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  • John Hearne

How Place Fuels Creativity

You can get away without a strong sense of place in some stories, but most middle graders need the anchor it provides. Imagine Harry Potter without Hogwarts or Privet Drive, or Nevermoor without Nevermoor or Murder Most Unladylike without Deepdean, or The Hobbit without The Lonely Mountain, or…you get the idea.

When you begin to write a story, anything can happen. The idea of endless possibilities sounds good, but in practice, unless those possibilities are circumscribed in some way, one tends to get paralysed by the excess of choice. The characters that evolve help you to limit choice, and so does place.

In The Very Dangerous Sisters of Indigo McCloud, that place is the town of Blunt. From the very beginning I wanted two things. I wanted the plot to be wild and free, and I wanted the town that would provide the setting to starkly contrast the action. I had read The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell around the time I was first framing the plot, and his depiction of the poverty and misery of the northern industrial town made an impression.

Blunt is crumbling factories, cobblestones, rundown houses and drizzle:

‘Smoke from the twin smokestacks of the plastic Christmas-tree factory was settling gently on the street outside, covering it and everything else in the little town of Blunt in grey–black grime.

Through the still, smoky air, Indigo could hear the strains of a new batch of accordions being tested in the nearby factory mingling with the braying of the donkeys in the very large donkey sanctuary on the edge of town.’

The river – also called the Blunt – is so polluted that nothing can live in it except a species of eel so vicious that small boats are frequently attacked.

I was also attracted to absurdity and kitsch – so there is a shoe-stretching plant, a toothbrush holder factory and five Humpty Depots, which sell nothing but novelty eggcups.

With the plot now delimited by the characters on one side the place on the other, you get the framework that sets you free. My hero, Indigo, has a secret skill. He can cross the roofscape of the town much more quickly than anyone else can on foot. And this is how he keeps tabs on his scheming sisters. Every chase, and every confrontation engages the possibilities offered by the town. So one of Peaches’ victims is trapped on a runaway sludge barge on the Pyukenocky canal. Another is scooped up by a digger, covered in glue, dumped in a breadcrumb hopper and is then attacked by a flock of migrating geese...

I’d say I’m not alone in experiencing the surge of creativity that comes once you settle on that anchoring location. I don’t think we’d have had the marauder’s map or the room of requirement if Hogwarts had not been there first. I don’t think we’d have the Brolly Rail without Nevermoor, while the Lonely Mountain gave us that wonderful scene on Durin’s Day when the secret door is revealed.

The Hobbit is part of the reason why I love maps in books – Tolkien had two hand-drawn maps in the first edition. Maps allow you to replay the entire book in your head once you’ve finished reading. I commissioned a map for The Very Dangerous Sister’s of Indigo McCloud from the wonderful cartographer Chaim Holtjer. He did an amazing job; you can judge for yourself here.

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