How did you get the idea for the Witchfinder Trilogy?
Witchfinder came together from various sources. I’d always been fascinated by the English Civil War, and by that brief but terrifying period in the 1640s when people like Matthew Hopkins, the infamous Witchfinder General, went around the Eastern Counties hunting down and hanging suspected witches. For a long time I’d been intrigued by the 17th Century idea that, in order to work her spells, a witch would need the aid of a demon summoned from hell. I’d done a lot of research into this area over the years and hoped that, one day, I could mould a story around these ideas: witchfinders, witches, demons, magic and monsters. I wanted it to be a big, epic tale – lots of action and drama – but I had to wait for the right story to come along.
Meanwhile, I’d been writing horror books for adults. It was while attending a book group discussion for one of my adult books that I met Deborah Chaffey, a Waterstones bookseller who specialised in children’s fiction. Deborah told me how much the kids in her reading group loved horror, and challenged me to write a really exciting, scary book for children. And so I went away and read lots and lots of Young Adult thrillers in order to get an idea of what was popular. Although I loved most of what I read, I realised that the idea of a 17th Century witch – one with demons at her command – had not yet been fully explored in this area. So that was the genesis for Witchfinder – a modern take on an ancient horror idea!
Dawn of the Demontide is the first book in your Witchfinder Trilogy. Have you plotted out the storylines for the other two books already?
Yes, Dawn of the Demontide is just the beginning! The second book, Gallows at Twilight will be out in January 2011 and the third, The Last Nightfall in September 2011. The wonderful thing was that, on the strength of Dawn of the Demontide, Oxford University Press immediately commissioned the other books in the series. I’m finishing Gallows at Twilight right now, and I’ve got the whole saga mapped out in my head. The ending of the last book is going to be HUGE – just really EPIC. But Dawn of the Demontide is a self-contained story, too: it has a definite beginning, middle and end. We travel with these characters through various nail-biting adventures until we come to this great big, earth-shattering finale. BUT here’s the thing: at the end of Dawn of the Demontide you might think that you’ve seen every twist and turn that these characters can take; that the stakes can’t get much bigger… But just wait for Book Two! Gallows is a twisted time travel story – time travel and demons! – There are a lot more surprises to come!
What do you see as the main influences on your writing?
One of the main influences is my love of history. Real historical events pop up in all my books, but especially in Witchfinder. Ever since school I’ve loved reading history books, especially that period after the reign of Elizabeth II and up to the end of the Civil War. The intrigue, the personalities, the battles, the bloodshed, the fear and the religious passion that literally tore families apart and set brother against brother is just fascinating.
In fiction terms my biggest influences have been all those brilliant books I read when I was a kid. I think most writers will tell you that it’s those books they read in childhood that continue to have an impact on them later in life. For me it was Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories; Stephen King; JRR Tolkien; CS Lewis; HG Wells; Richard Matheson; Shirley Jackson; MR James; Robert Louis Stevenson and dozens of others. I lapped up anything with a strong plot and with lots of action and adventure. A few scares were always good, too!
You have already had two books published for the adult market. What made you want write for a younger audience?
First of all it was the challenge laid down by my friend Deborah Chaffey: to write a truly scary Young Adult series. It was while researching children’s horror and thriller books that I realised what an exciting, vibrant and challenging form of writing this was. As soon as I latched onto the Witchfinder plot I couldn’t wait to get started. I knew that this had to be a children’s series because of the action and adventure, but I also wanted to give Witchfinder a taste of real terror, like in my adult books. Another motivation was to write something that my nephew Johnny could read as he was growing up – that’s why I dedicated the first book to him!
How did you carry out the research when writing Dawn of the Demontide? Did you discover any really interesting facts during your research that you would like to share with us?
The really in-depth research I carried out for Dawn of the Demontide was of a scientific nature… but I can’t really go into that for reasons that will become apparent when you read the book! A lot of the witches and demon stuff I already knew from my previous research into the area.
The really heavy research didn’t kick in until book 2. Because a good third or more of Gallows at Twilight is set during the Civil War, I had to go back and brush up on the tiny details of that period – what people wore, what they ate, drank, what money they used, what kind of houses they lived in etc. There are several interesting facts about the witchfinder period, but I’m going to keep them to myself for time being as they will probably form the basis for the Witchfinder Tour, which will be visiting schools throughout 2010. The Tour is still in its early planning stages, but I’m hoping to come into schools and demonstrate to kids what it was like to be tried as a witch in the 17th Century!
One interesting titbit of information I came across during my researches that I can share: the last person to be tried as a witch in England was a lady called Helen Duncan. She was tried and convicted at the Old Bailey in London in the year… 1944! Only sixty years ago! Anyone interested should look her up on Google – it’s a fascinating story!
There are several pretty gory scenes in Dawn of the Demontide. How did you decide on the right level of violence for the story?
Honestly, there’s not much difference between writing adult horror and horror for kids. You can be just as gory and gruesome writing for children, but there is an element of fun in kids’ horror which is often missing with the adult books. I had such a good time writing Witchfinder – coming up with loads of gross horror ideas and throwing them into the pot. I guess the main difference is that kids’ horror has a sense of humour! There are some really funny bits amid all the carnage. Watch out for what happens to Lollygag the cat!
Some of the characters in Dawn of the Demontide share surnames with characters from Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Is this book a favourite of yours and are there any other similar references to classic horror in your book?
The Dracula connection was deliberate – a homage to my favourite horror novel. There are other homages in the book, mainly to the old EC horror comics of the 1950s. Like Jake Harker – the hero of Witchfinder – when I was a boy my dad bought me a huge collection of horror comics for my birthday. The stories from comics like Tales from the Crypt have influenced lots of horror writers, especially Stephen King. They were gory, grisly and gruesome – exactly the kind of qualities I wanted for Witchfinder!
Another homage in Witchfinder is to Charles Dickens – my favourite author of all time. He wrote some pretty creepy things himself – check out his brilliant ghost story The Signalman. A lot of the characters in my book have Dickensian names, like Mr Quilp (from The Old Curiosity Shop) and Mr Pinch (from Martin Chuzzlewit). Finally, I’ve always been a big fan of MR James: to my mind the greatest writer of ghost stories that ever lived. James was a master at describing ominous landscapes, and that’s something I’ve always tried to do in my own writing.
Are there any books or authors that you would recommend fans of your books to read?
I guess the obvious names like Darren Shan and Anthony Horowitz will already be familiar to many. I would also recommend rising talents like Michelle Harrison (The Thirteen Treasures), Sam Enthoven (Crawlers) and Barry Hutchison (Invisible Fiends). These guys are huge talents and their books never fail to draw you in.
Can you recommend one book that you think every boy should read at some point?
An old one – The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Brilliant writing, superb plots, scares, thrills and spills galore. These stories might be over a hundred years old, but they are as fresh today as when they were written.
Can you give us any hints as to what we can expect from your next book in the series, Gallows At Twilight?
Gallows will include: Demons and time travel. The Seer of the Pit. The Scarab Path. Ecto-suits. Warriors from the Wall. The truth about Simon Lydgate… And Matthew Hopkins, the real Witchfinder General, might just make an appearance. That’s all I’m saying!
Is there anything else you would like to say to the readers of this blog?
Keep reading! Especially if, one day, you want to be a writer. The most important thing any writer can do is read and read and read!
Thank you William for such great answers to my questions. I really hope that the Witchfinder Trilogy is a huge success - January 2011 is such a long time to have to wait for the sequel but if it is anything near as good as Dawn of the Demontide then it will be worth the wait. If you have not yet popped over to the Witchfinder website then it is well worth a visit, and some great new content has been added over the last couple of weeks, including the chance to win a pocket sized video camera.