Over the past ten years, I have visited hundreds of both primary and secondary schools. If I had to nominate the most asked question, it would be: where do your ideas come from?
I admit I always ask that question of guest authors and I have huge admiration for those who march around with a notebook and pen tucked into their bag in case an idea strikes. Mine usually strike in the middle of the night and feeling warm and cosy I can’t be bothered to climb out into the cold and find a pen. And yes, as so often happens especiually with ideas of unequalled brilliance, I have forgotten them by morning.
Maybe I am exaggerating. I do an awful lot of that – and for that I blame my visits to schools. To make children laugh, teachers will tell you exaggeration is the name of the game and so the shark I encountered off the coast of St Vincent swimming with pilot whales, (the shark not me) very soon grew to the size of Jaws, something I adoitly demonstrated by pushing desks together and measuring them. AND YES, it did eye me up and pull out a knife and fork!
With my children’s books, there is something from my own life in every one of them – even though they are fantasy. For example: Jack Burnside, in the Jack Burnside Adventures. (A Dangerous Game of Football; Bird Children and Lions of Trafalgar), which I wrote for 8 – 12 years, is as close as I could get to David Beckham. (Beck – ham … Burn …side), (It took me a long time to come up with that!) When David played for ManU, every kid in England wanted to be like him, copying his hairstyle and wearing the Number 7 shirt. Girls too. Walk through any street or park in the UK on a weekend and it would be dotted with bright red shirts.
And the camel, Bud? While I was staying in the Sudan, I visited a camel market in Omdurman. Besides the camels, there was a woodcarver and I bought an elephant, camel, rhinoceros and hippo. The elephant was stolen but the camel became a magical being called Bud. For many of my fans, he is still their favourite character: rude, sarcastic, funny and obnoxious, but quite wonderful. And he still sits on my dressing table. As for the woodcarver, he became Jacob the sorcerer after him, wearing gaily coloured robes, bent over and quite extraordinary. In the sequel, The Bird Children, I met up with a magic man in Cairo who made cotton burst into flame in my hand. I also used the Souk I visited and used that.
But Running – (Deadly Pursuit Series) that was a totally different ball game. I thought about it for ages. And by ages I mean years (honestly!) The Nineties were a time of great change. Computers were taking over the world although few people really understood them and I certainly didn’t despite achieving a very respectable mark in ‘O’ level maths. At work, our computer was the size of a football pitch (I exaggerate) and when anything went wrong we had to call in an engineer because no one really understood how it worked. At home, you used a modem and waited what seemed like hours for everything to load up, and at worked, we carefully backed up which took 30 minutes each night. Naturally, I knew nothing about virus’s until one invaded my home computer. Nation wide panic ensued when virus’s began infiltrating more than my home computers and they rapidly came a international talking pooint … and shortly after firewalls came into being.
Then one morning, the world woke up to hacking and the idea for Running came with it. To write about a computer virus that can penetrate any firewall, steal the computer’s secrets and override its commands.. (Which is surprising when you consider I still know nothing about computers, and find it mind-boggling that numbers are more important to computers than they are mathetmaticians, who more more often than not use the letters of the alphabet.)
Okay, so there I am with an idea but nothing really gelled until the day I went to our local garage to have the battery on my golf trolley charged. Waiting with me was a youngish guy with a blue motorbike. A 1000cc Suzuki – who talked non-stop about it for 30 minutes. And there was my story. Instantly, the bike became Scott’s motorbike … identical except for colour which was red? Meeting up with one of my cousins at a funeral, he asked me ‘How do you know about motorbikes?’ His children had given him the book for Christmas. ‘I rode pillion on a real fast machine,” I replied, “and learned how to lean into bends.”.
Simultaneously mobiles rang in every corner of the world, the trapped and dying reaching out for a lifeline, as if a miracle of modern technology could rescue them. Last words of love and desperation soared into the air, with radio masts quivering under a deluge of calls. Within seconds, the besieged towers were screaming no network coverage to the millions who, witnessing the disaster live on television, heedlessly keyed in the numbers of anyone that might be caught up in the quake, even now wiping out the Californian coastline.
A skyscraper, which five minutes before had been central to a vast hotel complex, nosedived into the ground. The resulting tremor catapulted the camera sideways so that, to the people staring at the screen, it was as if they were standing on their heads. Blackness followed then silence, the calm voice of the anchor man trying to reassure viewers they would be back at the scene momentarily.
In London the cab driver, chatting amiably with his passenger and ignorant of the unfolding drama, had one eye on traffic, which appeared to be fast backing up, and one eye on his mirror, nodding in agreement to the various subjects offered up for discussion. ‘It’s a long time since I was in England,’ the man said, the faintest trace of an American accent marking his voice.
That was when the cab driver began to wonder if his fare could be a film star. Even features, excellent teeth, not an ounce of extra flesh, with a thatch of light brown hair tipped blond by the sun, and steel blue eyes of a shade that only ever belonged to Americans.
The mobile in the American’s jacket pocket rang. ‘Excuse me,’ he said. ‘Sweetheart, where are you calling from? Everything okay?’ Since mobiles were designed only to be heard by the person into whose ear they were pressed, the cab driver couldn’t hear the terrified syllables speeding across the saturated airwaves. He could only watch with astonishment as his passenger’s face turned into a mask of dangerous impotence. ‘They told us we had to work for them to stay alive,’ the whispered words flew across the Atlantic. ‘They tricked us. Can you hear it? The earthquake?’
‘What are you talking about? Who tricked you?’
‘The Styrus Project – they want it. We said no.’
‘Who, goddamn it! Who?’
There was a blur of static then the line cleared. ‘There’s no way out.’
‘Yes, there is,’ the man snapped. ‘There’s always a way out … Find it.’
‘I’m trying, that’s what you can hear – me – running. It’s hopeless. Charlie’s dead, so’s James. It’s impossible. We’re trapped.’
‘Try, goddamn it! If someone’s after you, they won’t let you be killed, you’re too valuable. And if they can get in, you can get out. Stay alive, do you hear!’ The pleasant quality of the man’s voice vanished, his tone vicious as if it could force a reaction thousands of miles away.
Can you imagine having that sort of power? That’s the background to Running – where the bad guys want Styrus so they can take over the world, and they’re not particularly bothered how many people they have to kill to do it.
As for the rest, it’s a rollercoaster ride – non-stop thrills and spills – with America ostracised and responsible for the blowing up Iran’s nuclear reactor and the UK reduced to island status off the coast of Europe. And you won’t know ‘who done’ it until the very end and even then – you’ll want to go on and read the sequel Turning Point – which, if I am honest, is even more fast-paced and more exciting.
Running came out in 2010 – and to celebrate its publication, I took my granddaughter to Amerstdam and there, looking at an oil-painting of Leda and the Swan in a museum, the idea for The Year the Swans Came began to see daylight – but you know all about that don’t you?
Appendix: Running and Turning Point were so successful, they had three print runs. Currently sold out and only available on Amazon, the publishers are thinking about a new edition with an updated cover.
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