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October 5, 2009

Karen Maitland on Dreams and Nightmares

When I’m giving talks to new writers, I always tell them never end your story with it was all a dream. But in fact it was a dream that gave me the idea for my medieval thriller THE OWL KILLERS which has just been published in the USA.

I dream vividly and I can usually identify the elements of my dreams as coming from past events, films or books. But the nightmare I had a few years ago seemed to come from nowhere. So how on earth did this image get into my head?

In my dream I was sitting in a room at night. Everyone else was in a deep sleep. I heard a rapping at the window. I couldn’t rouse anyone,so I pulled back the curtains. There, standing inches away, were three men with wooden cudgels in their hands and each man wore a terrfying owl mask. I woke myself screaming, but when I finally stopped shaking, I made a note of the image in my journal, thinking one day I would use it in a story, though I had no idea how.

Getting ideas for a story is a bit like wandering down a path and finding scattered pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. You slip them into your pocket not even knowing if they come from the same puzzle. Every so often you spread them out and look at them. Then one day, maybe years later, you find another piece that links two of them together and you realise you have the corner of a story.

It happened that way with THE OWL KILLERS. Several years after my owl-mask dream, I holidayed in Bruges, Belgium. Like many tourists, I visited the beguinage (City of Women). Knowing nothing about beguines, I was amazed to learn that during the Middle Ages, thousands of women across Europe had flocked to join this remarkable movement, refusing to disband even when the beguinages were attacked and the women were imprisioned or even burned at the stake. What intrigued me was that these women seemed to have been written out of history. I was told by historians that there were never any beguinages in Britain, but I discovered they had existed in England, though they had mysteriously disappeared within a few years of being established. What happened to them and to the women in them? That was the second piece of my story puzzle.

Then when I was doing some research on birds, I stumbled across a mythical beast of the Middle Ages, known as the Owlman, who had the head and wings of an owl, but the body and legs of a man. This monster used to terrorise the local population snatching humans as its prey. The curious thing was I also discovered local newspaper reports which claimed that this monster had been seen again in Cornwall in the 1970’s and 1990’s. It was either a hoax or the witnesses had imbibed too much strong Cornish cider, but whatever the explaination, it gave me the third piece of my story puzzle, because I suddendly remembered my owl-mask dream and saw how I could combine it with the beguinage story.

I play the ‘what if’ game. What if a group of women from Bruges arrived in an isolated village in Norfolk in England to build a beguinage? What if they discovered that this village was being terrorised by a group of vigilantes in owl masks dedicated to the cult of the Owlman? These men were using threats, blackmail and savage murder to control the villagers, so what would happen if the foreign women tried to stop them? From these three ideas, collected years apart, my novel THE OWL KILLERS was hatched.

In my next blog I want to tell you about how I use personal experiences to write historical thrillers. So in the meantime, sweet dreams, but if you do have nightmares, don’t forget to write them down. They could just be the inspiration for your novel.

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