I was asked by the people at new book recommendation site Shepherd to share my favourite books on things I’m passionate and write about. As many of you will know, The Secret of the Tirthas is about Lizzie Jones, a teenager who inherits a magical ‘garden of rooms’ deep in the Herefordshire countryside and then discovers each of the rooms has a portal to a special place on the planet.
I always thought it would be great if you could step outside your back door and travel instantaneously to somewhere on the other side of the planet. And, of course, portals are a neat analogy for the power of the imagination.
So my first selection of books for Shepherd is my five favourite books with portals for children and young adults. They include books by Neil Gaiman and Philip Pullman and you can check them out here.
Do you like portals in books? If so, which are your favourites?
Photos have a big impact on my writing. Often, they can inspire a scene that inspires a whole book. This picture of my son looking across a landscape has morphed into the opening scene of my current work in progress, Alice and the Devil, the third book inThe Ghosts of Alice series.
Shortly after I took it, I set it as my wallpaper on my laptop. It was a few weeks before it began working its magic on me. Initially I had an idea for a wholly different book, a piece of speculative fiction, but then I realised it could fit with a ghost story. Who is the boy? Why is he on his own? What’s with the sheep in his backpack? And that barn to the right – doesn’t it look a bit like a pair of eyes, the dark, disembodied eyes of the farm? Just add a torrential rainstorm and the whole Alice and the Devil story came to life…
Here’s a few more photos that have worked their way deep into my imagination for other books:
#picsthatinspiredbooks – The Boy in The Burgundy Hood
This is the fabulous Ightham Mote, the fourteenth-century house that inspired Bramley Manor in the first Ghosts of Alice novel, The Boy in the Burgundy Hood.
As soon as I saw it, I knew that this medieval house was the perfect setting for my ghost story. I’d already been inspired by the strange story of a job interview that my wife had gone to at another old house (see here). It wasn’t long before I overlaid the two elements and started to evolve my plot.
Pics that inspired The Secret of the Tirthas
Now here’s some photos of the amazing garden of hedged ‘rooms’ in Herefordshire that inspired my young adult adventure mystery series, The Secret of the Tirthas.
Many of the rooms had sculptures or statues, often from different religions. I thought it would be great if they were all secret portals to related sites across the world. Imagine just having to step outside your back door to go to all these fabulous places!
The discovery of these new places through the portals by Lizzie Jones became a ‘fantasy’ element in itself. That, plus the demonic killer also using the portals to prey on street children in the first place Lizzie discovers, Kashi, the Indian City of Light…?
Photos that inspired The City of Light
Finally, here’s the incredible city of Varanasi, or Kashi, in India, which inspired the first novel in The Secret of the Tirthas, The City of Light. I went backpacking in my twenties and came down into India from Nepal. This was the second place I stayed and I was stunned.
I kind of knew straight away that this would inspire my writing. But it was only many years later, after discovering the hidden gem of a garden in Herefordshire, that I had the idea for The Secret of the Tirthas. And I decided on Kashi as the first place our hero Lizzie Jones would come after discovering the garden’s magical portals.
Here’s a taster from The City of Light, when Lizzie emerges from the portal:
“[She] stopped, stunned, finding herself looking at the most extraordinary sight she’d ever seen.
An ancient sun-bleached city sprawled before her, stretched along the bank of an enormous river. The city’s buildings were a bright, exotic mix of colours – red, ochre, sand, and white – and many had domes or intricate beehive towers. Some sat at the top of broad flights of steps that ran down into the water, whilst others were perched on the river’s edge. A few tilted forward precariously, appearing as if they were about to collapse into the swirling waters and be lost forever. And everywhere, on the steps and in the buildings and out in small boats, the city’s inhabitants went about their business in the soft, hazy sunlight.
Lizzie stood in awe, absorbing the view. If only all her dreams were as impressive as this…”
So where am I at with the writing, you ask? (You didn’t? Click away now, no one will notice.)
2021 has been a big year for my writing. It was the first year I had a bestseller and the first year I sold over 2,000 copies of one book (nearing 2,500 now). The average book sells 250 copies according to my Gurus, Prophets and Market Analysts (Google), so I’m very happy.
So what was the book? It was the first in my Ghosts of Alice series, The Boy in the Burgundy Hood. It’s been a strong seller since November 2019 when I published it. But it really took off in February 2021 after a promotion on Bookbub, which led to the #1 spot in Amazon’s Ghost Story categories in the UK, US, Canada and Australia. (If you’re a keen ebook reader and like good deals, I recommend signing up for Bookbub.) The reviews that followed were good so the sales continued. When you’ve been writing for a few years, getting that level of reader response is a real joy!
My next writing achievement in 2021 was publishing the second book in the Ghosts of Alice series, The Girl in the Ivory Dress. It follows on from the first, developing the relationship between Alice and one of her old school friends. The reviews have been almost all good so far (there’s always one…), with some saying they like it even more than the first. It reminded me of how enjoyable it was to write the second book in my young adult series, The Secret of the Tirthas. Whilst the first, The City of Life, was mostly fun, learning how to plot and integrate storylines, as well as setting up a whole new fantasy scenario, was challenging. There were many rewrites. It felt so much easier when the groundwork was done, when everything was already established. The Book of Life flew from the keyboard.
My third writing milestone just missed the end of the year. I finished a draft of the latest Ghosts of Alice book on the 3rd January. It’s working title is Alice and the Devil. It has a distinctive atmosphere and setting and I’m pleased with it. However, it’s going to need a few stiff edits because I wrote it without a plot, with only a few key scenes and characters in my head. It was my first time writing like this but it seems to have turned out well. I’ll probably find a lot of holes when I reread it, but for now I’m just pleased to have completed it.
2022 Writing Goals
My main writing goal for 2022 is to publish this third Ghosts of Alice book. I’m aiming for it to be out in the spring.
I’m also finalising a novella prequel to The Secret of the Tirthas. It focuses on the discovery of the tirthas and the creation of the magical garden of rooms at the turn of the 19th century. It’s called Swift: The Story of a Witch (I’m fairly sure that one’s going to stick). It might become a freebie to my email subscribers.
And finally, I’m going to start and – hopefully – complete another book! I’ve got a few ideas bubbling away already…
It’s not every day you get a cake made of your book…
Thank you so much to the readers of St Paul’s school Year 6 book club for their enthusiasm and fantastic questions yesterday. It was great to talk to them about the inspiration for my books, from a Herefordshire garden, to trips to India, Africa and Disneyland.
And particular thanks to the two members who baked cakes, including this one inspired by the The City of Light!
The Lady in the Moon Moth Mask is the fourth and penultimate book in The Secret of the Tirthas. The cover is currently being designed, and I’m aiming to publish it early next month. In the meantime, here’s the (slightly edited) Prologue as a taster.
Suddenly, she was awake.
For a while Lizzie stared up, her nose still tucked under the duvet, watching the strip of moonlight that slanted across the ceiling. Then she reached a hand out into the cold and checked her phone wondering whether, with the clocks yet to go back, it might be nearly time to get up.
2.44. Back to sleep, Jones.
She shut her eyes and lifted the duvet over the top of her head. She could sleep forever. It was half-term after all.
But instead of falling asleep again, her mind began to wander. She found herself thinking of that first night she’d slept in this bed, almost a year ago, when she’d sat up and looked out of the window and seen the full extent of her great-uncle’s garden for the first time. His magical, rambling garden of rooms, with its neatly-clipped hedges criss-crossing in the moonlight, the narrow rill in the distance with the yellow folly, the Tower, at its end.
Why did she wake up?
Oh no, why had that question popped into her head? She wished her mind was a bit more rational and orderly. Why did it have to… why did she wake up?
She hadn’t heard anything in her sleep, had she?
She listened carefully, keeping as still as she could. She held her breath.
Nothing, no wind, not the hoot of an owl. Nothing.
So why did she wake up?
A little knot formed in her stomach. Suddenly everything felt strangely familiar, like she had already been in this time and place, experiencing this exact same sense of weird… apprehension… before.
Deja-vu. It was deja-vu.
She looked at the curtains, pale grey in the moonlight.
Look out the window? Don’t think so, not this time…
The feeling passed, and she relaxed slightly. She turned over and closed her eyes.
5, 4, 3, 2…1! It was no good. She pushed back the covers, sat up in her pyjamas, and pushed the curtain out of the way.
She didn’t even need to look around the hedges and rooms, her gaze fell straight on to the gleaming vision in white halfway down the garden, standing near the silver brook.
‘Oh my God!’ Lizzie sucked in breath.
Who was that? What was she doing out in the cold?
Squinting her eyes, Lizzie tried to make out more details of the woman. Yes, she was wearing a dress, a long white dress, that was what was so bright, reflecting the moonlight. But her face was… turned away. She was looking at the back of the woman’s head, at her short, or possibly tied-up, hair.
She felt a burst of panic. What was someone doing in the garden? She knew, her whole being knew from her hard-won experience, that nothing good, and almost certainly only something absolutely terrible, could come of this. What was she going to do?
And then her alarm ratcheted up to a whole new level as the woman began to turn around.
Lizzie’s eyes widened. There was something strange about the woman’s appearance, her face seemed large, somehow rigid, growing in brightness as it turned towards the moon hanging somewhere above Rowan Cottage, as it turned towards… Lizzie.
‘No!’ Lizzie whispered, as the woman fixed her shining face on her.
Moments passed, as they stared across the garden of rooms at each other.
After a while, Lizzie realized why the woman’s face seemed so stiff, almost mechanical – she was wearing a mask!
She couldn’t make out what type of mask, but it was both dark and shiny at once, with splayed out edges bigger than the woman’s face. Although, with all she’d experienced, who knew? Perhaps she was looking at some strange beast, why not an ogre with a gigantic head?
Why was the woman staring at her like this?
‘Don’t just stand there,’ Lizzie muttered. ‘Do something, won’t you?’
I have already posted about the amazing ‘garden of rooms’ in Herefordshire that inspired The Secret of the Tirthashere. Now there are two more books out, I thought I’d share a few more photos of the garden, including some of the rooms that feature in those books.
ABOVE: The Wedding Cake Tree in the real Miss Day’s Garden. I’ve no idea who the real Miss Day was though – there’s no clues on the Garden’s original map, so she remains a mystery. In The Book of Life this garden is overgrown, abandoned by Evelyn Hartley when her cowardly brother fled the World War One draft through the tirtha to Louisiana.
ABOVE: The view that inspired the scene when Lizzie looks out of her bedroom window on her first night in Rowan Cottage and sees the criss-crossing hedges in the moonlight. The garden right below her is the Sun Garden.
ABOVE: Two South American gods who haven’t (as yet) featured in the stories. And BELOW a photo of them as they are now in a different garden – always pretty glum, but now somehow glummer!
BELOW: The Rill looking up towards The Tower – this place is going to get a lot more important later on.
BELOW: Excerpt from the original list of the Garden Rooms. The Edwardian Path features at the start of the forthcoming book, The Lady in the Moon Moth Mask. The Gothic Garden will come into its own soon, too.
BELOW: The plan of the whole garden is on the first post I mentioned above, but here’s a detail of the Sun Garden and area beyond. It includes the Gothic Garden, and the site where I imagined the Indian Garden.
BELOW: As I wrote in my previous post, the garden has sadly now been mostly grubbed up. Here’s one of the rescued Easter Island heads (the middle one, I think, that Lizzie jumped on to on her way to activating the tirtha…)
BELOW: Some of the garden’s lovely flowers and trees
And finally me, working on the first draft of The City of Light in the garden.
The Secret of the Tirthas was inspired by a unique garden in a remote part of Herefordshire. The garden consisted of over 20 hedged rooms, laid out over two acres behind a sixteenth century cottage. It was designed and constructed by the landscape designer Lance Hattat and his wife.
Here’s a sketch of the layout:
The rooms were inspired by seemingly random themes, ranging from South American gods to the designer’s favourite Edinburgh restaurant, to Easter Island statues and the elusive Miss Day.
Original and startling sculptures were supplied by a range of artists but particularly the talented Helen Sinclair.
The garden only covered a small area, but the intricate rooms with their range of features – ponds, towers, statues, brooks, summer houses, orchards, bridges, arches, fountains – all served to create a sense of a much larger space, with a seemingly endless sense of discovery and surprise.
The layout of the garden in The Secret of the Tirthas is largely based on the original layout, with a few notable exceptions – The Indian Garden is entirely new, for instance.
I’ve heard that the garden has been significantly dug out and replaced by a vineyard now, which is a terrible loss to those who knew and loved it (it was open to the public for most of the summer). I hope the books can help to preserve at least something of that special garden in rural Herefordshire.