It was 1997; I’d reached the end of my university life and headed off to spend four months working in Ibiza. It was a wild, one-off goodbye to freedom summer. It was also the summer that the idea for my novel first came to me.
Ibiza was a place where you lived in the moment. You could leave your UK persona behind, be whoever you wanted to be, have fun, throw caution to the wind. It was part of the island’s magic but it also got me thinking; all these people I was meeting through my job, how could I ever really know them?
Those thoughts were turning over in my mind one day as I drove through the mountains. That’s when the picture of a woman who had done something terrible in her past, yet had no remorse and no conscience appeared in my head. She was beautiful and charming and fun, and that was all anyone saw, right up until the very end.
Heading home in September with a four month hangover I took that woman with me. She stayed with me as I got my first job as a trainee newspaper reporter, stuck by me as I threw everything into my journalism career. She moved with me to London and stayed loyal as I promised myself that I would write her story but never seemed to find the time. Along the way she gained a friend, a close friend and from then on it was their story. Over the years they listened to me as I turned into a cliché telling people I was going to write a book at some imaginary future time.
I did try once, on my first maternity leave. I wrote three pages before I went into labour, and when my son was born I realised that if stringing a sentence together was testing my mental skills, writing a novel was beyond me.
And yet I don’t think any of those years were wasted. In my job as a BBC news correspondent I spent a lot of time reporting on crime stories. I became fascinated by how murderers, fraudsters, paedophiles could hide themselves so well. It fed into my characters who, at the same time were growing bigger and looming larger in my mind. Where once they’d whisper to me, they now began to shout until finally, years after I had first conceived them, they became too much to contain.
I got a place on the Faber Academy writing a novel course and in January 2011 I started plotting. I made a point of telling everyone and anyone who would listen that I was writing a book so I would be embarrassed into finishing it. Slowly, painfully I began to unearth my characters’ story. To my surprise they wouldn’t behave the way I wanted them to. I fought against them at first until I realised it was useless, they were right. I started listening to them.
I was working full time so I’d take my laptop with me into the newsroom and on quiet shifts I’d secretly sit and write. Plot lines would come to me at strange times, once listening to SJ Watson talk to us at the Faber Academy, another on the dancefloor, drunk at my friend’s hen do. The story had been with me for so long that not once, even in my worst moments of angst, did I doubt it. Whether or not I could do it justice was another matter.
In September 2011 we were invited back to the Faber Academy to read the opening of our novels to assembled agents. I had finished my first draft but knew it was dire. I was also a few months off having my third baby. Afterwards several agents approached me asking if I could send them more. Politely, I declined, promising to send more when it was ready.
In February, when my daughter was three months old I borrowed a friend’s nanny for two mornings a week and started on the second draft. I was knackered but escaping into my book kept me sane. Then in April I sent the first five chapters out to the agents who’d requested it. I was lucky to have a positive response but one agent in particular, Nicola Barr, totally got the premise and had done so right from the first reading. By the end of the week we’d agreed to work together. I’d also made the decision to take redundancy from the BBC and give myself three months to finish the novel.
The summer of 2012, 15 years after my Ibizan revelation, was when my novel finally came to life. There were days when I wanted to throw my laptop out of the window, but I knew I couldn’t stop until I was finished. The story had chosen me, demanded to be written and wouldn’t let me go until I was done. Somehow, with each revision it became better, more ambitious, darker than I had ever expected. And finally, by October it was finished. Did I do it justice? That’s not for me to say. But having stuck with me for so long, I have at least repaid my characters’ loyalty by giving them a life outside my head.
Precious Thing by Colette McBeth will out on 1st August 2013, published by Headline.