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In the month of Frost-come


When I go to schools as an author, I often get asked where I get my ideas from and how I know what to write. This is a roundabout answer.

   When it comes to ideas, I’ve spent the last five years among trolls.

   I’ve written about them. I’ve written for them. I’ve gone for walks in their company. I’ve stood behind them at the check-out. I’ve picked up the free newspapers they leave on the train. I've learned their calendar, from Frost-come through to Dark-deep. Whenever I started a story, it turned out to be about trolls.

   I set out to write about feeling sad, and suddenly there was the Queen of the Trolls feeling sadder than sad, mourning everything from her leaking roof to how terribly wet birds get when it rains.

   I've heard  a little girl singing to herself in a house on the edge of Troll Wood. And seen a small troll watching the snow from his attic window, flanked by his friends, two wise-cracking mice. Under the same snowy sky another troll sees his makeshift home flattened by a pack of giants hunting their prey.

   I’ve written about Mount Urk, where a surprisingly large number of trolls live almost unknown and unvisited by us, ignoring our world down below. I’ve told the story of a lost baby troll fostered by an elderly human couple and raised as their son. I’ve pieced together the torn, mud-stained pages left by Gwendolen Abbot, an intrepid primary-school teacher who mounted a solo expedition into the caverns of Urk one February half-term and never came back. I like to think she went to a better place —  better, anyway, than the tiger-infested jungle where the short-sighted Prince of Trolls built his palace long ago. I could go on but you get the idea. Basically, for five years it’s been just me and the trolls most days. Where ideas are concerned, it’s definitely been Trolls R Us.

   And then what happens? I finally write a new story, Troll Wood, and by the end of it there isn’t a troll in sight. While I was busy, they saw their work was done. They slipped off and the story became about something else. I had no idea that was going to happen. It just did.

   When you’re writing, that’s what you watch for: the moment when something kicks in and the story takes its true shape. All sorts of important things go on beforehand, including endless playing around with ideas and what Raymond Chandler referred to as the application of the seat of the pants to the chair, but for me it doesn’t count until that moment comes - when you have no idea how it happened but you know what to write.