Abi Elphinstone on turning the magic of the New Forest in to a bestseller
PUBLISHED: 11:37 09 November 2015 | UPDATED: 11:37 09 November 2015
Author Abi Elphinstone has managed to turn the magic and history of the New Forest in to a children's bestseller… Rebecca Fletcher went to meet her in her writing shed
Drawn into the ancient woodland and mystical nature of the New Forest, Abi Elphinstone, author of debut novel The Dreamsnatcher, fell in love with the Forest’s landscape and magical atmosphere at first sight. With a story unfolding itself little by little as she explored under the canopy of great oaks and onto the open heathland armed with her ordnance survey map, she began weaving her enchanting world of dark magic, secrets, wild ponies and catapult wielding children before discovering a touch of real Hampshire magic which would form the basis of her book.
Aimed at children aged 9-11 years, The Dreamsnatcher is a tale packed with twists and turns, and brings a world of enchantment and suspense to readers young and old. Instantly billed as one of The Bookseller’s ‘Top 10 Children’s Books Not To Miss in 2015’, The Dreamsnatcher tells the story of twelve-year-old Moll Pecksniff, who wakes one night in the middle of the forest, lured there by a recurring nightmare.
What Moll doesn’t know is that she has been sent for by The Dreamsnatcher who is ready, not only to take her dreams but her life too. Diving into secrets, magic and adventure, Moll seeks to understand a prophecy foretold by the elders, which will take her from the safety of the gypsy camp she has known all her life into the unknown, where nothing is quite as it seems and dark magic lurks around every corner ready to kidnap her.
A natural born explorer, instinctive and smart, it is easy to see how Abi’s writing is an extension of her own spirit of adventure. Growing up in the wilds of Scotland, she climbed trees, living out “a childhood filled with adventure and wonder” where she was able to “grow up as wild as Moll” – something she praises her parents for in her acknowledgements. No surprises then to all who know and love her that when Abi sat down to write, every page in her notebook was filled with magic, fast-paced adventure and ‘wild children’.
“I didn’t have to create Moll’s outdoor world…it grew out of my own,” Abi admits. “For me writing has been about returning to a moment in my childhood. I really did look at the trees along the lanes behind my house when I was young and think that I might be able to pass through one into another world. Like Lucy in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, I thought that I might find Narnia there.”
By her own admission, Abi always felt more at home in the woods than in the classroom, and school came as a bit of a shock to the system. Dyslexic and branded ‘unteachable’, perhaps a glimpse of Abi’s character can be found in Moll’s feisty, earthy nature and her natural ease under the protective canopy of the forest’s large oaks. Following her days at Bristol University studying English, she began a successful career as a teacher in Africa, Berkshire and, finally, London which she now calls home, before storybook worlds beckoned her to the writing desk.
“I’ve done all the things that Moll does in the book – wading across a river, running through the trees, riding a cob bareback. I am releasing my inner 12-year-old all the time in my books.”
Looking for somewhere not too far from the capital to begin her book research and armed with an Ordnance Survey map, she was drawn towards exploring the ancient woodland of the New Forest.
“The New Forest has yew trees that are hundreds of years old, beautiful rivers, wild ponies roaming around and then the heath, which gave me a wonderful dual contrast. Suddenly you are exposed after being beneath the canopy and the adventure changes. I felt that it was steeped in magic.”
Wanting to give her book a firm grounding in reality, Abi visited the Christopher Tower New Forest Reference Library, which houses one of the most comprehensive collections of books, maps and ephemera relating to the New Forest. A trip to study the wild cats in an enclosure at the New Forest Wildlife Park also gave rise to the character, Gryff, Moll’s protector and wild cat companion from the wilds of the north.
“If I see something, hear something or touch it, somehow for me the story comes alive. So whilst working on the book, I had a pin board with my book world mapped out on an Ordnance Survey map alongside photos of the barks of the trees in the New Forest. I even had a soundbite of bird song at different times of the day.”
It was the Christopher Tower Reference Library that brought life to a new world for Abi as she wrote The Dreamsnatcher…that of the New Forest gypsies. “The more I explored the New Forest, the more I knew that the story had to include Romany gypsies. They were at the heart of the Forest. I chose to write about their culture because I wanted to write about children allowed to run free. Writing about children that don’t live in houses, beyond the confines of towns and cities is really exciting”, Abi explains.
“I found myself surrounded by sepia photographs and half-forgotten recipes for things like baked hedgehog. There was this magical, fast-disappearing culture of colourful wagons, superstitions handed down from generation to generation.” Wanting to hear their stories first-hand, Abi began trying to track down sources. Travelling to America, she contacted another author whom she hoped might be able to point her in the right direction here in the UK.
“He told me ‘This guy lives in the middle of nowhere and he doesn’t see many people. He doesn’t have e-mail or a phone. You’ll have to write to him and hope he writes back,’ so I did!”
Much to her delight, Pete Ingram, author of Wagtail Life and one of the last living wagon painters replied, taking Abi right back to Hampshire where The Dreamsnatcher’s journey had begun. “Visiting Pete Ingram on the outskirts of Selborne was like entering another world,” Abi recalls. “Sheltered in the woods in his wagon, he taught me how to carve Moll’s beloved catapult properly with a horse’s head on the handle. He knew that the bend of the ash twig we passed would fit the curve of his hand perfectly.”
The gypsy magic of The Dreamsnatcher is already casting its spell on young readers and its hotly anticipated sequel The Shadow Keeper, out in February 2016, sees Moll journey to the sea. The last book in the series merges Abi’s book world and childhood as she travels back to the Scotland of her youth with Moll and Gryff.
Wrapping a cloak of woodland sorcery around us and drawing us towards the campfire, Abi has turned an almost forgotten piece of Hampshire’s past into a rich adventure story which holds the reader spellbound, reminding us all of our county’s magical secrets.
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