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From Chocolate to Craiglockhart by Sue Barnard

It is a real treat to have the best-selling author and talented editor, Sue Barnard visit the website today to tell us all about her writing journey. Thank you for making time to visit today, Sue. I appreciate it so much.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with just a single step…

I suppose the first step on my writing journey consisted of those compulsory “Composition” exercises, way back in the Dark Ages when I was at primary school. In which case, I guess I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. Recollections of my very early efforts are now mercifully blurred, but I do retain fond memories of one particular episode.

I was ten years old, and in my final year at primary school, when our teacher announced one morning that the whole class would be entering an essay competition organised by Cadbury’s. The topic – perhaps not surprisingly – was chocolate. We were each given a leaflet containing some basic information about the subject, a few days to think about what we might write, then a couple of hours in the classroom to produce our essays under exam-type conditions. The papers were then collected in and sent off to Cadbury’s for judging, and we all put the whole thing to the back of our minds.

It was quite a surprise when, only a week later, our headmaster announced in Assembly that the results had arrived. It was an even bigger surprise to hear that my essay had won first prize. I was awarded a certificate and a tin containing an impressive selection of Cadbury’s chocolate. The certificate is filed away somewhere in the loft, the chocolate is long since gone, but the tin – which now contains pens and pencils – serves as a tangible reminder of the first milestone on my writing journey.

For the next few decades my writing output – such as it was – consisted mainly of attempts at short stories and poems, articles for the parish magazine, and the occasional stroppy or whimsical letter to The Times. Some of these were published, often with interesting results. One letter, on the subject of the daytime care of Tamagotchis (remember those?) whilst their owners were at school, prompted one Times reader to write to me inviting me to elope with him! Brave fellow. Goodness only knows what had prompted him to make the offer – or indeed what he thought he’d be getting…

My writing continued to trundle along in the background until 2004, when a life-changing event prompted me to start taking it more seriously. Over the next few years I took several courses in Creative Writing in its various forms, and also a course in Editing and Rewriting. The latter was taken with a view to being better able to edit my own work, but an additional bonus was that I also learned how to edit other people’s. This in turn led me to think that even if I couldn’t make it as a writer myself, I might at least be of some use to those who could. I also saw it as a great opportunity to channel the interminable rantings of my inner pedant into a force for good.

The next milestone along my journey was when I came across one of those lists of Things You Must Do Before You Die. Most of them were pretty underwhelming – and in any case I’m not planning on dying any time soon – but the one which leapt out and grabbed me by the throat was Write The Book You Want To Read. I’ve always loved the story of Romeo & Juliet but wished it didn’t end so tragically, and the book I’ve always wanted to read is the alternative version of the story, in which the young lovers get the happy ending they deserve. Why, I asked myself, should there not be such a book? And the answer came straight back: Why not indeed? And if it doesn’t already exist, then go ahead and write it.

The eventual result was The Ghostly Father, first published in 2014 by Crooked Cat Books. It’s a part-prequel, part-sequel to the traditional tale, and is told from the point of view of the Friar. I’ve often wondered why, in the original story, he behaved as he did – and by giving him what I hope is an interesting and thought-provoking backstory, I’ve tried to offer some possible answers. I also wanted to reduce the overall body-count and give the story a rather more satisfactory outcome. I hope I’ve succeeded.

Over the course of the next few years, The Ghostly Father was joined by Nice Girls Don’t (a romantic intrigue centred on the search for family secrets), The Unkindest Cut of All (a murder mystery set in a theatre during an am-dram production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar), Never on Saturday (a timeslip paranormal romance novella based on an old French legend), Finding Nina (a companion story to Nice Girls Don’t) and Heathcliff: The Missing Years (which explores what might have happened to Wuthering Heights’ famous anti-hero during the three years when he disappeared from the original story).

My most recent published work is featured in the charity anthology Dark Scotland. The short story Doomed Youth is set at Edinburgh’s Craiglockhart War Hospital, and is based on the real-life meeting in 1917 between Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. Since studying the War Poets for O-Level (as it then was) I’ve always loved their work, and I welcomed the opportunity to write about two of my favourites. Their dialogue flowed on to the page with hardly any effort on my part; it felt almost as though my heroes were in the room with me, looking over my shoulder and telling me what to write.

So what’s next on my writing journey? Who knows? I have one or two ideas, but at this stage that’s all they are. In the meantime I’m working on a poetry collection inspired by the works of Shakespeare, but that’s been on the go for years, so don’t stay in specially waiting for it to be finished…

The Author

Sue Barnard is a British novelist, editor and award-winning poet whose family background is far stranger than any work of fiction. She would write a book about it if she thought anybody would believe her.

Sue speaks French like a Belgian, German like a schoolgirl, and Italian and Portuguese like an Englishwoman abroad. She lives in Cheshire, UK, with her extremely patient husband and a large collection of unfinished scribblings.

AUDIOBOOKS: The Ghostly Father

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