Welcome to this virtual landscape where SCBWI-BI members share their Debut Journeys with us. This month, Helen Victoria steps out with author Rachel Burge, whose debut The Twisted Tree came out in paperback on 10th January 2019. 

Let’s begin our journey… There’s nothing like a good walk to fuel creative ideas and give us inspiration in our writing. Rachel, where are you taking us on our walk today? 

We’re going into the deep, dark woods. You may hear the throaty caw of a raven and the brittle snapping of twigs, but don’t worry if you sense something moving close behind you – it’s just my black Labrador, Biff. 

I love walking in the woods near my house and often get ideas for stories while out with the dog. I’ve always had a love of trees (I’ve been known to hug a few in my time) and think of them as being very wise and magical. 

What about the landscape you have created in The Twisted Tree? How important is the setting to your plot and themes? 

Setting is hugely important to the story. It takes place on the fictional island of Skjebne in the Lofoten Islands, Northern Norway, at a time of near-permanent darkness in winter – so perfect for a creepy ghost story. 

I wanted to create a sense of increasing isolation and claustrophobia. The story starts in a busy airport and moves to an isolated cabin surrounded by pine forests and snow. At the darkest point of the story, my main character Martha is literally trapped in a tiny hole. The isolated setting increases the sense of peril, as the characters are cut off from help – and to make it worse, the cabin isn’t a place of safety. 

There’s another reason I chose the Lofoten Islands. They are a land of extremes – half the year in near-permanent darkness and the other half in light, which reflects the theme of duality that runs through the book. This duality is embodied in the figure of Hel, Norse queen of the underworld, who is half living and half dead.

As the saying goes, a journey of a thousand steps starts with one. Tell us about your inspiration for your novel. When and why did you start writing The Twisted Tree

I started writing the book in 2016 after doing a tarot course with a lady called Maddy Elruna. As well as being an amazing tarot reader, Maddy is a shaman who follows a Norse path, which means she believes in gods like Odin, Thor and Freya as real beings she can communicate with. As she explained the meanings of various tarot cards, she told stories of the Norse gods. 

There was one card, which really captured my imagination: The Hanged Man. Maddy explained how it depicts Odin, who hung himself from the world tree, yggdrasil. I basically took this original myth and gave it a contemporary twist – which resulted in The Twisted Tree

Now we have got into our stride, can you tell us what you loved most about writing this book? 

I loved writing the spooky scenes. I imagined myself as my main character, Martha, and kept asking myself what I wouldn’t want to happen next. To do that, I had to draw on my own fears, as well as a few creepy things that happened to me in childhood. I admit that I spooked myself out at times! 
I also loved writing about Hel, who we briefly meet in the story. She wrote her own speech – I just had to type fast to take it down. I’ve never experienced that before (I’m very envious of writers who say their characters appear and just start talking to them) and I wish it happened more often. 

We seem to be lost in the woods now, Rachel. Can you describe your most difficult moments when you were writing The Twisted Tree, and how you got back onto the right path? 

I wrote a book before this one, which I sent to my mentor, Lee Weatherly, for feedback. She felt the story wasn’t high concept enough to get picked up, and so I resigned it to the drawer. Making the decision to throw away a year’s work was hard, but I’m so glad I trusted her advice. (You can read Lee’s critique here). 

Writing the book felt like climbing a mountain, and there were many times I felt like giving up. What kept me going was an amazing mentor, belief in my story, and sheer bloody mindedness. 

As we reach the summit, can you tell us how it feels to be a first time author? 

It feels wonderful to have achieved my dream and see my book on the shelves. At the same time, being published comes with lots of new challenges. I’ve never been particularly good at social media or public speaking, so I’ve had to push myself out of my comfort zone these last few months. 

We’ve finished our walk now so I think we deserve to celebrate with tea in a cosy inn. As we warm our feet by the blazing fire, tell me where you think your writing will take you in the future? 

I am currently working on a new story – again involving the supernatural, but can’t say much more than that! 

Finally, I have really enjoyed walking and talking with you today. Can you give us one take away tip for yet-to-be-published writers? 

Make sure you have a really strong story idea before you start writing. If you’re writing about something that’s been done many times before, think about ways you can make it feel fresh and original. I love ‘quiet’ stories, but in my (only limited) experience, high concept books are easier to pitch and get people excited about. 

Finally, there’s nothing like professional feedback. If you can afford a critique of your work, I would do it. 

Photo of Rachel Burges
Rachel Burges works as a freelance feature writer and has written for a variety of websites, including BBC Worldwide, Cosmo, and MTV. Her debut novel, THE TWISTED TREE is a ghost story and Nordic thriller with a unique protagonist Martha, who can tell things about a person just by touching their clothes, as if their emotions and memories have been absorbed into the material.
Follow Rachel:
Twitter: @RachelABurge

Photo of Helen Victoria
Helen Victoria is a writer of YA fiction, a full time drama teacher and a reader of anything and everything. When she is not putting on shows, reading or writing, Helen loves to walk in wild places, or hang out with her family and friends in London, France and Cornwall.
Follow Helen:

Photo of Imogen Foxell
Imogen Foxell is an illustrator with a particular interest in creating intricate imaginary worlds. She illustrates English literature revision cards for, and interesting words for Her website is Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Emily Ann Davison is a features editor for Words & Pictures.
Follow Emily:
Twitter: @emilyanndavison 

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