Martin Stewart: How I Wrote Riverkeep

Martin Stewart: How I Wrote Riverkeep

At any moment, a writer’s mind is a sprawling miasma of loose ideas, each with a trail of endless possibilities. Finding where the trails intersect is an intoxicating process, because it’s at these intersections that stories happen.

But when I began to write Riverkeep I found myself cut off from the miasma and plonked in a box of parameters and limitations. I had the characters, and couldn’t change them; I had the situation, and couldn’t alter it. But rather than being stifling, this felt like an incredible gift―an exciting creative challenge.

In the short story, fifteen-year-old Wulliam is dreading taking up his family’s mantle of Riverkeep, which involves tending the river and fishing corpses from its waters, when his father is taken under the water by something―and then returns, changed and frightening. That was all I had, so I had to really interrogate the narrative. What would happen next? Why would it happen? What did that mean? Where would he go next? Who would he meet? (I find it useful to interrogate in italics).

But always, always, it came down to one thing: feed the story, give it whatever it needs to breathe and stretch and grow. How do these decisions, these characters, help me tell this story? I had to build a whole world around Wull and subject it to the same rigorous scrutiny. And if there was anything that was there just because it seemed like a cool piece of set-building, it went―a necessary hurt.

I was always an instinctive mimic as a writer―even back when, as an eight-year-old, I wrote a book with an entirely stolen plot on Post-it notes. Authorial voices seeped into my head whenever I read something I loved, and having listened to a million podcasts and read a million interviews where writers discussed their processes, I’d heard over and over again how important it was to find ‘your voice’. It took a while to really understand this, but before getting the offer from Penguin I’d been feeling for the first time that my words sounded like me, rather than a facsimile of an author I admired.

Riverkeep was the culmination of this process―not so much a lightbulb moment as a dazzling, neon sign of the word aha! moment.

The key that unlocked the Wulliam’s world was harnessing my instinct for darker stories. I’ve always loved the macabre and the gothic; not necessarily horror, just stories that take a little step into the shadows. And when I was writing Riverkeep I went into that familiar darkness―then turned towards the light, sending Wull on a quest, which was about duty and courage and what it means to become an adult, but was really, ultimately, about love.

Leave a Reply