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Stories by the fire: how the supernatural influences my writing

Stories by the fire: how the supernatural influences my writing

A foggy winter evening. A stranded woman happens upon an eerie charity shop; going inside she’s terrified by the sound of a sinister voice emanating from the darkness, and flees in terror. But when she returns the next day- the entire shop has vanished…

These events form the opening of my third novel; more than one person has asked me questions along the lines of am I greatly influenced by the supernatural in my writing?. My response to them all has been an instinctive and immediate ‘yes’ – which on reflection has rather surprised me. After all, what connection could there be between the supernatural and a series of cosy crime novels about three retired teachers solving mysteries?

Thinking about it, the answer to that question lies in the word ‘supernatural’ and what it means to me. Or rather what it doesn’t mean to me: horror stories, hauntings, anything and everything Halloween related and any TV show or film I have to watch between my fingers. My definition of the term supernatural is one taken from the dictionary: ‘an order of existence beyond the visible’. I believe within the telling of stories there lies something that is very much beyond the here and the now. A story is so much more than a simple assemblage of facts, of events, characters, and settings; in storytelling all these different elements combine, and in doing so take on a life of their own and have their own ‘supernatural’ power to transport the reader/ listener/ viewer beyond the immediate and literal, to somewhere beyond.

The power and potency of stories is a dynamic I’ve been aware of since childhood, I remember sitting crossed legged in the story corner, being transported by Mr Sadler reading aloud ‘The Hobbit’ to Class Seven. Outside the classroom were the grey nineteen-seventies, also beyond were goblins and wolves, caverns and forests, dragons that slept and a ring that made you invisible. There was, I remember, on TV at that time a cartoon series about a Viking that began with mesmeric opening words- ‘Listen and I will tell you stories, as told by men of the North by their great log fires…’,  words that still have the power to cast a spell over me, as they’ve done for the past fifty odd years.

Going back to the crime novels, the telling of stories are an integral part of the narration as Pat, Liz and Thelma, the retired teachers swap tales and speculations about those tales. Was their friend’s poisoning accidental? Why are anonymous letters being sent to the staff of their school? What is the truth beyond a Charity shop that vanishes?

These ladies of the north have their own particular ‘great log fire’, their own place of light and life from which to share their tales – the Coffee Shop at Thirsk Garden centre. This choice of setting is by no means random. The warmth and security of the Coffee Shop came to mean a lot to us as a family; it’s where we used to take my Father as his struggles with dementia increased. In a challenging world it was a place of familiarity and security, a place we could share stories of the past beyond the growing darkness of his illness.

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In terms of the actual inspiration behind the latest novel, the story of the vanishing charity shop, the answer again goes back to childhood. There was some TV movie- almost certainly late at night as I remember wearing pyjamas, meaning I was being allowed to stay up as a treat. I’ve a vague memory of a foggy night – a woman seeing a murder committed through a lit window. But when she goes back the next day, the window – and the house round it – have gone. I remember the chill, and the subsequent nightmares. I can’t remember much more beyond that, but that premise has stayed with me over the years: a foggy night and a vanishing house…

So yes – I’d say the supernatural – ‘beyondness’ – is very influential in my writing. But no animated cadavers or icy manifestations – just three everyday magicians making sense of the stories they share from their favourite table at the Thirsk Garden Centre.

A Clock Stopped Dead was published by Avon on 11 April 2024

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