Writing Stories About The Magic of Stories by Jeremy Hullah

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Jeremy Hullah

Jeremy Hullah

When I started writing Uncle Digit and the Truth About Magic, I didn’t have much of a plot – just a few ideas inspired by Letters from a Lost Uncle by Mervyn Peake. I didn’t even have a first line.

Later, after hearing and reading about some of Ranulph Fiennes expeditions, I imagined some conversations between him and his younger cousins, the actors Joseph and Ralph Fiennes. They started along the lines of “Wow! How many fingers have you lost this time Ranulph?”, “Just the one this time, boys.” – eventually ending up with “You’ll never guess what happened on this expedition?” And Ranulph takes his head off and puts it on the table.

It was such a stupid idea, but I started to wonder how I could make something so impossible sound feasible within the context of a fantasy / adventure tale.

And this is the Magic of Stories.

It doesn’t matter if it’s something as silly as someone’s head coming off, or something as profoundly beautiful as a child placing her hand within another, far more ancient handprint, to highlight the wonder of a tradition that has continued for countless generations, in the first of Alan Garner’s masterful Stone Book Quartet stories.

The Magic is the writer’s ability to take the reader on a journey, away from our normal experiences, to live for a moment in someone else’s world, or someone else’s shoes, emotional or otherwise and to live those fictional moments as if there were our own real experiences.

When I started working on the expanded story line for Uncle Digit and the Truth About Magic, it naturally developed into a number of separate stories. It wasn’t something that I set out to do, but something that evolved as I sketched out the plot. It also gave me the first line of the novel:

Uncle DigitThis is a story about stories and the magic of stories.

This idea developed as I wrote and stories became the driving force behind much of the action. But, as the writing progressed, it led to further thoughts related to stories.

When a story is read, it’s generally clear to the reader which elements are real and which elements are made up. The reader knows they are in a work of fiction and therefore expect elements of pure fiction within the narrative.

This distinction becomes much harder in the real-world where there are no useful signposts like ‘fantasy / adventure story’.

I wrote Uncle Digit and the Truth About Magic on a train to and from work over a period of about four years. It was the days leading up to and including Covid and was the time of Donald Trump and Boris Johnston, when it became almost impossible to disentangle any kind of truth from all the different layers of information that were being circulated.

Whether unconsciously or not, I began to thread ideas related to questioning truths into the stories.

In the fairy story The Truth About Magic, Uncle Digit tells his young wheelchair-bound nephew Finn about a princess, who exposes an evil sorcerer for the imposter he is and in doing so helps her father and all his people to realise that there is no such thing as magic.

This is echoed later in the book, where Finn remembers a holiday, when his mother took him to some healing waters to see if this might cure his paralysis. A young girl questions the powers of the water and in doing so, highlights to Finn the value of acceptance.

At one point, the captain of a ship talks about the difference between having to accept a storm at sea, which is beyond anyone’s control, and fighting a storm that rages inside someone, which can be controlled, if the cause of the storm is known.

There are also times in the book where characters question the validity of the ‘story’ they are in. This was intended to emphasis the fact that it is often unclear where, in a story (real or otherwise), we can say “no, that’s not true.”

This is highlighted in the main story, as there is no initial ‘hook’ to keep the pages being turned until the reader finds out how this event happened. I even asked the illustrator to ensure that no flying ships or detachable heads were included in the cover, as I wanted the reader to be gradually drawn into the fantasy world, not knowing what was going to happen. Instead, the reader is taken on a journey where the lines between reality and fiction are slowly blurred. Is Uncle Digit spinning a yarn to amuse his nephew or telling the truth? We don’t know for sure until Finn’s uncle takes his head off and puts it on the table.

The real story has started and the Magic begins.

The Truth about Magic is that Magic belongs in stories, and as long as it remains there, the Magic of Truth will look after itself.

(c) Jeremy Hullah

Uncle DigitAbout Uncle Digit and the Truth About Magic:

Confined to a wheelchair and bullied at school, 11-year-old Finn isn’t having an easy time of it. The only things he looks forward to are the visits of his Uncle Henry, a globe-trotting photojournalist, who can be relied upon to arrive with amazing gifts and unbelievable stories of his adventures. But when Henry goes looking for his father’s ship, lost in the Arctic forty years ago, the stories he recounts become increasingly fantastical, straining even Finn’s desire to believe everything his uncle tells him… until he joins in the adventure himself!

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About the author

Jeremy Hullah grew up in the rural Midlands, where he spent a lot of time dreaming about being a pianist or a writer, or something equally unattainable without the required level of effort. After school he moved to London where he worked on building sites for a few years before retraining in IT. He ended up working for a bank in the City, writing books on the train to and from his home in East Sussex. Jeremy Hullah is now retired, but still enjoys cycling around the countryside and dreaming up ideas for new books to keep his two boys entertained.

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