Kit is a thief and would-be actor in eighteenth century London, trying to save the life of his beloved Gabe. Forced into stealing a magical medieval book from wicked Lord Colwich, he flees the city, travelling as far as Bath in the guise of an apprentice puppeteer. Yet danger awaits at every turn, both inside and outside the book. Can Kit trust any of his new travelling companions with its unbelievable secrets? Has the appearance of a comet created a magical link between 1759 and 1456? Most of all, can Kit save his friends in the village he now thinks of as home?
Title: The Comet and the Thief
Author: Ruth Morgan
Publication date: September/October 2019
Flip Books and Time Travel: some ideas behind The Comet and the Thief
The ideas behind my stories come from a wide variety of weird and wonderful places. Here I’d like to share some of those which provided the inspiration for The Comet and the Thief. For me, the weirder the mix of ideas the better, because it’s working out how those ideas can possibly gel together that helps create a plot.
I have always loved time travel stories. When I was young, one of my favourite books was ‘Tom’s Midnight Garden’ which I also remember as an engrossing BBC teatime serial in the 1970s. Imagine my excitement when, years later, I attended a Writing for Children course at Ty Newydd Writing Centre in North Wales and its author, the late, great Philippa Pearce was one of my tutors. It was a huge privilege to be in her company and gain insight into her lifetime of experience; such a special week that I have never forgotten.
One of my ideas for The Comet and the Thief was that rather than travel between our present day and another time, my main character Kit would travel between two periods in history, the eighteenth and fifteenth centuries. I love history and it amuses me to try and image what it would have been like to feel ‘modern’ in the past, without the benefit of knowing what we know now. I enjoyed exploring the way in which Kit would react to a time which was to him, long past. It is likely that rural life would not have changed much over hundreds of years, but Kit lives in London. Although he is scraping by on the fringes of society, he is aware from what he hears on the streets of more modern ways of thinking, including new scientific theories. For example, he knows – because everyone has been talking about it – that Sir Edmond Halley successfully predicted that a great comet would return in that year, 1759.
The idea of the comet helped draw a lot of the story’s threads together. It provided the two key dates, 1759 and 1456, both years when Halley’s Comet returned to Earth and was visible in the sky. The famous comet also became more and more symbolic for me, the further I tunneled into the story. In Kit’s time, people were waking up to the scientific explanation for the comet but there has always been much superstition attached to this particular comet’s return and medieval people would have been more likely to fear its once-in-a-lifetime appearance. Halley’s Comet seemed the perfect symbol for the meeting of these old and new ways of thinking, even though in my story and to Kit’s astonishment, the comet’s appearance really does herald a magical event.
If you are writing a time-travel story, you must have some mechanism which allows the time-travel to happen, be it the grandfather’s clock which strikes thirteen in Tom’s Midnight Garden or indeed, the Doctor’s TARDIS. I had already written several chapters before coming up with my own mechanism for time travel in The Comet and the Thief and it came in the shape of an object that’s part of our family history: something sitting in our house, right under my nose.
My partner, the illustrator Chris Glynn, used to work in animation and from boyhood has been fascinated by flip-books, illustrations which appear to move when the pages are flipped from front-to-back. We have quite a collection of these at home but there’s one very special flip-book and I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to reveal in a flash of inspiration, I realised it could provide the ideal solution to Kit’s problem. I’m not going to tell you what it is, I am going to show you in a short film. Chris was about 16 when he began to doodle in the margin of his copy of Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow which he was studying at the time. If you ask him how long it took and whether he was supposed to be doing something else instead, he will insist that Henderson the Rain King is a brilliant book he thoroughly enjoyed, and that he did well in his English exam. He is simply one of those people who concentrates better when they are doodling!
(video – copyright ãChrisGlynnCartoons )
These, then, are some of the ideas which came together to make The Comet and the Thief. It took quite a while for me to realise that Chris’ copy of Henderson the Rain King was the key to the whole story. It was great to find inspiration in an object so one-off and personal.
Ruth has been writing for children and YA for more than 20 years, everything from picture books to novels, plus many scripts for animation and radio series. She is also a part-time teacher at a local primary school – a constant source of inspiration. In the small amount of time that’s left, she loves to dance, play ukulele and stargaze.
You can follow Ruth on Twitter @alienruth and Instagram ruth.morgan.ant.clancy