Or, You Could Go Play in the Woods by Tone Almhjell
Are you bored, my dear? Then take some cookies and head into the woods. The lynxes and wolverines usually stay clear of humans, so as long as you don’t fall into the lake, you should be fine. Have fun!
That never happened, of course. No one actually sent me off to the woods. Not because I wasn’t allowed to go. This was the 80s, before cushioned surfaces became ubiquitous and parents became hovercrafts. If I wanted to play in the woods, I could.
No one told me to write, either. I spent most of my time making up games, lies, and tall tales. I loved reading, and in school I liked any subject that involved some kind of storytelling. Still it didn’t occur to me to sit down and write a story of my own. I had read about writing, you see, and the most common advice seemed to be “Write what you know.”
As far as I could tell, I didn’t know very much. I preferred adventure stories of the serious sort with lots of heartbreak and action. I thought enemies should be terrible and quests so dangerous they left the hero scarred for life. Apart from a broken arm, nothing bad had ever happened to me. Who would want to read about a suburban kid (then teenager, then student) who had a pretty sunny life? Not me, and probably not anyone else either.
With this lame excuse, I put off writing for a long time. I did, however, go into the woods.
When I was a kid, I spent every summer on my grandmother’s farm, a tiny dairy farm nestled at the foot of the Trollheim mountains in Norway. The moment our car turned off the highway and started up the steep, woody hills, a sweet ache pinched my throat. It grew into a thrill as the lights of my grandmother’s house came into view under the giant yard tree. When I finally opened the car door and let in the noises of the rushing stream, I filled up with a wild happiness that I now identify as a sense of belonging and beauty. I was home.
The farm itself was full of treasure, like my grandmother’s famous chocolate cake under the bench in the hallway. Also the morellos in the orchard, and the antique hope chests, which contained either diamonds or the bones of some poor ancestor, and the spooky attic full of magic items and broken farm equipment. And best of all, my cousins.
There were eleven of us, ranging from little to lanky. We roamed around like a pack of wolves, always up to no good. Two of my cousins had a special talent for picking apart any piece of machinery in minutes (but they weren’t quite so good at putting it back together). Another wanted a horse so badly, she saddled a cow. One winter we all narrowly escaped flying off a cliff on the back of a sled.
I can’t remember any of us getting hurt, and I also can’t remember our parents telling us not to do things. It was paradise, Neverland, and Middle-Earth rolled into one.
Many years later, the beginning of a story popped into my head. But instead of feeling the weight of old excuses, I felt the old urge to go exploring. I needed to see how the story would end. So at last I sat down to write. I worked with a new theory in mind: You don’t have to write what you know to tell a good story. You can write what you love. It can be anything. Ninjas! Spaceships! For me, it was trolls and talking animals. Hidden portals to secret worlds. Fantasy and adventure.
As I developed my world, I discovered something. The things that I knew – the ones I thought weren’t important or dramatic enough – kept showing up in my stories. The chocolate cake, the stream, the snow-capped mountains. My grandmother’s white curls and horribly bitter tea. The lynx who one winter perched in an apple tree right outside the main house of the farm.
Even my recurring nightmare came back. It was a perfectly creepy dream where I woke up in my bed in the main house. Outside my window, a lady in a white nightgown came floating up the hill. Slowly, slowly, she turned and looked straight at me with pitch black eyes. That’s when I woke up for real.
I was so relieved when I managed to shake that nightmare, but here it turned up again to haunt my main character. As the dream grew into the backbone of the mystery, I realized what was happening: I was writing what I loved by adding magic to what I knew.
Only in hindsight did I understand how extraordinary they were, those things I had taken for granted. The tall shelves crammed with all kinds of books. My family. My freedom. They became the ground where I could grow the roots of my imaginary world. Exploring and writing turned out to be the same thing.
So if you’re bored or if you just don’t know how to begin your story, here is my advice: Take some cookies and head into the woods. Don’t fall into the lake. Don’t annoy the lynxes. Don’t wait for anyone’s permission.
And have fun.
Tone Almhjell received a master’s degree in English literature from the University of Oslo and worked as a journalist before deciding to write fiction full time. The Twistrose Key was named a Kirkus Best Book of the Year and is an international bestseller. She lives in Oslo, Norway, with her two wonderfully stubborn kids. Follow her on Twitter at @tonealmhjell. Thornghost is set to hit bookstores this week.