Map making and children’s fiction: How I used a Map to Create the World of The Very Dangerous Sisters of Indigo McCloud
In The Very Dangerous Sisters of Indigo McCloud, the town of Blunt, in which all of the action takes place, is essentially another character. And not a very nice one.
It’s full of crumbling buildings and disused warehouses. One of the few working factories makes plastic Christmas trees. Its twin chimney stacks pump out smoke all day and night, covering everything in the town in a layer of grey black grime. The factory has also polluted the river – also called the Blunt – so that the only thing that can live in it is a species of eels so vicious that people can no longer swim there.
Then there are the donkey sanctuary and accordion factory. Because of these, all you can hear in Blunt are the heehawing donkeys and the accordion testers playing the scale of B flat minor over and over and over again. There’s a swimming pool but that had to be shut down because it got infested by flesh-eating shrimp. There was also a sweet shop but that closed following an infestation of tiny black spiders.
Why would anybody choose to live in such a place? Well, Blunt has two neighbouring towns: Cragmire and Bulstrode. The citizens of these towns look down their noses at people from Blunt, and that kind of thing makes you very protective of your own town. So Blunt people are actually quite proud of where they’re from. Plus they have their own fun.
On Ingratitude Day, the town celebrates bad manners by reversing all the usual niceties. One friend might greet another with a new hairdo by saying, ‘I see you’ve persuaded a flea-infested badger to live on your head. I wonder how he puts up with the smell?’
In response, the other person might say, ‘Why don’t you shut your trap, you wrinkly old pus bucket.’
A variety of ingratitude-related events are held throughout the day. There’s an Insult Tournament, while the Most Irritating Toddler and Ugly Baby competitions are always hugely popular. At the accompanying home and garden exhibition, prizes are awarded for the Blandest Cake and Most Unappealing Bunch of Parsnips.
The town was inspired by an idea of the grim north of England, drawn from Coronation Street and Hovis ads and George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier. It’s horrible, but also singular. As well as accordions and pollution, there are four Humpty Depots, which sell novelty egg cups and nothing else. And the town is home to a number of eccentrics, including Bamber Adelyne, who made his millions in the sludge business and had all of the trees on his estate cut down because they reminded him too much of broccoli. Elsbeth Quisk lived in a submarine moored on the River Blunt. She had been a world-renowned wig-maker, but it turned out that she’d got the hair for her wigs by kidnapping people, holding them prisoner and shaving their heads.
My hero, Indigo, is a watcher, more at home on the roofs of the town than anywhere else. Years ago, I lived in a fourth floor bedsit on Leeson Street. It was a crumbling firetrap, with creaky floorboards, no heating and an ancient gas range that looked like a safe from a wild-west movie. On the top floor, the three bedsits shared a bathroom, but the bath was unusable because one of the tenants used it to store the roses he sold on Grafton Street. Anyway, I used sometimes climb onto the bath, open the window, stick my head out and stare down at the bustling city below. What struck me was how seldom anyone looked up. It was a curious thing, and it was this, which, years later, fed into the development of my main character.
Blunt is full of tall and ponderous buildings, with sawtooth rows of houses. The roofs interconnect and Indigo has perfected the art of crossing the roofscape more swiftly than anyone else might cross it on foot.
Once I’d done my first draft of the book, I realised that what I really needed to keep tabs on my hero and his dangerous sisters was a map. It would help to visualise things, and prevent contradictions: how can you say that he crosses from Derange Street to the tweezers factory, when earlier, you put the tweezers factory beside the river, and Derange Street can’t be beside the river because…and so on.
The map also became a record of the various drafts I went through – and there were many. At one stage, a collapsible bridge played a key role in the plot. I edited it out in the second draft, but felt that the bridge was just the sort of thing that the town might have, so it was retained. Likewise, the Skidball fields (Skidball is a game played only in Blunt, Cragmire and Bulstrode) featured in an early draft, but when they were dropped from the plot, I felt no need to excise the fields from the map.
I came to depend upon the map. In fact I came to love the map, but I’m no artist, so I went online and discovered that there’s a whole community of cartographers who, for a fee, will draw you any map you want. So I found a wonderful artist called Chaim Holtjer in the Netherlands. He took my rough sketch and created a beautiful map. You can see it at johnhearneauthor.com.
Chaim has captured the soul of Blunt beautifully, from the Cathedral of St. Dolores of the Unending Sorrows, right down to the vicious eels lurking in the river. And with the map before you, you can recreate the entire plot, from Indigo’s ill-fated pursuit of the sludge barge up the canal, to denouement at the toothbrush holder factory.
(c) John Hearne
Author photo (c) Dave Ruffles
About The Very Dangerous Sisters of Indigo McCloud:
An absurdly enjoyable dark adventure about a boy’s mission to stop his evil sisters terrorising the town.
Indigo McCloud’s sister Peaches is every adult’s favourite child: pretty, golden-haired, polite and charming. But the children of Blunt know better: Peaches and her sisters are a gang of bullies who will stop at nothing to get their way. This is the story of Indigo’s battle to stop his sisters. Leaping across the rooftops of Blunt, he tries to keep one step ahead of their wicked schemes –but he has to tangle with 437 hungry geese, an avalanche of toilets, curry farts, bungling policemen, vicious eels, a pig in a witch’s hat, a three legged spider with a toilet brush and a dangerous villain in odd socks …
Order your copy online here.