The wild, untamed beauty of North Norfolk provides plenty of fuel for the writer’s imagination.
It’s the trampling ground of forensic archaeologist Eli Griffiths, Dr. Ruth Galloway, who combs the coast to reveal clues to solving treacherous deeds.
And when he was searching for a mysterious and magical setting for his latest book, Orla and the Magpie’s Kiss, award-winning travel writer Chris Haslam looked no further than creeks and swamps.
Young witch and environmental warrior Orla and her siblings Tom, Richard and Dave the dog vacation in Norfolk to visit their quirky uncle Valentine.
In the first book in the series, Orla and the Serpent’s Curse, she learns that she is a witch, so she is determined not to get into trouble on this journey.
However, she soon discovers that Anna’s beautiful wood is set to be dredged for shale gas by a company called GasFrac. And what’s more, locals are convinced it’s a great plan.
Confused as to why no one is protesting this, Orla begins to suspect that black magic is working.
With the help of Magpie, you discover who is behind GasFrac – and what he wants is worse than you could possibly imagine.
It’s a great read and although it’s aimed at young readers of nine and up, it has won a lot of big fans as well.
The book is set in a fictional version of North Norfolk, the part of the world Chris knows so well where his parents and brother live in the county – and he grew up on the border in Suffolk.
He says readers enjoy learning about the places the sites are based on.
“Norfolk is a great place to put together a story,” Chris says.
“There is a tradition of witchcraft in Norfolk as strong as any.
“I am on the Norfolk coast a lot, so I know everywhere, I know every turn in every lane out there. Anyone who knows Norfolk would probably work out exactly where to put the book very quickly.”
Chris is the lead travel writer for the Sunday Times and lives in Cambridge with real dog Dave.
He has also written three adult black comedies, including Twelve Step Fandango, which was nominated for an Edgard Allan Poe Award.
He grew up without television, so he has enjoyed writing his own stories, inspired by the action-packed Beagles tales of derring-do and the likes of H Rider Haggard and Jack London who set their work in faraway places.
Desiring to travel to distant places himself, he became a journalist, later turning to writing novels and writing travels.
“I saw journalism as a way to travel to places I was reading about as a kid. I started working independently from places like El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, West Africa, East Africa…”
Orla and the Serpent’s Curse was published in 2020, after the country entered its first Covid lockdown.
Chris says that Pippi Longstocking was one of his inspirations for the young book hero.
“I loved the idea that Pippi didn’t care about anything and was solid, independent and eccentric and was always absolutely confident that everything would turn out fine no matter what silly situation she found herself in,” he explains.
Orla and her siblings, Tom and Richard, are also dependent on his children.
“I loved the family dynamic, and I love the way the kids talk to each other, especially the brothers and sisters, they are fun because they always take Mickey out of each other,” he says.
“British people, we say our way of showing love is to take Mickey, we’re not cuddly people and I like it on the outside, you think they’re totally rude to each other and reject them, but really that’s the way it works and the closer you are, the more this The dynamic, so I wanted to reflect that.”
Dave the dog was a creation of his imagination.
However, when Chris acquired Jack Russell in 2020, who was also called Dave, life began to imitate the art.
“I’ve always had a Jack Russell and I had promised myself that when the first book was published I would get a Jack Russell and call him Dave. So the dog Dave in the book, his characteristics, his mannerisms, his weirdness, tree climbing and things like that, it was all an invention.
“And I ended up with a dog eating cat food and climbing trees—my mom found it nine feet up a tree in Great Massingham that day.”
Chris hopes his young readers will learn two things from reading about Orla’s adventures.
The first is a deeper awareness of nature and the importance of caring for the planet.
“The other is writing their own stories,” he says.
“Orla loves birds, loves nature, she doesn’t have a phone and I think that’s important. Pippi Longstocking didn’t have an iPhone, did she? And Orla didn’t because what she’s doing today is she’s living in her real world. She’s not sitting on her phone or on the internet.” Or anything like that, they live in nature and if I could encourage kids to do that, I would be happy, because I think a lot of childhood hours are wasted in front of screens.”
Orla and the Magpie’s Kiss, by CJ Haslam, published by Walker Books, £7.99.