April sees the release of my second novel Ghosts of Winter and I wanted to talk a little about the title and my inspiration. This is not the ghost story you might expect. The main plot of the book is a modern story of self-discovery and fulfilling romance. However, the spark of inspiration for this novel, and the thread which is embroidered throughout, was the idea of history echoing forward into the present. My protagonist, Ros, inherits a country house in need of renovation. During the novel there are glimpses of the history of the house, and importantly, the lives and loves of its former inhabitants.
Anyone who has read my first novel, Truths, will recognise this as a theme I like to explore. When I talk about “ghosts”, I don’t mean ghouls; I mean shadows, echoes, remnants of the past. They are the reason I have written two novels combining modern and historical stories. The idea that we are all part of a continuum of humanity, that people before us loved, cried, laughed—experienced life—in much the same way as we do, is something I always hope to convey.
I almost studied history academically, at Oxford, no less. But after nine weeks I knew I couldn’t do it. Not because I was academically incapable, but because the academic study of history involves a focus on great events and people, on dates, battles, politics…and what I was really interested in was the people. I wanted to hear the stories. This is why I turned to literature. When I read a book by Austen or Eliot, a poem by Blake or Byron, what I see is a window into the past. I hear the voice of someone who lived before me, not just the words on the page.
But so many stories have never been told. Ordinary people very rarely wrote a record of their lives. In many cases they couldn’t, in others it probably never occurred to them that anyone would be interested. And in this context, our queer ancestors are almost entirely absent from the pages of history. Their stories have always been secret, barely spoken of, and certainly not written down. But this does not mean they didn’t exist. I would never presume that my works of fiction give an entirely accurate representation of people who really existed in the past. But if I can suggest what might have been, give just a hint of the untold stories of days gone by, I will be a very happy writer indeed.
So, why weave this in with a modern story? Because I don’t want there to be a separation. I don’t want there to be a “then” and a “now”. Times might have changed, but we’re still only human, with everything that brings, just as we always were.
When I visit a historical building—a castle, a stately country house, a church, a prison—I can feel the past. Sometimes I even put my hands on the stone and make the connection even stronger. And what I feel very powerfully is that I’m part of it. I’m touching the brickwork, walking up the worn stairs, looking through a window, in just the same way as generations have done before me. I always wonder who saw the view from just the same place. Who ran their fingers over the same smooth stone carvings? A fine lady? An arrogant gentleman? A lowly servant girl? Did they feel some of the same things as I do? I like to think some of them did.
We have our own ghosts. Those parts of our lives that shape us, which haunt us and make us who we are, for better or worse. Part of Ghosts of Winter deals with that, as Ros confronts her own recent past. But the “ghosts” of the title are more than that. They are the echoes of history, the untold stories which still, inextricably, shape the world we have today.