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Monster Hunting – a passion for words

For CS Lewis, it all began with a picture in his head. It was of a Faun holding an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood. He carried it around with him in his imagination for more than 20 years until one day he thought: “Let’s try to make a story about it.” From that came one of the best children’s books ever written – The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe. Lewis said all his Narnia books began the same way.

I don’t have a clue where my own ideas come from, and I’m not sure I want to. I do know that I tend to think in words rather than pictures, though. I’ve always carried a notebook in which to jot down ideas, and sometimes it can just be a word that catches your eye all of a sudden. Owl. Hill. Shadow. Tower. Snow. Dark. Fire. Road. Old. Time. Sleep. Gate. Key. I like the way certain words look and sound.

Sometimes you write a story just for the pleasure of using those words. Once you put the words together in strange combinations, something new is made of them, like atoms forming molecules and in due course making up everything we can see around us.

The atoms are tiny, but enough of them squeezed together create the whole world.

I feel the same way about place names. When I was younger, I lived on the edge of the Peak District in Derbyshire. I had an Ordnance Survey map of the area, and could spend hours just poring over the map, looking at the names of all the places marked on it: Crooked Clough, James’s Thorn, Shining Clough Moss, Barrow Stones, Featherbed Moss, Ironbower Moss, Wildboarclough, Nell’s Pike, Dog Rock, White Mare, Ferny Hole, Rollick Stones, Yellow Stacks, Long Gutter Edge. Place names can feel like the seeds of stories in themselves. Who was Nell? How did the Rollick Stones get their name? Why is the clough in Crooked Clough crooked? For that matter, what is a clough anyway?

Pages and pages of my notebooks are filled with real and made-up place names. People’s names too. Once you find the right name for a character, they stir into life mysteriously. Charles Dickens was the master at conjuring up amazing names. Once you come up with a name like Wackford Squeers, or Oswald Pardiggle, or Montague Tigg, or Newman Noggs, how can you not immediately want to write a story about that person and find out who they really are?

Every story in turn contains the seeds of a new story. You can’t read a book or watch a film without having a thought about it. Even if the thought is only “well, that was boring” or “that couldn’t happen in real life” or “I don’t know why that particular character did that particular thing at that particular moment.” One thought inevitably sparks another… and another. Every thought offers a fresh chance to write a new story.

You can tell familiar stories from a different character’s point of view, or change the place where it’s set, or give it a whole new ending. Just because the author says a story is about one thing or another doesn’t mean that they’re right. There are no right or wrong answers.

People sometimes insist that there’s a formula to writing a story, and there are certainly rules that you can follow if you feel more comfortable with them. But the best stories are those that shake up the rules, or make them up as they go along. Grown-ups in particular are always pretending to know what they’re doing, and they really, really seem to need you to believe it, but most of the time they don’t, they’re just making it up as they go along too.

That goes for writers as well. Writers aren’t special people. They’re just ordinary people who happen to write stories. Some of them seem to have a greater insight than others into what makes a story work, but most of us are simply figuring it out as we go along, like everyone else. All you have to do when telling a story is to find the thing inside the story that makes it different from everyone else’s, and then follow that thread to see where it leads, however winding the path, so then eventually it becomes a story that only you could have told, even if everyone else thinks it’s rubbish or weird.

Who cares what anyone else thinks? It’s your story, not theirs.

My book began with a title: Monster Hunting For Beginners. Like CS Lewis’s picture of a faun carrying parcels in a snowy wood, I knew then that I’d have to write the story that fitted the title. It went without saying that there’d be monsters and magic, because those are the stories I like to read best, and I knew that there would be lots of jokes, because I’ve always tended to make sense of the world through humour, and monsters are intrinsically ridiculous. They’re big, and they look a bit peculiar (don’t we all?), and they generally want to eat people. What’s not funny about that?

As I went along, new characters popped up, new settings, more jokes. Someone else would have written it very differently, and maybe their story would have been better. But this is mine. That’s all you can ever say about a story. You can’t make other people like it. The only thing you can do is make it absolutely your own.

IAN MARK is an author and part-time monster hunter living in Northern Ireland with his family and an indeterminate amount of cats. With his partner, he has written adult thrillers under the pen name Ingrid Black. Monster Hunting for Beginners is his middle grade debut.

Monster Hunting For Beginners by Ian Mark, illustrated by Louis Ghibault is published by Farshore Books, price £12.99.