Endings are tough to land; every story writer knows that. Beginnings? Most lines are a beginning of sorts. Many workshops or competitions might give out a starting line and soon you’ll have as many stories as there are imaginations. Quite often for me, a beginning is an intersection, a juncture, a convergence of ideas or places that might be experienced years apart. The point of intersection is where the story blooms, sometimes slowly, sometimes in a heartbeat.
Between the Times, my story kindly published in Retreat West’s Future Shock anthology, was one of the slower stories to come together. It’s set a year after the American Civil war. In fact, there were only a few brief years in which this story could be set. That was part of the appeal. Looking back, the first starting point was finding the Scotia. I was researching for a book, not a short story, looking for a convenient ship for the hero of my novel, Whirligig, to sail in to America. I discovered the Scotia, a steamship and a greyhound for its time. In reading around the ship’s history, I found a curiosity of the time that was to stay with me for years.
Many of the fastest ships crossing the Atlantic at this time would carry telegrams across the waves. There had been transatlantic cable briefly, but it was broken beyond repair. A new cable would be laid a few years later. Until then, telegrams bound for Britain would be tappity-tap-tapped to the last Atlantic headland in Canada, Cape Race, then sailed out to the passing steamer and transferred aboard. Once across the pond, when the steamer reached the south-west tip of Ireland, canisters full of telegrams would be thrown overboard for the local fishing vessels to scoop up in their nets, then hurried to shore and transmitted to London. The whole exercise shaved two days off the transatlantic news and gave rise to the term, ‘to scoop a story’.
It was a lovely scene to lend a little colour to my novel, but beyond publication the fascination stayed with me, this strange dance with time, how news moved first at the speed of electricity, but later only as fast as tide, wind and a state-of-the-art screw propeller could hasten it. There was a story in there somewhere, I could feel it. Here was a bridge, a stepping stone, between a time when news and rumour arrived days and weeks after the event and today, when our news floods in uninvited, often more quickly that we would like.
There the beginning, such as it was, rested a long while, a slow loop in the back of my mind. More research, more travel and I came to know Ducktown, a second starting point, a copper mine in the Appalachians in Eastern Tennessee with its own wonderful history: frontiers and greed, moonshine and murder. I came to know how expert engineers and skilled miners were sought out in Europe, persuaded from Cornwall or my childhood home of Wales to make their fortunes or not in America.
Other stories pushed ahead, other novels in fact, but still my little Scotia nugget slept. It was a return back to Wales to visit my sister that sprung it free. Swansea was only twenty miles from where I grew up. I must have driven, or been driven as a child, many hundreds of times past the spoiled and barren hills rising north of the M4 around Swansea and Port Talbot. Swansea, I came to understand through a little local history, was once Copperopolis, the world capitol for smelting copper with cheap and plentiful coal close at hand for the smelting. So far ahead was the technology in Britain, that copper ore was brought from all over the world to be smelted here, even from, a chance read told me, the dark and almost inaccessible hills of Tennessee, even from Ducktown.
That was my third starting point, the intersection, the moment I knew I’d write my story. Miners went one way, copper ore the other, a connection between two places I knew. I wanted to connect them further, I wanted to play with time and news, lost hopes and second chances, and I knew a fast, little ship and a slice of history that could help.