Susanna here, feeling nostalgic. It’s really the fault of our round up a while ago here of our various Christmas books. I’ve only written one: Named of the Dragon.
And whenever I think about that book it makes me think about the winter I spent writing it.
In 1996 I’d just turned 30, and for me it was a restless time.
Reading James Michener’s autobiography, The World Is My Home, had left me wishing I could do what he did—pull up stakes and move to where my next novel was set, and live there while I did the writing. It just sounded like the most wonderful thing for a writer to do.
And then, while I was wishing, I started to ask myself, “Well, why not?”
I had some money saved, and I knew exactly where my next book would be set.
A few years earlier, while researching my book The Splendour Falls in Chinon, France, I’d met a couple who were also touring through the castle ruins, and we had stayed in touch and become friends. They were from Pembroke, and when I’d finally taken them up on their invitation to visit them there and see their castle, I’d fallen instantly under the spell of that corner of Wales. A group of characters had risen in my mind and started moving, and I knew I’d found a book that wanted writing.
So here was my chance, I decided. I wrote to my friends, and they found me a farmhouse to rent for the winter, with a dovecote just behind it and a ruined 14th century tower standing literally a stone’s throw from the door, in the village of Angle.
I adored that house. The kitchen had an Aga which, like the fireplaces, ran on coal, so learning how to make a good coal fire became my first challenge, since the Aga in its turn fueled the water heater, and cold baths are not my thing.
I also had to learn how to master my coin-fed electric meter, which I had to climb on a chair to reach so I could feed its insatiable hunger for 50p coins. There were times I’d get wrapped up in writing and forget to feed the meter and find myself suddenly sitting in darkness when all of my power shut off. So I kept the coins handy and tried to remember.
It was the best time. In the mornings I’d walk through the village or down to the wide sweep of beach to the west, or I’d tackle the coast path that took me across the green field with the bullocks and into the woods at the top of the hill, where I had a broad view of the sparkling sea and the Haven.
And afternoons, I’d settle down in my front room and follow my characters down those same paths.
Every Sunday my Pembroke friends came and collected me and took me home for a full Sunday lunch, and we’d sightsee a little bit farther afield to the places the locals knew better than tourists. And all through the rest of the week I had the help and company of my landlords, who owned the farm and tower, lived in the adjoining house, and made me feel so welcome it was honestly like having extra family.
They kept my coal box full, took me down the pub when I looked lonely, and at Christmas turned up with a tree for my front room—a living tree, still in its pot, that they said they’d plant afterwards somewhere out back.
All these moments, as moments in writers’ lives do, wove their way into my manuscript, and those that didn’t fit the story waited for a different book. My Aga and the 50p coin meter will be recognizable to some of you who’ve read The Winter Sea, where they provide some entertainment for my heroine in her cottage.
It’s how I hold that winter, and the people who were part of it, within my memory and my heart.
And it’s the rare December when my thoughts don’t slip a little, and I’m back there for a moment with the coal fire glowing on my hearth, the wind a living thing against my window panes, and the blank paper on my writing table turning slowly to a story.
Where do your own thoughts turn, at this time of the year? Was there a holiday season that still holds a place in your memory? Or if not, have you ever followed your instincts and just gone somewhere or done something that seemed, at the time, to be crazy, but turned out to be—like my winter in Wales—the best thing?
(I’m travelling today, so might not be able to reply straight away, but I’ll be here as soon as I can be)