Even now that The House at Silvermoor is out in the world, I find it hard to believe that I actually finished it! It was conceived in a fit of inspiration initially sparked by the book Black Diamonds by Catherine Bailey. My agent and I both thought a novel set on the South Yorkshire coalfield would be a great idea and I decided to set it at the turn of the century because it was a period I hadn’t written about before and I like to try something new. Only after it was all decided did I realise that it wasn’t just the period that was new this time – I didn’t know the South Yorkshire area either and, despite my maternal grandfather having been a coal miner, I knew nothing about the coal industry! I had set myself quite a task.
There was so much to learn before I could even think about starting to write. My research took me 140m down a deep mine and diagonally into a hillside in a drift mine. It took me to a closed-up stately home and several museums. It took me to York, Beamish and Barnsley. Eventually I had such an overload of information and impressions that I didn’t know how a story could emerge with clarity. I didn’t even know whether my characters would be from the coal-owning aristocracy or working people.
But the setting itself birthed the characters. After visiting the mines, my reaction was so emotional that I had to write the story of someone who worked underground – so my main character had to be male. Just like that I saw Tommy, with his curls and his dreams and his fierce frustration at the limitations his life placed upon him. Unsupported by his school teacher, different from his family and full of dread about his future in the mines, Tommy needed a glimmer of light in his life to stop the story becoming utterly oppressive! Enter Josie, a tough, red-haired miner’s daughter from the rival village. She is Tommy’s candle in the dark of the mines, bright, irreverent and terminally curious.
It’s always a marvel when characters transition from possible ideas in my head to real, living people – at least on the page – and dictate what happens next. From that point on, the writing process is unpredictable, but also utterly exhilarating as their joys and trials become my own. Sometimes that can make writing really difficult: when I reached the part where Tommy gets stuck underground, I skipped ahead to other chapters, and even avoided the book altogether for a couple of weeks.
As time passed in the story, Tommy and Josie grew up, their friendship deepening. But each still had a mass of obstacles making life difficult for them. they are helped by an unlikely array of supporting characters and I had a ball getting to know them, from the lusty Earl of Silvermoor and his precocious son Walter, to mysterious Manus, hidden away from the world, to Tommy’s gritty, unsympathetic Da. I miss them all, and to me that’s the sign that the characterisation process, elusive and mysterious as it is, has done something magical.