One of the most frequently-asked questions for writers is ‘where do you get your ideas?’ Well, I can’t speak for other writers, or even most of my other ideas, but this is where this one came from.
Back when I lived in Canberra, I used to have a big, long bus ride to buy my groceries every week, including a reasonable walk from the farmer’s market to the supermarket, then back to the bus. In order to keep myself entertained during this walk (before I found audiobooks), I would put on a music playlist as I went.
I also used to be a Troper which for the uninitiated means that I spent far too much time reading a wiki page dedicated to clichés and idioms in fiction (TV Tropes, which I won’t link here because it’s known to absorb entire days if you’re not careful) I’d been reading some character tropes, and come across the page for the Ferryman, and there was a throwaway line on the page about the Ferryman often being a “mentor character”. That phrase had stuck in my head, for some reason – a story about having Death as a mentor held an appeal for my brain, and while I could see exactly what sort of mentor I wanted Death to be, I still had the problem of who the mentee was going to be.
At the time, a friend had recently gotten me into Patrick Wolf, and as I was walking to the farmer’s market, the song To the Lighthouse came on. You can YouTube it if you’re not familiar.
I’ll list the first lyrics of the first verse:
The day the house collapsed, I
Went down the street, I
Followed the swans like I
Followed my dreams, oh
I was living on borrowed time
In a borrowed house
For a borrowed crime
In need of help, I came
To your door
Saw the spike of the railings
From the 23rd floor, saying
Build your castle
Stop collecting stones, and the
River bed will not be your home
The keen-eyed among us will notice that that is incredibly similar to the first few chapters of The Ferryman’s Apprentice.
Wilom’s character came from the coda, the part speaking about not collecting stones in order to stay out of the river bed. Wilom was going to be a Troubled Kid. I knew he had to be someone who lashed out at the world as a sort of pre-emptive defense to the world lashing out at him, and that he’d have to stop that destructive reflex in order to get what he wanted.
The move to his aunt and uncle’s came from the “borrowed house”, and his friends from the “borrowed crime” – but I quickly decided that I wanted Wilom’s problems to be mostly his own fault. Nothing grates on my nerves quicker than a hero who is Just Misunderstood, and is an outcast in their town without ever “really” doing anything to deserve it. So that’s how Wilom came to be: A certified Angsty Teen with communication problems the size of the rubble where his house used to be.
For a long time during the drafting process, I tossed up starting the story earlier, when he first got sent away, but I’m glad I went with adding the extra ‘runaway’ scenes instead. I’ve always been very attached to those opening lines of the song, and I like having the little nod to them in the first line of the first chapter.
Unfortunately, the swans didn’t make it into the final book.
The rest of the book basically came from needing to give him something to do.
At the time, I had a big bee in my bonnet of ‘forced romances’ in stories, so I decided that I’d add in Vanda, who in any other book would have been the focus of a romance B-plot, but in this one I decided that she would be just a friend, no matter what.
I’ve still stuck by that – Wilom and Vanda are very close friends and nothing else. I mean, obviously I can’t control what the fandom thinks (I still hold out hope that I will have a fandom eventually), but if you want Vanda/Wilom romance scenes, you’re going to have to hold out for the fanfic.
Obviously, the lighthouse keeper came from the “to the lighthouse” line – however Wilom got to his apprenticeship, he’d need to go through a lighthouse in some capacity.
The first draft of the book was written in my first NaNoWriMo, because I needed a break from the project I was then doing (and have since scrapped and stole the characters for a different plot). I finished the whole 50,000 words, but it took me another three months or so before I was finished the entire story. The first draft topped out at about 95,000 words, if I remember right.
It then went through a series of increasingly frustrated revisions. I added sections and plots, I removed them. I changed characters, added characters, and moved them around.
I’ll talk more about some of those moves in next week’s Gallery of What Could Have Been, because otherwise I won’t leave myself any material for that.
I was always unhappy with the first section of the book – the section when Wilom is in his apprenticeship. It was always one of my favourite sections – it had a great tone and feel to it – but it couldn’t carry an entire book on its own. And the tone and topic changed so dramatically afterwards that I always felt like it was a 60-page prologue, rather than a real part of the story. But of course, Wilom did so much of his development in that section that I couldn’t leave it out and tell it in flashback. Or, at least, I didn’t want to. So I kept it there, I kept cutting it down and cutting it down, but I never quite reached the point where I was happy with it.
A few years later, after I felt like I’d gotten the book as far as I could (I actually sent out the book to some agents. Of six queries, I received four form rejections and two no-responses), I was starting to feel frustrated. I’d finished my degree, but my writing just didn’t feel like it was going anywhere, and I had been applying for jobs for a long time without getting anywhere.
I had been running the blog for a while, then, and, never being one to do things like “wait”, “be patient” or “be sensible”, I decided that I’d give a serial a shot. I’d use it as marketing practice, I said – I’d try to figure out what would work and what didn’t, and possibly start getting some feedback from a more general public about my writing.
But I had to decide which story. I had a new one that I thought would work, but then I looked back to the mostly-abandoned last revision of The Ferryman’s Apprentice, and realised that that first section that felt so awkward in the story would actually do pretty well as the first of a few “seasons” or sections of story.
It took another eight months of revisions to get the first season into something that I’d be willing to publish, and without a plan beyond “put it up there and see what happens”, the first chapter of The Ferryman’s Apprentice went live in August 2016.