Authors are often asked what inspired them to write a particular book, and I’m no exception. I’ve answered many an interview question about what led me to write The Scourge, the first book in my Brilliant Darkness series, to the point that I may or may not have saved my response to use in the future ; ) But I get it. While reading, I often wonder how the author came up with a fabulous premise, or a richly drawn world, or a fascinating character. What about that particular author’s experience led to that particular book?
I wrote a blog post detailing what inspired me to write my story, Untimely, in Wicked Ink Books’ 2016 anthology, Tick Tock: Seven Tales of Time. My answer involved the melding of a previous story idea, a middle school camp, and a setting that came to life in my memory. Read about it here. In this post, I’d like to tell you about two books I loved from my childhood. Why? Because they’ve been on my mind lately. One even spurred a new book idea I’m mulling over. And because I believe the books we read in our childhoods inform, in one way or another, the writers we become. They influence us.
The first book is pictured above: my own beloved copy of Carbonel: The King of the Cats by Barbara Sleigh. Published in 1955, this is a magical story set in London and featuring Carbonel, who is (surprise!), the king of the cats. The main character, Rosemary, buys him and a claptrap broom from an eccentric woman in the marketplace, Mrs. Cantrip. Carbonel seems like any old Tom, Dick or Harry—up until he starts talking to Rosemary. He’s been catnapped and enslaved by Mrs. Cantrip, who turns out to be (surprise!) a witch. Rosemary and her new friend, John, have to learn and use magic to reverse the spell and help Carbonel return to his rightful place on the feline throne of London.
So what did I love so much about Carbonel? Was it the magic? The demanding yet ultimately appreciative Carbonel? The allure of the children’s freedom to run around London with nary an adult in sight? Having a resolute girl main character? (Hey, they were rare in the early 80s.) The fact that Rosemary had a boy best friend? (A lot of my good friends were boys at that time.) Mrs. Cantrip’s wild and wooly ways? Yes. All of that. But a lot of books had similar elements. Why did this particular book become my favorite of all the books I read as I child? I wish I knew. If I did, I would learn that spell and cast it over my own writing. Carbonel was the right book for me at the right time.
The second book that left a lasting impression was Timothy and Two Witches by Margaret Storey. Hmm, I’m sensing a witchy theme here. In the book, Timothy stays with his aunt, who he finds out is a good witch. All sorts of whimsical and fun things can be found in her house, like a tree that grows in the middle of the kitchen festooned with neatly labeled tea cakes, an aquarium under the bathroom floor, a bed that turns into a boat on a lake, and dragons in the garden. Adjacent to the property, however, is a dark forest, where a bad witch lives.
One of the enduring images from the book was a scene where Timothy’s friend, Ellen, is swinging is his aunt’s garden. The swing goes higher, and higher, and higher, and the grasping forest seems to come closer, and closer, and closer, until it snatches Ellen right off the swing, and she disappears. That scene came to mind countless times in the years that followed. I would swing, pumping my legs to get higher and higher, the wind whistling in my ears—but one watchful eye would always be on any trees that happened to be around.
Again, I don’t know why Timothy and his witches had such an impact—although I did read a quote from Neil Gaiman that Margaret Storey’s work influenced him, too, so I’m in good company. Of course, Carbonel and Timothy share some similarities. Witches and magic, of course. The idea that magic can be lurking in even the most mundane objects, like brooms, bathrooms, and forests. I liked that both stories featured a boy and girl friendship that was, for the most part, on equal footing. Strong women featured in both books, and they had some shades of gray, especially Mrs. Cantrip.
Both books were engaging, engrossing, enchanting. They drew me into fully realized worlds with loveable characters and inviting stories that I sank into, over and over, like comforting literary quilts. They became part of me.