|One source of inspiration: Dun Beag on Skye|
A question writers are often asked, whenever they stand up in public and talk about their work, is 'Where do you get your ideas from?' The fact is that most of us are never short of ideas. We have ideas coming out of our ears. We spend more than half our lives inside our heads, with characters of our own creating. What we're sometimes short of is the time to write them so we learn to be selective.
This is the reason why, if you ever approach a writer saying, 'I have this great idea for a novel/story/play' (meaning that you'd quite like us to write it for you) you'll generally find us backing away from you at speed, unless we're in the business of ghost writing, a worthy profession all of its own. We're not being mean. It's just that it may well be a great idea for you, but not for us.
Sometimes ideas arrive fully formed, sometimes as a small seed that nags away at you.
All of which is a roundabout way of exploring the genesis of my most recent slightly spooky tale that saw me through the dreich and dreary November days. I called it Rewilding. And it all began with a book festival.
Actually, it began long before that. Years ago, following my graduation from Edinburgh University with a degree in Mediaeval Studies, I did a postgraduate Masters at Leeds University in Folk Life Studies with Scots folklorist Stewart Sanderson. Both courses resulted in a lifelong interest in folk custom and belief.
Sometimes those interests coincide with my fiction.
Back to the Book Festival. At the very end of October, I'd been invited to speak at the Tarbert Book Festival - Tarbert Loch Fyne that is, and I can recommend it. I've spoken there twice now and hope they invite me back again. Anyway, my talk on my new book, A Proper Person to be Detained, was on Sunday lunchtime. That meant that we could listen to a presentation by one of my fellow Saraband authors, Alan Brown, with his wonderful Overlander book. (Buy it!) I was captivated by his account of 'bikepacking coast to coast across the Scottish Highlands'. But as I listened to him, my fiction writer's imagination was beginning to work overtime, the way fresh yeast starts to bubble and grow when you add a teaspoon of sugar.
I started to imagine a youngish - but not too young - woman determined to prove her mettle in a small way, for various reasons that emerged as I visualised her. I saw her undertaking a small autumn backpacking expedition through a remote part of the western highlands, sleeping in bothies over some three or four nights, keeping a diary as she went.
There is nowhere as beautiful as Scotland. Nor, sometimes, as daunting.
Among the places I visited, was a broch: Dun Beag. My husband has serious mobility problems, so he stayed in the car while I laboured up the hill to bag what is fondly referred to by my family as 'another of mum's heaps of old stones'. As I did so, I thought again about my fictional woman, and about myself at that age, mid thirties perhaps. I had done quite a bit of travelling and considered myself to be competent and unafraid. I started to project myself back into that situation, the solo hiker, in what is essentially a very safe part of the world. And then I started to think about fear, irrational fear maybe, but fear all the same, and why it might happen. Fear of the dark. Fear of strangers. Fear of silence. Because some places are scary and you have no idea why that might be.
|Liam Brennan as Robert Kirk|
Along the way, I refreshed my memory about the belief in the water horse, the each uisge. Not the reasonably friendly kelpie, but a much more challenging creature altogether.
Finally, I came upon a song, collected and sung by the incomparable Julie Fowlis, a heart rending song that - unusually - gives voice to the each uisge, the dangerous water horse himself.
I wrote throughout the month of November, while I listened to the song obsessively. The story took its course, as such things will. I wrote to find out. I always write to find out. If I know the whole story before I begin, I tend to get bored and give up.
By the end of that time, I had a short novella or a long short story, some 17,000 words, which I called Rewilding. My good friend read it and at first remarked that it was a love story. Which it is. No doubt about that.
Then, she messaged me the following day to say that she had woken up in the night, disturbed by it, wondering what was really happening, worried by it.
That too was just the kind of response I wanted. It's not a story that I can place anywhere traditional with any certainty or speed, and I just wanted to get it 'out there' in time for Christmas. So, it's on Kindle. I may turn it into a small paperback as well, for those who don't much like eBooks, but I've reread it a few times on my Kindle in the dark, and I think it works. Especially in the dark, now that I come to think of it. Each time, it both frightens me and entices me.
I wonder if it will do the same thing to you. The question you have to ask yourself at the end is, what would you have done, in her shoes? Because I know what I'd have done. Do you?
Oh and by the way - if this song doesn't send shivers down your spine, I don't know what will.