In early 2016, I was asked to pitch an idea for a new drama series to a television production company. I immediately sketched out a modern-day King Learesque family story with a few Irish tweaks. Instead of an ancient mythical kingdom, the setting would be a west coast Irish island with a dwindling population and an uncertain future. I had the characters and the setting fixed in my head and I spent a few weeks researching Irish and Scottish island life and talking to people who had grown up on small islands. The importance of this location grew until the island became a character to me.
I was pretty excited about this idea until the producers I was working with pointed out that there wasn’t much of a plot. I had merely a skeleton without much flesh on its bones. I put the document into my rejection folder and tried to forget about it.
Around the same time, I had begun to write my third novel Skin Deep, which had as its central character a middle-aged woman living the high life on the Riviera. But the research I had done into island life for the TV project was sitting on my desktop and I kept going back to it. I was still interested in how an isolated lifestyle on the very edge of Europe might have changed over the decades and I’d heard stories of quite extreme poverty in the 1970s. I delved further into the research.
Islands have always fascinated me. Most of the underpopulated ones had no doctor, priest, school or police. In a way, they were lawless. The islanders made their own rules, and feuds played out over centuries. There were stories of murders rumoured to have been covered up. Islands often had their own unique folklore- all grist to the mill of a curious crime writer.
All sorts of facts came to light. For example, on some islands, the inhabitants traditionally don’t eat fish because of the number of fisherman who have lost their lives at sea, the fear being that their neighbours might have ended up as fish food, making their eating of fish a kind of cannibalism.
There is a natural distrust of mainlanders and yet, a depression can often settle upon islanders when the summer ends and the tourist season is over.
Weather, obviously, plays a huge role in their lives. When violent storms occur, natives can be cut off from the mainland for days at a time. On the western-most islands, it is hard to grow anything because of the lack of shelter from wind and rain. The landscape is barren, though beautiful beyond belief.
How could I ignore this seam of story gold? What if my socialite character was born on one of these islands, and personified it? She could be wild and beautiful, but dangerous and un-nurturing.
Rejection is not always the end of the road. Opportunities present themselves in the most surprising ways. Those who rejected my ideas were absolutely right to do so. They might have been underdeveloped or poorly thought-out, but sometimes, ideas are best left to fester, to percolate, waiting for their time to shine.
Skin Deep is published by Penguin Books, £7.99