Long and Short Reviews welcome Amy Rae Durreson, whose newest book Spindrift releases on August 12.
Inspiration is a funny, elusive thing. My latest ghost story, Spindrift, was written within the space of two months, from the first whim to write a summer ghost story to the end of the first draft, but its roots went back much further. I’m a wanderer and a traveller when I get the chance. There’s nothing that helps me work out the knots in a story better than a day striding across the local hills, and once a year I treat myself to a long trip to an unfamiliar part of the UK. I’ve got a backpack, a sturdy pair of boots, and an ever-growing collection of maps, so I make my way from place to place by bus, boat, and train, staying in hostels, and visiting as many places as I can cram into each day. In 2013, I ended a long trip through Lincolnshire and Yorkshire in the coastal town of Whitby, the setting of key parts of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The town is a fascinating mixture of seaside resort, fishing industry, and tourists hunting vampires or exploring the ruins of the medieval abbey. I had one day, the first sunny day of the whole trip, to see as much as I could. I left the hostel at six that morning, carrying my breakfast down from one headland, through the winding streets, and up onto the far headland to gaze along the misty coast as I ate. It’s a stunningly pretty place, but it’s also a cruel coast, high rocky cliffs rearing out of the cold North Sea.
Later that day, I stumbled into the tiny lifeboat museum and discovered extraordinary stories of courage and self-sacrifice in the face of the vicious storms that strike that coast. I was particularly struck by the story of Henry Freeman. In 1861, on his first day as a lifeboat man, the Whitby boat launched five times to ships in distress in a fierce gale. A few years before, the crew had been sent a cork lifejacket as a sample. On this day, they let the new lad wear it. On their last launch, the lifeboat capsized. Of the thirteen men on board, only Freeman survived. There’s a painting in the museum of the women of the town gathered on the storm-lashed quay, watching in despair as the boat overturns, which directly inspired a scene in Spindrift. Freeman wasn’t scared off, but continued to work on the lifeboat for over forty years, over twenty of them as it coxswain, and was involved in several famous rescues. He wasn’t the only inspirational character I found lurking in the displays of that museum, nor, sadly, were his original crewmates the only ones who lost their lives trying to save others. All the stories moved me, and I left determined to write about those early lifeboat men one day.
After the trip, that desire slipped into the back of my mind, though I was reminded of it on other coasts when I stumbled into further stories of heroic rescues by volunteer rescuers. It’s not uncommon for bits and pieces from my trips to reappear in some form in my writing—a village in Cornwall provides the blueprint for one of my fantasy settings and another book has a detailed description of scrambling across a snowy mountainside which is actually based on a walk up Snowdon. The lifeboat stuff remained nothing but a fascinating bit of history, though. Sometimes you’re just missing an essential piece to turn that fascinating tidbit into a story.
In 2015, I went back to Whitby, this time just for an overnight stop on my way north. I had time for an evening stroll, fish and chips on the headland, and a glimpse of the abbey illuminated against the night, but it brought that earlier determination back to mind. The next morning, I caught the bus along the coast, still vaguely thinking about sacrifice, heroism and the sea. I had three possible routes planned, depending on the weather, and chance had it that I chose the one that gave me three hours in the village of Staithes. All I knew about the village was that my guidebook claimed it was pretty, it was the birthplace of Captain Cook, and it had a museum. It turned out to be one of those places which make travelling so addictive—a completely unexpected bit of magic. The village is tucked away in a break in the cliffs, houses crammed into steep streets, with steps and alleys winding between them. The harbour is small, but wrapped between two high cliffs, which were the nesting place of countless gulls. I wandered past the lifeboat station and out along the breakwater, past several artists trying to capture the view. On a warm April day, the village looked utterly serene, but when I turned around to look outwards, the coast stretched away in mist and grandeur.
The museum, when I reached it, was one of those quirky little places where every inch of available space is crammed with exhibits and information. I spent a happy hour there after I’d explored the village, and reluctantly headed back up the steep lane to the bus stop. It was a morning of pure delight, but I thought nothing more of it until, six months later, considering a vague whim to write about an artist staying in a haunted seaside cottage, I remembered the artists on the breakwater, the heroic lifeboat men of Whitby, the little museum where every detail of village history could be found if you looked long enough, and the whole plot of Spindrift clicked into place.
I based Rosewick Bay, the setting of Spindrift, on Staithes. Siôn, my lead character, has fled there for the summer, but his slow recovery from a terrible breakdown is disrupted when a ghost appears in his bedroom. Sensibly enough, he goes to the local museum to look for clues. My hour in the real museum was pleasant but uneventful, but Siôn’s life changes forever, because that’s where he meets Mattie, the ghost’s descendant, a cheerful flirt who has followed in his ancestor’s footsteps to volunteer as crew on the modern lifeboat. The two of them soon have to unravel the secret history of a relationship between an Edwardian artist and a young lifeboat man before a ghostly curse claims a life. They also manage a romantic evening wandering around Whitby, thereby justifying all those photographs I took while I was there (research! It’s all for research!).
This year my travels took me to the Ironbridge Gorge, where I filled my mind with early industry, china painting, terrible floods and landslides. I’m not sure quite where all that information will take me yet, but don’t be surprised if, in a few years time, I suddenly write something involving a blast furnace, or a ghostly painter with his mouth stained blue from lead poisoning.
When lonely artist Siôn Ruston retreats to the seaside village of Rosewick Bay, Yorkshire, to recover from a suicide attempt, he doesn’t expect to encounter any ghosts, let alone the one who appears in his bedroom every morning at dawn. He also doesn’t expect to meet his ghost’s gorgeous, flirty descendant working at the local museum… and the village pub, and as a lifeboat volunteer. But Mattie’s great-great-grandfather isn’t the only specter in Rosewick Bay, and as Siôn and Mattie investigate an ill-fated love affair from a bygone era, they begin a romance of their own, one that will hopefully escape the tragedy Mattie’s ancestor suffered.
But the ghosts aren’t the only ones with secrets, and the things Siôn and Mattie are keeping from each other threaten to tear them apart. And all the while, the dead are biding their time, because the curse of Rosewick Bay has never been broken. If the ghosts are seen on the streets, local tradition foretells a man will drown before the summer’s end.
About the Author:Amy has a terrible weakness for sarcastic dragons, shy boys with sweet smiles, and good pots of tea. She is yet to write a shy, tea-loving dragon, but she’s determined to get there one day (so far, all of her dragons are arrogant gits who prefer red wine). Amy is a quiet Brit with a degree in early English literature, which she blames for her somewhat medieval approach to spelling, and at various times has been fluent in Latin, Old English, Ancient Greek, and Old Icelandic, though these days she mostly uses this knowledge to bore her students. Amy started her first novel twenty-one years ago and has been scribbling away ever since. Despite these long years of experience, she has yet to master the arcane art of the semicolon.