At home with a Grimm tale of haunted house

IT WAS posters appealing for lost cats in Stockbridge that gave Mike Nicholson the idea for his first award-winning children's novel.

Most people would hardly have given them a second glance, but they set the charity worker's imagination working.

He began to ask himself why so many cats were missing, and wondered whether there was some sinister reason behind it.

The result was Catscape, a gripping adventure story set in the streets around Comely Bank and Raeburn Place.

It won the prestigious Kelpies Prize in 2005.

Now the 42-year-old father-of-two has just published his second book, Grimm.

It is a classic story of a haunted hotel with a modern twist – an 11-year-old "marketing genius" is given the task of rebranding it.

His tale is frightening and intriguing, but with a humorous side.

Mike's success is even more remarkable when he reveals that he writes in spare time snatched between his full-time job, managing the Befriending Network Scotland, and caring for his young children with his wife Joy in their Trinity home.

He often finds inspiration while cycling through Inverleith Park, or walking by the Water of Leith. And many of his ideas are based on memories of playing in woods around his childhood home in Dalkeith.

Mike said: "I think back to the books I enjoyed reading as a child. I loved the Three Investigators, as well as Tintin and Dr Who. I absolutely lapped them up.

"A lot of my ideas come from thinking of 'what if' questions. I saw three lost cat posters when we were living in Stockbridge. I began to wonder why the cats were missing, and imagined a mystery around them.

"I turned the three cats into 43, and that was the beginning of my story.

"The new book came from the whole idea of rebranding a charity. What if there was an 11-year-old who was thought to be a marketing genius, but he wasn't really?

"He is asked to rebrand the terrifying Hotel Grimm, where guests have mysteriously died. The hero, Rory, is too scared not to go when he is summoned, but he begins to see the hotel in a different way."

Mike's experiences as a child and working with children inspired him to write for them.

"I've always had the idea to write for this age range," he said.

"I used to work with upper primary school pupils, and encourage them to come up with creative ideas. You learn what their sense of humour is and what would work to create intrigue."

Although JK Rowling's phenomenal success has raised the status of children's writing, Mike says his style is very different.

He said: "Harry Potter has certainly created a demand, and it's great that it's got children reading.

"I was more inspired by old school adventure stories. I liked the idea of characters finding mysteries on their own doorsteps, and I liked the challenge of setting it in the real world.

"My first book was set in a few streets, around Comely Bank and Raeburn Place. I had to create enough mystery and adventure, but make sure the characters still operated in the real world.

"There's a certain suspension of disbelief, but you don't want to break the spell of the book.

"One of the questions I had to think about was how much freedom my characters had.

"Most children aren't allowed nearly as much freedom to go out on their own as they used to be."

One of Mike's biggest challenges is fitting his writing around the demands of his work and family life.

He and Joy have two children, Joseph, five, and two-and-a-half-year-old Theo. Mike sets Monday morning aside for writing, and snatches as much spare time as he can during the week.

He said: "I tried to get into the habit of taking notebooks with me and writing anywhere, such as in a park or a cafe or waiting room. I always have a few questions and prompts about the story I'll try and answer.

"I tend to write in scenes, and it can be like a jigsaw putting it all together. I write the end fairly early on, so I have a sense of how the book's going to end.

"Sometimes when I go into schools to give talks I see the teachers rolling their eyes, as I say I don't start with writing a plan."

One of his next projects is writing a story for younger children – perhaps aimed at Joseph, who already loves books. His main tip for aspiring authors is not to be put off by thinking they're too busy to write.

He said: "A lot of people say they wish they had time, but I've found ways to fit it in. It's just finding a few simple tricks, like writing in different locations, even if it's just for five minutes."

A WRITER WHO BYPASSED THE COMPETITION

BORN and raised in Dalkeith, Mike studied at Stirling University, then lived in Manchester and south Wales. But he said he always felt a strong pull to come back to Scotland, and moved to Edinburgh after marrying Joy in 1992.

His favourite subject at school was English, but it was only a few years ago that he began writing. He sent the first chapter of his children's novel to a BBC competition, and was encouraged to receive a letter saying it had reached the final 20. This gave him the push to finish the novel.

He then won another competition, leading to publishers Floris accepting his book. This meant he bypassed many aspiring authors' experiences of struggling to find an agent and numerous rejection letters.

He said: "Many people ask me how I got published, so I think I was quite fortunate."