A girl who hovers above the ground, sisters who communicate without speaking, and a boy who can’t be seen unless he’s wearing clothes are among the youngsters who reside at a group home on an enchanted Welsh island. This is the setting for Ransom Riggs’s Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, a fantasy that sends a teenager in search of the home, where his late grandfather lived as a child. Published by Philadelphia-based Quirk Books in June, the novel was inspired by vintage photos—some quite eerie indeed—discovered by Riggs at antique shops, flea markets, and in private collections.

Riggs, a Los Angeles resident who blogs for mental_floss and wrote The Sherlock Holmes Handbook for Quirk, said he collected old photos as a kid, but hadn’t done so for many years. “I started this collection of old photos on a whim, when I started going through buckets of snapshots at antique stores or flea markets,” he says. “It never occurred to me that there were so many wonderful photos that had been orphaned and were out there in the world, waiting to be found. Over time, I found a lot of very strange pictures of kids, and I wanted to know who they were, what their stories were. Since the photos had no context, I decided I needed to make it up.”

Riggs showed the photos to Jason Rekulak at Quirk, who had edited his Sherlock Holmes Handbook, and he suggested the author write a novel weaving the photographs together. “A light bulb went off in my head,” says Riggs. “I’d always wanted to write a novel, but after attending film school, I’d spent five years knocking on Hollywood’s door and had put that idea aside.”

As he penned his story, Riggs explains that “I cast the book through these wonderful, strange photos I had, and at times, when I realized that the plot had to go in a certain direction, I’d go looking for an additional photo to fit it.” That search led him to several private collectors of vintage photos, among them Robert E. Jackson. “He is one of a small group of vernacular photography collectors who graciously let me into their world as I looked for more photos,” Riggs says. “Jackson invited me to Seattle to look through his collection, and I discovered he has an amazing eye for peculiar stuff.”

Though writing fiction was a new endeavor for Riggs, he notes that the novel came to him quite easily. “It was a joy to write, actually,” he says. “I had been writing screenplays for a couple of years, and compared to that I felt so much freedom writing this novel. I could create a whole world and fill it with as much detail as I wanted.”

Launching a Second Search

Riggs, who has used his filmmaking prowess to create trailers for other authors’ books, knew he wanted to make the trailer Quirk planned to include in their promotion for Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. This took him on yet another search. “I knew it would be easy to make the trailer by panning around the still photos, but it was important to me to evoke the atmosphere of the old house from the novel. So I went looking for the place that I’d pictured in my head while writing.”

He found it with the help of urban explorers who find and photograph abandoned European châteaux and castles. “They usually keep the locations of these places to themselves, kind of like trade secrets,” says Riggs. “But I was taken into their subculture and they shared their secrets with me. I rented a car in Amsterdam and drove with one explorer to Belgium and Luxembourg. We followed a GPS to some amazing places, which were very close to what my imagination had already found well before.”

Riggs’s novel appears to have captured the imaginations of readers of many ages. The book, Quirk’s first YA title, has spent four weeks on the New York Times children’s bestseller list, and has more than 100,000 copies in print, with a third printing in the works. According to Brett Cohen, v-p of Quirk Books, the novel has had solid sales in both the YA and adult markets. “We’ve seen strong crossover sales, in both physical bookstores and in the digital world,” he says. “It has some great traction across all channels as its momentum builds.”

Quirk targeted both YA and adult readers with its pre-publication promotion of the novel, which included a poster distributed to schools as well as online exposure. “We worked with bloggers to post the novel’s photos online to get the intrigue going,” Cohen says. “And we worked with Ransom to have the first three chapters serialized on the mental_floss site, which got the juices flowing leading up to the book’s release. People were able to see how the photos interacted with the text.” The novel also caught the attention of several movie studios, with 20th Century Fox clinching film rights in the end.

Riggs remarks that he is a bit surprised at his novel’s crossover sales, given its teenage protagonist. “I’m getting a lot of mail from readers, and I’d say 90% seem to be from adults, which amazes me. But then again, I can only write what I imagine I’d like to read, and I’m an adult, so maybe it’s not so surprising after all. I had high hopes for the book, but I didn’t see this coming. I feel a bit like I’ve won the lottery!”

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs. Quirk Books, $17.99 June ISBN 978-1-59474-476-1