The story behind the story
A long time ago, around 1993, a friend and I were talking about various authors. Graham Masterton, James Herbert, the sort of stuff most people (mostly the male ones) our age read whilst in our mid-teens and got a good deal of our sexual education from. We naturally ended up at Stephen King, of whom we're both fans. He's read some that I haven't, and possibly vice-versa, but we have enough common ground between us to chew the fat for a pretty good while on his stories and their links and foibles. The conversation drifted around, before settling on the fact that whether the locals like it or not, King put Maine on the map. Pretty much single-handedly, because as far as we knew it was all that the place was known for (apologies if I've missed something important in my ignorance).
I'm not exactly sure how we arrived at the possibility of attempting the same feat for the town we're both from -Clay Cross in Derbyshire- but really no-one should have to, as it's the centre of the universe in some ways. This was something a college lecturer once said to a class I was in, the afternoon's assignment being a tour of Chesterfield's lesser-known places. Odd as it sounded to me at the time, he managed to justify the statement pretty well. So, eat crow, anyone who thinks I didn't learn anything there.
It seemed strange to me -and still does- that it gets almost no credit for its role in the Industrial Revolution, and that so few people know of the place. As far as our generation was concerned, the notorious Rent Rebels of the '70s seemed to be the only newsworthy claim to fame the town had. And we were pretty young when that was going on.
We decided that there was no real point waiting for someone else to do the same service or disservice for Clay Cross that King had done for the various places (real and fictional) in Maine. As far as we were aware no-one had ever written anything about the town except local history publications. It turned out that these few books were invaluable for research on some of the events that have taken place in Clay Cross. Also, the very fact that the town was so low-key turned out to be a key element in the version of the town that I was 'building'.
I'd found a niche, I thought. A story set in a place no-one knew, tucked away in a little rural town. I had characters, a couple of people had 'donated' their images to the alternative Clay Cross. I had a kind of shopping list of things I liked and wanted to include. I had a pool of local history that no-one had ever tapped before. All I needed was a storyline. Fortunately, the elements I'd placed in the table, so to speak, kind of steered the tale for me.
But before anything else was the biggest stumbling block of all, the one thing that I couldn't cheat, work around or avoid:
I'm not a writer.
Still, I guess neither was Stephen King whilst he was teaching and bashing out Carrie on an old typewriter each evening. So, using a quote that Christopher Walken (a King link, there) wouldn't say for a number of years, "If you want to learn how to build a house, build a house. Don't ask anybody, just build a house."
The first chapter, the opening, more or less wrote itself. I'd been told the story of the 'White Buffalo' a couple of times by two of the people who saw it; using that scene, I expanded from there. What was it? Why had they seen it? How could I commit it to writing?
Firstly, I wanted to see if it was possible to portray characters by the way they talk and the things they say. There's no indication of who's saying what, I wanted a reader to be able to go back to the first chapter and be able to work it out. Well, that was the plan. I think it can be done, I just can't imagine anyone bothering.
I sort of 'cast' the book by assembling teams of characters. The young team, the old team. The good guy and his aides, the bad guy and his aides. They had to balance out, I thought, like mirror-images of each other -except there's no ''bad' version of The Buffalo; although because there's an old and young version of its members so it could be said there's a sort of mirroring there. Each person had a kind of 'bio', a list of notes or rules that dictated their behaviour. Not absolutely, just as a tendancy. So though one character might be mostly grouchy, it wouldn't be impossible for him or her to crack a funny line. Just far less likely.
Names. I made some up and I based some on real people. As for the exploits of some characters, what's real and what's not and how much I've embellished or changed these anecdotes... I can't say. There's 90% true, there's 10%, true, and there's everything inbetween.
Next, some key events. In my first year of Junior School, I remember being told all about the famous explosion at the Parkhouse Pit. For a week or so, we were immersed in the subject of mining, the Miners' Safety Lamp (I think someone even brought one in), firedamp and inevitably all about the explosion itself. At the time, some of the kids in the classroom would've had parents who were miners themselves. The estate my Grandma lived in, which I moved to later on, was originally a Coal Board estate. Up until when the council bought it.
For no particular reason other than picking a date that fitted nicely, it's set in about 1995. It took a year or so to fashion into a shape I could call a story, then I went through and changed a number of things that I didn't like or didn't think worked very well. A number of changes were put in there because I'd done something a bit obvious or fallen into a cliche trap. For instance, Mr Jonah was originally American, modelled on John Travolta in Pulp Fiction. It was my long-time friend and alter-ego of the Braddock character who gave Jonah a more down-to-earth beginning.
I think it was originally 'set in stone' about 1999. I was STILL going through it with a comb until about 2010, and decided if I didn't lock it down and move on, it would never be finished.
At one point in its drawn-out and painful development, I'd sent an early draft to the Clay Cross Company (or Bywater, as it was known) as a precautionary measure, to check that I wasn't going to upset them if the story ever reached the masses. They said it wasn't a realistic portrayal and didn't worry them. I don't know how many pairs of hands it passed through, so I've no idea how many people in the world have any idea that the story existed before it was published on Amazon. A couple of copies went out for review, none of them the current version. One went to the author of the local history books, a copy went to my 'editor' friend who contributed a few elements (his dad read it, too) and the then landlord of our local watering hole.
This last person did two things. One, he suggested I might call it something different, something like 'Winter In The Wilderness'. Not a title I immediately wanted to adopt, I have to admit. Two, he mentioned it years later to my contributing friend. It was almost the first thing out of his mouth in a chance meeting some years after. Apparently he'd been showing it around and someone had expressed an interest in it. I forget who or how interested, but it came to nothing.
So after doing nothing with the tale for years, I decided I'd finally do something. Various attempts at getting it into print were unsuccessful, but what I took from the replies was that no-one told me it was bad or poorly written. In fact, one or two quite liked it, but it didn't fit in with their plans or whatever. Finally, in January 2012, I took the plunge and uploaded it to Amazon via their self-publishing medium, KDP.
At time of writing, not that many copies have been sold and I'm not going to be buying the Delorean just yet. But my 'beta tester' friend says he's been asked if he's one of the characters in it. One review of the book actually mentions him. Apparently people know it exists, which is nice, but I can't shake the feeling that there are more copies in circulation than I can account for.
So, what next for the town of Clay Cross?
At the moment, I'm working on a follow-up. It has a skeleton and a title: Murder Cottage. The story's kind of established, but needs a lot of adding-to before it's even close to finished. Some time ago, I said I'd love to do a 'whowolfedit', which is like a whodunnit but you don't know who the werewolf is until the end. So that's going in there. Every so often, a way of calling-back to the original story occurs to me, and it gets bolted on. Some of the characters will return, unfortunately as it's set in the present day (around 2011-12) some couldn't be. A lot's happened since the events in Winter took place, and time will have caught up with them.
Still, it leaves room for new characters and won't be too self-referencial. Hopefully, it can work as a standalone that doesn't require that the first book's read. We'll have to see.