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A book about writing a book

My new book, The Cottage on Winter Moss, was inspired by my local landscape. I wanted to pour into it all the colour, texture and wildness of this far corner of NW England. The weather would necessarily play a large role. I wanted all the character and atmosphere of my home county to be reflected, as well as some of the history.

Mist rises up from the Moss

What I didn’t expect was that the process of writing should intrude itself into the narrative. My protagonist - Dee - is a writer who needs some fresh inspiration. She travels to what she thinks of as a far, remote, other-worldly realm and settles down to see what might suggest itself. This is a matter of engaging the senses - sight, hearing - but also the sixth senses: imagination, intuition and a sort of vision, an unfolding scroll of cause and effect that allows us to pursue a narrative: if this, then that. First one thing, so afterwards another. Of course we also need to allow the unexpected , otherwise, where would be the surprise? It is also a matter of asking questions, probing for nuggets of information and detail. Frankly, a writer has to be nosey!

“Writing is hard work, a labour of daily discipline, but there is something spiritual about it too. We bring forth—from literally nothing—character, plot, the structure of a world that is so vivid readers can step into it and lose themselves. It is vivid to us too. Before the reader, only the writer’s footprints mark the sand. If it is not too precocious to say so, we are like God in the beginning. From what is formless, dark and empty we bring forth … not light, always, but something that wasn’t there before. That’s the point I’m trying to make. It’s a kind of alchemy. From outside of ourselves—conversations overheard in cafés, the people we have met, our understanding of human nature—and from a place inside—some creative ventricle—we conjure up raw, unrefined material to knit and meld and sculpt into something, if not beautiful, at least believable. ”

— The Cottage on Winter Moss

As writers we weave a reality onto the page which, even if it is not strictly true, has truth. Certainly, books make history, in the impact they have on culture and on individual lives. Which of us dyed-in-the-wool readers cannot point to a book, a quote, a character that has changed us, fundamentally? Writers conjure a world of fiction from a grain of fact. This book asks if it could work the other way. Could a writer summon a world of fact from a grain of fiction? Dee bases her story on some inscriptions she finds in the graveyard and on some local gossip she coaxes from the locals. From these bare bones she constructs her narrative, but she increasingly feels that the story she is weaving isn’t hers. Its trajectory runs too close to fact. Could this be coincidence? Or is there something spooky going on?

“‘Novels are supposed to be fiction,’ I said, ‘based on real life, perhaps; believable, but not actually true. I mean, they have a truth, a truth of their own, but when they are true, well, that isn’t fiction, it’s history.’ ‘Or biography,’ he put in. ‘But I don’t understand. Surely when you begin a new book, you know how it will end? Don’t you plan it all out beforehand? I don’t get how its progress can surprise you, even if it will surprise the reader.’ ‘Some writers do,’ I said. ‘They have spreadsheets and maps and storyboards that lay the whole thing out from beginning to end. But I don’t work that way. I begin with an idea and then I develop it—or, I should say, I allow it to develop itself. Usually, the story gets further and further away from its start point but this one seems determined to end up exactly where it began.’ ‘And that is ...?’ He had been walking ahead of me. Now, he stopped and swung round to confront me. I said, ‘My book is getting too close to the truth. Having believed all the people in it were long-dead, I now find …’ ‘Ah.’ Jamie nodded, understanding at last. ”

— The Cottage on Winter Moss

Like many writers, the world of Dee’s creation becomes more vividly substantial to her than reality, warping her understanding as she manipulates facts to fit them into her fiction and misreads the truth that is staring her in the face.

“My time with Olivia had been pleasant, but once she had left the ghosts of my errors came crowding back to taunt me. They clamoured indictments at me—‘How could I have misunderstood this? What kind of idiot would get that wrong? Call myself a people-watcher? An observer of life! What a joke!’ There I had been, flattering myself I had a sort of sixth sense— No, more than that—I had half-believed my narrative had imposed itself on the past; that affairs had turned out in Roadend because I had written them so! And all the time the truth—the facts—had been staring me in the face. Oh! How blind I had been; how entangled in the mechanics of story, poking about in other people’s business but utterly unable to see the utterly, blindingly obvious. I stood with my back against the door for a heartbeat or two, appalled and humiliated at all my wrongheadedness. Then I could bear it no longer. I threw on my boots and coat and stamped off into the twilight, slamming the door behind me. The willow walk dripped scorn on me as I passed beneath its bare branches. The undergrowth rustled its derision. I sloughed through the puddles that had gathered on the path—quite deep in places—my hands thrust down into my pockets. At the gate I took a different route through the dunes, avoiding the beach and the tide—which I could tell just by the sound of rolling surf was already quite high. The marram grasses scoffed as I walked. Skeletal shrubs shook with laughter in the stiff breeze. A chevron of geese passed overhead, and over the scrubland a murmuration of starlings swooped and darted in a cohesive swarm. ”

— The Cottage on Winter Moss

Dee finds - as I do - that any half-formed plan she might have come up with is likely to be trampled beneath the feet of her characters, who tend to get the bit between their teeth and take over.

“Writing Rose, Todd and Rowan was unlike anything I had ever done before. Normally characters extrude from the writer in shining filaments, like silk from a spider. The briefest sense at first, hard to capture, it has to be shaped and honed and structured layer by layer. Gradually, caught in the mesh, the author sees facets that provide nuance and vagary, the qualities that make characters real. Often it is necessary to go back, because an aspect emerges later—a quick temper, a phobia of frogs—that something earlier in the narrative will contradict. But Rose, Todd and Rowan came to me whole, like an apparition I only needed to capture in words and stick to the page. In Rose’s case she met with quite a battle, because I had envisioned her as a much more vibrant character than the one she turned out to be. I had expected her to be gregarious and witty, popular with the other girls. But the more I forced Rose into my conception, the more I tried to bring her out into the light, the more she fought back; in the end, I let her have her own way. Part of me bridled—I had wanted so much more for her—but if there was one thing I had learned as a writer it was this: when characters begin to do things you hadn’t expected, you’re on the right track.”

— The Cottage on Winter Moss

The Cottage on Winter Moss is available NOW in paperback here: Paperback Version

The e-book version will be released on 28th June. You can pre-order it here: Kindle Version

This book will also be available for other e-readers. For Nook For Kobo


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