Struan Murray: Even the most important story can start with a doodle 

6 March 2020

By day, Struan Murray is a lecturer in Biochemistry at the University of Oxford. But ever since he was a boy, Struan has doodled, drawn comics and written stories. And so it was that, last week, Year 7 students had the chance to hear the fascinating story of how, for the past five years, Struan has doodled, written and edited his way towards the completion of his debut novel, Orphans of the Tide. 

Orphans of the Tide, which is out now in Penguin, is set in a city much like Edinburgh. But it is an Edinburgh which is nonetheless flooded by advancing sea levels and thus has another shadowy, underwater city beneath it. Into this world arrives a mysterious boy washed in by the tide, whom the people of the city identify as the Enemy – the god who drowned the world. Only Ellie, a fearless young inventor living in a workshop crammed with curiosities, has the courage and ingenuity to save him – and so begins their adventure. 

Struan was a fascinating speaker, who won the girls over immediately through a shared love of Pokemon. From there, he led us through his influences, such as Philip Pullman and Ursula Le Guin, showing the girls how the fantastic worlds and adult tone of these writers inspired him to create his heroine, Ellie, a feisty, unapologetic girl in a city ruled by men.  

The wonderful thing about fantasy is that it frees you to do what you want.

As for the world in which Orphans is set, Struan led us on a fascinating journey of understanding. It all started with the doodle he drew of a whale lying marooned on a church roof. How the did the whale get there? Who was the girl standing unafraid and alone on the roof, while all the rest of the townsfolk looked on in fear? Answering these questions gave him the momentum to start writing – as well as an object lesson in how even the best stories can start with a doodle or a daft idea that pops out of nowhere! 

Next we learned about the importance of place in Struan’s writing. The setting of his novel features elements of Struan’s hometown of Edinburgh, where tall houses crowd out the light in the alleyways below and there is often the hint of another city below the first. And yet, Struan told the Year 7s, the wonderful thing about fantasy is that it frees you to do what you want. So Struan, who loves marine biology, decided his Edinburgh would be the kind of place where, at any moment, a whale might swim past underneath you, and which is marooned by the waters like Mont Saint Michel when the tides come in.  

Struan then challenged the Year 7s to see if they could write their own story in five minutes. There followed a wild interlude of plotting in which the girls conceived a story about a haunted library and a chef in pursuit of a magic cook book.  

Finally, Struan told us about his own writing process and how his relationship with his editors works. Apparently, Struan starts at the beginning and then writes until he loses momentum. At this point, he jumps forward to the scenes he’s excited about and knows he wants to tell, then fills in the gap afterwards. The only bit he never writes in this way is the story’s end, as this would take away the final impulse driving him to finish his work.  

It was a truly fascinating, funny talk, for which we are very grateful to Struan. We’re also thrilled that he stayed to sign so many books, and that Struan is currently working on the sequel to Orphans of the Tide. We can’t wait to read it!

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