I started my first book when I was twelve. It was terrible, as most first novels are, but I can still remember the excitement of writing ‘Chapter One’ at the top of the first page, underlining it twice, and then plunging into the story. As a teenager I wrote at every opportunity: in lessons (oh, the heartache of having my notebook confiscated by unsympathetic teachers), on trains and buses, under the covers at night, in the dark because my torch batteries had died and my parents had demanded lights out even though I was almost at the end of a chapter! I felt, then and now, ill and tired if I went a day without writing.
As I grew up, I had to moderate the urge a little, as we all do when faced with study and jobs and relationships, but it was still the driving force of my life: I see with a writer’s eyes, tell myself stories in my head wherever I am, and constantly try to frame the words to capture how I’m feeling or what I’m experiencing at any given moment. I’m the teacher who will occasionally tell a tired and miserable class to put their pens away on a Friday afternoon and just tell them a story until they’re ready to work again. I run the creative writing club and organize each year’s teaching of Nanowrimo. I write a serial for the school paper, and am the first person my colleagues call on if they need a quick bit of fiction to use in a lesson, assembly or competition.
But I haven’t been writing many stories of my own lately. Bit by bit, with every ‘not quite right for our publication,’ the joy of writing faded a little. I’ve always been a speculative fiction writer, and it was a hard blow to realize that the stories I wanted to tell in that genre weren’t the stories people wanted to read. The few small press publications I managed opened no doors. I began to write less and less, even though I could feel a little part of my soul growing cold and brittle. One day, when I mentioned something about my writing at a family dinner, my brother-in-law, whom I’ve known for years, sat up and asked, “What writing?”
In the end, I decided to stop trying to force the words out and focus on reading until I found my way back to my stories. I’d just bought myself a Kindle, and stumbled across m/m romance when I was hunting for ebook recommendations.
So I read. And I read and I read and I read, and somewhere in amongst the reading, I thought, I could write this. I was still feeling a little shy, so I did three things to get started. I made a list of all the stories on my to-write list that included a m/m relationship. It was a much longer list than I’d expected, so that led me to stage two. I picked twelve photographs I’d taken over the years, one for each month, and challenged myself to come up with a couple and a story idea that could be set in each place. I ended up with multiple ideas for most months. Already I had a wealth of things I could be writing. So stage three was to search around the websites of m/m romance publishers and see if I could think of ideas for every open call for submissions I could find. I knew I wouldn’t have time to write them all, but if I was seriously planning to switch genres after the best part of two decades, I wanted to know that I had enough material to make it worthwhile.
I came up with an idea for everything except Dreamspinner’s call for Snow on the Roof, a proposed anthology of stories where at least one of the protagonists was over forty. I’d spent the last ten years writing about twenty-somethings with superpowers and something so down to earth seemed right outside my comfort zone.
So I went on holiday, taking all my new optimism about writing with me as I backpacked around North Wales with scraps of a hundred stories swirling around in my head. A few days in, I found myself walking along the Anglesey coastal path, from Holyhead to Trearddur Bay, past mysterious tumbledown buildings and up over the slopes of Holyhead Mountain to see the birds nesting on cliffs below South Stack lighthouse (highly recommended as a day walk if you’re in the area). Sitting at the bus stop in Treaddur that evening, trying to ignore how much my legs were hurting, I was more focused on planning the next day’s walk than thinking about writing.
Then I was passed by a man in his sixties and a little girl of about eight, clearly granddad and granddaughter. He was carrying a delivery bag of newspapers and listening gravely as she poured out all of her woes in a passionate whisper. I watched them go up the hill and wondered whose paper round it was and if she helped him with it every day.
The bus came and I hopped on and went back to reading Karin Altenberg’s Island of Wings, which is a wonderful novel set on the Hebridean island of St Kilda’s, the remotest part of the British Isles. I finished the book mid-evening, and my mind drifted back to those two and their paper round. All of a sudden, I said aloud, “Snow on the Roof!”
By the end of the next day’s walking, Ewan was talking to me. I knew about his grandkids, Mia, Connor and Kayla, and the whole story of how he’d ended up taking Connor’s paper round and how Kayla came along to keep him company and how she liked to talk, just like her grandmother, who he still missed so much. I knew about his childhood on the west coast of Scotland and about Alex, the man with sad eyes who always offered him a cup of tea when he got to the highest point on his round. I’d also met Alex, though his voice wasn’t as clear as Ewan’s. I knew about how devastated he was to lose Peter, his partner, and how they’d lived their life in the closet, and how embarrassed he was to realize that the whole village had figured it out anyway.
That next evening, I started to write. It was gone midnight before I paused to think. After that, the story took over. I wrote on steam trains and little mountain buses with bad suspension. I wrote sitting in the shadow of ruined castles, snowed into the hostel on Snowdon, lashed by rain on the sand dunes of the Lleyn peninsula, in cafes and churchyards and slate mines. I used up all the pens I had with me, and missed a train buying a new one and then sat on the platform and wrote for two hours waiting for the next one. I wrote all the way home, and kept writing once I got there.
I’m still writing with the same fervor as if I was twelve again. Once I’d finished Ewan’s story, I just started the next one. My first sale, The Ghost of Mistletoe Lock, was the fourth story I wrote, because of the order of deadlines, but Ewan’s story, Granddad’s Cup of Tea, was my second sale.
The Snow on the Roof anthology comes out tomorrow, and there’s a quiet little story in there which exists because of a little girl and her granddad who walked past a tired hiker at a bus stop one day last April. It’s the first story I’ve ever written without a hint of magic or the supernatural, but it was magic for me in a very different way.