Saturday, April 18, 2015

Setting your story in the "here and now"

It's no secret that my books are inspired by real life locations and history. I've set three novels in the German Eifel and three in Flanders, and my ghost story locations include real places in Slovakia, France and Germany. If I'm going to write a scene set in a specific place - the top of a bell tower, a deserted factory, a sewer - I like to visit that place to soak up all the little details. I find real life locations inspirational - the idea for my first book, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, came to me spontaneously from the experience of living in Bad Münstereifel (pictured), where the book is set. But there are other advantages to using real places as settings. If you are familiar with the place you choose, it's unlikely you will make continuity errors about the layout and other details. When I have invented an important location in one of my books - such as the church in The Glass Demon - I have had to sketch out the layout in a notebook so that I won't make mistakes. It's hard to maintain the tension in a dramatic scene if the reader is distracted by noticing some error, eg. that the stained glass windows appear to have swapped places or the door now faces south, not west!

As well as using actual places in my writing, I also like to use another kind of landmark: key calendar events. The Vanishing of Katharina Linden begins with a terrible accident at an Advent dinner. The book also features Karneval, a celebration with carnival floats and parties that takes place early in the year, and St. Martin's Day (pictured), at which a local man dressed as the saint rides around the town accompanied by local people carrying flaming torches, and then re-enacts the story of his most famous act of charity. 

The reason the idea of using real seasonal events as the backdrop to fictional action came to mind today is that we are approaching Walpurgis Night, which features in another of my books, Wish Me Dead (the gorgeous cover art for the Latvian edition of the book is pictured below). 

Walpurgis Night is the last night of April. I didn't really know much about it until we moved to Germany in 2001. I am a great fan of ghost stories and creepy legends, whether "true life" ones or fictional, so when we moved to Bad Münstereifel I asked a few people whether there were any attached to the area. As it turns out, there are a great many local legends there, which were collected and retold by a Catholic priest, Father Krause, in the early 1900s (you can read versions of some of them in The Vanishing of Katharina Linden). However, the first few people I asked about local stories either weren't aware of those, or else didn't like to mention them. After some pressing, one person did reluctantly say that "there was Walpurgis Night." That was all I could get out of him. 

Walpurgis Night is the eve of the day of Saint Walpurga (1st May), and according to German folklore, it is the night when a great coven of witches meet on the Brocken mountain, the highest in the Harz range. As Walpurgis Night is not a tradition specific to Bad Münstereifel itself, it did not find a place in The Vanishing of Katharina Linden. But I was still intrigued by it. I liked the idea of a spooky date that was less well known than Hallowe'en, and therefore more mysterious. It became the starting-point for Wish Me Dead, as a group of teenage friends decide to visit the ruins of a notorious witch's house, because they have nothing much else to do and it's Walpurgis Night - just the right time to try a little magic of their own...

I feel sure that there are a great many other sinister calendar dates that could be used to advantage in creepy stories. Friday 13th has probably been overused by now, but how about 29th September, feast of St. Michael (pictured), the angel of death? 

Of course, there is also a whole world of possibilities in dates that are associated with resolutely un-spooky things, because of the opportunity to contrast terror with the cosiness of the chronological setting - hence our fondness for ghost stories at Christmas. It might be fun to set a scary story amongst the red satin hearts and roses of Valentine's Day, too. 

Stuck for inspiration? Look through your calendar...

Saturday, April 11, 2015

An A-Z of UKYA for UKYA Day 2015!

Sunday 12th April is UKYA Day, organised by book blogger Lucy Powrie. You can check out the schedule for this brilliant online event here:

As a UKYA author, I wanted to contribute something special to UKYA Day. So here's my A-Z of UKYA! 

A is for Amsterdam, setting of Keren David’s new novel This is not a love story!

B is for Blogger. How we would know about all the wonderful UKYA books without them?

C is for Chat. Look out for #ukyachat on Twitter to join in!

D is for Debut, and here’s one to check out: Seven Days by Eve Ainsworth.

E is for Emma. I can think of at least two Emmas who write UKYA: Emma Pass and Emma Haughton. So I’m putting them both in, for added value!

F is for Five Star Review. The rating that says, “Someone really loves this book.”

G is for GlassLisa Glass, whose UKYA novel Blue is being made into a film! Hooray!

H is for Historical, such as the brilliant Sawbones by Catherine Johnson.

I is for Ivory! Rhian Ivory’s YA debut The boy who drew the future is out in September; meanwhile Rhian tweets and retweets like fury about UKYA!

J is for Jess, heroine of Jane Casey’s UKYA crime novels How to fall and Bet your life.

K is for Kitty, the heroine of Keris Stainton’s Starring Kitty! Also kissing, which happens quite a lot in UKYA.

L is for LGBT. Check out This Book is Gay by James Dawson. “Frank and funny” said Now magazine.

M is for Malorie Blackman, the Children’s Laureate!

N is for Nottingham, where the next UKYA Extravaganza will be held!

O is for Ormand: Kate Ormand, author of Dark Days.

P is for Paperbacks. In the age of eBooks, some of us still love ‘em. Especially those of us who like to read in the bath…

Q is for Queen of Contemporary, Lucy Powrie, who organised UKYA Day!

R is for Reading, our favourite thing!

S is for Silent Saturday, the book that introduced De Jager, my nastiest serial killer ever.

T is for Twitter, the place to find @UKYAX, @yalc_uk and lots of other brilliant accounts bursting with UKYA news and views!

U is for UKYA. Obviously.

V is for Verity, from heart-stopping WW2 novel Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. V is also for vlogging, and we’re seeing more and more of that!

W is for Win! Enter the Scottish Book Trust’s competition and win a free signed copy of Urban Legends.

X is for eXtravangza UKYA Extravaganza, brilliant regional events for authors, bloggers and readers! The next one is on Saturday 10th October!

Y is for YALC, the YA Literature Convention that first ran in 2014 and is back again in July 2015.

Z is for Zoë Marriott, author of The Name of the Blade, a Japanese-inspired urban fantasy trilogy.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Mezzotweet: report from the M.R.James conference at Leeds

As anyone who follows me on Twitter will know, Saturday 28th March saw the conference M.R.James and the Modern Ghost Story at the Leeds Library. I attended as one of the plenary speakers, with a paper about the demonology of Canon Alberic's Scrap-book, which is rather a favourite topic of mine!

I'm going to be doing a full write-up of the conference for the M.R.James Ghosts and Scholars Newsletter, so I'm not going to review it in detail here on my blog. I'd love to share a few photographs though, and pick up on a few things I have been asked about.

The conference was organised by Professor Jim Mussell of the University of Leeds, Jane Mainley-Piddock (who initially approached me to ask me to take part) and Dr. Dewi Evans. At the end of the conference, which was hugely enjoyable, many people were asking whether there would be another in the future, so if you know one of these academics, make sure to get them drunk and extract a promise that there will indeed be another one!

The event took place at the Leeds Library, pictured left. I had only ever been to Leeds once before in my life, for the Leeds Book Awards 2011, for which The Glass Demon was shortlisted. So I knew nothing about the Leeds Library before I got there. Leeds has a "regular" library, the Leeds Central Library; this one is something different altogether. Founded in 1768, it is run by subscription (and is also a charity) and houses a large collection of books, many of them antiquarian volumes, in a gorgeous old building. It was the perfect setting for a conference about the ghost stories of M.R.James, which abound in creepy old books and unwary academics!

If you are interested in learning more about the Leeds Library (or indeed if you live in Leeds and would like to join it), you can find their website here:

The full conference programme can be found on the event's website, here:

It included three keynote speeches, from Professor Roger Luckhurst, Professor Darryl Jones and myself. In addition there were parallel sessions in both morning and afternoon at which a variety of papers were presented ranging on topics as diverse as the cinematography of M.R.James and adapting James's work into graphic stories. At the end of the conference there was a wine reception, followed by a showing of A Warning to the Curious, and a discussion with director Lawrence Gordon Clark.

Above: Matthew Kilburn talks to Lawrence Gordon Clark. 

Amongst other attendees I was delighted to see Will and Mike of A Podcast to the Curious, the brilliant podcast series devoted to the work of M.R.James. The guys interviewed me at the very end of the day, so there will be something from me on the podcast soon, no doubt alongside their impressions of this very enjoyable day.

Above: thrilled to discover that the guys from A Podcast to the Curious really do exist in real life!
You can follow them on Twitter at @MRJamesPodcast

One or two people asked about my books; of my six novels published to date, the "Jamesian" one is The Glass Demon, which came out in 2010. It was inspired by the true story of M.R.James and the lost stained glass windows of Steinfeld Abbey. M.R.James and his German correspondent Father Nikola Reinartz are mentioned in the acknowledgements to that book! I also write ghost stories, some of which have a Jamesian flavour. My prequel to MRJ's A Neighbour's Landmark, a story entitled The Third Time, recently appeared in the Ghosts and Scholars Book of Shadows Volume 2, and will be reprinted in the upcoming (and perhaps more affordable) Best British Horror 2015, out in May. 

You can find many of the tweets about the conference (including photos) by searching Twitter for #Mezzotweet! 

Finally, I would like to offer a huge THANK YOU to a Good Samaritan! On Friday, when I had just started out for the railway station at Dunblane for my journey down to Leeds, I managed to damage our car (I'm not posting details because what I did was too embarrassingly stupid, but nothing was hurt except my pride). Envisioning missing my train connections and either not making the conference or having to fork out for a new ticket, I was pretty much having hysterics at the side of the road when a complete stranger drew up, and having heard the sorry tale, offered to drive me to Dunblane station on the spot. This is a round trip of over thirty miles, and it was an incredibly kind offer. Without her assistance, I might not have been at the conference at all. So thank you very, very much, Mairi of Crieff! 

Thursday, March 19, 2015

UKYA Easter Egg Hunt

UKYA Easter Egg Hunt: 

The very lucky winner is Sophie Jordan of Northumberland! Congratulations, Sophie! 

Sophie wins a huge grand prize of signed books by over thirty YA authors who write and live in the UK, including  my very latest thriller, Urban LegendsAs Urban Legends is set in and around Brussels, how better to enjoy some scary serial-killer action than by curling up on the sofa with a mug of steaming hot chocolate, Belgian choc flavour? So I'm sending Sophie a sachet of that too.

Didn't win this time? If you are a UK reader who would like to win a signed copy of Urban Legends, there is still time to enter the Scottish Book Trust's competition, here:

Urban Legends is the Scottish Book Trust Teens' Book of the Month for April 2015, so in honour of this they are giving away five signed copies. Check the link for details! Competition closes on 30th April.

Above: these chicks can't even contain their excitement!

Sunday, March 8, 2015

UPDATED! Forbidden Spaces - visit them all...

After three years of climbing bell-towers, grubbing about in sewers and catacombs, exploring abandoned buildings and then writing it all down, my Forbidden Spaces trilogy is nearly complete.

On 26th March the third and final book Urban Legends is being published. I'm celebrating at Blackwell's in Edinburgh that week if any of my blog readers are able to come to that (if hearing me talk about serial killers and urbex isn't a sufficient attraction, there is also going to be wine). For my readers in Belgium, where the book is set, I hope to have an event in Brussels and/or Tervuren later in the year. I'll post details here and on Twitter, FB, etc.

I've got a super blog tour lined up for publication week! I'm being interviewed by the Author Allsorts and telling all to the Scottish Book Trust as part of their Author Confessions series, as well as blogging for Hive.

On Monday 23rd I'll be on

On Tuesday 24th I'll be on

Wednesday 25th sees me over at

I'll be featured on the Bookwitch's blog on Thursday 26th with some exciting photos (Bookwitch will also be covering the launch event and reviewing the book, so look out for those posts too)! is the place to visit on Friday 27th!

I'll be interviewed by the fabulous Author Allsorts on on Saturday 28th.

And on Sunday 29th is hosting my answer to an unusual question!

During the week there will also be some fabulous giveaways! For daily updates on all these activities see my posts on Twitter at @helengrantsays

One thing I haven't covered in those blog posts is a question I get asked fairly frequently: do you have to read all the Forbidden Spaces books in chronological order? The answer is no. The books do follow on from one another, but I have aimed to put enough back story in that it is possible to read each of them without reading the others. I'd like to think though that anyone who reads Silent Saturday will be intrigued enough by the unanswered question at the end to go and read the other books!

Veerle De Keyser, the heroine of Forbidden Spaces, is my favourite heroine of all my books, so I also hope readers will be interested in what happens to her and how her story ends on the last page of Urban Legends. I've shared her adventures in a small way, because I researched nearly all the locations I used in the trilogy by actually visiting them myself (thankfully without being chased by any serial killers). I'm also thrilled to have written a trilogy set in Flanders, because I loved living there, and it makes me feel as though I have a kind of souvenir of those three years.
I've thanked all the friends in Flanders who helped with the books in the acknowledgements at the back of each of them, but I'd like to do it again here. They have at various times picked me up from the airport, let me stay in their spare rooms, driven me to different parts of Belgium, advised me on questions of Flemish language and culture, and brought me bottles of bessenjenever (Flemish berry gin). Thank you and dank u wel!

Urban Legends can be pre-ordered on Amazon and also on Hive, and you can find the book on Goodreads here if you'd like to read reviews in due course, or post one of your own. It goes without saying that reader reviews are always hugely appreciated by authors (especially if they are kind ones!).

I hope you'll enjoy the book.