I’ve always been particularly fascinated by book-beginnings. One of my favourite opening sentences is the one which opens John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids:
When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts out by sounding like Sunday, there’s something seriously wrong somewhere.
What a classic! It sets the scene, sets up expectations and leads brilliantly into the story of a man who wakes in hospital with his eyes bandaged to find that the world has changed forever.
The Day of the Triffids was the first adult SF novel that I read. I was eleven or twelve and I’d bought it via a school book club. It made such an impression on me that all these years later I can still quote the first line. Now here I am, a writer with five books already published and under contract for a sixth, and I’m still searching for the perfect beginning of my own.
Finding the right opening line, the right opening scene is a gift. It’s difficult at the best of times, but even more difficult when the book is not the first one in a series. People often ask which comes first, the characters or the plot. It’s a bit like asking a songwriter whether the tune comes first or the words. The two are often so intertwined that it’s impossible to separate them. They arrive at the same time.
And so it is with books, at least, it is in my experience. I usually find a scene that plays in my head. I know who the character is and what the situation is and I have an idea of the basic conflict that’s going to be the engine of the plot. I may not have all the details, but I can work them out later. At the beginning of Winterwood I knew that I had a young woman drawn to visit her dying mother. There was enmity between them, and the young woman had put herself in danger simply by being there. It begins:
The stuffy bedroom stank of sickness with an underlying taint of old lady, stale urine and unwashed clothes, poorly disguised with attar of roses. I’d never thought to return to Plymouth, to the house I’d once called home; a house with memories so bitter that I’d tried to scour them from my mind with salt water and blood.
It was a strong image which became the opening scene of Winterwood. As I wrote I discovered that the young woman was dressed as a man, was the captain of her own ship and was, in her mother’s eyes, a pirate. She was also an unregistered witch, a capital offence in a Britain with magic. As the scene opened up in my mind and on the page, I found out that it was 1800, almost a century after the golden age of piracy, and the house we were in was on the edge of Plymouth, a town with a long maritime history, both naval and commercial. The young woman in the shadows, Rossalinde, known as Ross, is visiting her dying mother for the first time in seven years, but there’s still no forgiveness between them. Later Ross says: I had come to dance on her grave and found it empty.
Thus the Rowankind trilogy begins. Ross captains her own ship because she’s a widow. Will Tremayne, the man she ran away with seven years earlier, died in an accident leaving Ross in charge of a ship-load of barely reformed pirates. Ross’ mother passes on a legacy, a task that Ross doesn’t want, and a half-brother she didn’t know she had. No, I’m not going to tell you the plot of Winterwood, suffice it to say that Ross has to use all of her ingenuity and her courage to fulfil the task, and along the way she meets and falls in love with Corwen, a wolf shapechanger, much to the consternation of the ghost of her late husband.
And so the scene is set for Silverwolf. Starting a sequel is a far different thing from starting a new story. I already have two fully-formed characters, Ross and Corwen, who have committed to each other and who should be enjoying their happy-ever-after, but that’s about to be curtailed by the arrival of a visitor. So I have to open with that happy-ever-after. Ross and Corwen have hidden themselves away in a modest cottage on the edge of the Old Maizy Forest, a liminal place part way between the mundane world and Iaru, the magical world of the Fae. Silverwolf opens:
A large silver-grey shape trotted out of the trees, a grizzled brown hare dangling dead in his jaws. In wolf-form Corwen was almost the height of a small pony, but he had to hold up his head to prevent the hare’s legs from dragging on the ground. He dropped it to the side of the path, and in one smooth movement changed from wolf to naked man.
Ross and Corwen’s rural idyll is interrupted by a thunderous knocking on the door. Corwen’s old friend, Hartington, a stag shapechanger, has brought a message from the Lady of the Forests. What Ross and Corwen did in Winterwood inadvertently paved the way for the return of magical creatures to Britain. A rogue kelpie has taken two children in Devonshire. Ross and Corwen must return to the real world.
If Winterwood was Ross’ story, then Silverwolf is Corwen’s, though still told through Ross’ viewpoint. After dealing with the kelpie, Corwen is called back to his home in Yorkshire to resolve a family crisis.
At the end of Winterwood Ross and Corwen, with the aid of the Fae, wrought a change which has far-reaching consequences for the magical inhabitants of Britain. The mundane world and the magical world, long separated by the heavy hand of the Mysterium, the organisation which regulates magic throughout the land, are about to merge.
And now I’m writing Rowankind, the third book in the trilogy. And the beginnings get more difficult. I currently have just over 100,000 words of the first draft, complete with a provisional opening. I’m aiming to finish the first draft at around 120,000 words and then add in where necessary. And that beginning? It might be the very last thing I write. It could change, but at the moment it begins:
I’m a witch.
I can hear someone sneaking up on me a mile away.
This time it wasn’t the clip-clop of hoofbeats, nor the soft tread of boots, but the rustle of a small animal running through winter-dry grass followed by the snick of claws on the flaggstones of our front path.
“We have a visitor,” I said.
Winterwood and Silverwolf are on bookshop shelves now in the USA and also available in electronic form. In the UK they are available in print form as an import from specialist SF bookshops, and online from the big firm named after a river. Rowankind is out in November 2018.