Tomten Tales

Tomten Tales by Astrid Lindgren and Harald Wiberg

For her 1960 story The Tomten, Astrid Lindgren drew on Scandinavian folklore and the poetry of Viktor Rydberg to create a classic picture book, following it up five years later with The Tomten and the Fox – both tales are collected here in a handsome hardback from Floris Books. They are about a little gnome who is devoted to a particular farm but never seen by its people. In the first story he tiptoes around in the dead of night, in the middle of winter, reassuring the animals that warmer weather is on the way and otherwise helping them through the cold snap. In the sequel, he skilfully saves the hens from a prowling fox.

Harald Wiberg’s paintings of the piled-up moonlit snow, the gloomy hayloft, the crowded sheep barn, the cosy farmhouse and so on are very atmospheric and will have me expecting to spot a tomten out of the corner of my eye all winter.

A wonderful seasonal picture book that doesn’t mention Christmas — so a perfect one to share during a snowy January.

Second draft completed

Over the weekend, I completed the second draft of Margot and the Maelstrom. It became more of a rewrite than I’d anticipated, but I’m really pleased with the book now – it’s much more pacy than a year or so ago, and as good as I can get it without fresh eyes on it.

Finishing an early draft is a bit like reaching the top of a mountain – except as you catch your breath and begin to plant your flag, another, even taller mountain rises up out of the earth before you. The ground beneath your feet shudders. You watch as beloved characters and clever subplots are swept away in some sort of enormous landslip. There goes that lovely but unnecessary paragraph about conkers, buried under the wreckage of the second act.

You pull the map from your pocket and suddenly can’t make head nor tail of how it relates to the journey ahead. A low chuckle comes out of nowhere, carrying across the thin air and mocking you for your moment of hubris.

Somehow, you muster the courage to start climbing again.

Today, I’m still savouring that tiny, triumphant moment at the top of the mountain.

Winter Peaks: Quinag, Suilven, Canisp, Cul Mor
Winter Peaks: Quinag, Suilven, Canisp, Cul Mor by Bill Higham

Cultivating magic

Earlier this year, the Studio Ghibli catalogue was added to Netflix. It goes without saying that the films are absolute classics that reward re-watching, but I particularly admire Kiki’s Delivery Service.

Part of that’s down to the setting – a vaguely European coastal city that makes you want to step into each and every frame and take a wander. It’s also got plenty of endearing characters like Ursula, the cabin-dwelling painter, and Osono, the kindly baker.

But what strikes a chord with me is the small, sweet, soulful story about our hero finding her calling in the wide world.

I was curious about the source material, Eiko Kadono’s 1985 book. Bang on time, a splendid new Puffin edition came along – in a fresh translation by Emily Balistrieri, illustrated by Joe Todd-Stanton.

This part of the author’s introduction struck that same chord:

As I wrote and revised, wrote and revised, I discovered that I loved writing. As long as I created stories, I could live an exciting life with new discoveries every day. And I decided that, if nothing else, I would continue writing as long as I live. I’ll never forget the peace of mind I felt at that moment – I sensed the magic inside myself. I’ve come to believe that everyone has some type of magic inside them. If a person can find their magic and lovingly cultivate it, they’ll truly feel alive every day.

Eiko Kadono

That idea of finding something that you love doing and that will always nourish you is something that echoes powerfully through the book, and it became even more of a theme in Miyazaki’s film.

It’s a feeling I recognise now and am trying to hold onto.

The Ambience of Monkey Island

Around 1991, The Secret of Monkey Island fired up my imagination as much as any book I’ve ever read. I could enthuse at length about the immense influence that this video game and its immediate sequels have had on my storytelling, and I’m sure someday I will.

For now I’ll just share a playlist I discovered recently that has been my writing soundtrack over the past several mornings: The Ambience of Monkey Island.

YouTube user BuzzMoo has made available (at the time of writing) 25 hour-long tracks, featuring the in-game music and ambient sound effects lifted from many of the series’ memorable locales.

Quite different to the incredibly catchy main themes that run through these games, the music here is largely atmospheric, with lazy rhythms and unobtrusive, wandering melodies. It’s designed not to underscore high drama, but to soundtrack hours of exploring, puzzling and soaking up the scenery – also perfect for writing, I find.

On the Plunder Island beach path, gentle surf and clucking chickens can be heard amongst sparse percussion and timorous woodwind. Or perhaps you’d rather wallow in the faded grandeur of the Goodsoup Hotel on Blood Island, where distant storm clouds groan beneath melancholic harpsichord and steel drums. When you consider all of the islands that constitute the series’ twisted, anachronism-filled version of the Caribbean, there’s probably a spot to suit any mood.

As much as the island ambience is helping my work, it’s becoming mighty tempting to start yet another replay of these games. Once I finish this draft…