Monday, July 16, 2012

How to Write a Classic: Wolves of Willoughby Chase

Ask fantasy writers about their favorite childhood books, and chances are The Wolves of Willoughby Chase will soon come up. This small masterpiece by Joan Aiken (1924-2004) first appeared fifty years ago, the start of a madcap historical fantasy series unlike any other. Quite a few of us at the Inkpot count these books as a key influence, as do Kelly Link, Megan Whalen Turner, Hilary McKay, Shannon Hale, Tracy Chevalier, and other noted writers.

Of Aiken's books, China Miéville says, "If that kind of writing hits you at the right time when you're a child, the impact is like nothing else ever.”

The iconic Edward Gorey cover


So what is it about Aiken’s Wolves that grabbed us as kids? And what can we learn from Aiken as writers?

(1) A fast and furious plot pulls in readers.

Aiken’s plot runs at a tremendous clip. If it begins in the nursery-room, it soon becomes the stuff of high adventure. Young heiress Bonnie Green and her cousin Sylvia are left to the tender care of governess Miss Slighcarp when Bonnie’s parents travel overseas. Miss Slighcarp, however, is bent on seizing Bonnie’s fortune and her home, the manor of Willoughby Chase. Despite the girls’ resourcefulness, Miss Slighcarp eventually succeeds in exiling them to a vile orphanage. Outrageous adventures ensue before Bonnie and Sylvia are restored to fortune.

Miss Slighcarp, Bonnie, and Sylvia, by Pat Marriott
 
As a child, I read this book on the absolute edge of my seat, desperate to know what would happen next. And this, it seems, was what Aiken intended. She’s on record as saying, “The pace is faster when writing for children, who soon become bored by descriptions of thought-processes, flashbacks, overlong descriptions.” 

If the pace is fast, however, there's still room for a great many twists and turns, as well as a general atmosphere of secrets and skulduggery. "Children do have a feeling for mystery," Aiken wrote. "This was certainly true of me, when I was very young."

(2) You don’t have to do everything.

In Aiken’s books, plot trumps character. It seems this was deliberate.“Characters in children's books are simpler and more strongly defined, like those in Morality plays — personified abstractions,” Aiken once said.

This, of course, is only one way to write a book, and plenty of readers prefer deeper and more subtle characterization. But whether you’re a plot-driven writer or a character-driven one, it’s helpful to remember that you don’t have to be all things to all people. It’s okay to play to your strengths.

Joan Aiken at her desk

(3) Be as quirky as you want, but get the details right.

Like many readers, I first encountered the pleasures of alternate history in Aiken’s books. Aiken's early nineteenth century isn't ours. Instead it's a charmingly off-kilter world of scheming malcontents, eccentric aristocrats, absentminded adults, and Dickensian dark doings. Voracious wolves terrorize all England. A Nantucket sea captain hunts for the great pink whale. The jovial Stuart king James III struggles against Hanoverian plotters. 

No matter how absurd the premise, the details are exquisitely executed. Take this moment, for instance, when Sylvia is alone on a train with a stranger, and a wolf leaps through a broken window:

Sylvia screamed. Another instant, and a wolf precipitated itself through the aperture thus formed. It turned snarling on the sleeping stranger, who started awake with an oath, and very adroitly flung his cloak over the animal. He then seized one of the shattered pieces of glass lying on the floor and stabbed the imprisoned beast through the cloak. It fell dead.
 

"Tush" said Sylvia's companion, breathing heavily and passing his hand over his face, "Unexpected- most."

Is it any surprise that I believed in those wolves absolutely? Or that I was sure that there really had been a King Jamie III?  I vividly remember consulting the encyclopedia at 11, and being bewildered as to why he wasn’t there in the list of British monarchs.

(4) Have fun.

Aiken clearly had a great time reinventing the nineteenth century, which gives the story a lot of its brio. She also had almost as much fun with names as Dickens did: In addition to Letitia Slighcarp, we get Pattern the nurse, malevolent Gertrude Brisket, and Mr. Friendshipp the Inspector. My favorite, however, might just be Abednego Gripe the attorney. In later books, we meet Captain Jabez Casket and his daughter Dutiful Penitence, as well as the immortal guttersnipe Dido Twite.

(5) Be open to suggestion.

Joan Aiken never intended The Wolves of Willoughby Chase to be the start of a series, but when it did well, she wrote another book set in the same world, Black Hearts in Battersea. She believed this would be the last book.

Soon, however, she received "a heartbreaking letter from an American child" about Dido Twite, one of the characters in Black Hearts. As Aiken later recalled, the letter asked, "‘Why did she have to die? She was such a good character’ (with no address on the letter so I was unable to reply). [That] obliged me to rescue her from the sea in Nightbirds on Nantucket.  From then on I had become addicted to her— after which the series continued on for many more books.

Joan Aiken (1924-2004)


(6) Be persistent. 

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase was a long time in the making. According to her official website, Aiken started the story in 1952, but set it aside to nurse her husband who had tuberculosis. He died in 1955, after which Aiken needed to work as a copywriter to support her children. It was only in 1961 that she managed to finish the book. It then languished on her agent’s windowsill for a year.

When the book was finally published in 1962, however, it was an immediate triumph. Fifty years later, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase remains in print and is considered a classic.

Long may it flourish!

***




Amy Butler Greenfield was on her way to a history PhD when she gave into temptation and became a novelist. She loves music, romantic adventure, strange science, alternate history, and twisty plots, which explains how she came to write her first YA novel, Chantress, due out from Simon & Schuster in 2013. You can visit her at www.amybutlergreenfield.com.


20 comments:

  1. How wonderful that you had a chance to meet Joan Aiken herself! But I'm sorry to hear that some of the books are out of print. She did write a lot of books, but in the UK (where I live) it's pretty easy to get hold of the first few volumes of the Wolves sequence. Like you, I know many lines by heart.

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  2. Fascinating post. I love the first three books so much and reread them so frequently as a child that, reading them aloud to nieces and nephews last summer, I often knew a particular phrase by heart. I was distressed to learn some of the books do not seem to be in print. I was privileged to meet Joan several years ago at Books of Wonder, and when I told her I was also a fan of her sister Jane, she encouraged me to write to Jane, who sent a lovely response.
    http://tinyurl.com/3vy54bs

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  3. I'm delighted you enjoyed the post. And it's good to know that I wasn't the only reader who believed in James III absolutely.

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  4. Thank you for this post, which has reminded me that it's about time I reread the first three or four books. The series was one of my childhood favorites. Like Amy Butler Greenfield, I was convinced James III was a(n) historical king, and taken aback when I discovered that the political situation was in fact more-or-less reversed. I'm also dying to get my hands on The Serial Garden, since I adored those stories as a child, as well.

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  5. I'd love more posts like that too, Lia! I learned so much by going back and looking at Wolves with writer's eyes -- and it would be so much fun to hear about others' favorites.

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  6. Oh, this is such a perceptive take on Miéville's point! I know exactly what you mean. There are times when I read a book, and it doesn't speak to me -- but I know I would have loved it at an earlier point in my life. (Fortunately, I've had it happen the other way around, too, where a book that did anything for me before suddenly becomes *exactly* what I need right now.)

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  7. Great breakdown, Amy! I've never thought about what makes the Wolves of Willoughby Chase a classic -- just loved the unforgettable story. I'd love to see more Inkpot posts about favorite classics and why they've survived the test of time!

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  8. Oh, what China Miéville said. I GET it. I wanted to read this book so badly when I was a kid, but couldn't find it. I FINALLY read it a few years ago and was so frustrated: it wasn't doing much for me, where I am now in my life, but I could SO, SO tell that I would have been KNOCKED OUT by it if I'd only read it when I'd WANTED to read it! So I'm still disappointed I didn't read it THEN...

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  9. Thanks for this great Post, Amy. I too loved Wolves of Willoughby Chase. My elementary school teacher read it to us, and I couldn’t wait to go to school to find out what happened! I agree with you entirely about writing for children and teens – they won’t keep reading if the book has a slow start, like many adults will. It is important to grab their attention early on. I’m actually becoming more like that now, if I don’t look forward to reading a book, I don't!

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  10. Delighted to hear I've piqued your interest! Enjoy!

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  11. This is one series that somehow escaped my attention as a kid. Not too late to make up for lost time, though. Off to the library!

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  12. Thanks for this great Post, Amy. I too loved Wolves of Willoughby Chase. My elementary school teacher read it to us, and I couldn’t wait to go to school to find out what happened! I agree with you entirely about writing for children and teens – they won’t keep reading if the book has a slow start, like many adults will. It is important to grab their attention early on. I’m actually becoming more like that now, if I don’t look forward to reading a book, I don't!

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  13. Thanks for this great Post, Amy. I too loved Wolves of Willoughby Chase. My elementary school teacher read it to us, and I couldn’t wait to go to school to find out what happened! I agree with you entirely about writing for children and teens – they won’t keep reading if the book has a slow start, like many adults will. It is important to grab their attention early on. I’m actually becoming more like that now, if I don’t look forward to reading a book, I don’t!

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  14. Good to know that you loved the book, too, Erin! What a great class read-aloud it would make. I think there are lots of ways to grab a reader, but like you I'm less patient these days about finishing a book that *doesn't* grab me.

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  15. Thanks for this great Post, Amy. I too loved Wolves of Willoughby Chase. My elementary school teacher read it to us, and I couldn’t wait to go to school to find out what happened! I agree with you entirely about writing for children and teens – they won’t keep reading if the book has a slow start, like many adults will. It is important to grab their attention early on. I’m actually becoming more like that now, if I don’t look forward to reading a book, I don’t!

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  16. Thanks for this great Post, Amy. I too loved Wolves of Willoughby Chase. My elementary school teacher read it to us, and I couldn’t wait to go to school to find out what happened! I agree with you entirely about writing for children and teens – they won’t keep reading if the book has a slow start, like many adults will. It is important to grab their attention early on. I’m actually becoming more like that now, if I don’t look forward to reading a book, I don’t!

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  17. So glad you enjoyed it, Kate! It was only when I was researching
    this that I realized The Serial Garden was out there. How did I miss
    that?! I've got it on order now.

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  18. Oh, I love The Wolves of Willoughby Chase! Thanks for your useful, thoughtful analysis of why it works from a writing standpoint. Hope you've read the recent collection of her stories, The Serial Garden.

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  19. Just to let you know, I read your brief review of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (WWC) for Google books, and followed the link to your blog. WWC was one of my most cherished childhood books, along with Little Women,and I later came to dearly love The Secret Garden, The Little Princess, and the Five Children and It series. Like you, I had no notion that WWC was an alternative history, but Joan Aiken shaped my love for Gothic rewrites and modern urban fantasy. I loved the genteely impoverished Sylvia and her refined Aunt Jane, the robust Bonnie, and the wise boy of the woods, Simon. To this day, I keep meaning to make a posset, and adore the comfort dispensed by Pattern (wonderful name!). Thank you for reviving these sweet childhoood memories, and the wealth of my childhood literary forays.

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