’re out in the woods, it’s probably worth listening to us.

First thing: the den. This is VERY important – for meetings, sleeping and generally keeping out of the way of camp chores and witchdoctor chants. The Tribe has a tree house (we call it a tree fort coz Sid says it sounds better) and it’s perched half way up a yew tree – coz every gypsy knows the spirit of the yew grants protection against evil spirits.

Abi’s brother in their childhood den (not as good as The Tribe’s Tree Fort)
Abi’s brother in their childhood den (not as good as The Tribe’s Tree Fort)

Oak, the head of our camp, helped us make the tree fort, and this is how we did it:

1. Gathered up as many planks and slats of wood as we could find

2. Found a big old yew tree that had a space large enough for a tree house in the middle of its branches. I also checked there was a good swooping branch for Gryff so that he could hang out near us but keep a bit of distance to be all wild and free

3. Hauled the planks up into the tree (this was the hardest part, mostly coz Sid kept giggling half way up about Porridge The Second, his earthworm, tickling him inside his pocket)

4. Hammered nails into the biggest planks to fix the base to the tree first. Then we made the sides and the roof with the smaller slats. We left a hole for a window (so we can spy on stuff down in the glade), and Mooshie, that’s Oak’s wife, leant us some fancy lace to hang over it as a curtain

5. Collected old jam jars to go in the fort and filled them with funny-looking mushrooms, weird ferns, giant nettles (we tried to pick ALL of these so Mooshie won’t use them to make her disgusting nettle soup) and smooth pebbles for catapulting annoying people

6. Hung wind chimes from the branch under the fort to ward off evil spirits (then I added a dreamcatcher coz I figured the bright feathers might put the evil spirit in a better mood if it did chance on passing our way). We also hung some other good luck charms to help protect our fort from witchdoctor badness: nails dangling from string, bits of mirror stuck into branches, lemon peel tucked into the hollows and a fox tooth in a jam jar by the trunk of the tree

Abi’s Dad cutting down hazel in a Scottish wood for Moll’s catapult
Abi’s Dad cutting down hazel in a Scottish wood for Moll’s catapult

After we built the tree fort, Oak taught us how to hunt. And it’s a good job he did – coz recently Mooshie and me worked out that most of my bad decisions happen when I’m hungry. So to avoid bad decisions, here are The Tribe’s key tips to finding food in the forest:

1. Know how to make a fire. Find a flat area in the forest, dig a circle a few centimetres deep and round enough for your fire (about 75cm). Surround the area with dry rocks to box in the fire. Gather dry twigs, leaves and kindling from fallen branches – birch bark is a good fire starter. Build a small, loose pile of kindling inside the stones and make sure there’s space for the air to feed the fire. Make an inwards tepee of dry twigs and small sticks around and above the kindling pile. Then add to your fire with bigger logs to keep it burning. Remember to put the fire out after you’re finished with it as that can lead to all sorts of annoying problems

2. Make a catapult. Find a Y-shaped piece of wood (hazel or ash is usually the best as it’s strong), carve it down to shape so that the central base fits into the palm of your hand, use a penknife to make a grove round each of the Y prongs, bake it in an oven for 15 minutes to make the wood stronger, coat it in varnish then fit a strip of strong, thick elastic with a leather pouch in the middle of it over the prongs. Then just find a stone and you’re good to go. I reckon I’m probably the best in The Tribe at catapulting, but Sid’s not bad, and I suppose Gryff is pretty good at hunting and he doesn’t even need a catapult. We get pigeons and rabbits mostly – then we cook them on the fire

Moll’s catapult (carved by Abi – not that Moll said thank you…)

3. Tickle a trout. Wade up the river feeling underneath the banks for resting trout. Using one hand, work your fingers from the trout’s tail upwards, gently rubbing its belly with the tips of your fingers so that it goes all still and trance-like. Once you reach the head, grip hard, lift fish out of the water, cook it on the fire. YUM

4. Munch some berries and nuts. Look out for blackberries late summer/early autumn as well as plums, damsons, wild strawberries and raspberries which you’ll find growing in hedgerows. And you can’t go wrong with chestnuts – gather a handful from the ground in Autumn, use a penknife to cut away the shell then roast them over the fire. They taste good dipped in salt

You should be all right in the wild. I mean, sheltering from the rain and finding food is a walk in the park compared to what I got landed with. Annoyingly there aren’t that many rules on how to avoid witchdoctors and their deadly Dream Snatch. But still, I’ve got my catapult – and that’s a start…

By abielphinstone, Mar 11 2015 05:53PM

Although Moll is an orphan, she has a lot of people looking out for her back in camp: Oak and Mooshie, Sid, Cinderella Bull and even Hard-Times Bob. But it’s the wildcat from the northern wilderness that perhaps looks after Moll the most. Whether she’s trespassing into the Deepwood to get her cob back or racing over the heath away from Skull, Gryff is never far from Moll’s side.

Gryff - hunting for food in the winter

It’s funny to think that when I wrote a very early draft of The Dreamsnatcher, Moll’s animal companion started out as an owl called Cobweb! He was a cute little tawny owl who could swivel his head full circle and do a shuffly backwards moonwalk, but as the story developed, I realised I wanted a wilder animal – one who could race through the forest by Moll’s side and protect her if danger lurked close. At first, I wanted that animal to be a snow leopard, one of the most secretive wild animals in the world – and one I fell in love with after reading Jackie Morris’ The Snow Leopard. But I needed my story to be believable and although I never say where The Dreamsnatcher is set, in my mind it’s in the New Forest in England – and there aren’t any snow leopards there, that’s for sure…

The Snow Leopard in Jackie Morris’ book

I grew up in Scotland and I remember glimpsing a wildcat once in a wood on the moors and my father saying how rare they were (they are currently a critically endangered species with an estimated 35 left in the wild in the UK) and how they were ‘the only animal that can’t be tamed.’ Moll is about as feral as kids come so a wildcat seemed a fitting sidekick for her – and in my head I could imagine one coming down from the ‘northern wilderness’ to the ‘southern parts of the country’ to protect Moll. It then took me ages to come up with a name for my wildcat and after weeks of thinking, I sent this email to my husband, Edo: ‘Which of these names do you think is the best name for a wildcat? Silver, Skylar, Fly, Pace, Grey, Bry. The wildcat is solitary, intelligent, fiercely protective, stealthy... And it's male.’ Edo replied: ‘None of those. I like Gryff.’ As soon as I heard it, I knew Gryff was perfect – the name even sounded like a growl he might make.

Gryff looking over to check up on Moll

It was a freezing day in January when I went to watch the wildcats in captivity at the New Forest wildlife park. But I sat shivering in the snow before their huge cages, watching them sleep, eat, stretch and slink around their territory. I listened to their greeting call and watched them leap, like ripples of silk, from the tallest branches to the ground. The wildcats’ warning growls sent shivers down my spine and watching them rip apart meat with razor-sharp claws made me understand that Gryff, although a friend to Moll, would have to be wild at heart. And after seeing all this, Gryff went from being a page on Wikipedia to a fully-drawn character.

Me holding baby Gryff (I found him in Burma!)

Gryff is large, even for a wildcat, with a muscular body and long, banded legs. His coat is thick and grey with jet-black stripes and his tail is long and bushy, ringed with bands of black and ending in a blunt tip. His eyes are large and bright yellow/green (a bit like Moll’s but with vertical black pupils) and he has white whiskers and sharp claws on all four limbs. Usually he sleeps inside hollowed trees, beneath fallen branches, inside rocky cracks or in the abandoned nests of other large animals like foxes or badgers. But because Skull’s dark magic is growing stronger, Gryff starts to sleep beneath Moll’s wagon so that he can guard her at night. Gryff hunts at dawn or dusk, patrolling forest glades and woodland areas and he can leap from the highest branches of trees to the ground unscathed when hunting other animals. He uses his camouflage and patience to stalk as close possible to his prey before reaching a full speed sprint and catching it. He crouches on alder branches overhanging the river when he’s after a duck, he waits above rabbit warrens for rabbits to emerge and he kills by grabbing the prey in his claws, piercing the neck with his fangs, then consuming almost every part of the kill. Gryff’s night vision is seven times better than our own and his hearing is active 24 hours a day, even when he’s sleeping. He can detect minute changes in air currents with his whiskers movement, he can smell meat 200 metres away and in sprints he can reach up to 30 miles per hour!

Gryff hunting in the mountains
Gryff hunting in the mountains

Gryff is powerful, agile, intelligent, fearless, loyal and patient and although he is by nature a solitary animal full of secrets, he forms an extraordinary bond with Moll and she learns to read his movements…

• Whiskers twitching: he’s heard something

• Ears swivelling: he’s listening for something

• Ears flattened to his head: he’s scared

• Tail down low: he’s seen something

• Stamping forelimbs: he’s angry

… and his noises…

• Brrroooooo: his greeting call (like a dynamo throbbing deep in the earth)

• Urrrrrrrrrrrr: he’s seen something that could be a threat

• Hisssssssssss: he’s angry or feels threatened

• PAAAAH: he’s angry (often comes with growling, spitting and snarling)

• Noine, noine, noine: he’s content (like a purr but wilder)

By abielphinstone, Mar 5 2015 05:23PM

I spent most of my secondary school forming secret clubs with complicated passwords, dying my hair pink and talking through every lesson apart from English (because I stop concentrating after 6.8 seconds – that’s even less than a goldfish apparently – they come in at 9 seconds). But I reckon I would have paid a lot more attention if teachers had realised back then that I was a VISUAL LEARNER – whiteboards full of boring squiggles weren’t going to help me. I needed images to keep me engaged. And it’s the same as when I’m writing. If I’m describing a deep, dark forest I use postcards and photos of gnarled trees and tangled undergrowth to help me conjure up words – and with every character I create, I fix a photo of a movie star on their profile. So for all the visual learners out there, here are The Dreamsnatcher characters as full on, uber-famous movie stars. BOOM. Well – all except Moll because (typically) she refused to conform to any movie star’s appearance from across the globe…

MOLL PECKSNIFF, 12-year-old gypsy

This is Moll but I have no idea who this girl is or where she is from…

GRYFF, a wildcat who befriends Moll

Not seen any movie star wildcats – yet…

SIDDY, Moll’s best friend

Max Records in Where The Wild Things Are (but with sticking out ears)

ALFIE, a young member of Skull’s gang

Alex Pettyfer in Tom Brown’s Schooldays

OAK, head of Moll’s camp

George Clooney

MOOSHIE, Oak’s husband

Maggie Gyllenhaal in Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang (but plumper)

CINDERELLA BULL, a fortune-teller

Liz Smith

HARD-TIMES BOB, a limb-dislocator

Merlin in The Sword in the Stone (though less cartoony and without the beard)

SKULL, a witchdoctor

I didn’t have a movie star in mind with Skull as he wears a mask. But I’d definitely steal Alan Rickman’s voice…

GOBBLER, Skull’s second-in-command

Gollum in Lord of the Rings

Brunt, the meanest of Skull’s boys


By abielphinstone, Mar 2 2015 05:19PM

I would love to provide you with a super-slick post about how effortless my ‘Idea Flow’ process is. But sadly that’s not going to happen. I’m dyslexic – and my ideas do not flow. They bump and jostle and wriggle and squirm. In fact it would be more truthful to describe the Abi Elphinstone ‘Idea Flow’ as an ‘Idea Knot.’ But somehow the knot always untangles in the end – and I think it might be because:

1. I turned the hut at the bottom of my garden into a writing shed then filled it with things that inspire me to write: books, a framed message from Philip Pullman, dreamcatchers, gypsy artefacts, the Escape The City manifesto…

1. I hung wooden signs displaying my favourite lines from children’s books all around the shed…

2. I bought a pair of writing slippers. My feet are always cold and if I’m cold I can’t write…

3. I found an old desk at an antiques fair and squeezed it into my shed. The marble slab on the top is strangely calming and I always have a scented candle going when I write. That way, even if I’m filled with chaotic knots, I feel outwardly like the perfection of writerly serenity…

4. I gather anything story-related onto a big mood board in my shed: newspaper clippings, letters, words, photos, postcards, hand-drawn maps, codes…

5. I have about three notepads on the go at any one time. And I write down everything that pops into my brain during the early ‘idea’ phase of a book…

6. I can’t describe settings until they’re really clear in my head first so I draw my fictional worlds onto ordnance survey maps bought from charity shops

7. I keep all my old diaries in a drawer in my hut and sometimes before writing about my main character, Moll (who is basically me), I read through my diaries to get myself back into the mindset of a 12-year-old girl hungry for adventure…

8. I write everywhere I can – in my shed, in the car, on buses, trains, planes, up trees, inside caves and even on the back of a motorbike (once)…

9. I recently bought this magical floating reading chair and I’ve already started spinning inside it and thinking of new stories. It helps untangle the knots BIG TIME…

By abielphinstone, Mar 1 2015 11:59AM

In 2006, I left Bristol University with an English degree. After two unfulfilling years in PR, I booked a one-way ticket to Africa. There I taught English and half way up a baobab tree, I wrote my first children’s book. After four months I came back to the UK and went into secondary school teaching, first in Berkshire and then in London. I submitted my children’s book to thirty literary agents - and it was rejected by every single one. I taught English for four years and in the evenings and holidays, I wrote another book. I sent it to thirty literary agents - and it was rejected by them all. Again. A few agents said they saw ‘glimpses of brilliance’ and ‘raw talent’ in my work but that my plots were unoriginal and my writing style was amateur. I wrote a third book. You can guess where this is going: it was rejected by every agent I sent it to. By this point I had racked up 96 rejections from agents.

A page of my Writers & Illustrators Yearbook. REG = rejected but I’m dyslexic so it came out wrong

But something inside me refused to give up. I kept every positive comment any of the agents gave me (in their rejection letters) and I took every bit of advice they offered: I went to literary festivals, I read more children’s books, I attended writing courses, I started blogging and I re-worked my writing until it was the very best it could be. And perhaps most importantly: I stopped putting my focus on getting a book deal and starting thinking about writing a story that really mattered to me.

Me writing up at Loch Muick in Aberdeenshire

I grew up in Scotland where I spent most of my childhood building dens, hiding in tree houses and running wild across highland glens. Together with my siblings, I camped under the stars on the moors, played monkey bars from the rafters in the farmyard barns and fished the pond for giant beetles. I didn’t have to create Moll’s outdoor world; it grew out of my own. And before long, it was filled with a cast of invented characters: a headstrong gypsy girl, a wildcat, a fortune-teller, a witchdoctor, tree ghouls and vapours. Once I’d written the words of the ancient Bone Murmur, Moll’s adventure had begun…

Me (with a dreadful haircut) hitching a ride into the woods

I wrote THE DREAMSNATCHER over the course of a year and I literally threw everything at it because it was finally a story I wanted to tell: I watched wildcats prowl in the New Forest, carved wooden flowers with a Romany gypsy and wrote every spare second I could until there were literally no words left inside me. Then I sent off the book to one agent. She signed me and within two months I had a two book deal with a major UK publishing house! Really excitingly, THE DREAMSNATCHER has now been named a Top Ten Children’s Book Not To Miss in 2015 by The Bookseller and now I get to see it OUT. IN. THE. WILD! But I won’t ever forget the struggle of writing before being published – of the despair, loneliness, hurt and disappointment. But I guess that if you want to embark on any sort of creative process, you’ve got to keep believing in your work and in yourself. In some cases people get lucky quickly but for the rest of us, it’s about sheer graft. It’s about looking for opportunities and making them happen – and it’s about learning to fail and being bold enough to bounce back. As my mum said to me every step of the way: ‘If you’re not failing, you’re just not trying hard enough.’

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