Taking a trip back in time
I’ve been working this year on a new project with a working title of Colour Me In. The novel is set within a tight time frame, Christmas Day 2018 to Christmas Day 2019 and in the rolling landscape of Northumberland. So, while I wait for the year to play out before I can complete my book, I took a little trip up to the location of the novel to check out some of the details.
Let’s start with some basic facts.
Northumberland. Border county. The last county before Scotland. A whole lot of walls and bloody history. It was kind of hard not to think about Trump, if I’m honest.
So, in brief: it’s England’s most northern county, the least populated county but with the most castles, home to the largest man-made lake in Northern Europe and, stunningly, Europe’s largest Dark Sky Reserve, and one of the greatest Roman artefacts in the world. Home to one of the most famous shots ever of a tree and a wall, the Sycamore Gap featured in so many films.
It’s also now home to my characters and I’m feeling pretty smug about that.
So, why Northumberland, as one of my writing buddies at The Hay Writers’ enquired this week? Well, that was entirely accidental. I was heading home from Scotland round about this time last year, on my way back from a road trip and happened to be caught in the rolling beauty of the moors that skirt the Scottish borders. I had been swept away by the colours of autumn during that trip and as I drove back over the border feeling very sad about heading home I caught an idea about a novel wrapped around the idea of a colouring book given as a Christmas gift. Now, Northumberland doesn’t actually stretch as far as the M6 which I was heading home on, but landscape stretches where man-made boundaries do not, about as far as the writerly imagination.
As I carried on working on my final draft of the first book in the Riverdell Saga this idea would not leave me. Under pressure from the Chair of my writers’ group to produce something for the annual Hay Writers’ Fiction competition, I wrote a rough first chapter and entered it, and it did rather well. So I wrote the next chapter, then the next, and well…here it is, a finished draft at about 100k words.
The characters felt vivid and well-fleshed out. There’s Rea, a frustrated artist whose creativity is being used up in commercial usefulness, Ivy, the opinionated mother-in-law from hell and Iolanthe, an inspiring community worker new to the area who has a skill for pulling lonely people together. But whilst the characters were leaping off the pages my knowledge of the area felt a little washed out. Hence the decision to pack up the campervan and head off for a week of roughing it in the wilds of Northumberland.
Having only recently been out to Snowdonia and frozen my overnight butt off in my ol’ T4 with no heater, I had the sense to buy top-to-toe thermals, Black Yak hat and gloves and took every Isle of Mull woollen blanket I had with me. Yes, all three. Piled over my three season sleeping bag. It reached -1 degrees too, so I only just called it right. You’ll see the van all frosted up in the photos below. That particular morning I struggled to get the gas to heat my kettle!
The area I visited is centred around Hexham. I walked THE wall, got stuck down some tracks that Google maps claimed were roads (Google LIES, yes peeps, it really does), freaked out a lonely farmer and his dog on a quad bike asking all about an isolated track that led to nowhere, warmed up in the awesome indie bookshop Cogito, sweet-talked the amazing Jackie at the Hexham Community Centre into telling me all about the history of the building and worried the local parents at the Sele First School by trying to figure out where they all park. Research trips are cool! I mean, maybe this isn’t everyone’s idea of holiday fun, but this is basically my true purpose in life.
Hexham is also really cool. It has stunning architecture: The Queen’s Hall, The Abbey, The Old Gaol. It has formidable natural beauty: a beautiful river, the Sele Park, roads that intertwine with a brook, hills that stretch on forever and historical artefacts littered almost everywhere you turn. It also has a beyond amazing, downright stunning, free parking system: a huge free car park bang smack in the middle of town and a disc system for everywhere else. Not surprisingly this contributed to a buzzing sense of busyness in the town centre so local rural towns elsewhere might want to learn a trick here (yes, Ludlow, I’m looking at YOU). Whilst I might have got a little side-tracked in charity bookshops, Waterstones and the local indie bookshop, otherwise I was super-dedicated to the task and RESULT! My characters now feel a lot more firmly bedded into their world as I throw myself into the second draft.
The only question remains, where will I need to go next? Purely for the sake of research, of course.
Can you give me any small details to make a big difference?
Do you know Northumberland and the Hexham region? Can you tell me something interesting as a local that I might not have picked up on in my short time there? Favourite books about the area? Local dialects? History? Please email me at [email protected]