“Being a writer is not unlike being a medium; sometimes the message comes through loud and clear, sometimes it doesn’t,” Joan Aiken said in a talk on writing ghost stories. Perhaps this is particularly apt for those with a gift for sensing odd atmospheres or noticing the unusual in the everyday, as she certainly did. Her love of writing short stories, above all other forms of fiction, came from being aware of this gift – although it often seemed that some ideas for stories arrived almost fully formed, being able to harness them was a skill she had to nurture. As she said, it took years to learn to listen for that voice, to pay attention to her dreams, and then look out for, and make a note of the odd occurrence that would add the final spark or structure to complete a story.
But what when the voice doesn’t come? When a dream remains just that, an inconclusive mystery, a puzzle that doesn’t seem to have an answer. Wait and see, she says, the universe, or something out of the blue may provide an answer, and unconsciously you are looking for it..
Joan Aiken used to object to being called ‘a born story teller’ – she knew writing was hard work, a craft you had to learn like any other, but in the case of her stories she did admit to the possibility of there being some kind of added ingredient beyond her control – a magical gift that she learned to listen out for, and which if she could catch and shape it, would become a story that would haunt her readers for ever.
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Joan Aiken wrote nearly thirty collections of stories for adults and younger readers, many fantastic and spooky, and many unforgettable.