Fiona Barton, author of 2016’s compelling new thriller The Widow, discusses the process of writing that crucial first chapter, and bringing Jean’s voice to life.
My First Chapter
I could see my first chapter – hear and smell it, even – before I wrote a word. I stood behind Jean, the widow in the title, at the window, peering with her through the tiny gap in the net curtains, as she watched the reporter come up her path. It was an odd feeling – not least because I had once been that reporter, stomping up to a hostile front door in the hope of an interview – but utterly compelling.
In theory, I knew what would happen – I was creating it, after all – but I felt I was holding my breath alongside Jean as we waited for Kate Waters to knock.
It all cooked in my head for months, simmering below my real life and being stirred occasionally as I heard snippets of Jean’s thoughts and conversations.
When I finally wrote it down, tapping away on an old laptop in a flat in Colombo (my husband and I were volunteers in Sri Lanka with VSO at the time), I felt chilled, despite the 30 degree heat. Jean was saying the words I had written in my head for her but it was as if I was hearing them for the first time.
I remember straightening hunched shoulders after a lost couple of hours, realizing it had got dark outside and feeling slightly tearful. Ridiculous, but it felt such an act of faith, writing that first chapter. After all the idle thoughts and dreams about being a novelist, I had started.
And, as The Widow grew and developed, I went back to the first chapter time and time again. At first it was my touchstone and I’d read it as a ritual before ploughing on with another section.
But, under constant scrutiny, it was perhaps inevitable that I started tinkering with it. I added a word here, an adjective there, lengthened it, cut it, lengthened it again. And, for a week, when my confidence was particularly feeble, I played with the idea of making Kate, the reporter, tell the story first. I wrote this new opening, feeling horribly disloyal to Jean, as she disappeared behind her net curtains and was silenced. In the new version, she was barely more than a description, seen from Kate’s forensic viewpoint.
I left it like that for 24 hours – sleep on it, my local writing group advised – then grubbed it out and went back to the original. It settled things, I suppose. I realized that it was always going to be Jean’s voice the reader heard first. Jean. She was always there. I could hear her voice from the start.
Fiona Barton’s The Widow (Bantam Press) is released on the 14 January and available now for pre-order.