Tim Tilley on Capturing the Magic of Nature
Both written and illustrated by Tim Tilley, Harklights is an enchanting story of freedom, pluck and the wonder of nature, featuring many unforgettable images and characters. In this exclusive piece, Tim recounts the journey from the original idea for the tale to its publication and describes his love of the natural world and the kind of feelings and atmosphere that he wanted to evoke with Harklights.
I grew up with a love of nature, especially woods and forests. There was a small spinney, not far from home, that I loved exploring. In fairy tales, woods and forests were places of enchantment, adventure and transformation. One of my favourite trees was a hollow oak in Bradgate Park.
My brother and I crawled through a cave-like opening at the base of the trunk, then climbed inside to the tree crown. We imagined it was a wooden castle and we were in Robin Hood or Narnia. Sometimes we collected small souvenirs of our adventures – winged seeds, moss and fallen leaves – and took them home in empty matchboxes. These were a way for us to stay close to nature.
I loved illustrated books and losing myself in their details. I especially loved Jill Barklem’s Brambly Hedge series, which took the magic miniaturization of doll’s houses and brought it outside and across the field. I’m also a huge fan of the Usborne Spotter’s Guide series. These are field guides full of facts and information on the natural world. I remember one time, aged ten and inspired by a Spotter’s Guide, filling an old fish tank full of pond water and frogspawn. My brother and I watched as the spawn changed from full stops to commas, then to tadpoles and tiny frogs.
Harklights originally started life as an idea for a picture book. On a return trip to Bradgate, I was amazed to see that the hollow oak we had once played in, more than a decade ago, was still standing. I could no longer squeeze through the cave opening into the tree, but it didn’t matter.
As we returned to the car, in the fading light, what seemed to be a distant tree stood up and revealed itself to be a stag. This magic moment burned in my mind. It kindled the spark of an idea – a boy meeting a magical tree-stag and riding through a forest. At the time of working on the picture book, I had the sense there was a much bigger story waiting to be told, so I put it away in a drawer.
When I revisited the forest story, a strong image came to mind, of an orphan finding a tiny baby in an acorn-shaped cradle. I knew the baby was seemingly abandoned and that their family of Hobs – miniature protectors of the forest – would come looking for them. From this moment, the story of Harklights unfolded – Wick, Papa Herne, the tree-stag and wood-sprites, the match factory and Old Ma Bogey.
At the time of writing, I had no idea that a first draft was a raw story that needed reflection, rewriting and editing. I eagerly sent my finished manuscript off to a national writing competition. I didn’t win, but was regionally shortlisted. The feedback letter kindly said that Harklights had potential but needed lots and lots of work. So, I put the manuscript back in a drawer again and worked on ideas for other books – middle-grade novels and picture books and early reader stories.
But I still kept coming back to Harklights. Whilst writing the second draft, I revisited my memories of woods and forests and visited new ones. I wanted to capture the wonder of the natural world by looking at it close-up, just as I had when I was growing up. I carried notebooks with me and recorded all the little details – the humming of bees, the softness of moss, the dappled shadows of leaves. I brought a handful of old Star Wars figures with me, to help me get a sense of the scale for the Hobs’ world. Acorn cups and half hazelnut shells became bowls for serving soup or pine-needle tea. A paper-wasp nest became a pigeon-hole cabinet to store important things. All of these notes and sketches helped me to develop Wick, my main character, who discovers nature for the first time in the book.
I brought matchboxes with me again, filling them with tiny treasures so I could take the forest home. The one rule I had was to only take storm-fallen leaves, twigs and bark. Like the Hobs, I don’t believe in damaging living trees.
For the illustrations, I went back to my old charcoal drawings for the original tree-stag picture book. I also revisited A Necklace of Raindrops by Joan Aiken, and Jan Pienkowski’s silhouette illustrations. I love how they don’t fully reveal the characters, but just give a sense of them, leaving space for the reader’s imagination.
I wanted Harklights to capture the magic of nature. Nature is waiting in wild spaces – not only woods and forests, but also churchyards, parks and allotment plots. Nature needs us to be its champions and campaigners, guardians and, of course, Forest Keepers.
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