Fiona Barton: My Favourite Chapter from The Widow

Fiona Barton: My Favourite Chapter from The Widow

But I steeled myself and narrowed it down to the first and last chapters – my alpha and omega, the beginning and end. Both were written in the same week – a frenzied burst of activity in 2009, which produced the title, the first nine chapters and the last one. I wrote on an old laptop in a flat in Colombo (my husband and I were volunteers in Sri Lanka with VSO at the time), and I remember I felt chilled, despite the 30 degree heat.

After a series of lost hours on the first day, I realized it had got dark outside and the only light in the house was from the computer screen. It was an emotional moment because I felt for the first time that I might have a story worth telling. After all the dreams about being a novelist, I had made a start. And had an end point.

Friends and fellow writers were horrified that I had the ending set down so early in the process. They preferred an organic approach with the story unfolding gradually in my head but I suspect my training as a journalist would not let the story dangle for long. I knew what would happen and it felt as fresh and real as the beginning.

I could see, hear and smell both chapters before I wrote a word. Jean, the widow in the title, is the narrator of both and her voice had been echoing in my head for a long time; the phrases she used, her thoughts, her distress, her disbelief. Hers was a compelling presence and when I finally stopped thinking about it and started writing, she emerged fully-formed. All I had to do was watch and listen.

It was a surreal experience for a first time author – especially as she was describing the media of which I had once been part. The first chapter sees Kate Waters knocking on Jean’s door, hoping for an exclusive interview. And as Jean peered through the gap in the net curtains, watching Kate the reporter come up her path, I could see the scene from both sides.

In theory, I knew what would happen – I was the writer, after all – but I felt I was holding my breath alongside Jean as we waited for Kate Waters to knock and feeling Kate’s adrenalin rush as she made her pitch at a hostile door.

I was setting out my stall for the reader, hopefully drawing them into the heads of two women who would dominate the story. I had originally planned for the whole story to be told by Jean but as events unfolded, I needed the reader to know things Jean didn’t and for her potential unreliability as a narrator to be highlighted. Kate got her own voice, as did DI Bob Sparkes, the detective leading the hunt for a missing girl – the child Jean’s husband was accused of taking.

It meant that my original final chapter had to be tinkered with, extended, shortened and extended again as I progressed. I finished it in another tropical country – Myanmar, where I was training journalists in the country’s post-censorship era. Again, night fell unnoticed as I worked to pull together the threads and narratives of the book and I felt bereft as I wrote the final words. It was the same sentence I had written four years earlier but the energy and emotional impact were not lessened by the passage of time. I had finished what I had started. My story was told.

Starting and ending are two halves of the same coin; the bracketing of the action. I cannot choose between them so I will leave it to you to decide. Thank you for reading my book.

Click here to read the first chapter of The Widow.

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