Always keep a notebook…


Joan Aiken’s advice to young writers when she went to give talks in schools was always to carry a small notebook and to jot down anything of interest.  She wrote: “The most frequent question they ask is Where do ideas come from? And if I’m talking to them in a classroom I  produce the small 2″ x 3″ notebook that I always carry in bag or pocket, and read aloud some pages of entries, such as: Sign, Danger Keep Clear of Unpropped Body.  Road sign: Slow – Toads Crossing.  Bottles on roof of Turkish house indicate marriageable girl inside. Parrot on bridge of ship.  Lady rents out hats. Taking a Degree in Prophecy.  Graveyard like a chessboard.  Tightrope walker on vapour trail.  I urge them to start keeping one of their own” or even, as she did to keep sketches of places visited, landscapes, houses, furniture, people? You never knew, she used to say, when something would find its home in a story, or be the germ of one.

When writing a book she would take more extensive notes, and if possible go to the place where the book was set and stay there, as she did with the Felix trilogy set in Spain, or Wales for The Whispering Mountain, Nantucket for Nightbirds.  “While taking these notes I am framing my plot which has begun from one of the nuclear situations mentioned above.  When the action of the plot is fairly definite in my mind I make a chart, dividing the action into chapters, and I also make family trees and other plans.”

And so from some of the seeds of imagination sown in those little notebooks much larger ideas have grown.  I recognise several of those plot strands listed above – the Toads on the road bring the Wendish army to a halt in The Witch of Clatteringshaws, saving Simon and his tiny army from their Agincourt moment,  ( although he does make a wonderful speech!) the black and white graveyard makes a sinister appearance in one of the horror stories of A Foot in The Grave, and the girl who rents out hats is Bridget from Tale of a One Way Street. But sadly there is no sign of that tightrope walker in the sky!

Even more astonishing though are those longer entries where once her story had taken wings she could write whole pages and chapters which then appear only slightly tweaked or corrected in the finished manuscript.  Although Joan worked on an old fashioned typewriter she still had to make a few copies before she was satisfied with the final version.  But sometimes the story seemed almost to tell itself.  here is a page from Is Underground, where Dido’s younger sister Is, comes up against an appallingly evil member of the Twite family, who has made himself the despotic ruler of the northern part of England, calling himself Gold Kingy.


“… I can hear the sound of voices.  At present they only whisper, but soon they will shout, soon they will roar  – and that roar will sweep you away Gold Kingy, like a leaf in a torrent.”

With only a few minor changes, this is the passage as it appears in the book, as if the voices of the characters were so clear she heard them speaking in her head. But the place, the library with its heavy stacks running in grooves, the inexorable development of the hair raising plot and hopefully in this case, downfall of the dreadful villain, were already there, framed in her mind.


You can read that passage (page 202) in the double volume of the adventures of Is (short for Isabett)  in Is and Cold Shoulder Road   books eight and nine of The Wolves Chronicles and find out more of the doings of the Terrible Twites – one family tree that kept on growing…

Favourite Aiken Moments contd. – Is in (snowy!) Humberland

‘Twelve layers thick of stiff,rolled-up rug, all glued together with fried potatoes, formed a wrap that was solid as oakwood. And when at last her head did begin to emerge from its carpet-collar, Is found that she had nothing much to be thankful for.  Instead of being pressed against a filthy carpet, her cheek now lay on stony, gritty, freezing ground.  It was dark, with no moon or stars to give comfort; on the contrary, a fine thick snow was falling, blowing like dust into the folds of the rug.

“Snow!” said Is in disgust. Why it ain’t but November!”

But then she recalled how far north she had travelled, into a colder darker part of the country. Humberland.

….A massive stone building loomed up on her right…a church…somewhere she had heard that church doors are always open. The first door she approached had a white paper on it, just visible, and writing on the paper: PLEASE ENTER BY SOUTH DOOR.

There! she could hear Penny’s triumphant voice: now do you see how handy it is to be able to read? Yus, and which way is south? Is retorted, but she acknowledged that if she kept walking round the church she must in the end find the south door.’


Is (Underground) Wolves Chronicles

Illustration by Pat Marriott


Favourite Aiken Moments?

Do you have a favourite Aiken moment, from a letter or a talk that Joan gave? Or something from a story, a quotation from Dido perhaps?

Here’s a piece about Dido’s two sisters, Penny and Is (short for Isabett, but no one ever seems to call her that!)   Is, trying to avoid the guards on the sinister PLAYLAND EXPRESS has dived into a roll of carpet, and now while she’s wondering how to get out again, has a moment for reflection.  Interesting that Pen who teaches Is to read has made use of some of Joan’s own stories, like The Three Wishes, and possibly some of her own philosophy?

“She thought about Penny’s stories. There was one about a man who had three wishes and married a swan. If I had three wishes, I know what I’d wish for, thought Is. I’d wish for those two boys to be found, and for us all to be back on Blackheath Edge. She thought about Penny teaching her to read.

“What’s the point of reading?” Is had grumbled at first. “You can allus tell me stories, that’s better than reading.”

“I’ll not always be here,” Penny had said shortly. “Besides, once you can read, you can learn somebody else. Folk should teach each other folk what they know.”


“If you don’t learn anything, you don’t grow. And someone’s gotta learn you.”

Well, thought Is, if I get outta here, I’ll be able to learn some other person the best way to get free from a rolled-up rug.”

Playland Express

Is (Underground) The Wolves Chronicles