The Story behind the Story

Where do stories come from?  How can a word, an image, something remembered, suddenly develop legs and start walking off on its own?

The Sun's Companion started off in the graveyard of a small country church, now deconsecrated.  I love wandering around them, looking at the stones and the names and thinking about the people under my feet. On one of these excursions I found an eighteenth century gravestone that said 'Tamar Fell, Beloved Wife of John Richardson'.  And I began to wonder - if she was his wife, why wasn't she called Tamar Richardson?  Tamar is a very unusual name - a river in Devon - and it stuck in my mind.

Looking it up, I discovered that Tamar is a biblical name - an old Testament princess - and it was very common among Quaker communities.  It was, apparently, also common for Quaker women to keep their own names after marriage.  The Pennine hills are riddled with old lead mines, owned by Quaker companies - many of the miners were also Quakers - so now the mystery of her name was solved.  But I carried on thinking about it.

Before long, Tamar had developed a twentieth century character and a personal history that would take her from Devon to Cumbria, via the dockside communities of the River Tyne.  Her life story had become fused with family stories told by my mother - stories I'd always longed to tell.  My grandmother was an amazing 'character' who lived in North Shields and her war-time tales and those of her friends, just had to be told too.
The character of Anna Weissmann was based partly on one of my mother's best friends when she was growing up - a girl who wanted to become a painter, but couldn't because there was no money for her training.  Anna's German heritage and her escape from Hitler's Germany in 1935 were informed by my father-in-law's experience of being a young jewish refugee.  He, too, was interned when war broke out, despite the fact that his mother had married an Englishman, and he believed himself to be British.

So that's how The Sun's Companion began - with a gravestone and some family stories.  Many of the characters are based on real people -  farming people on the remote Cumbrian fellside where I was brought up.  They're long dead now, as are the characters who sat round my grandmother's kitchen table in North Shields.  But I hope I've given them life again in the novel!

I love Margaret Atwood's book 'Negotiating with the Dead' - where she compares the act of writing fiction with Orpheus, going down into the underworld to bring the dead  Euridice to life again.  As fiction  writers we are all 're-membering' in some way or other.


  1. I have posted a (long time ago) about a headstone I found in a local cemetery and how it got my mind whirring.
    I haven't started that story yet but who knows!
    I'm up to Chapter 5 of "The Sun's Companion" so far, (been a bit busy) and have to say I am loving it so far.
    My "Hilda" has a few echoes of similar themes.
    I have to say mine has a "Miss Wilson" too! (she is even named Miss Wilson). You hear some amazing stories of female teachers in those days and the difference they made to some girl's lives.

  2. Thanks Al! Headstones are an amazing source of characters and names. Glad you're liking the S C. It's billed by Amazon as a woman's book, but Neil read it all the way to the end and loved it. Will be interested to read about your 'Miss Wilson'. I've met so many older women whose lives were changed by such dedicated women. Am reading Veil of Iron - really interesting - but have had to pause for the writing course here. Hopefully finish it next week!


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