RIDDLE OF THE WHITE SPHINX
A year ago, I was on holiday in Norfolk chatting with my friend, Sorrel, about childhood and the things we used to get up to in the summer holidays. It was a summer evening, and we were sitting on the porch of a holiday cottage, watching her girls swinging from a climbing frame and scrambling up a nearby apple tree. It reminded us of holidays before Snapchat, computer games and other forms of digital entertainment, when as children we would leave the house and go out and make up our own adventures, riding around on bikes, building dens, fighting make-believe monsters and other activities that would keep us busy until it was time to come in for supper. As we sat there reminiscing, we wondered if families in the internet age would still be doing that sort of thing in the years to come.
A few weeks later, Sorrel called me at home and asked if she could pop round to have a chat about an idea she had about an adventure for children. She brought around a copy of Masqueradeby Kit Williams, a book we had both loved when growing up. Some of you may remember it as the book caused quite a sensation at the time. Kit Williams was an artist who had hidden a golden hare somewhere in Britain and had written a book filled with beautiful illustrations and confounding riddles which gave clues to the whereabouts of his buried treasure. When it was published, it attracted national and international interest, and not a little controversy as farmers were soon confronted with would-be treasure hunters digging up their fields convinced they had found the right spot!
After a couple of years, the hare was eventually found, and similar sorts of books followed, but none quite captured the excitement of that first book for families up and down the country. Sorrel described to me how she remembered sitting around the kitchen table with her brother and her grandmother, poring over the illustrations and trying to interpret the clues in the text in the hope that they might be the first to find that elusive golden hare. It was great hearing Sorrel talk about it 30 years on because her eyes shone with excitement and I could see how much it must have captured her imagination back then.
Anyway, Sorrel asked if I thought it would be possible to do something similar today only explicitly aimed at children to encourage them to step away from their digital screens and go out on a real-life treasure hunt. I was intrigued by the idea, and we spent many weeks meeting up after work, sitting around the kitchen table, drinking cups of tea and mulling over different ways of making it work. In the end, we came up with the concept for a physical book, with a real mystery to solve and an actual treasure to find, which we thought might work. All we had to do was find someone to write it!
It was then that I remember Sorrel looking across the kitchen table at me and asking if I would be interested in putting a potential storyline down on paper. I was surprised as I hadn’t written a children’s story before and while I had enjoyed working on the concept, I had never really seen myself as the author. But it was late, I was tired and had to go to work the next day, so I agreed to give it some thought and get back to her. A week later, I sent Sorrel the first chapter of a potential storyline and that, dear reader, is how The Hidden Tales began.
1st September 2018
RIDDLE OF THE WHITE SPHINX
How to write a treasure hunt
12th September 2018
That’s the question I was asking myself when I sat down with my notebook and pen at the outset. I knew it had to involve children and they should be the heroes of the tale. But it would also need to include other characters, both good and evil who would either help or hinder them in their quest. Locations would be important, ideally ones which were mysterious in themselves to act as an exciting backdrop to the story. And finally, there would need to be a treasure!
I’d love to say that I had these all figured out when I started writing, but the truth is that I only had some of the elements clear in my head, the others becoming clearer as I went along, often after a conversation with Sorrel and another cup of tea.
Take the children, for example. I chose a boy and a girl and decided they should be brother and sister of the same age as the readers of the story, somewhere between 8-12 years old. Beyond that, I didn’t want to be too specific as I thought that their personalities and characteristics would emerge as the story went along. I also felt that the readers would develop their own image of what the children would look like, something I do when reading a book, and I thought I'd leave it to their imaginations to help with that bit.
As for names, well, that is always a tricky one, as there are so many to choose from! When I ran storytelling evenings for my own children and their friends, we used to use our middle names for each of the characters in the stories we made up. Or I could do what many authors do and scroll down lists of popular names and pick one. In the end, I decided to keep it simple so that I could get on with the story, so I chose Kings and Queens of England as a starting point and went with Arthur and Victoria. Once I started writing, I wondered if I would change the names at some point, but I have become so used to them now, and the names have become intertwined with the characters, so I’ve decided to keep them. They may not rule England one day, but in many ways, they are the royalty in this story.
As for the characters they interact with, this was genuinely a voyage of discovery. Sorrel and I agreed that we would base the story in one city so that any reader embarking on the treasure hunt could get around all the locations relatively easily. It also meant that if the first book went well, we could repeat it in other cities with different characters and situations. So, to make matters as simple as possible, we chose Cambridge, where we both live with its fantastic collection of museums all of which are free and accessible to the public. To find the characters and locations for the story, I then went around and visited each of these museums – some 15 in total and in each I discovered one of my characters, much as Victoria and Arthur would do in the story itself.
The one character I didn’t meet on my travels, I’m relieved to say, was the dark and mysterious Keeper of Secrets who spends the whole story trying to prevent the children from achieving their goal. The Keeper of Secrets is such a critical character that I’ll probably write more on this topic later. Suffice it to say, the Keeper emerged in my mind as I walked around the various museums, a shadow in a corner here, a movement in a corridor there until finally, I was sufficiently frightened to put pen to paper and do the character justice.
That led to the question of the treasure. At the outset, we had no idea what this would be, but we were reasonably clear that it shouldn’t be of substantial monetary value. We wanted readers to embark on the journey with a sense of intrigue and adventure rather than a mercenary motive to become wealthy. So would-be internet pirates should cast their eyes on other shores, for the Hidden Tales is not for you. It is for the Arthur's and Victoria’s of this world, with book in hand and courage in their hearts, and their adventurous parents of course!