Culture Street Interview

I sat down with the very lovely Sophia Whitfield from Culture Street last week and we had a chat about The Shadow Year. Culture Street is a really great website devoted to film, theatre, books and food. You can check them out here.

(Note to self: don’t wear clunky beads that hit the microphone next time!)

Writing with honesty

I still don’t fully understand where the ideas and inspiration for a novel come from. As a writer, it’s something I’m often asked about, but the truth is that after the first flash of inspiration, it can feel as though I’m blindly following the thread of a fast-unravelling ball of string. I’m never quite sure where it’s going, or if it will lead me in circles or tangle me up in knots. I make notes. I plot. I think I know the ending, roughly. But there’s no getting away from the fact that it still feels like a massive act of faith leaping out into an idea. Will the story stay on track? Will the writing have tension? Will the ending come together? Will the ideas keep coming? Will anyone care?

But along with the worries are those blissful moments when things slot into place, when an unexpected plot twist strikes, when a character leaps off the page and tells you what he/she needs to do next, or when the perfect image to illustrate a point comes to light. One such image or motif that came to me in writing The Shadow Year was taken from the landscape of the novel. In writing and exploring the cottage setting, I found myself populating its grounds with lunaria – or honesty as the plant is also known. In the story, I have it growing in unruly bursts around the exterior of the house, flowering in spring and reseeding itself everywhere.

I loved the idea of featuring lunaria in the story because half of my novel is set in the early 1980s and for me, it’s always been a plant steeped in childhood nostalgia. I can still remember my mum’s dried flower arrangements dotted around our house in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, vases filled with stems of silver honesty seed heads that shimmered and rustled as you passed by. I can hear the papery crackle of them under my fingertips, and recall how they would split, or crumble like ash if you pressed too hard. They were so delicate and fragile, like iridescent paper moons. To my mind honesty just seemed to fit with the era I was writing about.

Honesty seedpods
By Josef F. Stuefer ([1]) [CC-BY-2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

It also married up neatly with a key theme of the novel, for buried at the heart of The Shadow Year – a tale about a group of friends who decide to drop out for a year and try to live self-sufficiently in a remote, abandoned cottage – lay the idea of truth and lies, and the deceits we sometimes tell ourselves and each other to justify our less honorable actions.

I stumbled upon Emma Mitchell’s beautiful ‘Silver Pebble’ jewellery designs while developing the idea of an ‘honesty necklace’ within the novel. I wanted one of my characters to give a gift to another character and the idea of a silver seed head pendant struck me as perfect. It was amazing: a quick Google search instantly brought up an etsy photo of an almost identical necklace to the one I had imagined in my mind’s eye. It kind of freaked me out at first, to see it there made real. But it was exciting too and I would have bought it there and then if hadn’t already been sold.

The necklace I found on etsy

The necklace I found on etsy

Tracking Emma Mitchell to her website, I was able to have a nose around her studio (which I now lust after as the perfect writing space) and was interested to learn how her work is inspired ‘by the countryside on her doorstep’. That really struck a chord with me, for in writing about a group of friends who try to live off the land for a year, I’d found that much of the plot of The Shadow Year had grown organically from the Peak District landscape, as well as the rise and fall of the seasons. It had been a similar experience for me when I wrote my first novel, Secrets of the Tides, which is set on the Dorset coastline. It’s true too that whenever I get stuck for inspiration, time outside among the trees, away from my desk, always shakes things loose. I felt connected to Emma and her work on several different levels and, unable to stop thinking about the silver honesty necklace on etsy, I knew I had nothing to lose in asking Emma if she would take on a special commission for me.

Honesty drawing © Emma Mitchell

Honesty drawing © Emma Mitchell

Luckily for me, Emma agreed to make two unique silver necklaces, exactly as described in The Shadow Year – the pendants to replicate honesty seed heads with three seeds contained within each – and the finished result is as beautiful as I could have hoped. I have (somewhat reluctantly!) passed them on to my UK and Australian publishers to use alongside their PR plans for The Shadow Year when it publishes this year.

Honesty necklace by Emma Mitchell Designs

Honesty necklace by Emma Mitchell Designs

The thing I love most about writing novels is the creative process itself – the chance to lose myself in an idea and follow its thread, wherever it leads. And I’m so grateful that in following the thread of The Shadow Year, I’ve discovered Emma Mitchell and been able to collaborate with her on this lovely project. So thank you, Emma. I can’t wait to send the necklaces on their way to their new owners and I hope whoever receives these beautiful handcrafted pieces will love them as much as I do.

Read Emma Mitchell’s side of the story here.

Hachette Australia’s competition is now closed but visit back soon for a chance to win Orion UK’s ‘Shadow Year‘ honesty necklace .