Alastair Chisholm | 'I was trying to think about what I liked at that age'

Alastair Chisholm | 'I was trying to think about what I liked at that age'

When Nosy Crow approached Alastair Chisholm about creating a young fiction series about dragons, the Orion Lost author and self-confessed “geeky” writer and computer programmer jumped at the chance. “They already had a series called Unicorn Academy and their original pitch was Unicorn Academy for boys. Pretty quickly I said: ‘Well there are a lot of girls who like dragons, and there are probably a lot of boys who like unicorns, so let’s do a series for children who prefer dragons to unicorns’.”

The Dragon Storm series is set in the city of Rivven, once populated by both humans and dragons. Around 1,000 years before this story starts, there was a big war (the eponymous Dragon Storm) and all the dragons left. A secretive guild is attempting to connect with these wonderful creatures, although their work would fall foul of Rivven’s leader, King Godfic.

Children’s books that are based on IP that was generated in-house can sometimes feel contrived or stale, but Chisholm’s story is gripping. He attributes this to the collaborative nature of his work; Nosy Crow put forward the initial idea, but Chisholm decided to focus on the relationships between the protagonists and their dragons, as well as setting the narrative in a bustling, medieval city, which he later revealed was probably a version of the old town in Edinburgh, where he lives. “By the end I felt like this was something I owned, which makes it much easier to write about.”

The first book, Dragon Storm: Tomás and Ironskin, introduces the reader to the Rivven world via a boy called Tomás; we meet him when he is apprenticed to his father, a blacksmith. Tomás knows the stories about dragons, and that his father makes dragonswords (swords that can cut through a dragon’s skin), but when he starts to see a dragon in the flames of a fire, his life is turned upside down. He is, in fact, not a blacksmith-in-training, but a “dragonseer”, so is invited to join the Dragon Guild.

One of the things I really appreciated about the story was how Tomás is in some ways reluctant to leave his parents and join the guild, and the nuanced way in which Chisholm creates his story’s heroes. This turns out to have ramifications for the plot, too. “Tomás is there at the guild, a secret hidden place in the city, and he decides he can’t do this any more,” says Chisholm. “He’s so homesick he wants to leave. He starts to head home but on his way he hears a ferocious sound. There is a dragon flying and it’s not one that he recognises. It sets fire to various buildings, including his parents’ smithy, where they live. Tomás has to go and try and rescue them. The problem is, how can he do this? What does he draw on?”

Series business

Tomás and Ironskin will be published in January, with books two to six coming in quick succession soon after. Each title will focus on a different child and their dragon. Book two, for example, is about the mysterious Cara and her dragon Silverthief, which has the ability to disappear into its surroundings, and Chisholm says one of the most fun things was deciding what kind of dragon would suit which child, who all have their own strengths and weaknesses.

Readers will discover more about the adults, too. “As the series goes on there are people who know more than you think, and there are mysteries about dragon artefacts that turn up,” he says. 

Chisholm comes from a family of big storytellers, and says he always wondered if he could write stories from a young age. But his break into publishing eventually came thanks to an interest in Sudoko. “About 10 or 12 years ago, when the craze hit, I was quite into Sudoku puzzles,” he says. “I figured out how to solve them and then how to create them, and then started writing puzzles about them. From that I was lucky enough to get an agent.”

Walker Books picked up his first picture book, The Prince and the Witch and the Thief and the Bears, a shaggy dog story in which a son keeps interrupting his father, who is trying to tell the tale. It was shortlisted for the 2020 Bookbug Picture Book Prize and was included in the Bookbug P1 Family Bag, gifted to every child in Primary 1 in Scotland.

Walker also published The Tale of the Valiant Ninja Frog and Inch and Grub: A Story About Cavemen, and Chisholm got involved with Nosy Crow when it picked up his manuscript for Orion Lost, a science fiction novel that was later shortlisted for the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize.

Writing by numbers

Writing young fiction, as opposed to middle-grade or picture books, was challenging, he says. “This is a short book that someone can devour quickly. It has to have short chapters, but in every chapter something has to happen. There has to be a reason why you would want to carry on.”

For books for this age group the language has to be at a level where someone aged seven or so could read it comfortably, he says, but the author has to still pin down essential information about the characters. “You’ve got to convey within a paragraph or so what the characters are like. You can hang other bits of information on them, but straight away you’ve got to get them into [the reader’s] head. I was trying to think about what I liked at that age... and what I really wanted to know was what would a Great Hall look like? When Tomás is working at the forge, what are they making? Can I hear the sound of the hammer?”

He recently reduced his days working as a computer programmer so has a day and a half during the week to write, although the work spills into his weekends and evenings, too. Chisholm has written the first four books in the series and is currently working on book five, as well as editing a new science fiction novel, his third, for Nosy Crow.

He is also writing two picture books, one for Walker and another for Hachette Children’s Group. “Suddenly there is a lot to do,” he says. “I write all the time.” 

Book extract 

Tom turned and faced his dragon.

It was twice as tall as him, and long. Its skin was deep red, like weathered iron. But this wasn’t a hard, metal thing; this was alive. Thin lines of orange and yellow ran along its body like cracks, glow- ing as if a fire burned inside.

It sat like a cat, with its back legs curled and front paws on the dirt floor, claws digging into the earth. A thick tail swept behind it, and a long neck stretched upwards. Its forehead was bony and ridged, just like Tom had seen in the flames, and its eyes gleamed.

It stared at Tom, leaning its head slightly to one side, and he stared back.

“What a beauty,” murmured Drun. “Can it...” Tom gulped. “Can it talk?” The dragon made a deep, rasping sound, and opened its mouth to reveal huge white teeth. “Oh, yes,” it said, in a rumbling voice. It sounded amused. “And I’m a she, not an it.”

She studied him. “You are ... Tomás,” she said. “And I...” She frowned, gazing down as if seeing herself for the first time. “I am ... Ironskin. Yessssss...”