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by Debra Daley

TTS actualIn forty-eight hours my novel Turning the Stones is going to be launched at a party in Soho, London. The venue is a literary club in an 18th-century building, an appropriate venue for a story set in the 1760s. I can hardly believe that this moment has come at last. I’ve walked a long and winding road to get here. I had had a novel published before, but then a lot of life intervened. I had a household to support and being a low-earning fiction writer did not bring home the bacon. So I worked and brought up kids. I never stopped writing though. I had a few little things published here and there. Then some other not-great stuff happened and I ended up in a tiny one-bedroom flat in London making a highly unpredictable living as a freelance editor.

As I trod London’s grimy old streets I thought about all the people who had walked before me over those same paving stones and how many of them must have struggled with problems of loss and survival that were similar to mine. The empathy I felt for them inspired me to write a novel set in the past – in the 18th-century for preference. Georgian England has always appealed to me – it’s where the modern era really begins – and I had read enough of its history and literature to feel comfortable with the language and the mise-en-scene of that century. I began with the idea of a curse that reached down through time and of a heroine who would face personal danger and economic adversity. Underpinning her journey would be the need to find a home, a place of belonging, and a soul mate.

I began the first draft early in 2010 and pretty soon became frustrated by my deficiencies. I wanted to write a book that was insightful and lyrical, but not at the expense of narrative drive. I think I overcompensated in terms of plot and everything got too complicated. I had the elements of a compelling story, but I could see that they didn’t mesh, and there were too many characters. One of the themes of the book is fate and how it operates on our lives in terms of chance and coincidence. Well, it was by pure chance that I came across the Hedgebrook website, and its list of master class retreats. Even though there seemed to be towering obstacles in the way of my actually getting to Puget Sound, I did not hesitate to apply. Somehow, miraculously, in October 2010 I found myself gathering in the farmhouse at Hedgebrook with five very congenial women to attend Theresa Rebeck’s week-long master class in narrative development.

Given Theresa’s reputation as a playwright, I wasn’t surprised to find that my fellow participants were all dramatists, and I was the only novelist in our group. Not that that mattered, because the workshop was focused on narrative structure across genres. The first day we met as a group, Theresa had us read from our projects. That was a fascinating experience for me, because I had been working in a very solitary way, and I was surprised how useful it was to read my work aloud to an audience. It was also an energising experience to listen to the work of other writers.

We undertook writing exercises each day to hone our storytelling tools and I applied the exercises to specific sequences in my novel, often rewriting those sequences when I got back to my cottage after dinner. Sometimes when I tried to apply the exercises to a scene I had already drafted, I could see that the scene didn’t work, and why –– generally because of a lack of conflict in the set-up.

It was fantastic to have an agreeable, quiet place to write. In London I did not have a dedicated writing space and just wrote wherever I could – at my bedside, in libraries and cafes, on buses. I had got used to writing on the wing and wearing ear plugs to block out noise, but the comfort and convenience of a desk in a calm cottage in the woods was utterly wonderful and helped me to complete an enormous amount of work in my five days at Hedgebrook.

I greatly appreciated feedback from the women in my group and the spirit of shared endeavour in which we worked, but I have to say that it was the one-on-one sessions with Theresa that were really galvanising for me. It was so stimulating to have the benefit of her insight and just being around her energy inspired me to find ways of improving my novel. One day I was angsting over the ending of the book and Theresa suggested that we should walk down to the beach and talk about it as we went. It was exactly the right thing to do. We strode through the soulful Pacific Northwest landscape towards the starkly beautiful beach with Theresa advising me, in her very forceful manner, to raise the stakes for my heroine, because that in turn raises the tension in the story. Don’t be afraid to go big!, she said. Make everything count!

It’s like she acted as a lightning rod and drew inspiration towards me. Later that night, after the walk on the beach, I was lying awake thinking about the conclusion of the story and suddenly I got up and wrote the end by hand, just like that. I felt good about it as if some tension inside me had dissipated. I thought that later on I would fix up what I had written, but in fact the ending stayed as it was and I never did need to overwrite it, apart from some minor tweaking.

The ending was right, I understood that, but to accommodate its truth about sixty percent of the rest of the novel had to change and that required quite a commitment. I had no publishing deal. I was writing on faith in the spaces around my income-earning work. But I returned from Theresa Rebeck’s master class with a vision of how my book could work along with confirmation that I had a voice and a strong one at that. I feel that it was only after I came back to London after Hedgebrook that I began properly to write Turning the Stones and to write it with confidence.

You can imagine what a pleasure it was to hear from Theresa recently that she had received a copy of Turning the Stones from my publisher. ‘I hope you feel completely exhilarated,’ she wrote to me, ‘I certainly do, your book is amazing.’ Thank you, Theresa. Thank you, Hedgebrook.



Debra May 2013Debra Daley is a New Zealand-born fiction writer represented by Clare Conville at Conville & Walsh Literary Agency in London, UK. Her first novel The Strange Letter Z was published by Bloomsbury. Her second book is the intensely romantic historical novel Turning the Stones, published in April 2014 by Heron Books. The tautly plotted story has been described by readers as hauntingly beautiful and the work of a master storyteller. Turning the Stones follows the fortunes of Em Smith, a maidservant on the run in England in the 1760s. The personal danger Em faces, her longing for emotional connection, and her struggle to survive, echo the insecurities of our own times. Debra is currently writing another novel for Heron, a mystery story set in late Georgian London. She divides her time between New Zealand and Europe. She is a member of the Historical Writers’ Association. Her website is debradaley.com and she can be found on Twitter as @ddaleyauthor.


Hedgebrook supports visionary women writers whose stories and ideas shape our culture now and for generations to come. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily representative of the opinions of Hedgebrook, its staff or board members.

Debra Daley
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